The Lost Vikings of Greenland

Climate change has been a constant throughout human history. Mankind remains particularly vulnerable to the whims of nature, but perhaps no one more so than the Vikings who settled Greenland.

A colorful character from the Icelandic Sagas, Erik the Red is credited with discovering Greenland. Erik had been exiled from Iceland for 3 years for killing Eyiolf the Foul around the year 982. During his exile Erik sailed west and discovered the world’s largest island, Greenland.

Erik sailed around the southern tip of Greenland and up the western side finding land that he thought would be suitable for farming. For the next 3 years Erik explored this new land, and when his exile was over returned to Iceland to recruit new settlers.

An early master of “public relations”, Erik chose to call the new land, Greenland. The irony, of course, is that the climate of Greenland is significantly colder than Iceland. The name worked, though, and in 985 Erik returned to Greenland with a large group of colonists hungry for land. Out of 25 ships that left for Greenland eleven were lost at sea.

The Icelandic colonists established two colonies on the southwest coast: the Eastern Settlement or Eystribyggð, in what is now Qaqortoq, and the Western Settlement, close to present-day Nuuk.

Little did these new settlers know that they had arrived during the Medieval Climatic Anomaly. During this unusual warm spell Greenland was at least as warm as today, if not warmer. This meant that the fjords were navigable during the summer and the colonists were able to subsist on the food from their small farms.

During this time, the colonies grew and established churches. Although most of the settlers had moved with the intention of owning successful farms, it soon became obvious that the real riches of Greenland lay in the large number of walrus who visit the island. The Greenlanders were able to harvest the tusks from the walrus and sell them to European customers.

This bountiful harvest created considerable wealth among the Greenlanders, Walrus ivory was extremely valuable in medieval Europe and was used in very expensive apparel and objects like the famous Lewis chess set. This wealth was useful because wood and other necessary materials had to be imported from warmer locales at great expense.

Unfortunately for the settlers, the climate began to shift as Europe entered the Little Ice Age. After 1250, a cooling climate would have inflicted severe hardship on a people reliant on the open ocean hunting of seal and walrus. The global average temperature fell about one degree during this time, but it may have been even more pronounced in Greenland. The water slowly became more and more ice choked.

Whatever the reasons, the end occurred in the early 1400s.  In 1408 Thorstein Olafsson, married Sigrid Björnsdottir at Hvalsey Fjord in Greenland. That is the last ceremony of which we have any written record.

Europeans didn’t return to Greenland until 1721, when missionary Hans Egede sailed from Norway to Greenland, in order to convert the Greenland settlers to Protestantism. At this point it had been 200 years since anyone had heard from these hearty settlers.  Egede found nothing but some grass covered ruins where once over 2000 colonists had lived.

Deeper Dive

The Lost Norse

Thorstein and Sigrid go East

Why Did Greenland’s Vikings Vanish?