This is why South Greenland is UNESCO world heritage
A tale of Viking and Inuit farming at the edge of Greenland’s ice cap
– A Norse and Inuit farming landscape
Over the past 1000 years, Inuit and Viking cultures have shaped the people and land of South Greenland. Five core areas in the region represent the most comprehensive and rich examples of Norse and Greenlandic farming culture. This unique heritage is now officially recognised and inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List, and it is all within reach from Narsarsuaq and Qaqortoq.
Five core areas in the region represent the most comprehensive and rich examples of Norse and Greenlandic farming culture.
The farming history in South Greenland began when a small fleet of settlers, led by Erik the Red, arrived to the region just before 1000 AD. According to tales, Erik the Red was the first to call the island “Greenland”. This was the last westward migration of the Vikings and the first time Europeans settled on the North American continent. They brought with them Christianity, farming and exceptional mariner skills that allowed them to journey all the way to the hunting grounds in the Disko Bay area, and as far as Labrador and Newfoundland.
The Nordic settlers established two settlements in Greenland, of which the so-called “Eastern Settlement” in South Greenland was the largest. They built farms in the deep fjords, where a warmer and drier micro-climate made it possible to sustain farming and livestock. Anyone that pays a summer visit to the settlements today will realize that Erik the Red was not only spinning tales. Greenland can truly be a “green land”: grass and wildflower pastures cover the mountain sides around the farms, while birch and willow shrubs spread over more remote expanses. Erik himself was quick to claim one of the best places for himself: Brattahlid – the present day Qassiarsuk just across the fjord from Narsarsuaq.
The descendants of the Vikings built farms, cleared fields and established churches after the Scandinavian model, but they also adapted to their new homeland by fishing and hunting. Experts estimate a peak population of between 2-3,000 Norsemen in Greenland.
Did you know?
The vikings came from Northern Europe, so they are also called Norsemen. They are the keepers of the oDid you know? ld Nordic culture.
How you can experience historic South Greenland today
Try homestay with farmers in South Greenland, including the descendants of Otto Frederiksen, in Qassiarsuk
Visit the Igaliku area and experience the small settlement life
Take a tour to the Hvalsey area and Upernaviarsuk
Try the famous hot springs – probably a very popular past time with the Vikings and Inuit!
A Mysterious End
The Norse settlements in Greenland thrived for hundreds of years, but towards the end of the 14th century, they were facing difficult odds. A volatile and cool climatic period had begun, which made farming difficult and seafaring in the ice-filled waters dangerous. This combined with changing European markets made it difficult to attract foreign merchants. Political disruptions and economic recession in Scandinavia added to the isolation of the Norsemen in Greenland and by AD 1450, their colonies lay abandoned. The final fate of the last Norse Greenlanders still remains a mystery.The Norse settlements in Greenland thrived for hundreds of years, but towards the end of the 14th century, they were facing difficult odds. A volatile and cool climatic period had begun, which made farming difficult and seafaring in the ice-filled waters dangerous. This combined with changing European markets made it difficult to attract foreign merchants. Political disruptions and economic recession in Scandinavia added to the isolation of the Norsemen in Greenland and by AD 1450, their colonies lay abandoned. The final fate of the last Norse Greenlanders still remains a mystery.
A New Chapter of Arctic Farming
However, the story of the Norse Greenlanders had an unsuspected spin to the tale. In 1783, Norwegian Anders Olsen and his Greenlandic wife Tuperna resettled Igaliku, the old farm of Gardar of the Vikings, to renew farming. For the next 130 years, their descendants farmed the fields of the Norse Greenlanders, kept similar livestock and even used the stones of the Norse ruins to build houses and new farm buildings, creating an architecture unique in Greenland, which still can be seen in Igaliku.
Yet, the new farming culture in South Greenland was not just a repetition. The descendants of Anders and Tuperna successfully mixed Greenlandic cultural traditions, knowledge of the nature and language with Scandinavian farming culture and technology.
They created a unique local culture that embraced both farming and hunting. In 1924, Qassiarsuk, the old Brattahlid, was re-founded by pioneer Otto Frederiksen as a sheep farming community. His descendants and other families soon established other farms in the area, thus repopulating and reusing the places and fields first cleared by the old Vikings.
Since the first settlers, farming in Greenland has been challenging. In order to survive and thrive, the Vikings of old had and the present-day farmers have to be innovative, open for new ideas, experimenting and adaptive – which is very much an integral part of the unique South Greenland culture.
UNESCO World Heritage in Kujataa
In recognition of these exceptional, intertwined stories of farming and hunting in the Arctic, Norse and Greenlandic core farming areas were in 2017 inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List under the title: Kujataa Greenland: A Norse and Inuit farming landscape on the Edge of the Ice Cap. The World Heritage Area comprises five areas that represent the most comprehensive and rich examples of both Norse and Greenlandic farming histories.
The Qassiarsuk area contains ruins of large cattle-based Norse farms and their numerous satellite sites including, not least, Erik the Red’s Brattahlid. It was also here that Otto Frederiksen in 1924 established the first sheep farm after Igaliku, founding today’s settlement of Qassiarsuk.
In the Igaliku area there are remains of Garðar, the Norse bishop’s farm – the largest in all of Greenland – the Cathedral, and surrounding tenant farms. Igaliku is also the setting of Anders Olsen’s farm and the unique architecture of the Igaliku stone houses.
Sissarluttoq, possibly Norse Dalr, boasts the best preserved Norse farm in all of Greenland with a multitude of buildings set in a pristine valley setting.
The Tasikuluulik, Norse Vatnahverfi, area displays a beautiful example of Norse and Greenlandic farms that sit like pearls on a string in a lake-rich valley, as well as an glacial desert area, where the forces of the Ice Cap are dramatically demonstrated.
The Qaqortukulooq, Norse Hvalsey, area holds the famous medieval church ruin – the largest and best preserved in all of Greenland – about which the last written records of the Norse recount a wedding in 1408. In the area, there is also the sheep farming station of Upernaviarsuk, from where Greenlandic farming spread and where new generations of sheep farmers are trained today. Anders Olsen and Tuperna also had a brief stay at Upernaviarsuk, and the remains of their both European and Inuit houses can be seen close by.
The cultural landscapes of South Greenland are exceptional, undisturbed Norse ruins lying side by side with thriving Greenlandic farms in a setting shaped jointly by violent Arctic forces, grazing livestock, and the pioneer spirit and labor of generations of Arctic farmer-hunters.
Video: Unesco Heritage Sites in Greenland
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Christian Koch Madsen is an archaeologist and curator at Greenland National Museum & Archives and postdoctoral researcher at the National Museum of Denmark. The article is edited by: Anders La Cour Vahl, Visit Greenland.
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