Nunatsiaq News
NEWS: Around the Arctic November 20, 2012 - 8:44 am

Vikings ate lots of seals, then left Greenland: new research suggests why

"They might have become bored with eating seals"

The Norse, or Vikings, came to Greenland, settled the island and then left, leaving buildings like this church in Hvalsey in southern Greenland. (PHOTO COURTESY OF GREENLAND.COM)
The Norse, or Vikings, came to Greenland, settled the island and then left, leaving buildings like this church in Hvalsey in southern Greenland. (PHOTO COURTESY OF GREENLAND.COM)

New research shows Vikings liked seal.

“Our analysis shows that the Norse in Greenland ate lots of food from the sea, especially seals,” Jan Heinemeier from Denmark’s Aarhus University said in a Nov. 19 news release.

The Norse, also known as Vikings, settled in Greenland around the year 1000 AD.

Originally from today’s Scandinavia, they maintained settlements in Greenland until around 1450 AD, after which they disappeared mysteriously, the news release says.

At its height, the Norse population of Greenland reached between 2,000 and 3,000 in western Greenland, near modern-day Nuuk, and in south-western Greenland, near today’s Narsaq and Qaqartoq, where they traded with Greenlandic Inuit and supplied Europe with walrus tusks.

“Even though the Norse are traditionally thought of as farmers, they adapted quickly to the Arctic environment and the unique hunting opportunities. During the period they were in Greenland, the Norse ate gradually more seals. By the 14th century, seals made up between 50 and 80 per cent of their diet,” Heinemeier said.

The Danish and Canadian researchers have studied 80 Norse skeletons kept at the University of Copenhagen’s laboratory of biological anthropology to see what they ate.

From their analyses, the researchers determined that a large part of the Greenlandic Norse diet came from the sea — particularly from seals.

What they ate may point the way to why they left Greenland.

“Nothing suggests that the Norse disappeared as a result of a natural disaster. If anything they might have become bored with eating seals out on the edge of the world. The skeletal evidence shows signs that they slowly left Greenland. For example, young women are under-represented in the graves in the period toward the end of the Norse settlement. This indicates that the young in particular were leaving Greenland, and when the numbers of fertile women drops, the population cannot support itself,” said Niels Lynnerup of the University of Copenhagen.

The findings challenge the idea that Norse farmers lost the battle with Greenland’s environment, the news release notes.

“The Norse thought of themselves as farmers that cultivated the land and kept animals. But the archaeological evidence shows that they kept fewer and fewer animals, such as goats and sheep. So the farming identity was actually more a mental self-image, held in place by an over-class that maintained power through agriculture and land ownership, than it was a reality for ordinary people that were hardly picky eaters,” said Jette Arneborg, archaeologist and curator at the National Museum of Denmark.

The first Norse settlers brought agriculture and livestock such as cattle, sheep, goats and pigs from Iceland. But they quickly started to hunt seals, as a necessary addition to their diet.

So, researchers now suggest the Norse became as accustomed to catching seals as Inuit, who also lived in Greenland.

And seals became more important for survival as the climate began to change over time and it became increasingly difficult to sustain settlements through farming.

“The Norse could adapt, but how much they could adapt without giving up their identity was limited. Even though their diet became closer to that of the Inuit, the difference between the two groups was too great for the Norse to become Inuit,” Arneborg said.

And so they left.


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