Greenland and the Norse Colonies

For those that don’t post at qajaqusa:

There is a new book out that was reviewed in the New Yorker last week. I haven’t read the book, but read the review. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond

The review covers in part how the author feels the Norse colonies in Greenland failed to survive based on cultural biases about diet, agricultural practices, and the use of their resources. The author suggests that the Norse failed to survive in Greenland because they didn’t fish and they tried to continue their Norse pastoral habits of clearing land for grazing, and farming. These practices according to the author failed because of Greenland’s harsh climate, and the Norse inability to adapt in the way the Inuit greenlanders already had. The primary failure as the author noted was their inability to hunt ringed seal, and also to fish. I found this really interesting for two reasons. One is my interest in native kayaking and hunting, but also as a student of world literature, because in the Icelandic Sagas, no where does it mention any cultural resistance to fishing. In fact several characters in the saga are known to choose one homestead site over another because of the fishing prospects, but then again the Norse in the sagas were more likely to feud over grazing land than fishing prospects. Because the Norse were/are a sea faring people to this day, they knew the value of fish in their diet, from what I can see, but I don’t know everything. There is alot of archealogical evidence stating that the Norse settlers in Greenland did not eat fish. This evidence is mainly from refuse of digs done in Greenland of Norse settlements. Very little fish bones were found. Either way the Inuit in Greenland were and continue to be living evidence of the human species ability to ingeniously adapt to extreme environments. And the dependence of the Inuit upon seal hunting is really interesting when thinking about the success of arctic kayaking.

The review and the book also brings up the difference between cultural survival and physical survival. It is possible to have one kind of survival without the other.

I’m not sure I agree with all the conclusions about the Norse, but I think I am going to buy the book and read it anyway.

PBS documentary
Saw a PBS program that dealt with this exact same subject. The film makers hypothesized that the Norse starved next to an ocean filled with marine mammals because of their sense of cultural superiority. They would not follow the example of a culture they looked down on.

I like Diamond’s work a lot

– Last Updated: Jan-19-05 1:21 PM EST –

"Guns, Germs, and Steel" is an amazing work, not least due to the wide breadth of disciplines he had to cover in making his point.

It deals with a similar survival/adaptation theme to what you describe above. Diamond asks why the white Europeans came to dominate such a large part of the world, and the answer is both illuminating and disturbing.

No kayaking in "Guns, Germs, and Steel", but the environmental and cultural issues he considers hit awfully close to home as things become more and more crowded.

see I don’t see that from what I’ve read
about viking culture.

Like I said in the Sagas, which is fiction, but based off of oral history too the norse ate whales and fish, so where are people getting these presumptions about the europeans who went to Greenland. I’m not saying that it isn’t true, and certainly the archealogical evidence is leaning this way as there doesn’t appear to be much left in the way of evicence showing that the Norse were fishing.

What culture doesn’t think itself superior?

I’m with you
The rigid culture hypothesis seems a bit weak to me as well. Hunger will break down most conventions pretty quickly.

I suspect a mix of factors were at play. Climate being a key one. That era was a rather warm one in that area. They were able to grow crops and maintain livestock in areas the you could not dream of it now. They probably caught the tail end of that warm period, and the colder clime returned during their stay. Being capable of transoceanic travel, and having better options (for their preferred lifestyle) they moved on.

I think the Vikings drinking habbits
did them in. Drunk most of the time, who cares about fishing! Mead (naturaly fermented honey) was revered as a symbol of life in Valhalla. And just the smell of beer brewing (150 gallons at a time) would draw a large crowd. Thick and dark with as much as 13% pure alchol it was much stronger than todaysbeer. Here is an interesting link to Norse and Viking drinking customs.

greenland norse
They did not have superior weapons to the inuit,

a milder climate as suggested means more contact

with native people…They were small in number.

Could be a combination of a lot of factors,but

I would assume they fished.

the mead I have seen and drunk
has been pale yellow or white in color. Have you ever had “dark” mead. Unless you are adding malt or some other ingredient it seems unlikely you would be able to get a darker color. Besides all the references to mead I have ever seen refer to it as golden in color.

I dd some more searching in the sagas
that are online by keyword and fishing is mentioned quite a bit. But who knows maybe there was a cultural shift, after christianity to more herd animals and less fishing, which considering the context a christian who is not a fisherman sounds sort of funny but OK.

Don’t discount
the Icelandic Sagas as being purely fictional. Great detail was taken to record geneology which is traceable and accurate in certain instances.

Some of the sagas are based on true characters but were wriiten well after the individuals died and some fiction had been added to embellish the tales.

They represent, in my opinion, the finest literature that was produced in the world during that era.

I’d have to check again, but I don’t recall any dietary restrictions relative to fish; especially in Erik’s Saga which is somewhat Greenland related.

I also think “Guns, Germs and Steel” was interesting but contained many unsupported hypotheses made with circumstantial evidence.

trees and icelandic sagas
There was also a pbs special about vikings that claimed the Norse deforested Iceland. Alot of people claimed that iceland never had any trees, but a scholar of the Sagas pointed out that in several sagas it is mentioned that folks were able to find tall trees and timber for masts, homes, and all sorts of things, but none now remain. So some anthropological botanist found some masts of icelandic built ships sunk in a harbor off the coast of denmark that have characteristics of trees grown in iceland, thus verifying that the sagas were true and that the island did have trees at one time. So maybe the sagas are right about the norse and fishing too?..

Symposium Anecdote unrelated:

I actually got into a debate with Nigel Foster at the WMCKA symposium about this. He had been to Iceland and alot of other islands in the area and felt that none of them ever had many trees. I pointed out the sagas, but Nigel didn’t buy it.

Author just looking at limited causes?
I think you would have to look at why the Norwegians and Danes were going out and exploring and attacking and trading at that period of time. There had been a huge push to leave Europe because of bad times and politics, many of the Vikings were banished or disenfranchised, displaced. The far western colonies did not get supported because they required a huge investment in resources and little was gained. Much more rewarding to raid or trade with mainland europe or Britain. The political structures in Denmark, Norway and the Islands was changing at the same time. There is also the possibility of disease, climate changes, and simply being overwhelmed by the native populations etc. In science its very dangerous to make two or three startling observations and base a simple theory to explain a very complicated phenomenon, iteresting idea though. When I lived in Norway I had several friends on the west coast of Norway who go out to the Lofoten Islands every year and catch and dry fish. They certainly believed there ancestors had been doing it pretty much the same way for centuries, hard to believe fishing would not be something the settlers in the West would not have known about.

I read Guns, Germs and Steel and enjoyed it. I am also a big fan of Farley Mowat and read Westviking which seems to deal with the same subject as Collapse. In it Mowat theorizes that the Vikings were raiders, not settlers, farmers or fisherman. It would seem that raiders would have very slim pickings in Greenland and could easily starve to death.

By the way, Mowat’s theory in Westviking on boat houses could be easily applied to Pukaskwa Pits and explain their mystery.

really what’s the theory on

– Last Updated: Jan-20-05 12:52 PM EST –

viking boat houses and pukaskwa pits? or is it the same thing as the collapse of the greenland settlement? raiders and not settlers.

Mowats theory is probably wrong in terms of Greenland settlement and lots of other "viking" settlements. The iceland and greenland settlements were mainly populated with displaced people from Norway and Sweden during the rise of nationalized central monarchies, like King Harold of Norway. These people most likely had nothing to do with raiding on towns and monastaries, but were just rural settlers.

5 point framework?
I think Mr. Diamond came up with a framework that he used to look at various societies. He was trying to understand why some collapsed and some did not even though they faced difficult circumstances.

His basic framework started by looking at 5 points.

  1. environmental damage
  2. climate change
  3. hostile neighbors
  4. friendly trade partners
  5. the society’s responses to its environmental problems

unfortunately, i can’t add a thing -but
this is one fine read !!

thanks, folks !!

The boathouses were Native not Norse. has a photo I took of a pukaskwa pit. If you took a large native boat and turned it upside down on top of a pukaskwa pit it would make a dwelling. Native people traveling along the Lake Superior shore by canoe could use the permanent rock foundation of a pukaskwa pit as a base for a canoe topped a dwelling. Almost like a pre-historic RV park.

As far as Viking raiders, it would be better to read Farley Mowat’s book, Westviking. It is an easy read and available at most libraries. Different people have different theories of just what the Vikings in Greenland and Newfoundland were up to. Mowat claims that L’anse Aux Meadows is a poor location for settlement, but a great location for raiding. He discusses the sea-lanes and winds along the Straits of Belle Isle and the agricultural potential (or lack of) of the area. I have never been to Newfoundland, but he is a resident. Anyway, I am not sure what can be proven, but it is an interesting theory especially for paddlers.

a good read indeed

I need to find the book
and read for myself. Thanks.

English Explorers
Sir John Franklin and friends never gave up their superior British Culture when they starved to death in Canada in the 1850s.