Human Ecology

, Volume 8, Issue 3, pp 245-275

First online:

Cows, harp seals, and churchbells: Adaptation and extinction in Norse Greenland

  • Thomas H. McGovernAffiliated withDepartment of Anthropology, Hunter College, City University of New York

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The extinction of the Norse colony in West Greenland (ca A.D. 985–1500) has intrigued generations of historians, medieval archaeologists, and climatologists. This longstanding interest has generated a considerable body of basic paleoclimatic and paleoecological data, as well as a number of largely monocausal explanations for the communities' end. The 1976–1977 Inuit-Norse Project and a variety of recent geophysical and palynological studies have provided the greater detail necessary for a more systematic analysis of cultural adaptation and extinction in Norse Greenland. A dual maritime/terrestrial Norse subsistence economy, combined with a transatlantic trade and long- range arctic hunting, supported a hierarchical social organization and elaborate ceremonial architecture. Elite information management and economic decision- making seems to have been a source of ultimately fatal Norse conservatism in the face of fluctuating resources and Inuit competition.

Key words

Greenland Norse climate Little Ice Age