Norse Greenland Settlement: Reflections on Climate Change, Trade, and The Contrasting Fates of Human Settlements in the North Atlantic Islands

Norse Greenland Settlement: Reflections on Climate Change, Trade, and The Contrasting Fates of Human Settlements in the North Atlantic Islands

By Andrew J. Dugmore, Christian Keller, and Thomas H. McGovern

Arctic Anthropology, Vol. 44, No. 1 (2007)

Abstract: Changing economies and patterns of trade, rather than climatic deterioration, could have critically marginalized the Norse Greenland settlements and effectively sealed their fate. Counter-intuitively, the end of Norse Greenland might not be symptomatic of a failure to adapt to environmental change, but a consequence of successful wider economic developments of Norse communities across North Atlantic. Data from Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and medieval Iceland is used to explore the interplay of Norse society with climate, environment, settlement, and other circumstances. Long term increases in vulnerability caused by economic change and cumulative climate changes sparked a cascading collapse of integrated interdependent settlement systems, bringing the end of Norse Greenland.

Introduction: At a time when the effects of global climate change can be seen to be taking place, there is a pressing need to assess how these might affect human society.  The extent to which climate changes exacerbate environmental degradation, drive settlement collapse, cause famine, spur migrations, or trigger conflict over resources has received widespread attention. It is clear that climate change, and the weather it produces, can have a wide range of impacts, many negative, some positive, but all with the potential to affect human security.

Crucially, however, opinions differ as to the importance to human societies of climate on its own and in comparison to unrelated processes of social, political, and economic change. Furthermore, even if climate change can be shown to have produced a direct impact (for instance crop failure or livestock mortality), perhaps the most important question of all is why people do not (or cannot) adapt and either avoid or mitigate the bad effects of the weather.

As with so many other environmentally related issues that cut across disciplinary boundaries, assessments of relative emphasis, sensitivity, thresholds, adaptation, and response are vital. This paper reconsiders the case of Norse Greenland and the end of the settlements in the early part of the Little Ice Age. For this iconic example of settlement desertion widely associated with climate change and an inability to adapt, the paper explores both the nature of climate change and unrelated economic factors that may have played crucial if not dominant roles in determining the ultimate fate of the Norse Greenlanders.

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