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.

The Viking “Blood Eagle” Never Happened, Says Historian

ageofthevikingsA Swedish archaeologist reviews a new book, Anders Winroth’s The Age of the Vikings, and makes this observation:

Myself, I was intrigued to learn that the infamous, messy and impractical “blood eagle” murder method may just be the fruit of High Medieval writers misunderstanding one of the countless references in Viking Period poetry to carrion birds munching on the slain (p. 37). There is to my knowledge no osteological evidence for it. Also interesting to me, I can’t recall reading about the Spanish Moor Al-Tartushi’s report on life in Hedeby before (p. 197). But that may just be because I’m not an historian.

Funny thing, I had been thinking of that alleged method of torture/execution a couple of days before.

Read the rest at his blog: “New Popular Book on the Viking Period.”

Around the Blogosphere, 17 July 2014

Tanya Luhrman compares the cultural differences in “hearing voices” in the United States, Ghana, and India. Plus, a Dutch psychiatrist who encourages it in his patients!

¶ You have read Ethan Doyle White’s interview with Ronald Hutton, right? If not, here it is.

¶ Two from Sarah Veale at Invocatio:

A PhD dissertation with music on “Satanic feminism.”

Discussing ancient Greek terms helps us understand “sacred space.”

¶ Mary Harrsch corrrects a slander against Julian, the last Pagan emperor of Rome.

How the Neighborhood Has Changed

Hardscrabble Creek is a real place, and every now and then, I like to post a photo or two from home. I found the first photo while researching something else, and I took the second one today. In both of these photos, Hardscrabble Creek runs behind the buildings farthest from the camera.

greenwood_road_1887

Collection of Denver Public Library.

About half a mile from home, taken about 1887. The false-front building in center is A. C. Monroe’s “Cash Store.” Click image to enlarge.

Greenwoord Road 2014I think the store was just to the left of the large house. The 4,800-square-foot house was built in 1989. The black tree trunk in the foreground was burned in a 2,500-acre fire in 2012 that destroyed several houses on this side of the road but missed the house shown and its neighbors on that side.

Several homes to either side of the big house (outside the photo) were built in the teens and twenties of the 20th century. Some were part of a small resort that was started to cater to the new phenomenon of automobile-driving tourists.  (There is a four-part series on lost 1920s highways and old campgrounds on my other blog.)

The hillside behind the buildings is mostly private land. It was logged in the late 19th century, obviously, and due to wildfires probably had fewer, larger ponderosa pine trees before the loggers arrived.

When logging stops and fires are put out, this is what you get. Large surrounding areas did burn in 2005, 2011, and 2012, however.

Tarot Cards — They Are for Catholics Too

Thomas L. McDonald, Patheos’ “Technology | Culture | Catholicism” blogger has a five-part series on the history of the Tarot cards. It starts here.

The real history of the Tarot, however, begins in the early 15th century in Italy, and their story is an important part of gaming and cultural history that was lost for centuries. They were created to play games, not tell fortunes. . . . .

Catholics have been conditioned to avoid Tarot because of its New Age and occult connotations. That’s a mistake: Tarot is part of our heritage. It reflects Catholic culture, symbolism, history, and theology. Its images are useful not just for play, but for contemplation, as Catholic mystic Valentin Tomberg explores beautifully in Meditations on the Tarot.

Tarot belongs to us, not to the con artists.

He is absolutely right that there is a great deal of bogus history about the Tarot, involving wild tales of a gallery of paintings of the trumps in a secret hall underneath the Sphinx of Egypt, and so on.

I think too that one of the reasons that ceremonial magicians have struggled to mesh the trumps with the Cabala and so forth is that the Tarot is a hybrid system itself, partly from here and partly from there.

I wrote something on those lines myself once, alas in the pre-Internet era, for Gnosis journal.

Robin of Kent (and His Merry Men)

A British historian argues that Robin Hood was based on a guerrilla bowman nicknamed Willikin of the Weald, although he might have passed through Sherwood Forest. (A snippet of the longer article from History Today)

That puts him fighting for “bad King John” (a minus) but against the French (always a plus for an English folk hero).

Whoever he was, check out his filmography. Where that leaves Herne the Hunter, I don’t know.

The Green Man: A Symbol of Ethnic Resistance?

“Green man,” Norwich Cathedral, England.

Green man masks are a staple seller on Merchants’ Row at any Pagan festival. I found a weather-resistant example at Beltania a couple of years ago, and now it hangs by the front door.

As Paul Kingsnorth writes in Aeon:

There are plenty of hypotheses [about his origin], and it depends on whom you talk to. Those inclined towards paganism like to claim that green men are relics of pre-Christian religions that have been incorporated into churches. I have heard, variously, that the green man represents the spirit of the greenwoods, the rebirth of nature, a rebellion against Christianity, or a symbol of the constancy of nature. Everybody who knows the green man has their favourite theory about what he is and why he is there.

But Kingsnorth goes on to offer a different origin story for the Green Man: that he is a symbol of ethno-political resistance to the Norman Conquest of 1066.

It would seem that if that is true, however, there would have to have been a cover story to tell to the Norman bishop in charge of the cathedral. And as one of the commenters points out, the Green Man figure is not unique to England. So maybe the nature-spirit reading of this figure still “has legs,” even if the Green Man himself does not.

Two Items Involving Ronald Hutton

First, an interview by Ethan Doyle White with British scholar of esotericism Dave Evans, who did his doctorate with Hutton at Bristol and speaks well of him:

Having a conversation with Ronald is a delight, and I had him to myself every 3 weeks or so, for a precious half an hour, for almost 3 years. I am a very lucky person. He is indeed a very friendly man, but no pushover when you work for him- he is a superb adviser on academic work; firm but fair, and he will not allow crap work to get through the filters- he steered, cajoled, encouraged and generally supported some very difficult stuff I was doing, at the same time as managing his perpetually massive workload in other areas.

Second, news that Professor Hutton will be hosting a program for the Yesterday Channel (half-owned by the BBC, I am told) called Professor Hutton’s Curiosities, about little-known museums in the London area. I think that one of these is the Horniman Museum. Let me know if it is any good, since I do not have satellite or cable TV.

 

Ring-Dancing Monkeys and Black Death Rubbish

At Got Medieval, Carl Pyrdrum re-debunks the persistent, authentic-sounding story that the nursery rhyme “Ring around the Rosies” has anything whatsoever to do with the Black Death of the 1340s.

It does not.

As any good English plague survivor********** could tell you, the plague was caused by sin and best warded off by extreme piety and making sure your humours were in balance.***********

His version includes dancing monkeys, a feral cat, and Lancelot.

Here on the banks of Hardscrabble Creek, which is starting to rise as the snows are melting, we are fairly suspicious of authentic-sounding stories about surviving medieval practices. See also St. Patrick and the “snakes” who were not Druids.

“Wicca Man” Trailer

Here is the trailer for the new British documentary on Gerald Gardner, theatrically introduced by Ronald Hutton rather like an episode of the archaeology program Secrets of the Dead.

Britain’s Wicca Man – (C) Matchlight from Matchlight on Vimeo.

I am happy to hear Professor Hutton say that Wicca was developed in the 1940s—I would say the very late 1940s at that, definitely post-World War II.

It is time to give up on the whole legend of the hidden coven at the Rosicrucian Theatre, of Gardner’s 1939 initiation at Dorothy Clutterbuck’s house, of the 1940 Lammas working against a possible German invasion, and all of that.

There is no evidence for any of it except Gardner’s say-so, and if those things happened, they do not gibe at all with what we know that Gardner was doing in the 1939-1947 period, namely trying out a variety of different esoteric groups before he “found” the one that he liked—Wicca.