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Wednesday, January 04, 2006 CE

Nature versus Man Number 2: The fate of the Greenland Vikings



This is part of a series which is intended to show that we are not necessarily the architecs of our future. Sometimes, unexpected events shape our history in ways that we cannot imagine.

Around the end of the first millennium of the Common Era, the Vikings, an intrepid and courageous group of people founded colonies in what is now known as Greenland. Under the guidance of Erik the Red, two important settlements were created, the Eastern Settlement and 240 miles Northwest, the Western Settlement.

Initially, the settlements flourished. The economy was based on agriculture and trade with the European mainland, specially from Norway, where the Vikings came from. Furthermore, there was an active religious life and there was even a bishop appointed for the settlements.

What happened around the middle of the 14th century was described as a mystery, however, as our knowledge of the past has increased, this enigma started to clarify. From the 10th to the 14th century CE, the planet went through a period known as the Medieval Climate Optimum. It was a period of unusually high temperatures, of regression of the polar ice caps and of increased vegetation in areas usually barrened by endless winters. It was in this period in which the Vikings explored the North Atlantic arriving to Greenland and to North America. However, things started to change in the middle of the 14th century. The winters because harsher, the temperatures dropped and agriculture became impossible. Trade was limited by the icy sea and eventually, the Viking culture in Greenland collapsed and disappeared. The Little Ice Age had begun having the Greenland Vikings as one of its casualties.

Nature sometimes works in ways we cannot predict.

Further reading
http://www.archaeology.org/online/features/greenland/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_ice_age

11 Comments:

Blogger Foilwoman said...

Have you read Jared Diamond's analysis of the Greenland Vikings disappearance In Collapse: How Societies Succeed and Fail?

12:44 AM  
Blogger Doctor Marco said...

I have not. I took note of the boof and will take a look

9:45 AM  
Blogger Foilwoman said...

It's just one chapter in a lengthy book (he also looks at Easter Island and other societies that managed to do themselves in, particularly with climatological help). But he does contrast the fate of the Norse settlers (who refused to eat fish, in Greenland, go figure, and used scarce import resources to get silks for the cathedral rather than iron for nails or lumber) with the "skraelings" (Inuit of their ancestors) who survived when the climate turned bad when the Norse starved. Choices, limited resources, and ability to adapt. A fascinating book. And he's a decent writer.

12:53 AM  
Blogger Doctor Marco said...

Foilwoman, thanks for your comment.

What I know is that the Greenland Vikings, did not have much respect for the Inuit and they did not adopt their survival skills due to a profound dislike of Inuit culture. Of course, in order to explain the disappearence of a culture there must be many reasons, not only one

7:28 AM  
Blogger Foilwoman said...

Jared Diamond agrees with you. And the Norse Greenlanders view of themselves as European and Christian creative substantial barriers to adopting the ways of the Inuit that would help them survive without timber and iron, which were increasingly scarce as trading slowed, then stopped; over-logging (not that it could really be called logging with the dwarf trees in question), overharvesting, overgrazing, and erosion made the lack of timber almost a famine for would. Having not learned the art of making kayaks or small boats built from animal bones and skins, the riches of the sea were denied them (and their middens showed that they didn't eat fish) except for what they could catch from land or on the ice pack in the winter. Willful blindness leading to self-destruction. Of course, the last farm to die off was the richest, Gardar, the Cathedral farm, but all their rich vestments (instead of wood and nails!) and sacramental wine (instead of just about anything else) only gave the churchmen the right to starve last. They slaughtered the newborn animals (pretty much conceding that there wouldn't be another winter to make it through, showing a lamental -- but accurate -- lack of faith in their heavenly father) just like everyone else did in the winter of their starvation. Ish.

1:03 PM  
Blogger Alanita said...

My boyfriend and I watched a History Channel presentation called "The Little Ice Age". I fell asleep, but he stayed up with eager enthusiasm. His eyes were wide open like he had just watched one of the greatest shows on earth (too bad he doesn't get into me like that..lmao!!)This historical example is consistent with the basic naturalistic assumption of modern science - that the cosmos is a seamless unity which can be comprehended ultimately in its entirety by human reason and in which all phenomena, including life and evolution and the origin of man, are ultimately explicable in terms of natural processes. Some say that this was the "EARTH'S" way of reducing population :-)
Some believe that a new Ice Age has already begun. Whether it will take a few thousand years or a few hundred, or whether the process of glacial advance is already under way is difficult to say. Of one thing we are sure: The present hysteria over global warming--with its apocalyptic forecast of melting of the polar ice caps, flooding of the coastal cities, and desertification of the world's breadbaskets, BLAH BLAH BLAH...is not helping citizens to understand the real and complex forces that shape the Earth's climate!!!! I love your posts Dr. Marco

3:13 PM  
Blogger Doctor Marco said...

Foilwoman:

Your comments have enrichened my humble post, I really appreciate them. You seem to find the topic fascinating. Many lessons can be learned from the fate of the
Greenland Vikings, like, for example, to be more open to other cultures.

3:53 PM  
Blogger Doctor Marco said...

Alanita:

It is true that there are many forces shaping the Earth's climate, many of them not understood. There are paradoxes in the actual global warming, meaning that it could eventually be the trigger of an Ice Age. The trick probably is to adapt to cyclic changes in climate, without artificially altering the climate so that rapid changes do not catch us ill prepared.

3:56 PM  
Blogger Alanita said...

Dr Marco, many issues in regard to global warming are paradoxical and remain unresolved. How much will climate change in coming decades? What will be the practical consequences? What, if anything, should we do about it? The debate over these questions is highly charged because of the economic stakes inherent in any attempts to slow the warming. This subject is of interst to me.

4:49 PM  
Blogger Doctor Marco said...

If it is of interest to you...Why did you fell asleep while watching "Little Ice Age"? Just kidding. The subject is fascinating

5:06 PM  
Blogger Foilwoman said...

Sr. Doctor: I do find the fate of the Greenland Norse fascinating. I read Jane Smiley's early (fictional) book on the last Greenlanders, and Jared Diamond's book really drew me in. I was particularly interested in how the Greenland Norse identified so strongly with European/Christian cultural markers and chose to sacrifice a great deal (and it seems, in the end, everything) to maintina their identities as European Christians when they might have survived in the new, harsher environment of the Little Ice Age had they been willing to adapt themselves and adopt the customs of the Inuit.

Yes, I see correlations to our present time. I also wonder how the fearsome Vikings became the starving Greenlanders, and also wonder how those same or genetically and culturally similar fearsome Vikings became my butter-loving (and entirely peaceful and jovial) Danish forbears.

10:48 PM  

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