Vikings have a special place in the history of the world. Traditionally depicted as brutal warriors with wild hair and beards, most people do not know that the Vikings were also first-class explorers. One of the most prominent areas explored and colonized by the Vikings was Greenland. Greenland was inhabited by Vikings beginning in 985, when the rogue Erik the Red landed with 14 ships of settlers. Although considered a frontier settlement, Erik the Red’s Greenland colony blossomed into a wondrous center of trade and culture. Building exquisite manor houses and churches, the Greenland colony was soon inhabited by nearly 2,500 Vikings, who grew rich off furs and wild animals.
Although a thriving colony, the Vikings abandoned Greenland sometime between 1450 and 1500 in a mystery that baffles historians till this day. In examining primary sources from the era, historians can find no evidence of an upcoming calamity that could have forced the departure of the colony’s entire 2,500 people. As time went by, historians began giving their best guess as to what happened to Greenland’s Vikings. As explained by Professor Thomas McGovern of Hunter College of the City University of New York, historians originally hypothesized that the Vikings were driven out of Greenland by overly cold temperatures.
In examining the theory in greater detail, Professor McGovern notes that the Viking settlement thrived during an era known as the Medieval Warm Period. The basis of the thesis argues that higher than normal temperatures during the Medieval Warm Period allowed the Vikings to transplant their way of life to Greenland. The theory further argues that Vikings were no longer able to live in Greenland when the Medieval Warm Period ended in 1257. This lowering in temperatures was caused by the burst of a volcano in Indonesia, which is recorded as one of the biggest eruptions of the past 7,000 years. The eruption caused sulfur to block out the sun throughout the world, leading to famines and colder temperatures, which, in the view of many historians, forced the Vikings to leave Greenland. Smaller problems, such as a dwindling wood supply and over grazing of herd animals, are also reasons why past historians thought the Vikings abandoned Greenland.
Modern historians have altered their approach in analyzing why Greenland’s Viking settlements were abandoned in the 1450s. New arguments, based on archeological digs, present multiple reasons for the vanishing of Viking culture from the island. By far the biggest reason now given by historians is the diminishing of the ivory trade in Greenland. In examining the sites of past settlements, archeologists discovered a remarkable amount of ivory from walrus tusks. These new finds changed the way historians viewed Greenland’s Viking settlements. Rather than seeing these locations as farm towns, historians now believe that most Viking settlers went to Greenland with the aim of participating in the highly lucrative ivory trade. Professor Andrew Dugmore of the University of Edinburgh believes that with the end of the Medieval Warm Period, ice sheets became thicker in Greenland, making hunting walruses harder. Viking ivory traders also faced new competition in the middle of the 15th Century, when Spanish and Portuguese traders began offering ivory from animals in Africa.
The collapse of the ivory trade led to bigger problems for settlers. Although the Vikings had an abundant supply of ivory, they had little in the way of food or grain. With no ivory to trade, historians believe that food became increasingly scarce in Viking communities. Historians also believe that the Black Death played a role in the collapse of the settlement. Although the Black Death did not spread in Greenland, it nevertheless ravaged Norway, the settlement’s sole supply link.
Given the evidence at hand, most historians agree that the decline of the ivory trade, coupled with an economic downturn and a pandemic that ravaged its home nation, led the Vikings to abandon Greenland. Despite losing their settlement, the history of Vikings in Greenland shows the ingenuity of their culture. For several centuries, Vikings were able to tame a vast wilderness and create a thriving colony and trade hub.