Bioarchaeological and Climatological Evidence for the Fate of Norse Farmers in Medieval Greenland

Article excerpt

Greenland, far north land of the Atlantic, has often been beyond the limit of European farming settlement. One of its Norse settlements, colonized just before AD 1000, is astonishingly - not even at the southern tip, but a way up the west coast, the 'Western Settlement'. Environmental studies show why its occupation came to an end within five centuries, leaving Greenland once more a place of Arctic-adapted hunters.

Norse settlement in Greenland

According to medieval Icelandic sources, the Norse colonization of Greenland begun in c. AD 985. Two main areas of settlement were established: the Western Settlement, in the inner fjords east of present-day Nuuk (Godthab) [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], the modern capital, and the Eastern Settlement at the southern tip of Greenland, near modern Igaliko (Gardhar) (Ingstad 1966; Jones 1986). By the end of the 15th century, these Norse colonies had disappeared. This demise has frequently been linked to adverse changes in climate, specifically, the so-called 'Little Ice Age' (cf. Dansgaard et al. 1975; Lamb 1977). There has been much discussion regarding the reality of this climatic event (Grove 1988). Suffice it here to say, although low-temperature events in the latter half of the present millennium are well documented, it is clear that these are neither temporally nor spatially synchronous in all localities of the North Atlantic region. We therefore present the following data without invoking the term 'Little Ice Age', or the connotations surrounding it.

The Western Settlement, in particular, has been a focus of sustained multidisciplinary study, and it is primarily this settlement which is considered here. Some of the findings are compared with proxy climatic data extrapolated from the Greenland Ice Sheet Project (GISP2) ice core. This core was drilled between 1992 and 1993 in central Greenland, in the summit of the ice sheet at 3210 m above sea level, at lat. 72 [degrees] 28[minutes] N, long. 38 [degrees] 35[minutes] W. The proxy records provided by ice cores have been interpreted as indicators of climatic change. More recently, technological advances, combined with the long stratigraphic integrity of the GISP2 core, have resulted in highly detailed proxy records, which range in timescales from seasons to thousands of years [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. This high level of detail has already given new insights into the climate history of the North Atlantic region (Alley et al. 1993; Mayewski et al. 1993a; 1993b; 1994; Barlow 1994; Zielinski et al. 1994).

Studies, primarily archaeological, historical and anthropological, have shown that, from the start of the Norse settlement in Greenland, subsistence was based upon milk and meat from cattle, sheep and goats (McGovern 1985a) [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED]. Fossil beetle faunas from the more recently excavated farms in the Western Settlement are dominated by introduced synanthropous elements (Sadler 1991), which lived in stored hay and related habitats. These underline the need for an adequate hay crop to overwinter indoors the domestic stock which could not otherwise survive. Shortfalls in subsistence were made up by intensive, largely land-based exploitation of seals and seabirds in the spring, and caribou drives with hunting dogs in the autumn. There is no evidence for any significant domesticated plant-food contribution to the diet, although the seeds of wild fruits, principally crowberry (Empetrum nigrum L.) and bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum L.) are frequent in samples from the farm middens (McGovern et al. 1983). These core subsistence activities required tight co-ordination of communal labour resources and produced little storable surplus. Nevertheless, by 1300 this mixed dairying-hunting society had invested heavily in stone architecture. In the Eastern Settlement, monasteries and parish churches, as well as a cathedral at Gardhar (Igaliko) had been built, equipped with imported stained glass and bronze church bells. …