Are there still Viking communities today

What happened to the Greenlandic Vikings?

Old Norse-Greenlandic Society

The Norse-Greenlandic society was very difficult to keep in balance. Formerly in Norway and Iceland, the Viking community was built on raising livestock, making dairy products such as butter, cheese, and skyr (Icelandic yogurt), and building on the reputation of the Church. Transforming this lifestyle into a harsh and isolated climate like Greenland's, required the development of a multi-layered, interdependent economy. Everything had to be planned very carefully and the community was rigidly organized. Basically, the system worked, but made society very vulnerable, as the failure of every single component could plunge everything into a crisis.

Five long-term problems can be identified that the Old Norse community had to contend with throughout their time in Greenland.

1. Natural resources

Even though the south is the most fertile part of the country, Greenland’s natural resources are insufficient to support a large agricultural community. Much of the cattle that the Norsemen brought from Norway did not get along in Greenland's cold climate. The grazing season for the cows was much shorter than they were used to, which is why the animals had to be kept indoors and fed with hay for a significantly longer part of the year - but that had to be grown and harvested first.

As a result of these difficulties with agriculture, the Northmen also went hunting to secure their food supplies. Soon after arriving in Greenland, they began hunting reindeer and seals on a large scale. The Vikings had hunting experience from Norway and Iceland; the large-scale, communal and strictly organized form of hunting for the animals resident in Greenland worked with their skills.

Scientists in the past have argued that the Vikings' decline was related to their failure to learn from the Inuit in the field. Inuit had already developed clever and efficient methods of hunting whales and ringed seals. Although the Northmen were most likely to witness these hunts, it appears as if they never tried to use these techniques themselves. Hunting in heavy wooden boats instead of the Inuit's small kayaks made of seal skin probably led to a disadvantage for the Northmen in terms of hunting.

Nevertheless, some experts also argue that there were simply no shortage of prey in Greenland, which made it necessary to fundamentally question the hunting methods, which had worked well for the Northmen up to now.

2. Climate change

When the Vikings arrived in Greenland, and up until around 1300, the climate was relatively mild - perhaps a little warmer than the Greenlandic weather today. These conditions made it easier to grow hay and graze cattle. However, the climate gradually became colder and more volatile until the "Little Ice Age" broke out at the beginning of the 15th century. The colder weather made it difficult to grow hay and blocked the shipping routes between Greenland and Norway with sea ice, making it increasingly difficult to get ships to the isolated Northmen.

There was no way the Northmen could foresee the approaching cold cycle in the way we can predict climate change today. But they accepted the challenge and geared their agriculture more towards sheep and goats, which are far more undemanding than cows when it comes to grazing.

3. Contact with Norway

Norway was the main trading partner of the Old Norse Greenland and originally had a great need for goods that it could only get from Greenland, such as ivory made from walrus tusk. When Norway was able to trade with Asia and East Africa for elephant ivory again, the demand for Greenlandic exports fell.

Norway also faced other problems such as a major plague epidemic (1349-1350). Sending ships to Greenland therefore became less important. Less communication with Norway meant that the Greenlandic Norsemen gradually lost touch with their identity as Christians and Europeans.

4. Contact with the Inuit

Inuit migrated from the Canadian Arctic to northwest Greenland around AD 1200, dividing this part of Greenland for several centuries by the Vikings and Inuit. Most likely, the two populations have had contact with each other, but we do not know how strong or pleasant these relationships were. Many scholars today believe that the two groups generally traded with each other and respected each other's settlements.

5. Conservative attitude

The Old Norse society in Greenland was organized in a very hierarchical manner. Religion and the church were considered to be the cornerstones of society and legitimized great differences in social status and health. Some accounts blame this apparent dependence on the Church for the collapse of the Northmen in Greenland, claiming that the Northmen placed their relations with Europe above full adaptation to living conditions in Greenland.

A frequently cited example is persistent walrus hunting, which was an important activity for the colony until it fell. These hunts secured luxury goods such as the ivory made from walrus tusk and the skins that the Vikings exported to Europe. Some scholars argue that, in retrospect, the time, manpower, and boating equipment for these missions were wrongly invested.

More recently, however, scientists have again emphasized that the main motivation for the Old Norse branches in Greenland could have been access to Arctic luxury goods. This explains why so much effort was put into walrus hunting, even in the later years when Old Norse society began to deteriorate.