Vikings In Greenland Ate Seals
November 20, 2012

Greenland Vikings Added Seal To Their Diet Before Disappearing

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

About 500 years ago, Greenland's Viking settlers, the Norse, disappeared suddenly and mysteriously. Many theories have been proposed to explain the disappearance, from natural disasters and climate change to the inability to adapt.

A team of researchers from Aarhus University, the University of Copenhagen, the National Museum of Denmark and the University in Vancouver has dispelled the idea that the Vikings died out due to an inability to adapt to the Greenlandic diet. An isotopic analysis of their bones shows they ate plenty of seals.

“Our analysis shows that the Norse in Greenland ate lots of food from the sea, especially seals,” says Jan Heinemeier, Institute of Physics and Astronomy, Aarhus University.

“Even though the Norse are traditionally thought of as farmers, they adapted quickly to the Arctic environment and the unique hunting opportunities. During the period they were in Greenland, the Norse ate gradually more seals. By the 14th century, seals made up between 50 and 80 percent of their diet.”

The team is studying 80 Norse skeletons kept at the University of Copenhagen's Laboratory of Biological Anthropology to determine their dietary habits. By studying the carbon-13 and carbon-15 isotope ratios, the team has determined that a large proportion of the Greenlandic Norse diet came from the sea. In particular, the Vikings ate seals according to the study, published in the Journal of the North Atlantic.

“Nothing suggests that the Norse disappeared as a result of a natural disaster. If anything they might have become bored with eating seals out on the edge of the world. The skeletal evidence shows signs that they slowly left Greenland. For example, young women are underrepresented in the graves in the period toward the end of the Norse settlement. This indicates that the young in particular were leaving Greenland, and when the numbers of fertile women drops, the population cannot support itself,” Niels Lynnerup of the University of Copenhagen explains.

Traditionally, the Norse have been thought of as farmers who would have stuck to agriculture until they lost the battle with Greenland's environment. The findings of this study challenge that view and give archaeologists reason to rethink their old theories.

“The Norse thought of themselves as farmers that cultivated the land and kept animals. But the archaeological evidence shows that they kept fewer and fewer animals, such as goats and sheep. So the farming identity was actually more a mental self-image, held in place by an over-class that maintained power through agriculture and land ownership, than it was a reality for ordinary people that were hardly picky eaters,” Jette Arneborg, archaeologist and curator at the National Museum of Denmark, says.

The early Norse settlers brought agriculture and livestock from Iceland, but they were not unfamiliar with hunting. The seals quickly became a necessary addition to their diet and the Vikings became nearly as adept at catching them as the Inuit who had come to Greenland from Canada around 1200. As the climate began to change, and sustaining their farms became increasingly difficult, the Norse began to rely on the seals to survive.

“The Norse could adapt, but how much they could adapt without giving up their identity was limited. Even though their diet became closer to that of the Inuit, the difference between the two groups was too great for the Norse to become Inuit,” Arneborg says.