Jared Diamond Was Wrong—The Greenland Norse Adapted

Medieval chess pieces carved from Greenlandic walrus ivory (National Museums Scotland).

A new article in the journal Science refutes Jared Diamond’s claim that the 400-year-old Norse colony in Greenland failed because its habitants failed to adapt to the land.

Diamond’s thesis in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed was that the Norse made bad ecological decisions. As one reviewer summarizes,

The problem with the settlements . . . was that the Norse thought that Greenland really was green; they treated it as if it were the verdant farmland of southern Norway. They cleared the land to create meadows for their cows, and to grow hay to feed their livestock through the long winter. They chopped down the forests for fuel, and for the construction of wooden objects. To make houses warm enough for the winter, they built their homes out of six-foot-thick slabs of turf, which meant that a typical home consumed about ten acres of grassland.

Diamond, popularizing earlier research, said that the Christian Norse settlers clung to European lifeways of crops and cattle, while the arriving Inuit lived by hunting marine animals. New research shows that it was not that simple:

In 2012, 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 2012 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.

The disappearance of the colony is still a mystery. There is no evidence for war with the Inuit. Climate change — the Little Ice Age — definitely played a part, but politics and trade disruptions were another part. Some historians suggest that too many young adults, seeking better opportunities, returned to Iceland or Norway, leaving the colony to simply dwindle away.

Still, they had a long run, and leaving a mystery behind is paradoxically one way to be remembered.