The rise and fall of societies in Greenland

By Razib Khan | May 30, 2011 9:10 pm

I have no idea when the paper will be on PNAS‘s website, so I thought I would at least point to the ScienceDaily release, Climate Played Big Role in Vikings’ Disappearance from Greenland:

Greenland’s early Viking settlers were subjected to rapidly changing climate. Temperatures plunged several degrees in a span of decades, according to research from Brown University. A reconstruction of 5,600 years of climate history from lakes near the Norse settlement in western Greenland also shows how climate affected the Dorset and Saqqaq cultures…..

The Dorset were the non-European population which preceded the Inuit, and the Saqqaq preceded them. Last year Nature published a paper based on 350,000 SNPs from an ancient Saqqaq male which showed that he was related to modern Siberian peoples, and not to the later Inuit. That’s at least a very clear argument for why we should be very cautious about extrapolating from the genetic patterns of the present back to the past (and to be fair, poking around Google Books it seems that the archaeologists were skeptical of continuity between Saqqaq and Dorset cultures on empirical grounds, even if their theoretical disposition tended toward establishing an evolutionary relationship between the two).

One major issue which always seems to crop up when it comes to climate & culture is that Greenland seems to be the favorite example of a given pet theory for the rise & fall of societies. This is because in Greenland’s case it’s obviously really on the margin of habitability, so a slight shift in the climatic regime may drive a population to extinction. I hope that the paper has a sophisticated accounting of this possibility though, because it is kind of useless to talk about an exogenous factor like climate without also considering the contextual issues. Some historians argue that one reason the Norse of Greenland “died out” is that at the end of the day they didn’t need to adapt, they could evacuate to nearby Iceland, which is what some scholars argued occurred in the early 1400s. The church records clearly indicate that there were marriages between Greenlanders and Icelanders during that period.


Comments (5)

  1. It occurs to me that these models of Greenland’s environment and society often don’t take into account the nature of Greenland’s integration with the wider northwest Atlantic world, especially with Iceland. The New World–Markland, Vinland, and the rest–is sexier.

  2. John Emerson

    After about 1100 or 1150 Norse expansionism came to an end. The Norse peoples Christianized and joined the European multinational community as national states. The French, Irish and English absorbed the settled Norse, and in Russia the Rus became Slavified.

    I haven’t followed this transformation in detail, but states are generally unfriendly to freelance bandits and raiders among their population, partly because they make the state enemies among the raided nations but also because successful raiders can return home and disrupt things there (e.g., try to usurp the throne.)

    Greenland was a distant outpost that needed support from the homeland, and after they stopped getting it for these reasons I just gave, they would have been vulnerableeven without the fall in the price of ivory and the navigational difficulties caused by climate change mentioned in the article).

    On the other hand, if there had been an influx of reasonably well-funded settlers, exiles or renegades or dissidents or a defeated dynasty, Greenland could have been a jumping off point to points south, and the Norse could have established a foothold in a temperate zone which might have been self-sufficient and a magnet for land-poor Europeans. But that didn’t happen, and it was definitely a long shot.

    The curse of history is single-factor explanations, especially when the single-factor explanation comes with a Moral of the Story attached, as Diamond’s did, and as many such explanations do. There’s likewise a tendency to try for material reductions to explain historical events, on the general idea that explanations based on events or social factors are always illusory, false consciousness, epiphenomenal, etc. I’ve been following the “climate changes caused the barbarian invasions” meme for a couple of decades, and while Lattimore’s version is at least plausible and intelligible, I’ve never seen this explanation ever closely linked to actual climate data. But people still repeat it as fact.

  3. This isn’t really news to people who are somewhat familiar with history of Northern Europe. The medieval warm period and the wealth it permitted is well documented in historical writings

  4. i bet the paper will focus on the dorset and saqqaq transitions. not so well documented in historical writings.

  5. Steve Funk

    I think there was only one boat after 1400, and they just took away the most marriageable woman.
    It has been a while since I read “Collapse.” Other factors besides climate. were a food prejudice against seafood, too much of the resources going to the church, and very high rates of soil erosion.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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