PBS documentary (Greenland colonies)

In today’s mailbag report ( http://www.straightdope.com/mailbag/micegreenland.html ), there’s mention of a PBS documentary about the disappearance of the Norse colonies in Greenland. Has anyone seen that? I’m wondering about the conclusions (if any) they came to … I’m interested because I read a fascinating book some time ago called Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic by Vilhjalmur Steffanson. His theory was that the colonists didn’t vanish, they just merged with the Inuit tribes of Greenland over the (IIRC) 150 years or so that they were isolated from the rest of Europe. Anyway, can anyone tell me what theories were discussed in that PBS show & what they thought of them? Thanks!

It’s been a while since I saw it, but as I recall, there was precious little evidence of assimilation with the Inuit, and plenty of evidence of starvation. The evidence seemed to indicate that the Norse were almost perversely resistant to learning from the Inuit.

There was an article in a very similar vein in Discover magazine a few years back.

What I remember from the PBS episode is that the Greenland settlement was not isolated for 150 years. They had semi-regular contact with the Norse countries but since the wool, blubber and other exports were getting scarce due to the changing climate there were very few transport boats coming to the area. The boats only came during the short season (Summer?) where the voyage was relatively safe, the surrounding seas being too dangerous the rest of the year when there is little to gain financially. There were fewer and fewer people there each time a boat came but the final end was simply not noticed until someone came and there was noone there to meet them.

Sorry, I over-simplified his theory … he thought that the colonists had been forced to migrate northwest into better hunting territory by the changing climate, and the ships heading up that way gave up looking for them, as the icy waters made for dangerous sailing in that direction. The hiatus that he referred to was between the end of the attempts at trade missions and the next wave of exploration in the 17th century. And he certainly was riding a wave of speculation, but I thought he made a pretty good case. That book was written in the 1920’s, on the other hand, and I really don’t know what evidence for or against the various theories has come to light.

(His response to the claim that ‘the Norse were almost perversely resistant to learning from the Inuit’ was that the ‘evidence’ for this was rooted in wishful thinking by racist Norwegian historians who couldn’t imagine that heroic Viking frontiersmen would ever ‘stoop to living like savages’. Steffanson was very skeptical that proven survivors like these men would let their community starve to death when they had regular contact with Inuit tribes who were living quite well. The cooling climate that made the Norsemen’s traditional occupations untenable actually would have improved the hunting for the Inuits. While the Norse were allegedly starving to death, the aborigines a few miles up the coast would literally have had more seal, walrus, and polar bear meat than they could eat. Your racial pride can break down pretty fast in that kind of situation. :slight_smile: )

From what I recall of the documentary and the magazine article, the archaeological evidence seemed to be that, difficult though it would be to imagine the Norse not learning from the Inuit, they didn’t. For one thing, there was very little evidence of hunting for ring seal through the ice, something that has helped keep the Inuit going for millennia. There was evidence that indeed the Inuit were doing well, actually throwing out excess meat, at the same time the Norse were eating their own dogs.

I’m no archaeologist, I can’t assess the evidence, but it seemed reasonably persuasive.

Amazing. Maybe it was Stefansson who was underestimating the stubbornness of his ancestors. (At least he was right about the food supply of the Inuit under those climactic conditions! :slight_smile: )


I’ve read a lot about the Vikings, and I seem to recall that there wasn’t much contact between the Norsemen and the Inuit for the first several decades of the settlement. The two European settlements were on the southernmost tip of Greenland, and the Inuit lived farther up the western coast.

It wasn’t until the “mini Ice Age” that the Inuit began ranging southward and into collision with the Norse. Violent collision.

The PBS special (Was it an episode of Nova? I think so, although I wouldn’t swear to it.) suggested that, at the end, maybe the Vikings tried to flee (from both their human and their meteorological oppressors), but their ship(s) sank on the way back to Iceland. This would explain both why the sagas don’t tell us what happened, and the lack of bodies at the ruins of the settlements.