The End of Western Settlement
The smaller Western Settlement was the first one to vanish completely, but the reason for its final downfall remains unclear. A clerical steward who visited the settlement around 1350 wrote that the Inuit had taken over the entire Western settlement, but frustratingly did not elaborate on this.
Some scholars suggest that the increasingly cold conditions led to starvation in the smaller and more isolated settlement, while others think it more likely that the residents were overrun by an attack from the Inuit.
The End of Eastern Settlement
This is the chapter of the Viking era that is maybe the most mysterious – what finally caused the end of the larger Eastern Settlement in South Greenland?
The last written accounts of Eastern Settlement are from the year 1408, and seemed to tell of ‘business as usual’ in the settlement. The last ship returned from Greenland to Norway in 1410 and after this the climate in the North Atlantic got colder and stormier, so ship traffic finally ceased.
The last bishop died around 1378, and no new bishop arrived to replace him. But priests had to be ordained by a bishop, and without an ordained priest people couldn’t be baptised, married, or receive a Christian burial. After the last ordained priest died, it is easy to imagine that society at Eastern settlement began to struggle.
Many reports in the past have blamed the supposed conservative, over-exploitative nature of the Norse Greenlanders for the society’s decline, suggesting that the Norsemen clung stubbornly to the European way of life and refused to change. Today, however, most scholars see the Norsemen as highly adaptive and resourceful, citing the many changes they embraced in farming and hunting practices.
However, assuming that the Norsemen were well-adapted only makes their disappearance even more complex and mysterious. It is likely that the 5 long-term concerns mentioned above contributed to some extent to making life difficult for the Vikings in Greenland, but that the decreasing demand for walrus ivory from Europe was perhaps the largest obstacle for them.
Towards the end, Norse Greenlanders were probably faced with an impossible choice, as it became clear that their mission in Greenland was almost doomed – demand for walrus ivory was declining, diminishing their trading power and leaving them more vulnerable to starvation or attack from the Inuit.
Perhaps the only option was to pack up and sail back to Europe. But fleeing to Europe was not really a ‘return’ for the Norse – by this point they had been in Greenland for at least 400 years. Having grown up as seal and walrus hunters, there is no reason that Norse Greenlanders would have felt that Europe was a place for them. It would have been a huge step for them to leave behind their homeland and the society which they had built up from nothing.
A Success Story
Although much focus is placed on their demise, the Norsemen of Greenland are in many ways a success story. They managed to build a society that, for more than 400 years, was completely self-sufficient in terms of food production – nowadays, much of Greenland relies heavily on food imports from Denmark.
However, the hierarchical structure of the society created a conflict between the short-term interests of those in power, and the long-term interests of the society as a whole. Prioritising luxury exports for Europe used resources that would have been better spent on farming, if the main objective had been survival. However, if the main objective was indeed securing these Arctic luxuries, we can label Norse Greenland society a huge success.
See it for Yourself
The Vikings’ success story lives on in South Greenland today, as the farming culture they introduced is a central part of the cultural landscape, and has earned the area status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Dotted around the settlements of South Greenland there are several sheep farms that also serve as guest houses where you can really immerse yourself in the local farming culture.
Gardar / Igaliku
In 1783, Norwegian Anders Olsen and his Greenlandic wife Tuperna resettled Igaliku, the old farm of Gardar. Today, their descendants still farm the fields of the Norse Greenlanders, taking influence from the Norsemen farmers and Greenlandic cultural traditions alike.
Brattahlid / Qassiarsuk
Brattahlid, the farm of Erik the Red himself, is perhaps one of the best preserved of the old Norsemen settlements. The Qassiarsuk area is also home to a reconstruction of a Viking longhouse and Tjodhilde’s Church which was the first Christian church built on the North American continent.
Hvalsey / Qaqortukulooq
Hvalsey Church is also well preserved and is maybe the most visited of the Norsemen ruins, being situated close to the largest town in South Greenland, Qaqortoq. Around the church lie the remains of the residential halls, barns, storehouses, boathouses and pastures that sustained Norse Greenland society.
Find more information about your trip in the footsteps of South Greenland’s Vikings here.
Thanks to Christian Koch Madsen at the Greenland National Museum & Archives for his invaluable input to this article.
To read more about the rise and fall of Greenland’s Norse era, check out the following sources: