Category Archives: Iceland

Viking and Inuit in Greenland

While Viking rulers of Kyiv in Ukraine formally converted to Christianity in 988 CE at the outer limits of eastern Europe, two small viking settlements emerged at the southern tip of Greenland close to the Americas. The Norse settlers of Greenland left Iceland with 25 ships, but 11 of these either turned back to Iceland or were lost at sea. The remaining 14 boats arrived near 61 N latitude to establish an “Eastern” settlement which over time grew to more than 190 farms and 12 churches. Farther north near 64 N latitude a smaller “Western” settlement eventually grew to about 90 farms and four churches near Nuuk, today’s capital of Greenland. The “Western” settlement had a warmer and milder continental climate, because their farms were located far inland within a wide and complex fjord system that sheltered the farmers from atrocious coastal storms. The “Eastern” settlement was hit harder by these storms, because here the farms were closer to shore, closer to the icesheet, and closer to the center of the North-Atlantic storm activity.

North-Atlantic location map with Norse trading routes between Europe and Greenland adapted from Jackson et al. (2018)

For about 200-300 years the settlements flourished and reached a population of about 4,000 people. They paid taxes to the King of Norway, donated tithes to their churches, and imported clothing, iron, and food stuff from Scandinavia. They paid with ivory from narwhales and walrus that they hunted in Disko Bay at 69 N latitude. Three viking hunters scratched their names in stone on a cairn they built about 1333 CE on an island near Upernavik at 73 N latitude (Francis, 2011). At these “Northern Hunting Grounds” the vikings from both “Eastern” and “Western” settlements likely met the Inuit of the Thule culture who at the time were moving south along West Greenland after a 3000 km migration from coastal Alaska within a few generations.

Runestone of Kingittorsuaq found at 72°57′55″N 56°12′45″W stating “Erlingur the son of Sigvat and Bjarni Þorðar’s son and Eindriði Oddr’s son, the washingday (Saturday) before Rogation Day, raised this mound and rode…” [Photo Credit: Ukendt /Nationalmuseet, Danmark]

The modern Inuit of the Thule culture arrived in Greenland about 200-300 years after the vikings did. They arrived on foot, by dog sled, and in umiaks from the Bering Sea area of Alaska and Siberia (Friesen, 2016). They were equally adept to hunt caribou on land with bow and arrow, seals on sea ice with spears, and whales on open ocean with sophisticated harpoons. They crossed Smith Sound at 79 N latitude about 1300 CE to reach Greenland spreading south towards the viking settlements and north-east towards Fram Strait separating Greenland from Svalbard. On a beach off Independence Fjord in North-East Greenland at almost 83 N latitude Eigil Knuth found the frame of one of their skin-hulled umiak in 1949 (Knuth, 1952).

Umiak in Greenland as depicted by Carl Rasmussen in 1875 adapted from

The vikings built “permanent” houses of stone, farmed the land, and kept sheep, goat, and cows. They hunted walrus and narwhal for its ivory to trade with Europe to import metals, clothes, and foods. Their diet until about 1300 CE was high on terrestrial and low on marine resources as indicated by isotopic studies of their bone structure. This changed when a cooling climate challenged animal husbandry in Greenland and the Norse transitioned towards a marine-based diet of fish, seals, and marine mamals (Jackson et al., 2018).

Map of Greenland and Ellesmere Islands adapted from Gullov (2008). Red symbols indicate Norse artifacts found at Inuit sites occupied in the 13th and 14th century while black dots represent location of such artifacts at 15th and 16th century.

In contrast, the Inuit embraced a more mobile life-style as entire family units moved large distances to new sites from year to year and seasonally from summer to winter camps. Their hunting was tied to the sea ice and they developed fancy techniques to hunt larger whales, walrus, and polar bears for food, fuel, and clothing. Their technologies and behaviors adapted rapidly in an extreme environment and climate that kept changing in time. Inuit often viewed themselves and their animal prey as mutually connected with energies flowing from animal to Inuit and vice versa. Both were part of one nature which changes in time on many different cycles that one needs to read and understand for survival. This view differed from that of the more pastoral vikings who saw themselves and their homes as “safe inner spaces” and everything on the outside as “wild and hostile” nature. They constantly tried to modify, improve, and control the landscape while the Inuit moved and adapted within it (Jackson et al., 2018).

Viking settlement on Greenland (left), chess figures from walrus ivory (center), and viking longboat from the 10th century.

The vikings vanished without a trace in the 15th century. Their fate is still researched and debated in academic and popular outlets alike. In contrast, the Inuit expanded their range along all of Greenland where in the 18th and 19th centuries they were “re-discovered” in the South by Danish and Moravian colonists and missionaries and in the North by the English Navy, American adventurers, and Danish scientists.

In 1910 two Danes Knut Rasmussen and Peter Freuchen established a trading post at North Star Bay near 77 N Latitude. They called “Thule.” Over the next 20 years Thule became a focal point of about 200 nomadic Inughuit that all are direct descendants of the Thule culture Inuit. There are about 700 of them today and most still live in Qaanaaq. Linguist Stephen Pax Leonard lived among them for a year in 2010/11 when he produced a 10 minute video that documents contemporary Inuit life and language.

Contemporary photos of Qaanaaq and Thule region. Photos on left panel by Dr. Steffen Olsen near Tracy Glacier in Inglefield Fjord while images in right panel are of North Star Bay and Thule Air Base by the author.


Francis, C.S., 2011: The Lost Western Settlements of Greenland, 1342, California State Univ. Sacramento, MA Thesis, 84 pp.

Friesen, T.M., 2016: Pan-Arctic Population Movements, Chap.-28 of “The Prehistoric Arctic,” Oxford Univ. Press, 988 pp.

Gullov, H.C., 2008: The Nature of Contact between Native Greenlanders and Norse, J. North Atlantic, 1, 16-24.

Jackson, R., J. Arneborg, A. Dugmore, C. Madsen, T. McGovern, K. Smiarowski, R. Streeter, 2018: Disequilibrium, Adaptation, and the Norse Settlement of Greenland, Human Ecology, 46 (5),

Kintsch, E., 2016: Why did Greenland’s Vikings disappear? Science, 10.1126/science.aal0363, accessed as

Knuth, E., 1952: An Outline of the Archaeology of Peary Land, Arctic, 5(1), pp. 17-33.

My own private Iceland

Reading Halldor Laxness’ epic novel “Independent People,” I am in Iceland for the last 10 days. I re-discovered this author after reading a small essay the New Yorker published last week. This book is set in Iceland of the early 1900s to the mid 1920ies. Sheep, starvation, and spirits evil and otherwise all play roles as does time that changes people, politics, and procreation. Finishing it sunday, I feel I have been here before.

Lifted from fioncchu,

My first Laxness novel “Islandklukken” (Iceland’s Bell in English) I read as a 20-year old during the Cold War when I served my country for 16 month more than 40 years ago. At the time I dreamt of the world as it had not yet revealed itself to me. My pre-college mind had a romantic notion of walking remote and wild areas of Norway and Iceland after an unromantic 1981 motorcycle trip across southern Norway the prior summer. I now worked as a paramedic in the drizzly gray German town of Husum by the North Sea. During this first winter away from parents and High School friends I bought my first Laxness and immediate afterwards “Die Saga von Egil” (Egil Skallagrimsson Saga). This Icelandic saga was written about 1200 AD and it chronicles the life of a viking poet farmer who killed many men for the 91 years after his birth in 904 AD. Along with this book I also bought a topographic map of Iceland published by the Touring Club of Iceland at a scale of 1:750,000 printed in 1979 in Reykjavik. It cost me 29.90 Deutsche Mark or about 10% of my monthly income at the time. Such armed, I followed Egil Skallagrimsson across Iceland starting at his place of birth about 35 miles north of Reykjavik.

Oil on canvas: “Summer in the Greenland coast circa the year 1000” painted by Danish painter Carl Rasmussen in 1874.

The same map follows me on my current travels across Iceland until I find the many databases of the Icelandic Geodedic Survey. High-resolution (1:50,000 scale, say) are generated instantly whereever I want. For days now I am hiking for days across the Icelandic highlands in the East and West, across interior deserts in the center, and wet coasts in the North. My first trip was across the Highlands from Pingvellir to Reykir past the glacier Langjoekull to the North and West and the glacier Hofsjoekull in the East and South. My maps locate many backcountry huts where I stay or pitch my tent. I here follow Dieter Graser’s excellent descriptions, photos, and GPS waypoints when he hiked the “Kjalvegur” alone in 2007. I even stole this map from his content-rich web-site where I spent the last 2 days traveling with finger on maps, books, and internets

Dieter Graser’s hike from Pingvellir in the south-west to Maellfell near Reykir in the north-east. It took him 19 days to complete this hike in August of 2007. [Credit Dieter Graser]

I even got a first intinary: My direct Iceland Air flight leaves Baltimore on Aug.-16 at 8:30 pm in the evening and arrives in Reykjavik the next morning at 6:25 am. A Grey Line bus gets me into the Highland for less than $48 in 2 1/2 hours, but it does not leave until 8 am on the next day. Hence there is plenty of time in iceland’s capital city to explore, get provisions, and perhaps visit the Landsbjoerg which is Iceland’s Search and Rescue organization. It is good practice to let someone local know when you will be where and back as one heads into the backcountry. The bus will let me off in Hviternes from where it is a 40 km hike to Hveravellir where there are two web-cams: the first points to the West while the second points East. I got 5 days to do this 3-day hike, so there is time for a day or two to do nothing, read, or just soak in the scenery and/or a hot spring and/or both at the same time. The bus will pick me up at the hot springs of Hveravellir at 2:30 pm on Aug.-22 to get me back to Reykjavik at 7:30 pm which is plenty of time to catch my plane back home the next day at 5:10 pm with an arrival 6 hours later. The return flight comes to $746 and even includes my backpack (<50 lbs).

There is just one problem … my passport expired.

P.S.: The three photos below are all from Dieter Graser who shared them at his outstanding web-site at

The hut Þverbrekknamúli along the “Kjalvegur.” The view is to the east with the Kerlingarfjöll in the back. [Credit Dieter Graser]
Dieter Graser at Hvítárnes in 2007. [Credit Dieter Graser].
Hveravellir in August 2007. [Credit Dieter Graser]