Norse Greenlanders went extinct despite best efforts

New research has found Norse Greenlanders went extinct despite many attempts to adapt to changing climate. This finding revises previous scholarship that viewed the Norse as a inflexible society resistant to change, said Thomas McGovern, an anthropology professor at Hunter College, City University of New York.

The Dickey Center for International Understanding invited McGovern to speak about adaptation and collapse for civilizations in the medieval Arctic. He specializes in zooarchaeology, a field in which animal remains are used to reconstruct past climates, culture and economy, and he is a founder of the North Atlantic Biocultural Organization.

The lecture summarized several new findings from archaeological sites in the North Atlantic, which contributed new insights into the economy and history of civilizations in Iceland and Greenland. McGovern also examined different choices and outcomes for the Norse Greenlanders, who went extinct in the 14th century, and the inhabitants of Iceland, who have founded a successful modern nation.

“The central question is why do some islands go down pathways that lead to success, and why do some islands go down pathways that lead to complete cultural extinction?” McGovern said.

The Norse Greenlanders and Icelanders formed different economies and cultures at the beginning of the eighth century. While the Icelanders based their economy around grain cultivation, cod fishing and wool manufacturing, the Norse Greenlanders built their society around long, dangerous walrus hunting trips supported by farming operations. The tusks of these walrus were sold throughout Europe.

Both cultures exhibited adaptations and remarkably sustainable solutions to significant climate change during the period, including changes during the Little Ice Age.

This new evidence challenges anthropologist Jared Diamond’s hypothesis that Greenlanders were unable to adapt to changing conditions, McGovern said.

Instead, in response to dropping temperatures, the Greenlanders increased their seal hunting in a successful bid to ward off extinction. But as the climate became more turbulent, the North Atlantic seas became rougher. The Norse Greenlanders, who spent much of their time fishing, were wiped out in a series of unexpectedly large storms that destroyed the fishing boats and their crews.

“The moral of the story is that the Greenlanders got an awful lot of things right, and had a bad outcome anyway,” he said. “Diamond’s story of the Norse is sad, but it also allows us to feel like we’re smarter than them. On the other hand, the modern view is more complicated, but also a lot scarier. Now we look at the Norse as being pretty smart, pretty adaptive and becoming extinct anyway.”

McGovern hopes that lessons learned from medieval Greenlanders can be applied to climate change response and adaptation today.

“On one hand, we’re not Norsemen, and we have a lot more resources,” he said. “On the other hand, the climate change that we’re facing now may be much larger than they faced.”

McGovern seeks to differentiate among the characteristics of a society making successful choices and those of one that may be on a path to extinction.

Few undergraduates attended the lecture, and the room was full of community members, professors and graduate students.

Local resident Peggy Richardson said she was pleased with the lecture.

“I hope that I hear more about his research in the future, because so much of it seems to be so recent,” Richardson said. “All the work that goes into finding this stuff out is just amazing.”

George Leduc, who does volunteer archaeological work in New Hampshire, expressed a newfound interest in Iceland.

“I came away with a much better idea with what has happened in Iceland as well as Greenland,” Leduc said. “I hope to visit to Iceland next summer on a layover, and I might explore the area.”

The lecture, “Sustainability and Collapse in the Norse North Atlantic,” was part of the Stefansson Memorial Lecture series. The lecture is named for Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a 20th century arctic explorer and archaeologist who served as the College’s Arctic consultant through the 1950s.

He advocated for the founding of the U.S. Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover, and he and his wife Evelyn headed the College’s Northern Studies major. After the turn of the century, Stefansson led many expeditions to the arctic, spending years at a time surviving on pack ice. In 1921, he caused an international incident by attempting to claim a Russian island for Great Britain.

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