Skip to main content

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

Abstract

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

References

  1. Ahrensburg, C. M., and Kimball, S. T. (1968).Family and Community in Ireland, 2nd ed. Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, Mass.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Berglund, J. (1973). Paa den yderste nøgne ø.Skalk No. 4.

  3. Bocher, T. W. (1954). Oceanic and Continental vegetational complexes in Southwest Greenland.Meddelelser on Grønland 148 (1).

  4. Bocher, T. W., Holmen, K., and Jakobsen, K. (1968).The Flora of Greenland. Haase and Co., Copenhagen.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Bowden, M. J.,et al. (1980). The effect of climatic fluctuations on human populations: Two hypotheses. In Wigley, T. M. (ed.),Climate and History, Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, in press.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Bruun, D. (1896). Arkaeologiske undersogleser i Julianehaabs Distrikt.Meddelelser on Grønland 16.

  7. Bruun, D. (1916). Nordboruiner i Godthaabs og Frederikhaabs Distrikter.Meddelelser on Grønland 56.

  8. Bruun, D. (1918). Old Norse Farms in the Eastern and Western Settlements.Meddelelser on Grønland 57.

  9. Bynch, L. (1801). Om saelhundefangsten paa Anholt, Iris, og Hobe.Maanedsskrift, 1–23 Copenhagen.

  10. Clark, J. G. D. (1948). Seal hunting in the stone age of Northwest Europe: A study in economic prehistory.Proceedings of the Prehistorical Society 12: 12–48.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Conrad, G. W. (1971). Climate, fauna, and man in West Greenland: An ecological approach to Eskimo cultural developments from 1500 B.C. to A.D. 1600. Unpublished manuscript.

  12. Dansgaard, W., Johnsen, S. J.,et al. (1975). Climatic changes, Norsemen, and modern man.Nature 255: 24–28.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Degerbøl, M. (1929). Animal bones from the Norse ruins at Gardar.Meddelelser on Grønland 76 (1).

  14. Degerbøl, M. (1934). Animal remains from the West Settlement in Greenland.Meddlelelser on Grønland 88 (3).

  15. Degerbøl, M. (1936). Animal bones from Norse ruins at Brattahlid.Meddelelser on Grønland 88(5).

  16. Degerbøl, M. (1941). The osseous material from Austmannadal and Tungmeralik.Meddelelser on Grønland 86 (3).

  17. Degerbøl, M. (1943). Animal remains from inland farms in the Norse Eastern Settlement.Meddelelser on Grønland 90 (8).

  18. Feuer, B. (1978). Ageneral systems model for the rise and fall of civilizations. Paper presented at the 77th annual American Anthropological Association Meeting, Los Angeles.

  19. Fenton, A. (1978).The Northern Isles. Edinburgh.

  20. Flannery, K. V. (1972). The cultural evolution of civilizations.Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 3: 399–426.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Flannery, K. (ed.) (1976).The Early Mesoamerican Village. Academic Press, New York.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Fredskild, B. (1973). Studies in the vegetational history of Greenland.Meddelelser on Grønland 198 (4).

  23. Gad, F. (1970).A History of Greenland, Vol. 1. Hurst and Co., London.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Gribbin, J., and Lamb, H. (1978). Climatic change in historical times. In Gribbin, J. (ed.),Climatic Changes, Cambridge Univ. Press, New York.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Hesse, B., and Perkins, D. (1974). Faunal remains from Karatas-Semayuk.Journal of Field Archaeology 1: 1/2.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Higgs, E. S. (ed.) (1972).Papers in Economic Prehistory. Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Higgs, E. S. (ed.) (1975).Paleoeconomy. Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Hillaire-Marcel, C., and Fairbridge, R. W. (1978). Isostasy and eustasy of Hudson Bay.Geology 6: 117–122.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Holling, C. S. (1973). Resilience and stability of ecological systems.Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 4: 1–23.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Ingstad, H. (1966).Land Under the Pole Star. St. Martin's Press, New York.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Jansen, H. M. (1972). A critical account of the written and archaeological sources' evidence concerning the Norse settlements in Greenland.Meddelelser on Grønland 182 (4).

  32. Jensen, H. (1976). Faroese pilot whale hunting.Ethnographica Scandinavia 1 (1).

  33. Jones, G. (1964).The Norse Atlantic Saga. Oxford Univ. Press, New York.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Jonsson, F. (trans.) (1930).Det gamle Grønlands beskrivelse af Ivor Baardsson. Levin and Munksgaard, Copenhagen.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Jordan, R. (1979). Inugsuk Revisited. In McCartney, A. P. (ed.),Thule Inuit Culture: An Anthropological Retrospective, National Museum of Man, Ottawa.

    Google Scholar 

  36. KGH (Royal Greenland Company) (1968, 1954–1967, 1968–1974).Hunting Statistics. Ministry for Greenland, Copenhagen.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Koch, L. (1945). The east Greenland ice.Meddelelser on Grønland 130(2).

  38. Krogh, K. (1967).Viking Greenland National Museum, Copenhagen.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Lamb, H. H. (1977).Climate Past, Present, and Future. Methuen, London.

    Google Scholar 

  40. Larsen, L. M. (trans.) (1917).The King's Mirror. American-Scandinavian Foundation, New York.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Low, G. (1774).A Tour of the Islands of Orkney and Schetland. Melven Press, Inverness.

    Google Scholar 

  42. Mathiassen, T. (1930). Inugsuk, a medieval Eskimo settlement in Upernavik District.Meddelelser on Grønland 77 (4).

  43. Mathiassen, T. (1936). The Eskimo archaeology of Julianehaab District.Meddelelser on Grønland 118(1).

  44. Mathiassen, T. (1958). The Sermermiut excavations, 1955.Meddelelser on Grønland 161 (3).

  45. McGovern, T. H. (1976). Preliminary report of animal remains from sites Ø71 in the former Norse Eastern Settlement. Manuscript on file at Universitets Zoologiske Museum, Copenhagen.

    Google Scholar 

  46. McGovern, T. H. (1978). Site catchment and maritime adaptation in Norse Greenland. Paper presented at the 77th annual American Anthropological Association Meeting, Los Angeles.

  47. McGovern, T. H. (1979a).Paleoeconomy of Norse Greenland: Adaptation and Extinction in a Tightly Bounded Ecosystem. PhD dissertation, Columbia Univ., New York.

    Google Scholar 

  48. McGovern, T. H. (1979b). Thule-Norse interaction in Southwest Greenland: A speculative model. In McCartney, A. P. (ed.),Thule Inuit Culture: An Anthropological Retrospective, National Museum of Man, Ottawa.

    Google Scholar 

  49. McGovern, T. H. (1980). The economics of extinction in Norse Greenland. In Wigley, T. M. (ed.),Climate and History, Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambrige, in press.

    Google Scholar 

  50. McGovern, T. H., and Bigelow, G. F. (1977). Preliminary report of excavations at V48 Niaqussat, Godthaab Dist. Manuscript on file at Grønlands Landsmuseum, Godthaab.

  51. Meldgaard, J. (1977). Inuit-Nordbo Projektet.Nationalmuseets Arbejdsmark 1977.

  52. Morrison, I. (1973).The North Sea Earls. Gentry Books, London.

    Google Scholar 

  53. Nielsen, R. (1941). Evidence of Norse iron smelting in Greenland.Meddelelser on Grønland 89.

  54. Nørlund, P. (1924). Buried Norsemen at Herjolfsnes.Meddelelser on Grønland 67.

  55. Nørlund, P. (1930). Norse Ruins at Gardar.Meddelelser on Grønland 67.

  56. Nørlund, P. (1936).Viking Settlers in Greenland. Munksgaard, Copenhagen.

    Google Scholar 

  57. Parry, M. L. (1979).Climate, Agriculture, and Settlement. London.

  58. Paterson, W. S. B.,et al. (1977). An oxygen-isotope record from the Devon Island Icecap.Nature 266(7): 508–511.

    Google Scholar 

  59. Roussell, A. (1939). Sandnes and the neighboring farms.Meddelelser on Grønland 88(2).

  60. Roussell, A. (1941). Farms and churches of the medieval Norse settlement of Greenland.Meddelelser on Grønland 89 (1).

  61. Sabo, D., and Sabo, G. (1978). A possible Thule carving of a viking from Baffin Island.Canadian Journal of Anthropology 2: 33–43.

    Google Scholar 

  62. Saemundsson, H. (1939).The Zoology of Iceland. Copenhagen.

  63. Schledermann, P. (1978). Preliminary results of archoeological investigations in the Bache Peninsula, Baffin Island.Arctic (31)4: 459–474.

    Google Scholar 

  64. Simonsen, P. (1967). Relations between the Lapps and Scandinavians in early times.Institutet for Sammealignende Kulturforskinning 26, Oslo.

    Google Scholar 

  65. Thorlaksson, H. (1978). Comments on ports of trade in early medieval Europe.Norwegian Archaeological Review 11(2): 112–114.

    Google Scholar 

  66. Rink, H. (1875).Tales and Traditions of the Eskimo. Hurst, London.

    Google Scholar 

  67. Vebaek, C. L. (1943). Inland farms in the Norse East Settlement.Meddelelser on Grønland 90(1).

  68. Vebaek, C. L. (1952). Vatnahverfi.Nat. Mus. Arbds Mark.: 101–114.

  69. Vebaek, C. L. (1958). Topographical and archaeological investigations in the medieval Norse settlements in Greenland. Third Viking Congress, Reykjavik.

  70. Vebaek, C. L. (1962). The climate of Greenland in the 11th and 16th centuries. Paper presented at the Conference on the Climate of the 11th and 16th Centuries, Aspen, Colorado.

  71. Vebaek, C. L. (1965). An 11th century farmhouse in the Norse colonies in Greenland. Fourth Viking Congress, York.

  72. Vebaek, C. L. (1968). The church topography of the medieval Norse Eastern Settlement in Greenland. Fifth Viking Congress, Torshavn.

  73. Vibe, C. (1967). Arctic animals in relation to climatic fluctuations.Meddelelser on Grønland 170(5).

  74. Vibe, C. (1978). Cyclic fluctuations in the tide related to season as a key to some important short term and long term fluctuations in climate and ecology in the North Atlantic and Arctic regions. In Frydendahl, K. (ed.),Proceedings of the Nordic Symposium on Climatic Change and Related Problems, Copenhagen.

  75. Williamson, K. (1948).The Atlantic Islands. Collins, London.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

McGovern, T.H. Cows, harp seals, and churchbells: Adaptation and extinction in Norse Greenland. Hum Ecol 8, 245–275 (1980). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01561026

Download citation

Key words

  • Greenland
  • Norse
  • climate
  • Little Ice Age