Those who called Greenland ‘Home’
Generations upon generations migrated to live with the Arctic conditions in Greenland. Let’s go back in time and trace the history of Greenland’s early settlers.
The First Inhabitants
The first humans to set foot on Greenland are thought to be the Paleo-Inuit Saqqaq people who moved there from continental North America in 2500 BCE. This was before the Bronze Age, around the same time the Pitted Ware culture existed in Scandinavia. However, the harsh climate and remoteness they encountered in Greenland meant permanent settlement and even survival proved to be difficult.
For several centuries, groups of immigrants succeeded each other, each bringing a new culture with them. The Saqqaq culture remained from approximately 2500 to 800 BCE, together with the Independence I culture, located in northern Greenland from around 2400 to 1300 BCE. Both of these cultures are said to stem from separate groups that originally came from northern Canada.
Around 800 BCE, the so-called Independence II culture arose, which is identical to Early Dorset and followed in the footsteps of Independence I. Several cultures rose and fell for centuries, until the Norse (a.k.a. Vikings) arrived in Greenland around 980. Thule culture came circa 1200; and by this time, Late Dorset Inuit peoples had established permanent settlements in parts of the island.
A new Era
It is assumed that Europeans became aware of Greenland’s existence around the early 10th century. Norse explorer Erik Thorvaldsson, known as Erik the Red, is described as the founder of the first settlement in Greenland, at least according to several Icelandic sagas. He supposedly earned his nickname because of his fire-like hair and beard, as well as his hot temper.
The redheaded explorer set out on an expedition from Iceland in the 980s, finally reaching the southwest coast of Greenland. Finding it uninhabited, the vikings settled down, and Erik named the island Grænland, literally meaning ‘green land’. His thinking was that this name would make the place sound inviting to others. And despite how icy the country is today, it’s likely that Greenland really was quite green at the time, especially in comparison to Iceland.
Erik established the chieftain’s seat of power at Brattahlið, now known as Qassiarsuk, in southern Greenland. Others travelled further north and settled close to a fjord near Nuuk (today’s capital), giving the Norse control in both the South and the North. They had a peak population of about 2,000, while Inuit peoples inhabited other parts of the land. New research suggests that at some point, the two peoples might have even lived in the same places at the same time.
Many Norse made a living as farmers, keeping cattle, sheep and goats. Others were hunters and merchants, hunting walruses, polar bears and narwhals for their skins, hides and ivory. They lived mainly off the seals they hunted, and they traded ivory from walrus tusks with Europe, as well as exporting rope, sheep, seals and wool.
In approximately year 1000, Christianity came to the island via Erik the Red’s son, Leif Eriksson. Leif, who often went by “Leif the Fortunate”, returned to Greenland after a long stretch spent in Norway, his father’s homeland. He brought with him Christian missionaries who established the first Christian church in Greenland, called Tjodhilde’s Church after Erik’s wife. Today, you can visit a small replica of the original church in Qassiarsuk.
Norse society survived in Greenland for around 500 years before disappearing around 1450 – 1500. Its collapse has many theories, ranging from gradual climate change that led to an increasingly challenging natural environment, conflict with Inuit peoples, to loss of contact and support from Europe. Another possible reason was the lack of demand for their ivory, which was now being imported from other countries. Cultural conservatism and inbreeding in the Norse community may have also played a part. Most likely the end of their era was a result of multiple factors.
While sailing with us, you’ll get the opportunity to travel in the footsteps of these early explorers and settlers and experience a unique culture that has been molded by centuries of different cultures and peoples.