Posts Tagged ‘Greenland’



Topic Viking diet

Greenland’s viking settlers, the Norse, disappeared suddenly and mysteriously from Greenland about 500 years ago. Natural disasters, climate change and the inability to adapt have all been proposed as theories to explain their disappearance. But now a Danish-Canadian research team has demonstrated the Norse society did not die 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 per cent of their diet.”

The Danish and Canadian researchers are studying the 80 Norse skeletons kept at the University of Copenhagen’s Laboratory of Biological Anthropology in order to determine their dietary habits. From studying the ratio of the isotopes carbon-13 and carbon-15, the researchers determined that a large proportion of the Greenlandic Norse diet came from the sea, particularly from seals. Heinemeier measured the levels of carbon isotopes in the skeletons, Erle Nelson of Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver, Canada, analysed the isotopes, while Niels Lynnerup of the University of Copenhagen, examined the skeletons.

“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,” Lynnerup explains.

Hunters and farmers

The findings challenge the prevailing view of the Norse as farmers that would have stubbornly stuck to agriculture until they lost the battle with Greenland’s environment. These new results shake-up the traditional view of the Norse as farmers and have given archaeologists reason to rethink those 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 first Norse settlers brought agriculture and livestock such as cattle, sheep, goats and pigs from Iceland. While they thought of themselves as farmers, they were not unfamiliar with hunting.

They quickly started to catch seals, as they were a necessary addition to their diet. Toward the end of their stay, they became as accustomed to catching seals as the Inuit, who had travelled to Greenland from Canada around the year 1200 and inhabited the island alongside the Norse. Seals became more important for Norse survival as the climate began to change over time and it became increasingly difficult to sustain themselves through farming.

“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.
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Photos 1&2 by Jette Arneborg



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Topic: More on Barley growing in Greenland

Viking Ruin

The Vikings are both famous and notorious for their liking of beer and  mead and archaeologists have discussed for years whether Eric the Red  (ca 950-1010) and his followers had to make do without the golden drink  when they settled in Greenland around the year 1,000:  The climate was mild when they landed, but was it warm enough for growing barley?

Researchers  from the National Museum in Copenhagen say the answer to the question  is ‘yes’. In a unique find, they uncovered tiny fragments of charred barley grains in a Viking midden on Greenland.

The find  is final proof that the first Vikings to live in Greenland did grow  barley – the most important ingredient in making a form of  porridge, baking bread and of course in brewing beer, traditionally seen as the staple foods in the  Vikings’ diet.

“Archaeologists have always believed that the Vikings tried to  cultivate the soil on their farms in fertile southern Greenland,” says  Peter Steen Henriksen, who holds an MSc in agriculture. “But this hasn’t  been proved until now.”

Settling in a harsh environment

Henriksen, an archaeobotanist at  the National Museum’s Environmental Archaeology and Archaeometry  section (NNU) in Copenhagen, led an expedition to Greenland to study how  the Vikings tackled the task of settling in a cold and harsh  environment.

“Now we can see that the Vikings could grow barley, and this was very important for their survival,” he says.

The  find also substantiates a well-known text from about 1250, ‘King’s  mirror (Konungs skuggsjá)’, which mentions in passing that the Vikings  attempted to grow grain on Greenland. It is the only report about  cultivating barley that we have from that time and says: “As to whether any sort of grain can grow there, my belief is that the country draws but little profit from that source. And yet there are men among those who are counted the wealthiest and most prominent who have tried to sow grain as an experiment; but the great majority in that country do not know what bread is, having never seen it.”

Researchers believe the Vikings probably grew barley in small  quantities,  and sowed grain in enclosures that were no bigger than their  ability to irrigate the field and keep hungry animals out.

Well-preserved Viking farms

Henriksen and his colleagues were in  Greenland in 2010 and 2011 to search for signs of agriculture at Viking  farms at the island’s southernmost point.

“We carried out several  excavations at 12 different ruined Viking farms, even though they were  abandoned 700 to 800 years ago,” says the researcher. “Many of the farms  were well preserved. The peat and stone walls can still be seen, and in  some places they’re a metre and a half high.”

Midden heaps are a mine of knowledge

The researchers had little  chance of finding the remains they wanted in what was left of the stone  buildings, and Greenland’s soil is too thin to preserve remnants of any Viking agriculture. Further traces that might have existed have been  destroyed by the weather and not least by modern agricultural activities  – today’s Greenland sheep farmers have settled in the same places as  their Viking forebears.

But the Vikings were just like the rest of us, and needed  somewhere to get rid of their rubbish. The researchers found these rubbish  heaps (known as middens) close to the Vikings’ farms.

Barley at the bottom of the heap

Ancient Barley

The middens – containing food remains, household rubbish and ashes from the fires – were quite large,  which was not surprising as the Vikings had inhabited the farms for  many decades. As the contents rotted, the heaps subsided, and  are now only about a metre thick.

The sample we took from the bottom layer of a heap contained cereal grains. The grains had been close to a fire and were charred, which is what preserved them

“We excavated the middens  down to the bottom layers, which date from the time the settlers  arrived,” says Henriksen, whose team took 300 kg of samples for further  analysis. “The sample we took from the bottom layer of a heap contained  cereal grains. The grains had been close to a fire and were charred,  which is what preserved them.”

From their shape and size, the grains were positively identified as barley and they came  from local agricultural production.

Wild barley is not strong enough to grow in Greenland, says  Henriksen, who also rules out imported barley, as even small quantities  of grain would be too much for the cargo hold of the Vikings’ ships.

“If  the cereal grains had been imported, it would have already been threshed, so finding  parts of grains of barley is a very strong indication that the Vikings  grew their own,” he adds. The find also confirms researchers’  theory that they tried to continue the form of life they knew so  well from their original homes.

Little Ice Age stopped cultivation

The Greenland climate  was slightly warmer than it is today, and the southernmost tip of the great  island looked fertile and green and no doubt tempted Eric the Red and his  followers. This encouraged them to cultivate some of the seed they  brought with them from Iceland.

The Vikings also tried to grow  other agricultural crops. Their attempts to grow these crops and barley  did not last long, however, as the climate cooled over the next couple  of centuries until the Little Ice Age started in the 13th century.

“The Vikings couldn’t cultivate very much in the last decades they  were in Greenland because the climate was too bad,” says Henriksen.  “Barley needs a long growing season, and if that season is too short you  can’t harvest seed for the next season.”

At some point the Vikings  were no longer able to maintain the seed production for their food and  drink, and that made it more difficult for them to survive.

The mysterious end of Greenland’s Viking era

The cold climate may have finished off not only the barley but also the Vikings on Greenland themselves.

When  Eric the Red arrived in Greenland, the island’s original inhabitants,  the Inuit, had already died out because of the harsh climate. Perhaps  the Vikings suffered the same fate, or perhaps the cold caused them to  abandon their life on Greenland and move on.

According to written  sources, the Vikings in Greenland were last heard of in 1408. After that  they disappeared; no-one knows when, where or how.

Original Article:


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By: Sybille Hildebrandt, ScienceNordic



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Topic: Brewing Beer in ancient Greenland

Archaeologists from the Danish national museum have finally succeeded in  confirming that Erik the Red and his people could indeed brew beer in Greenland  when they lived there.

There has long been a question mark over whether or not the southern  Greenlandic climate was warm enough in Viking times to grow grain for beer,  mead, gruel and bread.

Now Danish archaeologists have found remains of burnt barley in a dunghill  from the time when Erik the Red and other Icelanders moved to Greenland. The  find is the first evidence of corn cultivation in southern Greenland a thousand  years ago.

According to Jyllandsposten, the archaeologists are very proud of their find  and are even shipping 300 kilogrammes of the dunghill home to Denmark for  further research.

Original article:


Jan28, 2012

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