Article | Canadian High Arctic and Greenland

The Greenland Norse: Why Did They Disappear?

Why were the Norse so keen to find new lands? Why did their Greenland settlements eventually fail? And, when we picture the Greenland Norse, why is an image of a farmer perhaps more apropos than one of a pillaging Viking?
Greenland iceberg waterfalls mountains

© Dennis Minty

I have travelled to the Arctic many times, and the history still fascinates me. Even after all my travels, a few questions I have about Norse explorers still puzzle me.

1. Why were they so keen to find new northern land, especially in the face of the intimidating North Atlantic?

And, 2. Why did their settlements in Greenland eventually fail, when they succeeded in so many other places?

Although I may not be an archaeologist, that doesn’t stop me from wanting to dig deeper into the matter. So lately I’ve been reading Jared Diamond’s “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” and recalling back to lessons from my fellow Adventure Canada staff members onboard the Iceland to Greenland: In the Wake of the Vikings expedition.

Norse re enactor walking

© Dennis Minty

Although we picture the Norse of the Middle Ages as muscular, aggressive raiders (think: Viking archetypes), in fact a more important part of their identity was that they were, first and foremost, farmers, living in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Norwegian farms primarily produced livestock in the following order of importance: pigs for meat; cattle for dairy products; horses for working; sheep for milk, meat, and wool; and goats for milk and meat. So, when the Norse travelled to new lands, these are the animals that would have gone with them. The archaeological evidence from both Iceland and Greenland bears this out.

By about 700 AD, farmland was becoming scarce, especially in western Norway, given that only about 3% of the land is arable. Local chiefdoms competed for the limited land creating winners and losers. As you might expect, the losers were highly motivated to find new land somewhere else.

Sheep in front of Greenland waterfall

© Dennis Minty

They certainly had the means to do so. Their sleek ships, which could be either rowed or sailed, had a shallow draft perfect for exploring coastlines, landing on beaches, and travelling deep in country following the larger rivers. Although the ships were fast, maneuverable, and seaworthy, their ride still left a lot to be desired since their decks provided no cover from the North Atlantic furies.

Model Viking ship

© Dennis Minty

Steering came from a purpose-built rudder on the right side of the vessel known as the “steorbord” in Old English, or “steerboard” (hence our modern-day term “starboard” meaning a ship’s right side). Because the steerboard prevented docking on the right, the left side was used (hence “port” side). Of course, this applied to other types of ships, not just those of the Norse.

Viking ship with steerboard

© Dennis Minty

What were the sails made from? This is a puzzle because, although ruins of Viking ships have been found, the organic material used for the sails had rotted away. Then in 1989, some 600-year old sailcloth was found in the loft of a Norwegian church. It was a densely woven wool, impregnated with a resinous material. The wool was produced on looms in narrow swaths that were then sewn together. So, no sheep—no Vikings!

Traditional loom

© Dennis Minty

Back to winners and losers: Erik the Red (Erik Thorvaldsson), son of Thorvald Ásvaldsson, had a shaky start after his father was banished from Norway for killing some folks. They sailed to Iceland where Norse settlement began about 100 years earlier. Trouble stayed with Erik, who in turn murdered a few more people, and was banished from Iceland around 980. That's when he went further west to find what he named Greenland, thinking, the story goes, that with an appealing name like that, he would attract more settlers. So Erik was a bit of a salesman, but he was not wrong about the green. The fjords and valleys of southern Greenland are fertile, thanks to the tail-end of the warm Gulf Stream. But if you follow the fjords inland far enough, you bump into the decidedly un-green icecap.

Brattahlid historical settlement

© Dennis Minty

Erik founded the first of two Greenland settlements, the Eastern Settlement, in what is now the community of Qassiarsuk. His estate was called Brattahlíd. The Western Settlement was in the area of Greenland’s modern-day capital city, Nuuk.

Inside a recreated Viking longhouse

© Dennis Minty

The Norse farmed, traded with European countries, built longhouses and robust churches, and paid tithes to the Catholic Church. There’s also evidence that they hunted seals and caribou, though not to the extent that Inuit did. At its peak, the population reached around 5,000 people who co-existed alongside Inuit, though not without tension and even violence. Both the Eastern and Western Settlements lasted for about 450 years, so clearly they were successful for a long time. The question is: what happened that made the Norse eventually abandon these fertile grounds?

Sheep in front of iceberg

© Dennis Minty

It’s tough to pillage and plunder when you have to look after the cows.

One factor was that the climate changed. The coasts of Greenland were warmer until around 1400, when temperatures cooled in an event known as “The Little Ice Age”. The gradual cooling would not have necessarily killed off the Norse. After all, Inuit continued to thrive. But it seems the Norse were unable to adapt their already marginal farms to cooler conditions. And that was only part of it.

Cattle in Greenland

© Dennis Minty

The Norse liked their cattle, which need a lot of high-quality feed. During the long, dark winters, they were unable to graze on pasture, lived in sheltering barns, and needed tonnes of hay, far more than was needed at more temperate climes. This meant that a large proportion of the short summer had to be allocated to hay production. It’s tough to pillage and plunder when you have to look after the cows. In Norway, they could find the balance, but not in Greenland. Over time the number of cows diminished, as did the number of pigs, while the number of sheep and goats increased since both are less demanding to raise.

A wood pile in front of Viking longhouses

© Dennis Minty

Deforestation was another contributor to the failure of the Greenland Norse. Unlike Inuit who did not rely heavily on wood, the Greenland Norse needed lots of it to build their longhouses (made from both sod and wood), ships, and farm tools, and to heat their homes during exceptionally long winters. Since Greenland had no large trees, local groves of willow and birch were used for firewood, but larger wood had to be salvaged from driftwood or imported from Norway and perhaps even from Labrador (that is, after they had discovered “Markland” around 1000 CE).

Water reflection containing bog iron

© Dennis Minty

Aside from wood, the Greenland Norse used a lot of iron for farm implements, household items, ship building, and weapons, but they did not use large-scale industrialized sites to produce it. Instead, each farm produced it to meet their own needs using bog iron (iron oxide dissolved in bog water). This production process required large amounts of charcoal to make their fires hot enough, which in turn put yet another demand on their already meagre wood supply. Deforestation was inevitable.

Bellows and fire of a blacksmith

© Dennis Minty

Although the Greenland Norse had unique and desirable products to trade, like the skins of walrus, caribou, and polar bear, as well as treasured walrus ivory, they were far from their European trading partners. The dangerous one-way trip between Greenland and Norway probably took a week or more. Perhaps two trading ships per season would arrive in south Greenland, and their capacity would have been relatively small. Such was the nature of Norse ships. Therefore, products that their Eurocentric culture required, like large amounts of iron and lumber, were prioritized above food products, for example, which took up too much space and could not compete with these other essentials.

Inside a recreated Viking longhouse 2

© Dennis Minty

Therefore, the settlers were forced to be as self-sufficient as possible with their food supply, which was predominately sourced from their farms rather than the land and sea—a marked contrast with how the local Inuit lived. While the Norse and Inuit co-existed in the same area, the Norse failed to learn from them, like what and how to hunt and fish. For example, the archaeological evidence shows that fish bones are almost entirely absent from the food middens of the Norse farms. Given the abundance of fish like char in the area, this seems insane.

The Greenland Norse were trying to import their Norwegian lifestyle and economy into a place that could not support it. Biological survival was possible, as was clearly proven by the longstanding Inuit communities, but the Norse’s cultural and social survival eventually proved to be unsustainable.

Carved archway of a Viking longhouse door

© Dennis Minty

So, the Norse ventured to places like Greenland because they were motivated to find new farmlands and they had the capability and spirit to do so. But unlike other remote colonies like Iceland, the Faroes, Orkney, and Shetland, their Greenland colony eventually failed. Taken together: climate change, an over-reliance on agriculture, deforestation, difficult trading, failure to use local food resources, and resistance to learn from Inuit created a suite of troubles that eventually made their lives unsustainable in this remote northern place. When you think of it that way, it seems a wonder that the Norse in Greenland lasted for 450 years!

Norse re enactor sitting

© Dennis Minty

The Norse in Newfoundland and Labrador: now, that’s a whole other story.

About the Author

Dennis Minty

Dennis Minty

Photographer, Wildlife Biologist

Dennis has been working with Adventure Canada since 2002. Dennis’s path—from his small island roots in Twillingate, Newfoundland to his current career as a photographer and eco-tour leader—has taken him through more than three decades of local and international work.

For him, nature and photography are inseparable. Dennis immerses himself in nature through photography and seeks to inspire in the viewer a deeper connection with the natural world. Dennis has authored nine books on subjects such as environmental science, his home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and his photography.

To see more of Dennis' work, visit his website.