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  • William Tyler

Greenland: Some Early History


Introduction. For those who attended my recent Baltic History course or for others who like a little offbeat history here is a short introduction to the early history of Greenland.


But first, a little general information relating to today. Greenland is the world's largest island, and 80% of its surface is covered by a permanent ice sheet, the only one outside of Antarctica. It has a population of roughly 57.5k, of whom 18k live in the Greenland capital of Nuuk. 80% of the population is Greenlander, which means pure bred Inuit or mixed race Inuit. The rest being European. The main languages are Greenlandic,

an Inuit language, Danish, and English. Greenland is a semi self governing part of Denmark, and there are flashpoints in this relationship. For example taken into The EU along with Denmark, Greenland opted out in 1985, largely over rows regarding its fishing industry; but Greenland's opt out is very different from Britain's as Greenlanders remain EU members and the country receives EU grants as 'an overseas country and territory' of Denmark.


History. The original Inuit inhabitants of Greenland arrived around 2500BC from North America. This was the first of a number of such arrivals, all of whom died out or left, so that when the first Europeans arrived at the end of the 10th century they found the island uninhabited. In 985 Erik the Red, a Viking from Iceland, who had been banished for murder, decided to bring a convoy of immigrants to this barren land. It was Erik who hit on the marvellous pr idea of describing this desolate land as GREENland ( as opposed to Iceland, the country they were leaving - some of them must have had one hell of a shock on arrival).

The settlements thrived and at its medieval height the population may have reached somewhere between two and ten thousand - the experts disagree, but today the figure is confidently thought to be nearer the two than the ten thousand figure.

It was from Greenland that Erik's son Leif Eirickson sailed to North America and established settlements in 'Vinland' (modern day Newfoundland).


These Norse settlers

shipped in cattle, sheep, and goats from Scandinavia and Iceland

hunted caribou and seals, and in summer, walrus, polar bear, and narwhals in the far north.

traded walrus ivory, rope, sheep,seals,wool, and cattle hides

imported iron goods and timber


Having benefited from a brief warm age the settlements suffered with the arrival of the Little Ice Age in the 14th and 15th centuries. And, by the end of the first or second decade of the 15th century all records cease. The last written record being a marriage celebrated in 1408.

A German ship, blown off course in the 1540s, saw no evidence of Norse settlement surviving.


One of the great mysteries of history is how exactly did this Greenlandic Norse community collapse:-

1 Changing and deteriorating climate (some archaeological evidence for this)

2. Migration of Inuit from the North, where they had arrived around 1200. They may have been forced south by the climate or lured by the riches of the Norse settlements. There is, however, no evidence of massacres

3 Collapse in walrus ivory trade as cheaper ivory was available from Russia (walrus) and Africa (elephant)

4 Taking up opportunities in Iceland after half the Icelandic population had been killed by The Black Death of 1402/04, leaving many farms derelict


In 1721 the Danish Government sent Christian missionaries to evangelise the pagan Inuit.




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