Cultures at the mercy of Mother Nature
People have lived in Greenland for more than 4500 years, although there have been long periods when the country has been completely uninhabited because conditions made it impossible. This could have been due to a lack of animals to hunt or in the event of a change of climate that made conditions too harsh for survival. Excavations from throughout Greenland and finds of ruins, tools, bones and clothing bear witness to highly developed cultures that immigrated in several separate waves.
First wave of immigration: Independence I
The first people in Greenland came from Northern Canada around 2500 BC. The Independence I culture spread along the northern coastline of Greenland to the southern parts of the present day National Park in Northeast Greenland. These early hunters were dependent on relatively stationary animal populations and primarily lived of musk oxen and ringed seals. The latest finds from Independence I has been dated approx. 1730 BC
Second wave of immigration: The Saqqaq culture
The second immigration from Canada to Greenland took place in around 2400 BC and lasted until 8-400 BC. The Saqqaq people settled from the southern part of Melville Bay, round Cape Farewell and up the southeast coast to what is today Ittoqqortoormiit. At the small settlement of Saqqaq in Disko Bay the first tools from this culture were found, and subsequently gave the name to the culture. The people of the Saqqaq culture are the ones who has lived in Greenland for the longest unbroken period. This was mainly due to the fact that these hunters were able to hunt and use a wide variety of animals, such as whales, seals, fish, birds and land mammals. New DNA research has proven that the Saqqaq people originated from the Aleutian Islands and were not genetically related to the later Inuit.
Third wave of immigration: Independence II and the Dorset culture
The next two immigrations were by the Independence II culture along Greenlands northern coastline and into Northeast Greenland from approx. 800 BC to 0 AD and a new culture, the Dorset, which came across the ice near present day Qaanaaq, and moved then southwards along Greenland's west coast and probably on to the southern part of the east coast. The Dorset people brought with them a women's knife, the ulo, which is still in use today in Greenland. Large knives for cutting snow indicate that this was the first culture to have learnt the art of building an igloo. The culture, named after Cape Dorset in Canada, lived primarily on the tundra and hunted land mammals such as reindeer and musk oxen.
Fourth wave of immigration: Dorset 2, Norse settlers and the Thule people
Around the end of the first millennium no less than three different cultures arrived in a fourth wave of immigration to Greenland. These immigrations happened after a seemingly uninhabited period of 800-900 years. The Dorset 2 people arrived in the 8th-9th centuries AD. This group settled primarily around Qaanaaq, in North and Northeast Greenland.
Nearly the same time the first eastern immigrants arrived, when settlers from Iceland and Norway took land in South and Southwest Greenland. This immigration can be dated rather precisely to 982 AD thanks to the Icelandic Chronicles, when Erik the Red set foot in South Greenland. The last historical evidence of the Norse settlers, who were primarily farmers, was a report of a wedding held in Hvalsey Church in 1408. Archeological findings indicate, that the norse culture in Greenland disappeared around 1450 AD.
The Thule culture presumably moved into Greenland around 1200 AD. This was the first people to settle all around Greenland both on the East- and the West coast. Greenlanders today are direct descendants of the Thule people, who primarily were a maritime culture, highly specialized in the hunting for sea mammals. The last known immigration from Canada took place in around 1860.
Many places in Greenland traces of the last immigrant cultures, in particular the Thule and Norse, can be seen today, and local museums and the National Museum in Nuuk exhibits collections of finds from these cultures.