The Vikings: A Memorable Visit to America

The Icelandic house of what is likely the first European-American baby has scholars rethinking the Norse sagas

Vikings sailing to Iceland (H. A. Guerber)
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The Viking presence in North America had dwindled to nothing long before Columbus began island hopping in the Caribbean. Why did the Norse fail where other Europeans succeeded? After all, Vikings were consummate seamen and peerless raiders who populated marginally inhabitable Greenland and who would push their way into the British Isles and France. And with their iron weapons and tools, they had a technological edge over America's indigenous peoples.

Several explanations have been advanced for the Vikings' abandonment of North America. Perhaps there were too few of them to sustain a settlement. Or they may have been forced out by American Indians. While the European conquest was abetted by infectious diseases that spread from the invaders to the Natives, who succumbed in great numbers because they had no acquired immunity, early Icelanders may not have carried similar infections.

But more and more scholars focus on climate change as the reason the Vikings couldn.t make a go of it in the New World. The scholars suggest that the western Atlantic suddenly turned too cold even for Vikings. The great sailing trips of Leif and Thorfinn took place in the first half of the 11th century, during a climatic period in the North Atlantic called the Medieval Warming, a time of long, warm summers and scarce sea ice. Beginning in the 12th century, however, the weather started to deteriorate with the first frissons of what scholars call the Little Ice Age. Tom McGovern, an archaeologist at Hunter College in New York City, has spent more than 20 years reconstructing the demise of a Norse settlement on Greenland. In the middle of the 14th century, the colony suffered eight harsh winters in a row, culminating, in 1355, in what may have been the worst in a century. McGovern says the Norse ate their livestock and dogs before turning to whatever else they could find in their final winter there. The settlers might have survived if they had mimicked the Inuit, who hunted ringed seal in the winter and prospered during the Little Ice Age.

With sea ice making the routes from Iceland to Greenland and back impassable for Norse ships for much of the year, the Little Ice Age probably curtailed further Norse traffic to North America. Iceland also fared badly during this time. By 1703, weather-related food shortages and epidemics of plague and smallpox had reduced Iceland's population to 53,000, from more than 150,000 in 1250.

It’s worth pondering how the history of the West might have differed if the weather had remained balmy. Norse populations in Iceland and Greenland might have flourished, and the Vikings might have remained in North America. If the temperature had been a few degrees higher, some of North America might be speaking Norse today.


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