Science

What drove the Norse out of Greenland?

When the Norse settled in Greenland on what they called the Eastern Settlement in 985, they thrived by clearing the land of shrubs and planting grass as pasture for their livestock.

The population of the Eastern Settlement peaked at around 2,000 inhabitants, but collapsed fairly quickly about 400 years later.

For decades, anthropologists, historians and scientists have thought the Eastern Settlement’s demise was due to the onset of the Little Ice Age, a period of exceptionally cold weather, particularly in the North Atlantic, that made agricultural life in Greenland untenable.

New research, led by the University of Massachusetts Amherst and published recently in Science Advances, upends that old theory. It wasn’t dropping temperatures that helped drive the Norse from Greenland, but drought.

The research team spent 3 years gathering sediment samples from a lake called Lake 578. There were Norse settlements close to this lake.

The field group acquired a short lake sediment core from Lake SI-102, southern Greenland. From left to right: Isla Castañeda, Tobias Schneider, Boyang Zhao, Raymond Bradley. Not pictured: William Daniels. Image credit: William Daniels

They discovered that while the temperature barely changed over that period what happened was the area became drier in Southern Greenland.

Norse farmers had to overwinter their livestock on stored fodder, and even in a good year the animals were often so weak that they had to be carried to the fields once the snow finally melted in the spring. Under conditions like that, the consequences of drought would have been severe. An extended drought, on top of other economic and social pressures, may have tipped the balance just enough to make the Eastern Settlement unsustainable.

You can find the article here: Prolonged Drying Trend Coincident with the Demise of Norse Settlement in Southern Greenland

The research was led by the University of Massachusetts Amherst, also included Smith College and the University at Buffalo, supported by the National Science Foundation, UMass Amherst, the Geological Society of America, and the Swiss National Science Foundation.

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