Why Did the Vikings Vanish?


When moviegoers of my generation hear the word “Vikings,” we picture Chieftain Kirk Douglas leading his bearded barbarians on voyages of raiding, raping, robbing, and killing. There is much truth to that gory image: the Vikings did indeed terrorize medieval Europe for several centuries. In their own language, Old Norse, even the word víkingar meant “men who go raiding in boats.”

Nevertheless, there are other, more important and equally romantic, parts of the picture, captured in the beautifully illustrated, multi-authored book Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga.* Besides being feared pirates, the Vikings were farmers, traders, colonizers, and the first European explorers of the North Atlantic. The settlements that they founded met very different fates. Viking settlers of continental Europe and the British Isles eventually merged with local populations and had a significant role in the formation of several nation-states, notably Russia, England, and France. The Vinland colony, the first attempt by Europeans to settle North America, was quickly abandoned; the Greenland colony, for four hundred years the most remote outpost of European society, finally vanished; the Iceland colony barely survived; and the Faeroe colony survived with less difficulty. Medieval Greenland society is especially instructive to us today, because it faced in severe form some thoroughly familiar modern environmental dilemmas: deforestation, soil erosion, overgrazing, and climate change. The Greenlanders’ response was to become hyperconservative, and to refuse to learn from a neighboring society whose successful solutions to those environmental dilemmas were demonstrated in front of their eyes. Greenland’s Vikings thereby perished.

The first five chapters of Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, the catalog of an exhibition that originated at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., in 2000 and will be on view at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa from May to October of this year, trace the history leading up to the Viking explosion that burst upon medieval Europe, from Ireland and the Baltic to the Mediterranean and Constantinople. Recall that all the basic ingredients of medieval European civilization arose over the previous ten millennia in or near the Fertile Crescent, running from the Jordan to the Euphrates rivers: the crops and domestic animals and wheeled transport, the mastery of copper and then bronze and iron, and the rise of towns and cities, chiefdoms and kingdoms, and organized religions. All of those ingredients gradually spread to and transformed Europe from southeast to northwest, beginning with the arrival of agriculture in Greece from Anatolia around 7000 BC. Scandinavia, the corner of Europe furthest from the Fertile Crescent, was the last part of Europe to be so transformed, and until then it remained Europe’s backwater.

Yet Scandinavia possessed natural advantages awaiting exploitation—especially the furs of northern forest animals prized as luxury imports in the rest of Europe, and (in Norway as in Greece) a highly indented coastline placing a premium on travel by sea. Sailboat technology from the Mediterranean finally reached Scandinavia around AD 700, at a time when climatic warming was stimulating increased food production and a population explosion. Scandinavians soon developed shallow-draft, sailed-and-rowed ships (illustrated on several pages of Vikings) that were ideal for carrying their luxury exports to eager buyers in Europe and Britain, and that let them cross seas and still be able to land on shallow beaches or row far up rivers. But for medieval Scandinavians, as for other seafarers throughout history, trading paved the way for raiding. Once Scandinavian traders had pioneered sea routes to rich peoples who could pay for furs with precious metals, ambitious younger brothers of those traders realized that they could obtain those same precious metals without paying for them, and that those same ships could be sailed and rowed over those same sea routes to arrive by surprise at coastal and riverside towns, and to escape before the slower ships of the locals could overtake them.

The Viking raids began abruptly on June 8 in the year 793, with an attack on the rich but defenseless monastery of Lindisfarne Island off the northeast English coast. For some years thereafter the raids continued each summer, until the Vikings stopped bothering to return home in the autumn but instead made winter settlements on the targeted coast so that they could begin raiding earlier in the next spring. From those beginnings arose a flexible mixed strategy of trading, extorting, plundering, and conquering that culminated in the establishment of overseas Viking states such as the Danelaw in England, the Duchy of Normandy in France, and the first Russian state. In the course of these voyages to inhabited European lands, Viking ships blown off-course discovered and settled other lands: the uninhabited Faeroe Islands around AD 825 and Iceland in 871; in AD 984 Greenland, at that time occupied only in the far north by Native American predecessors of the Inuit known as the Dorset people; and in AD 1000 Vinland, an exploration zone encompassing Newfoundland, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and possibly some other coastal areas of northeastern North America that were teeming with Native Americans, whose presence forced the Vikings to depart after only a decade.

But the Viking raids on Europe declined as their European targets gradually came to expect them and to defend themselves, and as the rising power of the Norwegian king began to restrain his uncontrolled plundering chiefs and to channel their efforts into those of a respectable trading state. The year 1066, famous for the Battle of Hastings in which William of Normandy led now French-speaking descendants of former Viking raiders intermarried with French women to conquer England, can also be taken to mark the end of the Viking raids. The reason why William was able to defeat the English King Harald at Hastings on England’s southeast coast on October 14 was that Harald and his soldiers were exhausted, having marched 220 miles south in less than three weeks after defeating the last Viking invading army and killing their king at Stamford Bridge near York in central England on September 25.

While we think of the Vikings as raiders and seafarers, they thought of themselves as farmers. Subsistence in Norway depended mainly on raising livestock, of which the most highly valued species were cows kept for milk products, pigs for meat, and horses for transport and status. In Old Norse sagas, pork was what warriors of the Norse war god Odin ate in Valhalla after their death. Less endowed with status and mystique, but still valuable economically, were sheep and goats, kept for milk products and wool. Vikings also fished and, in places where the climate was warm enough to permit it, raised barley and some other crops tolerant of cold. The pastoral values that had arisen in Norway and were ecologically appropriate there had heavy consequences for the history of Greenland, where Vikings aspired to the same values in a landscape marginal for sheep and goats, and ill-suited to pigs and cattle.

After its foundation, the Vikings’ Greenland colony struggled on for more than four centuries, until it died out sometime in the 1400s. During those centuries Viking Greenland was a transplanted, full-fledged, European Christian society of about six thou-sand people, with a cathedral, parish churches, resident bishops, payment of Crusade tithes, and literacy in both Latin and Norse. While there is still some mystery about exactly what happened to the last Vikings in Greenland, the basic causes of their disappearance are clear: their stubborn effort to subsist by a pastoral economy, environmental damage that they inflicted, climate change, the withering of their trade and social links with Europe, and competition and hostility of the Inuit. Above all, their society resisted change.

The environmentally triggered collapse of the Greenland Norse colony has parallels with the similar collapses of Easter Island, Anasazi, Great Zimbabwe, and many other pre-industrial societies. But we have two major advantages, which are superbly illustrated by Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, in understanding the collapse of Viking Greenland: unlike the collapse of other societies, for the collapse of the Greenland colony we have written records, although they are frustratingly fragmentary; and, second, Norse Greenland was a European society, so that we know what the churches, preserved art, and tools meant, whereas much guesswork is required to interpret archaeological remains of those other societies. (What, really, was the significance of Easter Island’s giant stone statues?) For me, one of the most vivid impressions of my visit to Greenland last summer was to talk there with blue-eyed, blond-haired Danes living and working in Greenland (along with the Inuit-derived majority of the population), and to reflect: it was blue-eyed, blond-haired Scandinavians like them who built the Greenland Viking ruins that I was visiting, and who disappeared there.


Although most of Greenland is covered by the world’s largest icecap outside Antarctica, some of the coastline consists of narrow ice-free strips supporting a low, heath-like vegetation. But the southwest coast has two deeply indented sets of fjords, at whose heads, sheltered from the sea, grow lush pasture grass and stunted birch and willow woods. Those fjords looked like paradise to an Icelandic chief named Erik the Red, whose murders of some highly regarded people back home in Iceland forced him to seek his fortunes by emigrating. To an Icelander, Greenland looked familiar, with the same plant and animal species. Enticed by Erik’s good PR sense in naming this newly discovered land of glaciers “Greenland,” settlers on two dozen ships followed him to Greenland in AD 984. Within a few decades, every suitable farm site in both fjords had been occupied.

The Greenland Norse recreated a pastoral society patterned on that of Norway, but with modifications enforced by Greenland’s colder climate and shorter growing season. Pigs and crops quickly became insignificant. Breeds of sheep and goats that were adapted to cold could be kept outdoors for the winter, but the less hardy cows of a small-sized breed had to be kept indoors for nine months of the year, in stone-walled barns of up to 150 stalls, whose floor plans are still clear today in preserved ruins of Norse farms. During those nine months the cows were fed on hay harvested in August and gradually lost weight and became weaker through the winter, so that they finally had to be carried outdoors again in the spring when new grass appeared in the pastures. All three animals—cows, sheep, and goats—gave birth in May and yielded milk in the summer, to be converted into cheese, butter, and yogurt-like skyr to store for winter. The sheep and goats also yielded wool. Caring for cows in Greenland required a lot of work, and the Greenland Norse would probably have been better off putting the effort into something else, but they instead clung to their inherited Norwegian cultural values that prized cows over sheep or goats.

Those dairy products made up only half of the Norse diet; the other half came from seals and caribou. Incomprehensibly to us today, the Greenland Norse did almost no fishing, even though they were descended from Norwegian fisherman, and though Greenland’s abundant fish are overwhelmingly its main export today. Salmon are so easy to catch in Greenland’s rivers that, on my first night in Greenland, in the kitchen of the youth hostel at the former site of Erik the Red’s farm, I met a Danish tourist cooking two large fish that she had caught with her bare hands in a shallow pool. Archaeologists who come to dig in Greenland arrive incredulous that the Norse did not fish there, hope to discover where all those overlooked fish bones are hiding, fail, and still cannot believe the result. I prefer to accept the result at face value: the Greenland Norse probably developed an irrational cultural prejudice against eating fish, like the prejudice of most North Americans against goat.

Almost until the end, the Greenland colony remained in contact with Norway through trading ships. The vessels that visited Greenland were few and small, forcing the Greenlanders to confine themselves to exporting low-bulk, high-value goods. Their most valuable export was ivory from walrus tusks, prized as a luxury in medieval Europe because the Arab conquest had cut off the supply of elephant ivory from Africa and Asia. Walrus hides yielded the best ships’ rope in medieval Europe. Other low-bulk luxury exports were polar bear furs, narwhal tusks, and live gyrfalcons, all hunted along with walruses in a hunting ground called the Nordsetur several hundred miles north of the northernmost of the two Norse settlements. Reaching the Nordsetur by a two-week journey in small open rowboats along the stormy coast was dangerous, and hunting those animals without guns even more dangerous: imagine yourself, armed only with a bow and arrow and lance, attempting to kill an enraged polar bear or walrus. In return for those exports won at such risk, the Norse imported from Norway luxury goods such as stained glass, bronze church bells, and communion wine, plus whatever iron and timber the small ships could hold.

The Greenland Norse inadvertently created serious ecological problems because of the landscape’s deceptive similarity to Norway, and because the cold climate and short growing season caused vegetation to grow slowly. The main building material available was turf, so that the pastures themselves became stripped of turf. The original dwarf woodland was cleared to create pastures, and then browsing by goats and sheep prevented woodland regeneration. That removal of plant cover led to soil erosion, especially on cold windy farms near glaciers. It also caused problems of fuel shortage: instead of wood, the Greenlanders had to burn bones and manure that otherwise could have been used to fertilize pastures.

But the most fateful consequence of the disappearance of woodlands is that the Greenlanders had insufficient wood to make the charcoal needed for extracting iron from bogs, the main source of iron in Iceland and Norway. That left the Greenlanders chronically short of iron. They resharpened iron knives and tools down to a stub, and they resorted to bone and caribou antlers for making padlocks, belt buckles, shovels, and other everyday items that Vikings elsewhere made from iron. There is pathos in the whalebone shovel blade reproduced in Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, and in the short stub of a reused knife blade. Worst of all, the Greenlanders were left without iron swords and armor when it came to fighting the Inuit. In Iceland and the Faeroes the Vikings had colonized a virgin landscape; in Greenland they now faced another people probably as numerous as themselves.

A few centuries after the Norse had reached southwestern Greenland, the Inuit entered northwestern Greenland from the Canadian Arctic, spread southward, met Norse hunting parties heading northward for the summer to the Nordsetur, and reached the coastal zone of the northernmost of the two Norse settlements.

Later European colonialists who encountered local peoples elsewhere in the world, such as Indians and Africans and Pacific islanders, developed a broad, flexible, cynically effective repertoire of approaches for dealing with them. Depending on the numbers and power of the locals, Europeans variously killed, drove out, enslaved, befriended, traded with, or intermarried with them. It took centuries of colonializing experience for Europeans to develop this repertoire. Alas for the Vikings, and in the long run luckily for the peoples they encountered, the Vikings lacked that experience. The Vinland sagas (excerpted and discussed in Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga) describe how the Vikings treated the first group of nine Indians whom they encountered on the coast of Canada: they promptly killed eight of them, leaving the ninth to escape in a boat. Not surprisingly, huge numbers of Indians returned to attack the Norse and eventually drove them out.

When the Greenland Vikings first encountered Inuit, they called them skraeling (meaning “wretches” in Norse), stabbed them with knives to see how much they bled when wounded, and then killed them and stabbed them some more to see how much more they bled when dead. That was not a promising beginning to friendly relations, especially since the bows and arrows of the Norse gave them no military advantage over the bows and arrows of the Inuit.

The Greenlanders might have learned many valuable things from the Inuit, whose material culture represented the culmination of thousands of years of Arctic experience in the New World. The Inuit were vastly superior to the Norse in their boats (fast, lightweight kayaks and umiaks), land transport (based on dog sleds), and marine hunting technology (toggle harpoons and bladder floats). Norse hunters must have watched, and grasped the value of, all of those things in use by Inuit hunters in the Nordsetur. The Norse starved to death amid an abundance of ringed seals, fish, and whales that only the Inuit hunted. Had the Norse imported fewer church bells and more iron from Norway, they could have traded the iron to the Inuit who prized it, received in return food and walrus tusks, exported the tusks to Norway for more iron, and become middlemen traders, as did the Danes who came to Greenland in the eighteenth century. But there is no evidence that the Greenland Norse either traded with or learned from the Inuit. Inuit archaeological sites contain barrel staves and screws copied from the Norse, but Greenland Norse archaeological sites contain no harpoons or kayaks copied from the Inuit. As far as Norse adoption of useful technologies was concerned, the Inuit might as well have been living on another planet.

Instead, the Greenland Norse maintained their labor-intensive cows and imported their stained glass. With a population one tenth the size of Iceland’s, they built a cathedral equal in size to Iceland’s and representing a huge investment for such a small and impoverished society. They wore wool clothes and hats of the latest European styles, instead of the tailored sealskin and fur-lined clothing of the Inuit. They continued to write in the runic alphabet at a time when it was already disappearing in Scandinavia. Unlike the Inuit, who could shift camp long distances as climate changed and as hunted animals moved, the Norse remained tethered to their farms in the only two fjords with suitable pastures.

Fortunately or unfortunately for the Norse, we now know in retrospect that their arrival in Greenland happened to coincide with a time of relatively warm climate in the North Atlantic. Hence the Norse were encouraged to settle, and they initially prospered. In the fourteenth century, however, the climate began to get colder, ushering in the period called the Little Ice Age. For the Norse that meant less hay production, fewer livestock that could be fed over the winter, and more ice in the fjords blocking their access to the crucial hunt of migratory seals at the fjord entrances in May. The Norse depended on that seal hunt to avoid starvation when their winter stores of dairy products were becoming exhausted, and before their livestock were yielding milk again.

In the spring of some year around 1360, a group of Norse from the larger and southernmost settlement (termed the Eastern Settlement) went up to the smaller, ecologically more marginal northernmost settlement (termed the Western Settlement)—and found it deserted. One of the most gripping chapters of Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, Thomas McGovern’s “The Demise of Norse Greenland,” relates what archaeological excavations of several farms in the Western Settlement have revealed. In the topmost occupied archaeological layer within the houses, corresponding to the final year of the Western Settlement, were foot bones of wild birds and rabbits that would have been considered last-ditch famine food; bones of a newborn calf and lamb, probably born late in the spring; the toe bones of a number of cows approximately corresponding to the number of stalls in that farm’s barn; butchered skeletons of hunting dogs; and wooden doors, posts, and crucifixes, objects that are invariably removed in any planned evacuation of a house in that northern environment where wood is precious.

Those archaeological finds let one imagine the sequence of events: a cold summer that yielded too little cheese and skyr to feed people, and too little hay to feed the livestock, for the winter; desperate hunters going out in the winter to catch small wild animals, then slaughtering their own dogs and all of their cows and eating the hooves of the cows, thereby foreclosing any possibility of rebuilding their economy in the spring; descendants of those Inuit whom the Norse had used for experiments on bleeding camped on the coast and blocking Norse access to seals; and the Norse of the Western Settlement dying of starvation.

That was the end of the Western Settlement. We have little information about what happened subsequently to the Eastern Settlement because, as a result of increasing sea ice in the North Atlantic plus the loss of walrus ivory sources in the Nordsetur, now occupied by Inuit, only four ships from Norway are recorded as having visited Greenland between 1380 and 1410. Travelers on the last of those ships, which remained in Greenland from 1406 to 1410, briefly mentioned having witnessed a couple getting married at Greenland’s Hvalsey Church after recitation of the bans for three previous Sundays, and a man being burned at the stake for using black magic to seduce someone else’s wife: i.e., just the usual goings-on for a medieval European Christian society.

There followed a century and a half of silence, during which no more European ships reported visiting the Greenland Norse settlements. When European explorers began to return to Greenland in the 1500s and 1600s and encountered only Inuit but no Norse, they could not believe that the Greenland Norse had all vanished; they even convinced themselves that the Inuit were actually Norse reverted to paganism. In 1721 the Norwegian missionary Hans Egede finally came to Greenland specifically to search for the relapsed Christians, heard Inuit stories about the by-now long-vanished Norse, was shown the ruins of churches, and realized that the European colony in Greenland really was extinct. We still do not know exactly when the last inhabitants of the Eastern Settlement died (presumably some year in the 1400s), or how they died: Starved to death like their brethren of the Western Settlement? Killed by Inuit? Killed by European pirates? Died at some other place to which they fled from Greenland? Whatever that proximate cause of their deaths, the ultimate causes are clear: their inadvertent impact on their fragile environment; their clinging to a pastoral economy that became increasingly unsustainable as the climate dete- riorated; and their refusal or inability to learn from, and to cultivate good relations with, the Inuit. Those ultimate causes of the downfall of the Greenland Norse are what make their fate so relevant to those of us alive today, and wrestling with analogous problems.

The fate of the Greenland Norse is also instructive because of its relevance to the question why it was Europeans rather than Native Americans or Africans or Aboriginal Australians who ended up as the people to conquer most of the rest of the world. Racists attribute the outcome to a postulated genetic superiority of Europeans themselves. In my book Guns, Germs, and Steel I instead attributed the outcome to advantages conveyed by the environment where the societies ancestral to European society developed. The Fertile Crescent of Western Asia was home to the world’s most varied and useful domesticable wild plants and animals. Hence Fertile Crescent hunters and gatherers became the world’s first farmers and herders, and were thereby able to settle down and undergo a population explosion. The germs of their domestic animals mutated into germs infecting humans (like smallpox), to which the exposed farmers themselves developed some resistance but unexposed peoples could not. Fertile Crescent farmers went on to become the first societies to develop metal tools and writing and empires, and thus spawned the first societies to develop the proximate agents of the European conquests: guns, germs, and steel.

But racists often challenge me to provide experimental proof: for example, by going back to 11,000 BC in a time machine to interchange the populations of the Fertile Crescent and Aboriginal Australia, and then observing Aboriginal Australians to become the ones who conquer the world. Until we invent such a time machine, I cannot do that particular requested experiment, but Greenland will continue to exemplify a reasonable approximation of it: a natural experiment of history. When the Vikings settled Greenland, they lacked guns, germs, and steel: guns hardly existed then, the Greenland Norse colony was too small and isolated to sustain the Eurasian germs that later decimated the Inuit, and Norse depletion of Greenland’s woodlands robbed them of the charcoal necessary to produce much iron or steel. Hence the Norse met the Inuit on a level playing field: neither of them had the advantage of guns, germs, and steel; may the best brains and the most innovative society win! If the Norse had really had higher IQs, they should have won. Instead, when it was all over, it was the Norse who ended up dead, and the Inuit who inherited Greenland. Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga concludes: “The Norse Greenlanders chose to avoid innovation, to emphasize and elaborate their traditions, and ultimately to die rather than abandon what they must have seen as values.”

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    Eric Christiansen’s valuable book The Norsemen in the Viking Age (Blackwell), emphasizing Norse societies of the Continent and the British Isles, has just been published.