A map of the Eastern Settlement on Greenland, covering approximately the modern municipality of Kujalleq
. Eiriksfjord (Erik's fjord) and his farm Brattahlid
are shown, as is the location of the bishopric at Gardar.
According to the Sagas of Icelanders, Norsemen from Iceland first settled Greenland in the 980s. There is no special reason to doubt the authority of the information that the sagas supply regarding the very beginning of the settlement, but they cannot be treated as primary evidence for the history of Norse Greenland because they embody the literary preoccupations of writers and audiences in medieval Iceland that are not always reliable.
Erik the Red (Old Norse: Eiríkr rauði), having been banished from Iceland for manslaughter, explored the uninhabited southwestern coast of Greenland during the three years of his banishment. He made plans to entice settlers to the area, naming it Greenland on the assumption that "people would be more eager to go there because the land had a good name". The inner reaches of one long fjord, named Eiriksfjord after him, was where he eventually established his estate Brattahlid. He issued tracts of land to his followers.
Map showing the extent of the Norse world
Norse Greenland consisted of two settlements. The Eastern was at the southwestern tip of Greenland, while the Western Settlement was about 500 km up the west coast, inland from present-day Nuuk. A smaller settlement near the Eastern Settlement is sometimes considered the Middle Settlement. The combined population was around 2,000–3,000. At least 400 farms have been identified by archaeologists. Norse Greenland had a bishopric (at Garðar) and exported walrus ivory, furs, rope, sheep, whale or seal blubber, live animals such as polar bears, supposed "unicorn horns" (in reality narwhal tusks), and cattle hides. In 1126, the population requested a Bishop (headquartered at Garðar), and in 1261, they accepted the overlordship of the Norwegian King. They continued to have their own law and became almost completely independent after 1349, the time of the Black Death. In 1380, the Norwegian Kingdom entered into a personal union with the Kingdom of Denmark.
Western trade and decline
There is evidence of Norse trade with the natives (called Skraelings by the Norse). The Norse would have encountered both Native Americans (the Beothuk, related to the Algonquin) and the Thule, the ancestors of the Inuit. The Dorset had withdrawn from Greenland before the Norse settlement of the island. Items such as comb fragments, pieces of iron cooking utensils and chisels, chess pieces, ship rivets, carpenter's planes, and oaken ship fragments used in Inuit boats have been found far beyond the traditional range of Norse colonization. A small ivory statue that appears to represent a European has also been found among the ruins of an Inuit community house.
The settlement began to decline in the 14th century. The Western Settlement was abandoned around 1350, and the last bishop at Garðar died in 1377. After a marriage was recorded in 1408, no written records mention the settlers. It is probable that the Eastern Settlement was defunct by the late 15th century. The most recent radiocarbon date found in Norse settlements as of 2002 was 1430 (±15 years). Several theories have been advanced to explain the decline.
The Little Ice Age of this period would have made travel between Greenland and Europe, as well as farming, more difficult; although fishing and seal hunting provided a healthy diet, there was more prestige in cattle farming, and there was increased availability of farms in Scandinavian countries depopulated by famine and plague epidemics. In addition, Greenlandic ivory may have been supplanted in European markets by cheaper ivory from Africa. Despite the loss of contact with the Greenlanders, the Norwegian-Danish crown continued to consider Greenland a possession.
Not knowing whether the old Norse civilization remained in Greenland or not—and worried that if it did, it would still be Catholic 200 years after the Scandinavian homelands had experienced the Reformation—a joint merchant-clerical expedition led by the Dano-Norwegian missionary Hans Egede was sent to Greenland in 1721. Though this expedition found no surviving Europeans, it marked the beginning of Denmark's re-assertion of sovereignty over the island.
Climate and Norse Greenland
Norse Greenlanders were limited to scattered fjords on the island that provided a spot for their animals (such as cattle, sheep, goats, dogs, and cats) to be kept and farms to be established. In these fjords, the farms depended upon byres to host their livestock in the winter, and routinely culled their herds in order to survive the season. The coming warmer seasons meant that livestocks were taken from their byres to pasture, the most fertile being controlled by the most powerful farms and the church. What was produced by livestock and farming was supplemented with subsistence hunting of mainly seal and caribou as well as walrus for trade. The Norse mainly relied on the Nordrsetur hunt, a communal hunt of migratory harp seals that would take place during spring. Trade was highly important to the Greenland Norse and they relied on imports of lumber due to the barrenness of Greenland. In turn they exported goods such as walrus ivory and hide, live polar bears, and narwhal tusks. Ultimately these setups were vulnerable as they relied on migratory patterns created by climate as well as the well-being of the few fjords on the island.
A portion of the time the Greenland settlements existed was during the Little Ice Age and the climate was, overall, becoming cooler and more humid. As climate began to cool and humidity began to increase, this brought longer winters and shorter springs, more storms and affected the migratory patterns of the harp seal. Pasture space began to dwindle and fodder yields for the winter became much smaller. This combined with regular herd culling made it hard to maintain livestock, especially for the poorest of the Greenland Norse. In spring, the voyages to where migratory harp seals could be found became more dangerous due to more frequent storms, and the lower population of harp seals meant that Nordrsetur hunts became less successful, making subsistence hunting extremely difficult. The strain on resources made trade difficult, and as time went on, Greenland exports lost value in the European market due to competing countries and the lack of interest in what was being traded.
In addition, it seemed that the Norse were unwilling to integrate with the indigenous Thule of Greenland, either through marriage or culture. There is evidence of contact as seen through the Thule archaeological record including ivory depictions of the Norse as well as bronze and steel artifacts. However, there is essentially no material evidence of the Thule among Norse artifacts. In older research it was posited that it was not climate change alone that lead to Norse decline, but also their unwillingness to adapt. For example, if the Norse had decided to focus their subsistence hunting on the ringed seal (which could be hunted year round, though individually), and decided to reduce or do away with their communal hunts, food would have been much less scarce during the winter season. Also, had Norse individuals used skin instead of wool to produce their clothing, they would have been able to fare better nearer to the coast, and wouldn't have been as confined to the fjords. However, more recent research has shown that the Norse did try to adapt in their own ways. Some of these attempts included increased subsistence hunting. A significant number of bones of marine animals can be found at the settlements, suggesting increased hunting with the absence of farmed food. In addition, pollen records show that the Norse didn't devastate the small forests and foliage as previously thought. Instead the Norse ensured that overgrazed or overused sections were given time to regrow and moved to other areas. Norse farmers also attempted to adapt. With the increased need for winter fodder and smaller pastures, they would self-fertilize their lands in an attempt to keep up with the new demands caused by the changing climate. However, even with these attempts, climate change was not the only thing putting pressure on the Greenland Norse. The economy was changing, and the exports they relied on were losing value. Current research suggests that the Norse were unable to maintain their settlements because of economic and climatic change happening at the same time.