Human Ecology

, Volume 16, Issue 3, pp 225–270 | Cite as

Northern Islands, human error, and environmental degradation: A view of social and ecological change in the Medieval North Atlantic

  • Thomas H. McGovern
  • Gerald Bigelow
  • Thomas Amorosi
  • Daniel Russell


Between ca. 790 and 1000 AD, Scandinavian settlers occupied the islands of the North Atlantic: Shetland, the Orkneys, the Hebrides, the Faroes, Iceland, and Greenland. These offshore islands initially supported stands of willow, alder, and birch, and a range of non-arboreal species suitable for pasture for the imported Norse domestic animals. Overstocking of domestic animals, fuel collection, ironworking, and construction activity seems to have rapidly depleted the dwarf trees, and several scholars argue that soil erosion and other forms of environmental degradation also resulted from Norse landuse practices in the region. Such degradation of pasture communities may have played a significant role in changing social relationships and late medieval economic decline in the western tier colonies of Iceland and Greenland. This paper presents simple quantified models for Scandinavian environmental impact in the region, and suggests some sociopolitical causes for ultimately maladaptive floral degradation.

Key words

archaelogy medieval North Atlantic human impact Norse 


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Copyright information

© Plenum Publishing Corporation 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • Thomas H. McGovern
    • 1
  • Gerald Bigelow
    • 2
  • Thomas Amorosi
    • 1
  • Daniel Russell
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyHunter College, CUNYNew York
  2. 2.Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Artic Studies CenterBowdoin CollegeBrunswick

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