The Greenland Norse: Maybe the Young Folks Just Moved Away

The disappearance of the Norse colonies in Greenland after more than 400 years of occupation is a compelling historical mystery.

Some people have suggested that their numbers slowly diminished until there were too few left to reproduce. Others (such as Jane Smiley in her well-researched novel The Greenlanders) lay some of the blame on slave traders from the port of Bristol, carrying people away. Others wonder if conflict with the Thule Eskimos contributed to the settlements’ collapse. The bubonic plague has also been suggested as a culprit.

This article from  Der Spiegel suggests something less dramatic: with the settlements’ economy faltering and fewer ships coming from Norway and Iceland, young adults saw little potential in staying around, based on a study of Norse graves.

It also appears that epidemics were not responsible for the decline of farm life on the island. The scientists did not discover more signs of disease in the Viking bones uncovered on the island than elsewhere. “We found normal skeletons, which looked just like comparable finds from Scandinavian countries,” says [Danish anthropologist Niels] Lynnerup.

The archaeologists rule out malnutrition, saying the Greenlanders were doing well enough as seal-hunters to feed themselves, contrary to earlier views that they refused to learn seal-hunting.

In the final phase, it was young people of child-bearing age in particular who saw no future for themselves on the island. The excavators found hardly any skeletons of young women on a cemetery from the late period.

“The situation was presumably similar to the way it is today, when young Greeks and Spaniards are leaving their countries to seek greener pastures in areas that are more promising economically,” Lynnerup says. “It’s always the young and the strong who go, leaving the old behind.”

In addition, there was a rural exodus in their Scandinavian countries at the time, and the population in the more remote regions of Iceland, Norway and Denmark was thinning out. This, in turn, freed up farms and estates for returnees from Greenland.

However, the Greenlanders didn’t leave their houses in a precipitous fashion. Aside from a gold signet ring in the grave of a bishop, valuable items, such as silver and gold crucifixes, have not been discovered anywhere on the island. The archeologists interpret this as a sign that the departure from the colony proceeded in an orderly manner, and that the residents took any valuable objects along. “If they had died out as a result of diseases or natural disasters, we would certainly have found such precious items long ago,” says Lynnerup.

The settlements’ abandonment may have been planned. It is known that the Western Settlement was abandoned first, but even it appears to have been evacuated rather than wiped out by catastrophe.

Read the rest. I suppose that it is far too late to remind editors that “Viking” is an occupation, not an ethnicity.