Last December, I wrote a short blog post about the latest study on the Greenland climate during the Norse era, suggesting that the temperature wasn’t that much warmer than now. This, as was noted at the time, had substantial implications for the conventional model of Greenland’s failure, and Vinland’s abortive birth.
Climate change has often been cited as key element to this story — the basic notion being that the Vikings colonized Greenland in an era dubbed the “Medieval Warm Period,” which ran roughly from 950 to 1250, but then were forced to abandon their Greenland settlements as temperatures became harsher in the “Little Ice Age,” from about 1300 to 1850.
Yet in a new study published Friday in Science Advances, researchers raise doubts about whether the so-called Medieval Warm Period was really so warm in southern Greenland or nearby Baffin Island — suggesting that the tale of the Vikings colonizing but then abandoning Greenland due to climatic changes may be too simplistic. Their evidence? New geological data on the extent of glaciers in the region at the time, finding that during the era when the Norse occupied the area, glaciers were almost as far advanced as they were during the subsequent Little Ice Age.
“This study suggests that while the Vikings may have left Iceland when it was relatively warm, they arrived in the Baffin Bay region, and it was relatively cool,” said Nicolás Young, a professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University and lead author of the study, which was conducted with three colleagues from Columbia and the University at Buffalo. “So for their initial settlement, and the first few centuries when they were there, they persisted and thrived somewhat during a relatively cool climate. And so it’s sort of a stretch to say that a cool climate is what drove them out of the region, when they demonstrated that they could be somewhat successful during a cool climate.”
The new emergent consensus seems to be that Norse Greenland ended quietly, without catastrophe. There were no bloody massacres by Inuit and/or pirates, no mass graves, no radical worsening of the environment. There was just a slow chipping away of a marginal colony in a marginal environment, perhaps with a slow drain of people to nicer climes–Iceland, say, or even mainland Europe. A Markland with a hostile environment, or a Vinland with a hostile population, would have been practically as distant from Greenland as the ancestral mother country of Norway, but that country was (comparatively) densely populated, a market for goods and a source for others and significant as the ultimate homeland of the Norse. Even a Vinland emptied of people would lack critical economic incentives for migrants.
There were good reasons for the Norse disinterest in Vinland. Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist’s paper “The Significance of Remote Resource Regions for Norse Greenland” (PDF format) and Andrew J. Dugmore, Christian Keller, and Thomas H. McGovern’s “Norse Greenland Settlement: Reflections on Climate Change, Trade, and The Contrasting Fates of Human Settlements in the North Atlantic Islands” make the very compelling arguments that the high Arctic was more economically important for the Greenlanders than Vinland: the High Arctic was the critical source of the narwhal tusks that were Greenland’s main export that was a destination for regular hunting trips on an annual basis, but a more remote Vinland was a source of quality timber for shipbuilders that could be visited more rarely. (That, as Thomas W. N. Haine’s “Greenland Norse Knowledge of the North Atlantic Environment” (PDF format) argues, Greenland’s shortage of substantial stores of native wood was one of the factors dooming the Norse in the absence of regular trade, with Europe or with Vinland. Had this trade been here, the Greenlanders’ exports to Europe remaining in vogue, the colony might well have survived.) What did remote Vinland offer the Greenlanders that was worth the trip?
All this brings us to the exciting reports of the discovery in southwestern Newfoundland of a potential Viking site, the second after world-famous L’Anse aux Meadows. That first site is located on the northern tip of the island of Newfoundland, opposite Labrador. Point Rosee, as the below map from the CBC shows, is located near the southwestern corner of Newfoundland, facing the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
If the Point Rosee site is confirmed to be Viking, this has huge implications for Greenland’s history and potential. There has long been speculation that the Vikings travelled beyond L’Anse aux Meadows, deeper into Newfoundland and throughout the littoral of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. There is some speculation that the Vikings visited Prince Edward Island, at least, if not the wider Maritimes. Then as now, the Maritimes offer a considerably more clement physical environment than Newfoundland. A Viking outpost at Point Rosee would be very well positioned as a base to explore the Maritimes, it being far closer to Cape Breton or the Iles-de-la-Madeleine or Prince Edward Island than L’Anse-aux-Meadows.
Why did the Greenlanders not take advantage of their knowledge of this land, more hospitable than their own sub-Arctic home? The hostility of the native populations to the interlopers was surely a factor, but I would argue that even more important was the Greenlanders’ disinterest in Vinland. They knew about the territory for centuries, and indeed likely made semi-regular visits to acquire the timber resources that they needed. Beyond these visits, the Greenlanders had little interest in colonizing a territory that not only lacked the natural resources that their economy depended on, but was far too remote from their Nordic homeland and their European market for a sustainable colony to ever develop, If, perhaps, the Greenlanders had a greater surplus, perhaps they might have been able to splurge, to experiment. Such a surplus was never likely, not with their marginal sub-Arctic colony being so highly dependent on long-range trade.
Very frequently in alternate history, it’s imagined that the decision of Greenlanders to not settle Vinland was chance, that if any number of factors had gone differently they might have continued the Norse migration further west across the Atlantic. The new picture that is forming, with Greenlanders apparently being aware of their Vinland and its potential for centuries, suggests otherwise. The Greenlanders did not colonize Vinland, it seems, because such a colonization was not likely and quite possibly not possible given the constraints that they faced. Much would needed to change for the Norse to ever make it to the Americas. Perhaps the Norse expansion would need to be different, not a product of anarchistic migrations but rather a product of planning by a medieval Norse monarchy, one that did command the resources that would be needed for such a distant colony as Vinland. Such an expansion, it goes without saying, would be very different from the migrations we know about.