“Why Did Greenland’s Vikings Vanish?”

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The Story

“Why Did Greenland’s Vikings Vanish?”
by Tim Folger
Smithsonian, March 2017

The Pitch


Banished from Iceland for multiple murders, Erik the Red led the first Vikings to Greenland more than a thousand years ago. Eventually some 3,000 Norse colonists made their homes there in two settlements about 300 miles apart on the west coast. On hilly meadows in sheltered fjords, they farmed and raised cattle and sheep. They hunted seal, caribou, and walrus. They traded with Europe. The Viking settlements were no mean, hardscrabble villages. The Norse Greenlanders built manor houses; they imported stained glass for a cathedral. One of their churches, built seven centuries ago, still stands. The Pope even sent a bishop to tend to the faithful at the very edge of the known world. And then, 500 years after the Vikings arrived in Greenland, they vanished.

What happened? Until very recently most experts thought the Norse had failed to adapt to their new home: They chopped down too many trees; they never acquired a taste for fish, preferring mutton and beef. In short, they remained stubbornly and fatally attached to their European ways, and lacked the flexibility of the Inuit, who arrived in north Greenland at about the same time as the Vikings landed in the south. The Inuit thrived, even as the climate became colder. The Vikings perished. Jared Diamond made this argument several years ago in his best-selling book “Collapse.”

Now a very different story is emerging from the archaeological remains of the Viking settlements. What doomed the Vikings, it seems, was not climate change or a failure to adapt. The real trigger for their demise may have been a crash in the price of a luxury commodity that lured the Norse to Greenland in the first place: walrus-tusk ivory.

“We think Greenland was settled because of walrus,” says Konrad Smiarowski, an archaeologist at the City University of New York. “It wasn’t settled because they wanted to farm there and create communities. It was more of a hunting settlement supported by farming, rather than farming supported by walrus hunting.” Ivory—not farmland—spurred the Vikings to risk crossing hundreds of miles of Arctic seas in open boats propelled by oars and wind.

The ivory trade became the basis for a social structure that was remarkably well adapted to a formidable environment. New archaeological evidence suggests that the Norse didn’t despoil their land. They hunted sustainably. Caribou, for example, survived in south Greenland throughout the entire era of Viking settlement; when the Inuit arrived in the south they hunted caribou to extinction. The Norse also took great care not to deplete seal populations, an important source of fresh meat during Greenland’s long winters.

While the Vikings in Greenland did everything they could to maintain their colonies, they couldn’t control the vagaries of international trade and taste. During the 11th and 12th centuries, nearly all the ivory in Europe’s religious and secular art came from walruses. But as new trade routes opened in Africa, elephant ivory became more accessible to European markets. Demand for walrus-tusk ivory plummeted. Burial sites from the end of the Viking era in Greenland hold hardly any remains of young men and women. Evidently young Greenlanders, seeing scant opportunities at home, decamped for Europe. With the exception of a bishop’s gold signet ring, archaeologists have found no high-value items at Viking sites anywhere in Greenland, a sign that the Norse exodus from Greenland was an orderly one: They took their valuables with them. The Viking colonies in Greenland may have collapsed, but it wasn’t the Vikings’ fault. In the end, a shifting economy defeated the legendary seafarers.

This fascinating and fundamental revision of our understanding of the Viking experience in Greenland has received scant coverage. I’d like to remedy that with a 2,500—3,000 word story in Smithsonian. Konrad Smiarowski and his colleagues will be returning to south Greenland this summer for another season of digging. I’ve been invited to join them. [See note below.] Smiarowski told me he could take a few days off from his work to show me a number of Viking sites in the region. (I’d also like to spend a couple of days in Copenhagen to interview scientists who are using lead isotopes to track the provenance of medieval artworks made from walrus ivory.)

If approved, this would be my third trip to Greenland. I’m very eager to tell this exciting story, which has a surprisingly modern plot twist: A society undone by global market forces.

Note: I would travel to Greenland in early August, possibly late July. So the story would need to be approved relatively soon, by early July if possible.

Photo possibilities:

Hvalsey Church: This church was mentioned in a letter sent from Greenland in 1408, the last historical record of events in the Viking settlements.

The Lewis Chessmen: A famed Viking chess set, carved from walrus ivory, found in Scotland in 1831.

Ivory crucifix from medieval England.

Eric the Red’s Settlement, now called Igaliku, in south Greenland. The Vikings called it Gardar, and it was the site of the bishop’s residence and a cathedral.

Reconstructions of Viking settlements in Greenland

Maps of Viking routes to Greenland

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