Greenland is an extreme environment, its history has reflected that extremity. The native Inuit Greenlanders there today are not the first settlers on this forbidding island, the Vikings were there before them. But even the Vikings weren't the first to this great frozen land. Even earlier people also disappeared as the Vikings did. Today there are various Viking ruins across the southern part of the country before they mysteriously and eerily disappeared off the land. You can go and see these ruins and learn how settlements clung on for hundreds of years before eventually disappearing off the map.
History Of Greenland
Greenland is mostly ice sheet and the few parts of the island that are marginally habitable are dotted around the coast. The first humans to visit and settle Greenland were thought to have arrived around 2,500 BC. The population on this inhospitable island is always low (even today the population is around 50,000), this has made their populations vulnerable to disappearing in periods of climate shifts and the like.
- 2,500-800 BC: Saqqaq Culture
- 700 BC - 1300: AD Dorset Culture
- 980 AD: Around 1500 AD Viking Settlement
Viking Settlement Of Greenland
Before the Vikings, there were previous waves of settlement but these had, in turn, all disappeared from off the island (except the Dorest culture was likely still clinging on in the far northwest of the island). If the Dorest culture still existed then there are no records that they came into contact with the Vikings.
Vikings have a reputation for being raiders and pillagers, but mostly they were traders and farmers. The Norwegian and Icelandic Vikings who came to Greenland were farmers and settlers.
Greenland was discovered by Erik the Red (a larger-than-life character) and the first wave of settlers arrived in 985 AD. It was these settlers that went on to discover Vinland around present-day Newfoundland.
The settlements that the Vikings or Norse established were in Greenland's south-western fjords. Unlike the Inuit who live off the sea, the Norse were mostly reliant on farming. It is possible that then these valleys had shrubs and grass that the Viking's sheep and goats could graze. Its also possible that overgrazing and over-felling of these shrub forests could have triggered soil erosion and lead to their own demise (as well as an adversely shifting climate - the Black Death has also been blamed).
There were three separate Viking settlements along the island. The population is estimated to have maxed out at between 2,000 and 10,000 - although it is likely to have been toward to lower end.
- Eastern Settlement: Approx. 500 Farms
- Western Settlement: 95 Farms
- Middle Settlement: 20 Farms
Tours Of The Eastern Settlement And The Hvalsey Church
Today you can visit and explore these sites in Greenland. The ruins of these settlements once were are now UNESCO lists sites. One tour option is the Blue Ice Explorer via Visit Greenland:
Blue Ice Explorer
- Duration: 5 Days
- Cost: Around 1,000 Euro or $1,200 (ex. flights)
- Visit: Hvalsey (Havalsey Is The Viking Settlement), Igaliku And Qassiarsuk (All three UNESCO sites), Modern Colorful Town Qaqortoq, And The Qooroq Ice Fjord (Both Also UNESCO)
Another tour option of the Hvalsey site is a private tour from Qaqortoq by Guide to Greenland.
Guide To Greeland Tour
- Cost: Approx. $550
- Included: Private 2 Hour Boat Trip From Qaqortoq To Hvalsey Norse Ruins
Life And Decline Of The Vikings
The Norse Greenlanders persisted in Greenland for around 500 years. They kept cattle, sheep, and goats and they hunted for marine life like walruses and narwhals. For a long time, they continued to trade with Europe with ivory from walrus tusks and farmed goods, and in return, they were dependent on importing iron tools and wood. Then in the 14-15th centuries, the climate cooled into what is known as the Little Ice Age. Pressures seem to have been too great and the struggling and small settlements disappeared.
By 1379 there were conflicts with the expanding Inuit. In 1402-4 the Black Death reached Iceland (another destination that should be on everyone's list) and killed around half the population there (though we don't know if it reached Greenland or not). The last record we have is marriage documents dating from 1408 at the Hvalsey Church.
As you can see with the tours listed above, the Hvalsey Church is the center of tours to the Viking settlements today and it is the best-preserved. The Hvalsey Church is in the far south of Greenland in the Eastern Settlement. It is believed to have been built by Scots-Norse stonemasons owing to its similarity to other churches in the Orkney Islands and Norway. It was built in the 12th century. Though long gone now, the roof was made of timber and turf. The walls were plastered with ground mussel shells and so it would have been white.
A European ship recorded finding the body of a Viking man at the Eastern Settlement in the 1540s. This could have been the last mention of the Greenlandic Vikings. According to the archeological evidence, the Viking settlements may not have suddenly catastrophically collapsed but gradually died out.
Today there is not too much to see other than the Hvalsey Church, but it is one of the great Viking mysteries. It's a testament to how determined then strong the Vikings were, but ultimately it would seem the Inuit were better suited to Greenland's harsh climate than the farming Vikings. Today you can visit the site and ponder what was once a thriving settlement and contemplate how it could have disappeared.