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The Demise of Greenland’s Vikings


Abstract: This paper will explore the disappearance of the Norse in Greenland, how their situation deteriorated to the degree that lead to their demise.  Climate change will be used as the main argument within the complex set of processes that operated, compared and contrasted to other theories of land deterioration, isolation, Inuit war and integration, and cultural factors, to decide what contributed principally to their disappearance.


Keywords: Norse, Vikings, Greenland, climate-change, demise, disappearance 


            Extinction is an incident that we would consider as humans, something as which we observe; it is not in the conventional sense, an event that happens to us.  Instead we watch on and attempt to exert our power over it, to various degrees of achievement, to save other species from their demise.  However it undoubtedly can encompass all species that inhabit our planet, including us.


            Human civilisations have in instances throughout Earth, collapsed and vanished from existence.  Although not as an entire species, this illustrates on lesser scales and periods, what can happen.  This is the argument that preludes the downfall of the Norse Greenlanders, whether a natural disaster participated in total loss of the population.  The Vikings arrived in Greenland in 986 and existed in moderate success until about the mid 15th Century, when as a population, they were extinct (McGovern 2000).


            Subsequently since, there have been numerous hypotheses towards an explanation for their demise, each having various degrees of credibility.  The foremost reasoning has been of climatic change, the natural disaster of a Little Ice Age with which the Norse could not cope.  Although accepted as fact that climate change did occur (with ice core evidence), this is not the single reason that exists, and is not simply an answer in itself.  We have to ask to what degree the Greenland Norse were actually affected by climatic change and to what extent other factors played a part and or if they were more central in this disaster.


Figure.1 Settlement of Greenland and hunting voyages (adapted from Fitzhugh & Ward 2000)

            Erik the Red was the first explorer of Greenland, and commanded the original settlement made up of 25 ships from Iceland in 986AD, of which 14 survived to inhabit the land (Jones 1986).  They set up the Eastern Settlement, which had most of the best land, and shortly followed with the Western Settlement (figure.1).  Each consisted of farms grouped together around parish churches (figure.2); religion here had large amounts power, seen through the spectacular program of construction carried out between 1125 and 1300 (Roussell cited by Wigley et al. 1981).  The settlers brought both their wealth and families with them, but were largely traditional people, except for their choice in homeland- farmers in effect (Jones 1986).  The Vikings were importing their lifestyle and traditions from Iceland to Greenland, for a perceived improved life.  For a while, the Norsemen lived relatively prosperous: population grew to around a peak of 2000 (Lynnerup 2000), there were numerous farms, and trading with Norway for basic goods as well as luxury items (Brown 2000).  For a while, Greenland was a place fulfilling its purpose of a successful homeland.  Yet even then, it could be considered as a place operating on the margin of the Vikings existence, where the people were just in balance with the land, as by approximately 1450 this had entirely ceased.


Figure.2 Hvalsey Church in the Western Settlement; in 1408 the last documentation was recorded here, a marriage (Smithsonian Institute 2000)

            Climatic change as an explanation for the Norse’s demise was first argued by Nørlund; he stated that climate must have been warmer, as graves had been dug in what was now frozen ground, and that their excavation showed disturbance by plant roots. This indicated that the ground had not been constantly been solid.  Continued excavations during the 1930/40s also regularly discovered agricultural buildings in areas today unfeasible for farming, suggesting richer soils therefore indicating warmer weather (McGovern 2000).  Pollen analysis had also been used to indicate a cool period around the Norse’s disappearance (DPC 2000).


            The major factor though that contributed to the awareness that climate change absolutely did occur is data from ice cores on Greenland’s central ice cap, the Greenland Ice Sheet Project 2 drilled between 1989 and 1993.  By analysing the chemical composition within these cores, especially the changes in the oxygen isotope, and subsequently using amongst other methods radiocarbon dating to identify the period, it becomes possible to create a detailed climatic history dating back thousands of years (Ogilvie & McGovern 2000).  Thus it follows that variations with depth in the oxygen isotope of an ice core, reflect past relative variations of temperature (Mayewski 1995), as plotted in figure.3.  This data is further confirmed through sea sediment cores, tree rings, and evidence of oxygen isotope in tooth enamel (proving change in their specific location).  With teeth, oxygen is trapped at the point in time of which the tooth is formed, masking the temperature of that period (Simarski 1994).  Hence by comparing Norse teeth of different times, a climatic trend can be formed.  Together, these all established firm evidence for the variations in climate and allow temperature to be plotted.


Figure.3 Isotope analysis for 2000 years before
present (Quaternary Isotope Laboutary)


Figure 4 The Little Ice Age (adapted from Smithsonian
Institute 2000)

            Looking at figure.4, it is clear the Little Ice Age occurred around the mid 14th century.  We can correlate this to the period when the Norse disappeared from Greenland around 100 years later at 1450, demonstrating declining conditions.  This can also be compared to current temperatures of -1°c in Nuuk (Washington Post 2000), to illustrate cooler conditions than at present.  However, I am not arguing that the temperature was always consistently colder, yet that for approximately 5 centuries there was a trend of cooler weather conditions than previously.  We can consider that “It seems that the colonization of Greenland coincided with slightly warmer temperatures and that later, in the thirteenth century, the Little Ice Age arrived, subsequently lowering temperatures” (Lynnerup 2000, p.290).


            Actual climatic change itself though, does not explain the Norse’s demise; it needs to be related to the direct and indirect consequences that it can produce.  These, not a physical change in climate itself are the explanations of the disappearance of the Norseman.  We cannot argue that it simply become so cold that the Norse ‘froze to death’, as in fact the Inuit flourished in these conditions (Logan 1983).  To attempt to justify climate change alone would be misguided, instead by using it as the source affect upon other factors; we can endeavour to rationalise it.


            The most apparent consequence of the Little Ice Age would be on livestock and crop yields.  McGovern (1981) deems the effect of cooling to be increased precipitation, deeper winter snow and increased spring storms. This would threaten livestock, by the survival of newborn and in more severe instances all animals, being unable to survive malnutrition or infection; contributed to by lesser crop yields, through a shorter growing season (if there is early snowfall and late melting) and wet weather causing crop failure (McGovern 1981).  The result would be problematic for both animals and humans, whose winter food stores would be depleted, often causing livestock to be consumed against desire (there was belief that conditions would improve (Ogilvie & McGovern 2000)).  It can consequently be reasoned then that climatic change did have an effect on animals and crops, reducing food supplies.


            However, we cannot regard this as the lone factor, since other external issues also operated upon the diet created by livestock and crops.  Soil erosion and land degradation are self-destructive aspects that the Norse themselves created.  When Greenland was settled, the colonisers brought with them the ideal livestock utilised in the motherland (Norway): goat, sheep, pig and cattle (McGovern 2000).  This outlook though was misguided; such animals and crops were not native to these conditions.  Therefore the environment could not cope, illustrated through pollen cores that showed changing and declining vegetation during the Norse period, with a recovery after their disappearance (McGovern 2000).  The overgrazed livestock trampled and scuffled the soil, and the Norse additionally cut dwarf willows for fuel; meaning the soil was deprived of its anchor roots and lost fertility (Brown 2000).  These adverse affects would have been irreversible on Greenland’s marginal soil.  Additionally, the animals themselves could not cope with the environment, with pigs disappearing soon after their arrival.  It appears the carrying capacity of Greenland had been exceeded by a foresighted desire to export the traditional methods of living, additionally influenced by a deteriorating climate.  This is an explanation for Norse’s demise being partly self-inflicted, creating problems whilst not being socially open to the environment in which they went to inhabit.


            Culturally, the problem of land degradation was also socially divided.  The chieftains and the church occupied most of the richer pastures, resulting in a better off minority.  This political division combined with the church’s power meant the persistence of an agrarian lifestyle, as their productive lots were not affected by land degradation and thus they saw no need to revolutionise.  Yet also, no Greenlandic bishop was ever a native Greenlander, making us consider the church never really understood the peoples and lands needs (McGovern 1981).  Greenland consequently had social problems associated with the need for adjustment, whatever the causes of the problems that arose.  If leaders would not, or did not perceive a need to change lifestyles, then the populace had less hope of coping with shifting circumstances.


            The possibility of isolation as a consequence of the Norse Greenlanders demise has often been cited.  In its simplest form though, it seems unlikely.  Nevertheless if we presume the Norse relied on annual deliveries from rest of Europe, then the effect of climate change could have been disastrous.  The colder weather did give rise to more drift ice, cutting shipping lanes and producing a more dangerous voyage, making trade more uneconomical (Jones 1984).  More so, when Greenland signed its sovereignty over to Norway, it did so in faith of regular communications.  However, a trade monopoly was created with Norway making commerce even more problematic.  This combined with the inundation of Bergen with cheaper furs, hides and tusks, devalued Greenland’s commodities, meaning such voyages became even less beneficial (Jones 1986). With such evidence we could believe that when isolation arose, the Norse could not cope without supplies and thus eventually died.  However, there is more evidence to convince that communications were not necessary, as given the small size of mediaeval cargo crafts, they could never have imported significant amounts of food (McGovern 2000). There is also support that they were never totally isolated, as changing burial customs and fashions in Greenland matched those as in Northern Europe during corresponding periods (Lynnerup 2000).  So although we can deduce that climate change did have an affect on creating isolation, but not exclusively, we nevertheless cannot consider isolation as a factor itself for the Norse’s decline.


            Theories surrounding the Inuit who also inhabited Greenland are furthermore numerous, but perhaps the most appealing aspect is their very existence, where the Norse could not survive.  However, we will begin with more established theories.  Contact between the Norse and Inuit populations have been contended between ideas of integration between the two races and violent conflicts.  There is definite evidence of contact between the two people; sagas mention minor instances of conflict (Krogh cited by DPC 2000) and Norse objects have been found in Inuit sites, although not respectively (McGovern 2000).  However, to argue for some sort of assimilation between the races is implausible, as we have no archaeological evidence that the Norse adopted in any form Inuit culture (perhaps to their disadvantage), in instance clothes found from later settlement period were constantly clearly European (Nørlund 1936).  Vitally, anthropological evidence also illustrated that Norse skulls showed no evidence of mixture (Lynnerup 2000), dismissing such theories.  According to Lynnerup (2000, p.289) “The idea of [the Norse] becoming nomadic as the Inuit was undoubtedly far from their minds”.  Such closed culture was probably a natural suspicion of foreign races, also partly facilitate by the church.


            For conflict to cause total population devastation, it would have required considerable encounters between the two.  Although clashes did occur; with the movement of the Inuit south, triggering competition for natural resources in hunting and fishing grounds, these conflicts were actually less common because leading different lifestyles, they had little to fight over (DPC 2000).  In addition, the Inuit were fragmented into small groups, therefore making it problematic for them to take on a population of over 500 Norse in the Western Settlement (DPC 2000).  We can consequently credibly exclude such reasons, but be aware that the Inuit did have some affect upon the Vikings.


            Although the Norse did not adopt aspects of Inuit lifestyle, this could have in effect been an error as the Inuit still exist where the Norse do not.  The Inuit had to their advantage a nomadic life, with no reliance on agrarian methods.  Thus with marginal land deteriorating, (established as partly due to climate) it caused them little difficulty.  The Norse though, was forced to adapt to these alterations -although it is becoming obvious that they did not do so enough- due to the hardship traditional methods of subsistence faced.  Their diet increasingly contained higher amounts of marine food than other Vikings, specifically seals and caribou (Lynnerup 2000).  However, they lacked the more developed hunting technology of harpoons that the Inuit held.  Consequently they were restricted to either ice-riding or harbour seals, which were only vulnerable in spring and early summer (McGovern 2000).  With a diet relying more on marine creatures, Norse hunting methods were not up to constantly supporting their populations throughout the year.  Thus perhaps if they had adopted Inuit technology, the gap in nutrition that subsistence was increasingly generating, could have been filled.  The Norse it seems did not consider that they could benefit from their neighbours.


            Death by disease is an aspect that could easily have shaped the outcome of what happened to the Norse.  If living conditions were deteriorating, or outbreaks of disease arose, then the effect could have been devastating to such a relatively small population.  However, anthropological evidence has shown through the analysis of skeleton remains that the Norse “do not testify a population ‘racked with disease’ ” (DPC 2000).  Degenerative diseases in Greenland were no higher than in other medieval populations, and in later periods there is no indication of more frequent diseases (DPC 2000).  However we cannot conclude that disease had no influence, as the affect of epidemics has to be accounted for.  Plague was rife around the period of the Norse’s demise, for example both close Iceland and allied Norway suffered plague attacks in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, with high mortality rates between 30 and 50% (Lynnerup 2000).  If such an attack had reached Greenland, than with its population of around 2000 it could have been fatal, as replacement level would soon have fallen beneath sustainable limits, as the population statistics in figure.5 illustrate.  Plagues affect though, could be deeper.  In Iceland the plague created deserted lots of land through the death of entire families, meaning the remaining population could simply take this land for themselves (as occurred in many plague hit countries).  Such land was much more viable than most in Greenland, and therefore people could have decided upon immigrated to Iceland to obtain a better life (what the original settlers to Greenland had done).  With such proposals, we cannot exclude disease as a reason for the Norse demise.  Conversely though, we do not have firm evidence for it, so we can only take it into account, rather than use it as a proven substantial argument.

Figure.5 Population of Greenland’s Eastern and Western settlements (Lynnerup 2000)

            The Greenland Norse it appears were intertwined within a complex environment, where many processes were operating to their disadvantage, climate being just one of them.  Although by now we can exclude many theories surrounding the Norse’s demise, others occupy ideas that are very probable.  We can firstly reject integration with the Inuit, peacefully or otherwise through the anthropological and cultural evidence, as well as war due to the lack of possible conflicts; although recognised that clashes did occur their impact on total population numbers would have been negligible.  Isolation did to an extent arise, and although never total can still be considered as having some impact, as culturally a lack of communication could diminish ‘hope’ within the populace, particularly in religious communications with the Vatican; but only considered within the wider context.  For disease to have eradicated the population the only constructive argument is through an epidemic.  Although possible, there is no proven evidence that the plague ever did reach Greenland (especially with the aforementioned isolation), so at present we cannot argue otherwise.


            Climate it seems therefore was a large element in the Norse’s demise, however it did not operate alone; combined only with the cultural attitudes of the Vikings can their failure be understood, in comparison to the Inuit’s survival.  The deteriorating climate affected cultivation and livestock, and partly facilitated land deterioration, however these were all also encouraged by the Norse way of life.  In bringing and persistently attempting to use unviable products they made their situation worse; creating an environment that was more sensitive to the climatic change.  Additionally the social structure of Greenland, with the powerful church and chieftains occupying the most fertile land, meant a lack of action in changing attitudes or methods of subsistence, and a denial that anything could be learnt from their Inuit neighbours.  This social rejection of change meant little was done in an attempt to adapt to the altering conditions.  Furthermore it should be recognise their lack of ability to store much food for the winter (as in other Viking locations) made them particularly subjective to climate.  Combined with a depressing situation of semi isolation and differences with the Inuit, life was degenerating.  Feasibly, the Norse had surpassed the carry capacity of the land with the products that they were endeavouring to use and the changing climate, whereby the very limit of their static existence in Greenland was reached.  We should consider that “The Greenland colony died out for no one reason but through a complex of deadly pressures” (Jones 1986, p.311).




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By David Chan

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