On Greenland Norse and Neandertals

2 minute read

I just read a good popular article by Colin Woodard about the 15th-century decline of the Greenland Norse.

"During the same time period, a lot of Norse settlements in Iceland and northern Norway were being abandoned, but nobody writes big books about that," [forensic anthropologist Niels] Lynnerup says. "I'm not sure that the Norse saw Greenland as being very different from the fjords they came from in Norway, and leaving it was no more stressful than abandoning a hamlet in Norway." His theory: In the 1300s and 1400s, Greenland's youths voted with their feet, leaving until the colony could no longer support itself. The last few left.

You may have seen some of this stuff before -- I think there has been a television special about it -- but it's a nice summary of what forensic anthropologists and others have been up to in southern Greenland, complete with analyses of livestock parasites.

I'm pointing to the article because of this line:

Did the Norse colonists starve? Were they wiped out by the Inuit - or did they intermarry? No. Things got colder and they left.

This is what I always keep in mind when I'm reading about "climate change killing the Neandertals" and whatnot. Human movements are fast. Hunter-gatherer migration is potentially much faster than migration of sedentary agriculturalists. In the archaeological record, we are not looking at migrations, we are looking at long-term fluctuations in the pattern of short-term, rapid movements.

There is no great dramatic moment. For the Norse, it looks like there were several bad winters. As the story relates, some people died, but most left.

The possible difference in the Neandertal case is the vastly longer timescale, which may have allowed a much greater cultural shift. It looks like the Norse did not mate with the indigenous Inuit in a way that left a lot of genes behind in Greenland natives. Their culture never adopted elements of Inuit subsistence technology that might have worked for them. Neandertals had longer to adjust -- and there were possibly fewer technological differences between them and their contemporaries in the first place. Cultural interactions seem to have occurred, and we can imagine mating would have also.

But in the end, climate change in Europe 35,000 years ago really amounted to a long run of bad winters. The people should have moved. They did move. Whoever was making Mousterian tools eventually stopped. As to what else happened, we have to rely on comparisons of other, later samples.

UPDATE (2007/01/06): A reader writes:

There is, of course, another comparison, the ESKIMO populations, who did not become extinct, or were even affected. The Norse were too arrogant to learn from the local "savages", not even Christians.

Good point.

Also, Razib picks up the theme.