A 13th century Norwegian royal treatise called The King's Mirror lauds Greenland's suitability for farming: The sun has "sufficient strength, where the ground is free from ice, to warm the soil so that the earth yields good and fragrant grass.
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Environmental data show that Greenland's climate worsened during the Norse colonization. In response, the Norse turned from their struggling farms to the sea for food before finally abandoning their settlements. Winter temperatures dropped below the long-term average by more than a degree halfway through the 5-century occupation, according to oxygen isotope data in cores taken from the Greenland Ice Sheet. Measurements of salt particles in ice cores suggest that storminess rose toward the end of the occupation, perhaps making voyages to hunt and trade walrus ivory even more dangerous.
As conditions for farming worsened, the Norse shifted to a more marine diet, as shown by carbon isotopes in bones found in archaeological sites in the Eastern and Western settlements. The Norse "damaged their environment" as they had done in Iceland, Diamond asserted, based on analyses of dust that suggested erosion caused by felling trees, agriculture, and turf cutting.
While foolishly building churches with costly bronze bells, Diamond said, Greenland's Norse "refused to learn" Arctic hunting techniques from the Inuit, who hunted seals and fish year-round. He noted grisly evidence of calamity at a few sites in the Western Settlement: bones of pet dogs with cut marks on them, suggesting hunger; and the remains of insects that feast on corpses, suggesting too few survivors to bury their loved ones. This narrative held sway for years. Yet McGovern and others had found hints back in the s that the Norse didn't entirely ignore Greenland's unique ecology.
He believed, though, that only the poorer settlers ate seal meat. Written sources reported that the Norse routinely rowed up to kilometers to walrus migratory grounds near Disko Bay in western Greenland.
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They returned with countless walrus snouts, whose ivory tusks they removed and prepared for trade with Europe. The Norse paid tithe to the Norwegian king and to the Catholic Church in ivory, and traded it with European merchants for supplies like iron, boat parts, and wood. But McGovern dismissed the walrus hunt as "a curious adjunct," he recalls, echoing the scholarly consensus that farming was central. Two graduate students in rubber overalls hose yearold soil off unidentified excavated objects near a midden downhill from a collapsed house.
A brown button the size of a nickel emerges on the metal sieve. But the function of the button matters a lot less than what it's made of: walrus tooth. Several walrus face bones have also turned up at the farm, suggesting that the inhabitants hunted in the communal Disko Bay expedition, says excavation leader Konrad Smiarowski of the City University of New York in New York City. These finds and others point to ivory—a product of Greenland's environment—as a linchpin of the Norse economy. The find suggests that the early Icelandic Norse were "experienced in handling walrus ivory," NABO members wrote in a paper; it follows that the Greenlanders were, too.
Although historians long assumed that the Norse settled Iceland and Greenland in search of new farmland, some researchers have recently suggested that the hunt for ivory instead drove the settlement of both islands. Walrus in Iceland were steadily extirpated after the Norse arrived there, likely hunted out by the settlers.
The high value that medieval Europe placed on walrus ivory would have provided plenty of incentive to pursue it in Greenland. Craftsmen used ivory in luxury ornaments and apparel, and in objects like the famous Lewis chess set, discovered in Scotland in In , an kilogram parcel of Greenland tusks was worth a small fortune—the equivalent of roughly cows or 60 tons of dried fish, according to tithing records analyzed in by University of Oslo archaeologist Christian Keller.
They exploited it not just for ivory, but also for food, Smiarowski says as he huddles in a dimly lit side room here to review recent finds. One bag contains bones collected from a layer dating to the s. A long, thin, cow bone had been split open, probably to eat the marrow.
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But most of the bones are marine: scraps of whale bone, jaw and skull fragments of harp seals, a bit of inner ear of a hooded seal. These two species of seal migrate north along Greenland shores in the spring, and Smiarowski thinks the Norse likely caught them with boats and nets or clubs. In , NABO researchers clinched the case that the Greenlanders ate a marine diet by analyzing human bones in Norse graveyards.
Animals that live in the sea have ratios of carbon and nitrogen isotopes that differ from those found in terrestrial animals, and this isotopic signature is passed on to the people who eat them. The Norse bones show that as the settlement developed from the 11th to the 15th century, their diet contained ever more marine protein. Far from clinging to livestock as temperatures fell, the Norse instead managed a successful subsistence system with "flexibility and capacity to adapt," wrote the author of the paper, Jette Arneborg from the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.
Nor were the Norse incompetent farmers, as Diamond and others have suggested. Soil geographer Ian Simpson of the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom says previous studies overestimated the Norse contribution to erosion in Greenland. New pollen and soil data show that the Norse allowed fields and what little forest existed to recover after tilling and turf cutting. And in analyses of soil and lake sediment cores, researchers have found chemical and paleoecological clues indicating that Norse farmers skillfully maintained pastures with manure fertilizer and irrigation ditches.
Disequilibrium, Adaptation, and the Norse Settlement of Greenland
Such findings, along with the ivory evidence, have transformed ideas about Norse society, says McGovern, whose beard is now white. It's exciting to get a chance to revise your old thinking before a younger colleague can," he says. Now, we consider them hunters who farmed. In the 10th and 11th centuries, the Norse crossed the stormy Atlantic to Greenland in vessels like this 9th century Viking ship found in Norway.
Winters there can be dangerous with temperatures that plunge to awesome depths during the long, lonely hours of Arctic darkness. Powerful blizzards shriek across the land for days at a time, causing all animal life to seek shelter from the cutting blast, essentially putting a temporary end to normal activities of life, such as travelling and eating. It is an unforgiving land that does not easily suffer fools. Over years ago, in June , Captain Otto Sverdrup and 15 crewmen put out to sea aboard the schooner Fram from the Norwegian city today known as Oslo.
When they returned to Norway four years later, they came back with a record of geographic and scientific discovery, the richness of which is unparalleled in the annals of Arctic exploration. The first section of this book is the story of those four heroic years spent in the High Arctic and their impact on Canadas subsequent efforts to ensure Canadian sovereignty in the area of the Norwegian discoveries. Low, Joseph E. Bernier, Vilhjalmur Stefansson and Henry Larsen.
Kenney persuasively nominates a shortlist of new national heroes for a country badly in need of them. No reviews were found. Please log in to write a review if you've read this book. Login Join. Time to read. Store Ships of Wood and Men of Iron. Retail Price:. BookShout Price:.