Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Friday, October 23, 2009

Settlements Extinction and Identity: the case of Greenland Norse

Greenland lake.
Hvalsey church ruins. By Lars Reimer

As I said in my post about Cellular Automata, my concern is the data input, because the conditions given for life or death in the software are originally based on animals population, and it is a good analogy, but sometimes there are unexpected situations, related to feelings, psychology, memory, identity, and I understand that interdisciplinary help is needed to achieve urban simulations results as accurate as possible. This concern of mine began when I read chapters 7 and 8 of the book “Collapse” written by professor Jared Diamond. Some critics say that he is apocalyptic and his book is supported by the old “non consistent with reality” Malthus’ theory of overpopulation with its consequence of famine, disease and widespread mortality. I think Diamond is right in many aspects of how societies choose to fail or succeed. Both chapters have archaeological sources, and what was really interesting for me –after all, many towns and settlements were abandoned and cultures disappeared- is the fact that the Vikings inhabitants of Greenland were Europe-centrics above all, and this social identity conducted them to extinction.
It is the exception to the rule, because identity reinforces the social group ties and the feeling of belonging to a cultural group, helps in finding solution to emergent problems. Norse case is an example of auto-organized criticality: the system evolves without external intervention and without control parameters and this amplification of a small internal fluctuation can precipitate this critical state and provoke a chain reaction leading to a catastrophe. When appropriately perturbing a chaotic system, it is forced to take one of the many possible behaviors. But without sincronism, and under different environmental conditions, two virtually identical chaotic systems, will evolve toward different final states.

Barns ruins. By Dale Mackenzie Brown

What follows below is a compilation, slightly adapted from chapter 7 and 8 of “Collapse” and the article on line “The Fate of Greenland’s Vikings”, by Dale Mackenzie Brown. The Inuit’s description and their houses was taken from Further references are below for whoever is interested in more specific details, all of them very interesting.

Of the first 24 boatloads of land-hungry settlers who set out from Iceland in the summer of 986 to colonize new territory explored several years earlier by the vagabond and outlaw, Erik the Red, only 14 made it, the others were forced back to port or lost at sea. Yet more people, drawn by the promise of a better life, soon followed. Under the leadership of the red-faced, red-bearded Erik (who had given the island its name), the colonists developed a little Europe of their own just a few hundred miles from North America, a full 500 years before Columbus set foot on the continent. These Vikings shared the land with the Inuit (Eskimos). The Vikings disappeared but the Inuit survived, proving that human survival in Greenland was not impossible.

The Norse (Vikings) prospered by trading with Norway; the population may have risen to a peak of about 5,000 inhabitants. Their subsistence was based on a combination of pastoralism (growing domestic livestock) and hunting wild animals for meat; an odd behavior if reason says that fishing and whale hunt would be priority; but hunt must have brought great prestige to the individual hunters, and it maintained for the whole society the psychologically contact with Europe. They established dairy and sheep farms throughout the unglaciated areas of the south and built churches, a monastery, a nunnery, and a cathedral. Norse settlers started out with a mix of livestock following the European rank: lots of cows and pigs, fewer sheep and still fewer goats, plus some horses, ducks and geese. It quickly turned out that this ideal mix was not well suited to Greenland’s colder conditions: ducks and geese dropped out immediately, pigs proved terribly destructive and unprofitable in the lightly wooded environment; cows required far more effort than sheep and goats in Greenland’s climate, as only during the three snow free summer months grass is found. But cows were too prized as a status symbol to be eliminated. Sheep and goats were more suitable for the climate conditions, but the European habits were based on the opposite sequence.
Christian hierarchy also played an important role in Norse’s extinction. When Erik and his supporters arrived in Greenland, the old Norse gods were still worshiped. But Thjodhilde (Erik’s wife) converted to Christianity. In time, he granted her a small church, with room for 20 to 30 worshipers.

Although the presence of the Church had originally uplifted the Greenlanders, it then became their burden. By the middle of the fourteenth century, Church owned two-thirds of the island's finest pastures, and some of the proceeds went directly to the support of the Crusades and even to fight heretics in Italy.
The number of Norwegian merchant vessels arriving in their ports, though only one or two a year in the best of times, dropped until none came at all. This meant that the islanders were also cut off from the major source of iron and tools needed for the smooth running of their farms and the construction and maintenance of their boats. The dangerous ocean crossing would have put merchants at too much risk for too little gain, especially when African elephant ivory, once difficult to obtain, could be gotten easily and replaced walrus ivory.
As the Greenlanders' isolation from Europe grew, they found themselves victims of a steadily deteriorating environment. Their farmland, exploited to the full, had lost fertility. Dairy products alone were not enough to feed Norse inhabitants. At first, they consumed 20% of seafood (mostly seals), then the percentage rose up to 80% in the later years of their survival. Though it is incredible for archaeologists that Greenland Norse did not eat fish, the percentage for fish was less than 1%. Professor Diamond suggests that maybe they developed a taboo against eating fish. It seems that they never took advantage of the ample fish resources in the streams and fjords, even in times of famine.
Greenland's climate began to change as well; the summers grew shorter and progressively cooler, limiting the time cattle could be kept outdoors and increasing the need for winter fodder. This situation produced a change in the barns patterns. Originally conceived as single-roomed structures, they were divided into smaller spaces for warmth, and then into warrens of interconnected chambers, with the cows kept close by so the owners might benefit from the animals' body heat.

Farm beneath the sand. After three years of excavation, the Farm Beneath the Sand site began to take shape as rooms and passageways were revealed. It became clear that the front of the farm (to the right) had been eroded by the river; fortunately the river sands that covered the site had sealed it from the air and caused permafrost to preserve everything.

Inuit-Norse relations seem to have been fairly friendly at times, hostile at others. Canadian archaeologist Robert McGhee has pointed out, there is no physical evidence of massacres, the destruction of Norse property, or the takeover and reuse of Norse shelters by the Inuit. Besides, studies on Inuits’ mitochondrial DNA (inherited from mothers only) show no European admixture. What suggests that contact between the two people was limited to minor encounters.
In their effort to preserve the European identity, Norse’s clothes reflected the French and Dutch fashions, of course they never had to be confused with the “savage” Inuits. In their reluctance to see themselves as anything but Europeans, the Greenlanders failed to adopt the kind of apparel that the Inuit employed as protection against the cold and damp or to borrow any of the Eskimo hunting gear. They ignored the toggle harpoon, which would have allowed them to catch seals through holes in the ice in winter when food was scarce, and they seem not even to have bothered with fishhooks, which they could have fashioned easily from bone, as did the Inuit. Instead, the Norsemen remained wedded to their farms and to the raising of sheep, goats, and cattle in the face of ever worsening conditions. To Norse, concerned with their social survival as much as with their biological survival, it was out of the question to invest less in churches, to imitate Inuit’s survival tactics or intermarry with them.
Greenlanders became desperate. During a freezing winter, the farmers killed and ate their livestock, their dogs, birds, rats….Thomas McGovern of New York's Hunter College, who has participated in excavations in Greenland, has proposed that the Norsemen lost the ability to adapt to changing conditions. On the contrary, since the first wave of immigration via Thule around 4-5000 years ago, the Inuits in Greenland have been dependent on nature’s resources in the form of fish, birds, land mammals and marine mammals. Hunting and fishing have therefore always been a question of survival in a country in which the summer is short and the climate unsuitable for effective farming. The Inuits have had to utilize their ancestors’ skills, their own imagination and the materials that were available in the landscape around them to make the tools that could mean the difference between life and death. Throughout the generations, the Inuit cultures managed to create and refine unique products such as the kayak, the soapstone lamp and harpoons, bird spears and high quality clothing made of animal hide and fur. The fact that even compacted snow could be used to build a temporary shelter in the form of the igloo (shelter made of snow) bears witness to an extraordinary ability to utilize nature’s own materials.

Turf Hut by Filippo Barbanera

Model of igloo. Picture by Lars Reimer.

The turf hut was the most common type of dwelling, as they were so robust and well insulated that they could be lived in more or less permanently. A typical turf hut was low, square and its walls were made of large stones and turf and the roof was supported by wooden beams made of driftwood. The dwellings were always situated close to the sea so that the hunters could easily get to their kayaks when hunting for seals. An igloo is constructed of large blocks of snow that are cut out in different sizes with a special snow knife. The blocks are placed on top of each other in a spiral and form an effective dome-shaped shelter.
Instead of looking out for these type of solutions, the Norse carried with them their cultural values and preferred lifestyle based on their experience for generations in Norway and Iceland. Values that they defended under inappropriate conditions, till they suffered from starvation and met death.

Dale Mackenzie Brown The Fate of Greenland's Vikings. February 28, 2000
Diamond, Jared. Collapse. How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.Penguin Books, U.S.A. 2005

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