A Viking colony in Greenland implies we are better at survival than supposed.
The history of European explorers is replete with nasty stories of intelligent people failing to adapt to harsh new environments. One exception is the eleventh-century Vikings who settled in Greenland and prospered there for five centuries.
Of course there are many stories of abject failure from the Franklin expedition in search of the Northwest passage to the demise of the Burke-Willis expedition in Australia in 1860. The few survivors of such ill-fated expeditions often lived to tell the tale because they were assisted by indigenous people.
Clueless Europeans Rescued by Native Americans
One of the more familiar examples is the colony at Jamestown. Of course, the Puritan colonies were ultimately successful (or most of us would not be here) but their early years are consistent with a narrative of clueless European adventurers getting in over their heads. They experienced starvation and high mortality until rescued by indigenous people who showed them how to survive in the local ecology.
Spanish conquistadors in Texas found themselves in that situation in 1528 when many of the Panfilo Narvaez expedition missed the ship home and decided to follow the Gulf coast to Mexico. They were helped by kindly Karankawa hunter gatherers who showed them how to find food before succumbing to less charitable people who enslaved them.
Anthropologist Joseph Henrich and others interpret such disastrous expeditions as evidence that humans cannot really survive in nature without an extensive body of (inherited) information about how to succeed in the local ecology.
The Viking Colony in Greenland as Counter Example
For a long time, the Viking colony in Greenland was interpreted in similar terms but anthropologists recently collected a lot of evidence that calls this view into question.
One important point is that the Viking colony did not fail immediately. In fact it persisted for almost 500 years—from the end of the tenth century until the mid-15th century. Moreover, analysis of skeletons reveals that colonists remained in good health throughout their stay. Abandonment of the colony was orderly, given that items of value were not left behind.
The Viking settlement was enabled by the Medieval warm period. Emigrants from Norway, Denmark, and Iceland settled on hundreds of farms along sheltered fjords. The success of the colony is indicated by the construction of dozens of churches.
Until recently, scholars had assumed that climatic reversion to cold conditions in the mid-13th century made it more difficult to grow food resulting in famine and population collapse (after the fashion of the Jamestown colony) but they were clearly wrong.
Now a new picture is emerging of a vital trading outpost that exported seal skins and valuable walrus tusks that were used for ivory carvings, such as those in churches.
The colonists adapted to declining harvests due to increasingly cold climate by turning their attention to the sea. At the end of their stay, they derived most of their nourishment from seals and fish, according to bone analysis, thus mimicking the subsistence economy of the Inuit.
As to why the colony was abandoned, scholars link this to the collapse of the ivory trade that was supplanted by trade in elephant tusks. Demand for seal skins also evaporated so that regular ship traffic from Norway stopped in the mid-14th century.
Without items such as iron tools and lumber, life on the island became increasingly difficult, as well as being isolated and monotonous. In the end, they couldn’t take it any more and went home voluntarily.
So much for the historical context. How can we explain the remarkable success of the colony given that so many other such projects came to grief?
Viking Adaptations to Greenland
The standard explanation, namely that kindly natives lent their expertise to foundering European explorers, does not work in this case. The nearest human settlements were many hundreds of miles away. The Viking settlers were completely on their own.
As the climate cooled rapidly, colonists turned their attention from farming to hunting and fishing, and accomplished this transition within a few generations.
On the farming side, they gave up cattle because these large animals are difficult to provision through a long cold winter and switched to raising cattle and sheep.
Seal meat became their staple food and they used seal oil lamps as a source of heat and light in homes that were built from sod.
Contrary to the narrative by Joseph Henrich and others, the Viking colony in Greenland suggests that people do not need the accumulated knowledge of many generations in order to adapt to a completely new ecology. It is possible to accomplish this through intelligent problem-solving by individuals.
No one ever claimed that this is easy, of course, which is why so many expeditions failed. The Viking colony in Greenland is one case of successful adaptation. Unfortunately, the details of their lives are obscure. We do know that they survived and were very healthy and that their success can be attributed to what they learned as individuals, as opposed to benefiting from inherited expertise relevant to an Inuit-type subsistence.
Nigel Barber Ph.D. is an evolutionary psychologist.
This article appeared in Psychology Today on 9 March 2017