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Why did the Vikings abandon Greenland?

A study led by the University of Massachusetts Amherst and published recently in Science Advances, upends the previously accepted theory on why the Vikings abandoned Greenland.

Greenland, or Grœnland in Old Norse, was settled by Norwegian and Icelandic explorers during the 10th century AD, where two major Viking settlements emerged until their unexplained abandonment in the 15th century AD

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The first successful settlement of Greenland was by Erik Thorvaldsson, otherwise known as Erik the Red. According to the sagas, the Icelanders had exiled Erik during an assembly of the Althing for three years, as punishment for Erik killing Eyiolf the Foul over a dispute.

Erik went in search of land that had been reported to lie to the north and reached the coastline of Greenland where he spent the three years of his exile exploring the new land. Upon returning to Iceland, he is said to have brought with him stories of “Greenland”, an auspiciously named land in order to sound more appealing than “Iceland” to lure potential settlers.

The settlements continued to prosper until the 14th century AD, where they entered a period of decline until their abandonment in the 15th century AD.

The consensus view has long been that colder temperatures associated with the Little Ice Age helped make the colonies unsustainable. However, new research suggests that it wasn’t dropping temperatures that helped drive the Norse from Greenland, but drought.

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Using ice core data, the team was able to understand how climate had varied close to the Norse farms and sites of habitation. They combined this with sediment samples from a lake near the Eastern Settlement, mapping a continuous record that dates back the past 2,000 years.

“Nobody has actually studied this location before,” says Boyang Zhao, the study’s lead author who conducted this research for his Ph.D. in geosciences at UMass Amherst and is currently a postdoctoral research associate at Brown University.

They then analysed that 2,000-year sample for two different markers: the first, a lipid, known as BrGDGT, can be used to reconstruct temperature. “If you have a complete enough record, you can directly link the changing structures of the lipids to changing temperature,” says Isla Castañeda, professor of geosciences at UMass Amherst and one of the paper’s co-authors.

A second marker, derived from the waxy coating on plant leaves, can be used to determine the rates at which the grasses and other livestock-sustaining plants lost water due to evaporation. It is therefore an indicator of how dry conditions were.

What the results revealed, was that temperatures around the Norse settlements became steadily drier over time, resulting in farmers having to overwinter their livestock on stored fodder. An extended drought, topped with economic and social pressures would likely have tipped the balance to make settlement on Greenland unsustainable.

University of Massachusetts Amherst

Header image – View of Hvalsey Viking Church and homesteads built in south Greenland by Erick the Red’s uncle, Thorkell Farserkur, in the 14th century. – Image Credit : Shutterstock

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.
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