Greenland: What Happened to the Greenland Norse?

Greenland landscape with houses

Located west of Iceland, Greenland is a vast ice-capped continent 1700 miles long and 700 miles wide, fringed by a thin strip of mountainous terrain. Most of this land is frigid arctic tundra, but around A.D.985, Erik the Red discovered two areas of southwest Greenland which were suitable for farming, with grasslands and small stands of alder and birch. He named this land Greenland "so that people would be encouraged to go there," and indeed many followed him to this new land. The colonies flourished for three hundred years. Farms proliferated; animal and human populations grew quickly. Its peak population reached nearly 5000 Norse, who lived in two colonies in southwestern Greenland, called the Eastern and Western Settlements. Then, environmental, economic, and social conditions began to worsen until, only a few decades before Columbus arrived in America, they disappeared.

The disappearance of the Norse colonies in Greenland is the outstanding unsolved mystery of the Viking's North Atlantic saga. After more than two hundred and fifty years of study by historians, archeologists, and natural scientists, there are clues but no firm answers. What happened to the Greenland Norse? A range of factors-cooling climate, declining trade relations, over-grazing of soil, cultural taboos against eating certain foods, competition with Inuit, emigration, taxation by the crown and church-all contributed to the decline. No single event seems to have spelled the end, but rather the complex web in which the Greenlanders were caught.

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