Archaeologists once assumed that the Norse in Greenland were primarily farmers who did some hunting on the side. Now it seems clear that the reverse was true. They were ivory hunters first and foremost, their farms only a means to an end. Why else would ivory fragments be so prevalent among the excavated sites? And why else would the Vikings send so many able-bodied men on hunting expeditions to the far north at the height of the farming season? â€œThere was a huge potential for ivory export,â€ says Smiarowski, â€œand they set up farms to support that.â€ Ivory drew them to Greenland, ivory kept them there, and their attachment to that toothy trove may be what eventually doomed them.
When the Norse arrived in Greenland, there were no locals to teach them how to live. â€œThe Scandinavians had this remarkable ability to colonize these high-latitude islands,â€ says Andrew Dugmore. â€œYou have to be able to hunt wild animals; you have to build up your livestock; you have to work hard to exist in these areas….This is about as far as you can push the farming system in the Northern Hemisphere.â€
And push it they did. The growing season was short, and the land vulnerable to overgrazing. Ian Simpson has spent many seasons in Greenland studying soil layers where the Vikings farmed. The strata, he says, clearly show the impact of their arrival: The earliest layers are thinner, with less organic material, but within a generation or two the layers stabilized and the organic matter built up as the Norse farmwomen manured and improved their fields while the men were out hunting. â€œYou can interpret that as being a sign of adaptation, of them getting used to the landscape and being able to read it a little better,â€ Simpson says.
For all their intrepidness, though, the Norse were far from self-sufficient, and imported grains, iron, wine and other essentials. Ivory was their currency. â€œNorse society in Greenland couldnâ€™t survive without trade with Europe,â€ says Arneborg, â€œand thatâ€™s from day one.â€
Then, in the 13th century, after three centuries, their world changed profoundly. First, the climate cooled because of the volcanic eruption in Indonesia. Sea ice increased, and so did ocean stormsâ€”ice cores from that period contain more salt from oceanic winds that blew over the ice sheet. Second, the market for walrus ivory collapsed, partly because Portugal and other countries started to open trade routes into sub-Saharan Africa, which brought elephant ivory to the European market. â€œThe fashion for ivory began to wane,â€ says Dugmore, â€œand there was also the competition with elephant ivory, which was much better quality.â€ And finally, the Black Death devastated Europe. There is no evidence that the plague ever reached Greenland, but half the population of Norwayâ€”which was Greenlandâ€™s lifeline to the civilized worldâ€”perished.
The Norse probably could have survived any one of those calamities separately. After all, they remained in Greenland for at least a century after the climate changed, so the onset of colder conditions alone wasnâ€™t enough to undo them. Moreover, they were still building new churchesâ€”like the one at Hvalseyâ€”in the 14th century. But all three blows must have left them reeling. With nothing to exchange for European goodsâ€”and with fewer Europeans leftâ€”their way of life would have been impossible to maintain. The Greenland Vikings were essentially victims of globalization and a pandemic.
â€œIf you consider the world today, many communities will face exposure to climate change,â€ says Dugmore. â€œTheyâ€™ll also face issues of globalization. The really difficult bit is when you have exposure to both.â€
So what was the endgame like in Greenland? Although archaeologists now agree that the Norse did about as well as any society could in confronting existential threats, they remain divided over how the Vikingsâ€™ last days played out. Some believe that the Norse, faced with the triple threat of economic collapse, pandemic and climate change, simply packed up and left. Others say the Norse, despite their adaptive ingenuity, met a far grimmer fate.
For McGovern, the answer is clear. â€œI think in the end this was a real tragedy. This was the loss of a small community, a thousand people maybe at the end. This was extinction.â€
The Norse, he says, were especially vulnerable to sudden death at sea. Revised population estimates, based on more accurate tallies of the number of farms and graves, put the Norse Greenlanders at no more than 2,500 at their peakâ€”less than half the conventional figure. Every spring and summer, nearly all the men would be far from home, hunting. As conditions for raising cattle worsened, the seal hunts would have been ever more vitalâ€”and more hazardous. Despite the decline of the ivory trade, the Norse apparently continued to hunt walrus until the very end. So a single storm at sea could have wiped out a substantial number of Greenlandâ€™s menâ€”and by the 14th century the weather was increasingly stormy. â€œYou see similar things happening at other places and other times,â€ McGovern says. â€œIn 1881, there was a catastrophic storm when the Shetland fishing fleet was out in these little boats. In one afternoon about 80 percent of the men and boys of the Shetlands drowned. A whole bunch of little communities never recovered.â€
Norse society itself comprised two very small communities: the Eastern and Western settlements. With such a sparse population, any lossâ€”whether from death or emigrationâ€”would have placed an enormous strain on the survivors. â€œIf there werenâ€™t enough of them, the seal hunt would not be successful,â€ says Smiarowski. â€œAnd if it was not successful for a couple of years in a row, then it would be devastating.â€
McGovern thinks a few people might have migrated out, but he rules out any sort of exodus. If Greenlanders had emigrated en masse to Iceland or Norway, surely there would have been a record of such an event. Both countries were literate societies, with a penchant for writing down important news. â€œIf you had hundreds or a thousand people coming out of Greenland,â€ McGovern says, â€œsomeone would have noticed.â€
Niels Lynnerup, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Copenhagen who has studied Viking burial sites in Greenland, isnâ€™t so sure. â€œI think in Greenland it happened very gradually and undramatically,â€ he tells me as we sit in his office, beneath a poster of the Belgian cartoon character Tintin. â€œMaybe itâ€™s the usual human story. People move to where there are resources. And they move away when something doesnâ€™t work for them.â€ As for the silence of the historical record, he says, a gradual departure might not have attracted much attention.
The ruins themselves hint at an orderly departure. There is no evidence of conflict with the Inuit or of any intentional damage to homesteads. And aside from a gold ring found on the skeletal finger of a bishop at Gardar, and his narwhal-tusk staff, no items of real value have been found at any sites in Greenland. â€œWhen you abandon a small settlement, what do you take with you? The valuables, the family jewelry,â€ says Lynnerup. â€œYou donâ€™t leave your sword or your good metal knife….You donâ€™t abandon Christ on his crucifix. You take that along. Iâ€™m sure the cathedral would have had some paraphernaliaâ€”cups, candelabrasâ€”which we know medieval churches have, but which have never been found in Greenland.â€
Jette Arneborg and her colleagues found evidence of a tidy leave-taking at a Western Settlement homestead known as the Farm Beneath the Sands. The doors on all but one of the rooms had rotted away, and there were signs that abandoned sheep had entered those doorless rooms. But one room retained a door, and it was closed. â€œIt was totally clean. No sheep had been in that room,â€ says Arneborg. For her, the implications are obvious. â€œThey cleaned up, took what they wanted, and left. They even closed the doors.â€
Perhaps the Norse could have toughed it out in Greenland by fully adopting the ways of the Inuit. But that would have meant a complete surrender of their identity. They were civilized Europeansâ€”not skraelings, or wretches, as they called the Inuit. â€œWhy didnâ€™t the Norse just go native?â€ Lynnerup asks. â€œWhy didnâ€™t the Puritans just go native? But of course they didnâ€™t. There was never any question of the Europeans who came to America becoming nomadic and living off buffalo.â€
We do know that at least two people made it out of Greenland alive: Sigrid Bjornsdottir and Thorstein Olafsson, the couple who married at Hvalseyâ€™s church. They eventually settled in Iceland, and in 1424, for reasons lost to history, they needed to provide letters and witnesses proving that they had been married in Greenland. Whether they were among a lucky few survivors or part of a larger immigrant community may remain unknown. But thereâ€™s a chance that Greenlandâ€™s Vikings never vanished, that their descendants are with us still.