In Greenland only ruins remain of numerous Viking homes and churches. Why did all the settlers vanish?
By Gordon Cooper
What does the name “Greenland” suggest to you? A huge island somewhere up near the North Pole covered with eternal ice and snow, the home of a few Eskimos who hunt seals and live on blubber? I think that this is the usual picture which the name conjures up in our minds, for many of us gained our impressions of the country from the well-known hymn which begins “From Greenland’s icy mountains, from India’s coral strand.” Many probably will be surprised to learn, therefore, that far from being an almost uninhabited icy desert, as long as a thousand years ago Greenland was a flourishing country, a self-governing republic, with a population of several thousand people who made their living by farming and hunting and trading with Europe and America. But so it was!
Five hundred years before Columbus discovered America, Greenland had its own parliament. Then the fertile countryside was dotted with houses and farms, churches and monasteries, and there was even a cathedral with a bishop to administer the diocese of Greenland. For nearly five centuries Greenland was an outpost of civilization, then, for reasons which are unrecorded in history, the population vanished leaving behind only the ruins of their homes, farms and churches. You can visit those ruins today and, looking at them. ponder over the fate which befell their builders, for the disappearance of the Greenland settlements is one of the strangest episodes in history.
But let us clear up one or two misconceptions about Greenland. Firstly, it is an Arctic land but its southern portion is on a level with the Shetland Islands just north of Scotland, so obviously all the country cannot be frozen solid all the year round. A glance at the map will show the reason for the anomaly. Greenland is the largest island in the world after Australia—indeed, it is a debatable point whether it is the largest of islands or the smallest of continents—and with its length of 1,600 miles it stretches across more than 20 degrees of latitude. Secondly, though a peculiar feature of the island is the great mass of the inland ice—a remnant of the last Ice Age—yet 15 per cent of the island remains free of ice, an area more than equal in size to the whole of Great Britain.
As a result, the coastal fringes along the southern portion of Greenland have an appearance more temperate than Arctic. One finds winding, green valleys whose rolling hillsides are covered with grasses, hedges and bushes, where willow and birch trees grow to a height of 30 feet. In the spring and summer, when the weather can be quite hot, the landscape is colorful with wild flowers and numerous butterflies flit about; indeed, more than 450 species of flowering plants have been found on Greenland. Around the modern Danish settlements one sees cultivated meadows where hay is being dried, little fields of potatoes, cabbages and turnips. Sheep and cattle graze in the pastures.
In 1261 Greenland became a colony of Norway. Since the early 18th century Greenland has belonged to Denmark, whose policy has been to protect the 17,000 Eskimo inhabitants from exploitation by the white race. The country is kept “closed” to all foreigners except a number of Danes holding administrative positions. All trade is conducted by a department of the Danish Government which provides the Eskimos with part of their food, equipment, medical supplies and other necessities. The idea is not to let them become too dependent upon the white man’s food and luxuries. Owing to the strict medical supervision the Danes have managed to keep the Eskimo free from the various diseases to which the white race is subject, so that their numbers are increasing.
The southwestern corner of Greenland is deeply indented by a number of long, winding fjords. Wherever one goes along these fjords the shores contain the remains of old farmhouses and other buildings, showing that at one time this country must have been extensively populated. Foreign scientists, writers and artists are occasionally granted permission by the Greenland Administration in Copenhagen to visit the country. In an attempt to solve the mystery of the disappearance of the old Norse colonies, archaeologists have excavated numerous old settlement sites and the objects which they have discovered have enabled us to build up a fairly comprehensive picture of life in the vanished settlements.
At Igoliko, near Julianehaab, are the ruins of the cathedral church of St. Nicholas where, in 1126, the Norse colonists founded the seat of their bishop and, after the Icelandic custom, held their annual parliament. This, the ancient “Gardar,” is the largest ruin in Greenland. At Kakortok is the “White Church,” the best-preserved Norse ruin in Greenland, which was probably built in the late 12th century. Numerous houses, stables and barns have been excavated. These were built of mortar, or with a layer of turf between. The houses were small, owing to the lack of timber for fuel and building. Cattle-byres which were excavated showed as many as 104 stalls for beasts. That the chief occupations of the inhabitants were cattle-breeding and hunting are shown by the great numbers of bones in the kitchen middens, which often stood a yard in height above the ruins of the houses.
Now what of the people who built these places and who vanished without trace? To attempt some solution of the problem we must consider a little-known episode of northern history, the voyages of the Vikings to the Arctic and to America.
It was Eric Thorvaldsson—popularly known as Erik the Red because of his fiery red hair—who founded the first white colony on Greenland. An aggressive, hot-tempered individual, he was living as a petty chieftain in northwestern Iceland when he was outlawed for three years for murdering a neighbor. A few years previously a Norwegian named Gunnbjorn, whose ship had been driven far westward in a storm, had reported the existence of an unknown land. Erik the Red decided to spend the years of his exile in locating and exploring this unknown land.
Accompanied by his family and slaves Erik sailed westward about 982 and reached Greenland. They rounded Cape Farewell and landed in what is now the Julianehaab District. Here they spent the winter exploring the coasts to the north. Erik liked the land and decided that he would return to Iceland and persuade his fellow countrymen to return with him to the new country. According to the saga from which these details are taken he named it “Green Land” in order to make it sound attractive to the new settlers, though the green appearance of the countryside may have been another reason.
Erik’s propaganda was so effective that in 986 no less than 25 ships laden with Vikings, their families and farm animals, set sail for Greenland. Some of them were lost in storms, others turned back, but 14 ships reached Greenland. Nearly 400 settlers, their horses, cattle, sheep and pigs were put ashore. Houses were built, farms marked out and the first winter passed without loss of life.
So the new colony began, with new settlers arriving each year, until at one time the population was estimated at 9,000 people. They made their living chiefly by cattle-rearing, hunting and fishing. In 990 Greenland adopted the Christian religion and continued to be administered by a series of bishops until 1540. The last bishop who lived in Greenland died in 1377. The later ones did not go there. So the records of the Roman Catholic church, as well as the Icelandic sagas, are sources of Greenland history.
About the year 1000 Leif the Lucky, son of Erik, on his way home to Greenland from Norway, missed his way and sailed on until he reached a strange new country. We know now that this was North America but Leif Ericsson named the land Vinland or Wineland because of the berries he found growing there. When news of his discovery reached Greenland, various expeditions were fitted out to colonize the new land but these settlements were destroyed by warfare with the Indians. That the Vikings discovered America nearly five centuries before Columbus, historians no longer dispute; they dispute merely how far south the people of Greenland actually reached.
Some idea of conditions in Greenland at the height of its prosperity can be gained from the reports of two brothers, Nicolo and Antonlo Zeno, of Venice, who visited the country in the latter part of the 14th century. Greenland was then divided into two districts, the Eastern Settlement and the Western Settlement, both on the southwest coast; the first corresponded roughly with the present Godthaab District. The Venetians reported that between them the two districts contained 280 farms, two townships with a cathedral, 15 churches and three monasteries.
The ruins of the Benedictine monastery dedicated to St. Thomas have been uncovered at a place called by the Eskimo Unartok, “The Place where there are Hot Springs;” the brothers reported that its cells were heated by a warm spring in which the monks also cooked their meals. Other relics of this period which have been excavated were runic stones and bronze church bells, while at Ikigait, “The Place Destroyed by Fire,” were found wooden crosses and bodies clad in medieval garments, preserved in the frozen ground of the cemeteries.
That the Greenlanders covered vast distances on their exploring and hunting trips is shown by the discovery at an island near Upernivik, 450 miles north of the Arctic Circle, of a stone bearing a runic inscription which reads: “Erling Sigvatsson and Bjarne Thordsson and Enridi Oddsson on the Saturday before Gangdag (April 24) made this.” From the style of the runes experts date the inscription at about the year 1330. The hunters were seeking seals, walrus and polar bears, for the church records show that tithes were paid in seal oil, skins, hides and wool and cloth. Voyages also appear to have been made to the American mainland for timber.
For several centuries regular communication was maintained between Greenland and Europe, via Norway, but in the early 15th century these trade relations appear to have come to an end. What happened to the inhabitants of the two settlements after that is only conjecture, though among unexamined papers at the Vatican there may yet be records relating to the last days of the Greenland colonists.
In a letter dated 1448, to the bishops of Iceland, Pope Nicholas V deplores the misfortunes which have befallen the people of Greenland, many of whom had been killed and their homes destroyed by the attacks of barbarians some years previously. In another letter written 44 years later, by Pope Alexander VI, he mentions that there had not been a resident priest on Greenland for nearly 80 years and that Christianity had almost died out. But as regards what actually happened after that history remains silent.
Though for three centuries, from 1410 to 1721, the fate of the Greenland settlements remained unknown they were not wholly forgotten and God-fearing men in Norway and elsewhere felt a desire to re-establish Christianity in that far-off land. Among them was Hans Egede, a Norwegian missionary, who sailed to Greenland in 1721 and established a new settlement. But though he found the remains of churches and houses and farms, of the people who had built them there was no sign; the only inhabitants of the deserted countryside were fur-clad Eskimos who knew nothing of white men or their religion.
What, then, had happened to some 9,000 Norsemen, who had maintained a civilized way of life in Greenland?
Egede and his successors built up a plausible theory; that for some reason ice fields began to accumulate off southwestern Greenland so that it became more and more difficult for ships from Norway to reach the colonies, that the Greenlanders became weakened owing to the lack of proper food and iron tools and weapons, which hitherto had been brought from Norway by sailing-ships, and that finally the Eastern and Western Settlements were completely destroyed by attacks of hostile Eskimos, attacks which, in their weakened condition, the white people were unable to ward off. It was also suggested that the Black Death was carried to Greenland in the mid-fourteenth century and killed off many of the inhabitants. The exponents of this theory conceded that this final breakdown of civilization in Greenland may not have taken place until 30 years or so after Columbus had discovered America.
Although this theory of the disappearance of the two Norse settlements became the generally accepted one, it was not long before various authorities (the late Dr. Nansen among them) pointed out certain fallacies. It was absurd, for example, to imagine that if the Black Death had reached Greenland it would kill off only the white people and leave the Eskimo unharmed; the reverse, rather, would have been the case. The Eskimo, possessing less resistance to the white man’s diseases, probably would have been almost completely destroyed.
Then again, various Arctic explorers denied that the Eskimos would have attacked the Norse settlements; the Eskimos are a friendly race and would have been much more likely to be helpful and sympathetic toward the white men. As the supply ships no longer arrived with food and equipment, it was much more likely that the adaptable Norsemen enlisted the help of the Eskimos in hunting for seals, bears and walrus with which the country abounded. For here another fallacy arose; that if the ice did drift further south along the coast, then there would be more, not less food, for the best big game hunting is on the ice floes. It is true that the change in climate which resulted might have put an end to cattle rearing and the cultivation of crops but as compensation there would be more to be obtained from hunting.
It seems logical to suppose that as making a livelihood by farming became more and more difficult, the Norsemen became more and more dependent on hunting. People who live by hunting have to continually on the move and the inscribed stone found near Upernivik demonstrates that they were already accustomed to covering great distances. Soon there would be no point in remaining at the settlements, for the nest hunting grounds lay far to the north, and it would be simpler to live in skin tents or in snow-huts in the winter. So the deserted settlements would be left to fall into ruins. The pople of the Western Settlement may have already lapsed into a nomadic form of life as hunters, while the people of the Eastern Settlement struggled to keep their farms going.
The view generally accepted now is that the Norsemen disappeared, not by being killed off in warfare but, as communications with Europe declined, they gradually adopted the Eskimo way of life. They intermarried with the Eskimos and because the Eskimo culture was better adapted for survival in Greenland conditions the white man’s culture gradually disappeared. Within a few generations there would arise a new mixed race of Norse-Eskimo blood, whose only knowledge of their civilized forbears would be a few dim legends.
This question as to where the Norse colonies disappeared through extermination or my amalgamation with the Eskimos as split the world of anthropology into two camps. Yet is cannot be denied that a great many of the Eskimos living in Greenland today have European blood in them and when dressed in white man’s fashion there is little to distinguish them. It would seem as if they are the true blood descendants of the Eskimo hunters and Norse farmers who lived in Greenland and disappeared there so many centuries ago.