The End of the Vikings in Greenland

By the year 1300 more than 3,000 colonists lived on 300 farms scattered along the west coast of Greenland (Schaefer, 1997.) However, even as early as 1197, the climate had turned much less favorable and drift ice was beginning to appear along the vital trade routes (Lamb, 1995.) Cool weather caused poor harvests in an already fragile climate. Because of the poor harvests there was less food for the livestock which resulted in a decreased meat supply. These conditions made it even more vital that trade continued with Iceland and the rest of Europe.

Due to an increase in drift ice along Greenland's east coast, the sailing route had to be changed. Ships had to head farther south and then turn back to reach the settlements along the southwest coast. The longer distance and increased threat of ice caused fewer ships to visit Greenland (Bryson, 1977.) Ivar Bardsson, a Norwegian priest who lived in Greenland from 1341 to 1364, wrote: "From Snefelsness in Iceland, to Greenland, the shortest way: two days and three nights. Sailing due west. In…the sea there are reefs called Gunbiernershier. That was the old route, but now the ice is come from the north, so close to the reefs that none can sail by the old route without risking his life." (Ladurie, 1971.) In 1492, the Pope complained that no bishop had been able to visit Greenland for 80 years on account of the ice (Calder, 1974.) It is most likely that his Greenland congregation was already dead or had moved on by that time. Hermann (1954) notes that during the mid-1300's many Greenlanders had moved on to Markland (presently Newfoundland) in search of a more suitable environment, mainly due to a cooler climate and over-use of their natural resources.

The graves and ruins in Greenland show that the people did make an attempt at civilized living until the end but the cold and lack of proper nourishment took a heavy toll (Bryson, 1977.) The early Greenland Vikings stood 5'7" or taller but by about 1400, Lamb (1966) states that the average Greenlander was probably less than five feet tall. After World War I, Denmark sent a commission to Greenland which found the remains of the early settlements. In their last years, the Greenland Vikings were severely crippled, dwarflike, twisted, and diseased (Hermann, 1954.)

Scott A. Mandia
Professor - Physical Sciences
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