DESCENDANTS OF ERIC THE RED IN GREENLAND

There is a statue of Leif Ericsson in the small sheep farming settlement of Qassiarsuk in Southern Greenland. Leaning against a heavy battle axe he looks out over the Eric’s Fiord, named after his father, Eric the Red, and Leif seems to keep watch over the community while at the same time uneasily gazing towards the horizon.

Maybe he is thinking of his family’s origins in Iceland, about his people moving there from the shores of Norway, before they travelled west and ended up as Arctic farmers in Southern Greenland during the end of the 9th century. Or could it be that his thoughts were leading further west, as it was Leif who in the year 1003 A.D.  as the first European ever, set foot in North America, after having heard his countryman Bjarni describe a foreign coast west of Greenland.

“This was my dream trip because I want to explore places where the Vikings traveled and inhabited. I enjoyed seeing the ruins and meeting some of the archaeologists doing the dig at Igaliku. Two days earlier they had just found some old writings!”

“I am just so amazed at Greenland! Why did Erik the Red go all the way up that fjord when there was nothing there! It is so interesting!”

ARCTIC FARMERS IN GREENLAND

Leif was a descendent of a group of people, who loved to travel, and who traversed the Atlantic Ocean long before Eric the Red ever came to Greenland with his family, but when the Norsemen reached the bottom end of the luscious fiords in the areas around modern day Narsarsuaq, Igaliku and Qassiarsuk, they settled down, and established a dynamic agricultural community with many farms in the region.

Milk, cheese and skyr (Icelandic style yogurt) were the main staples in the farmers diets, and as the people in the beginning were not willing to consume the tame animals they had brought with them, due to the small numbers of these animals, a technique was developed for hunting seals, and the most skilled hunters would also go out on the land hunting reindeer and small game.

The culture of the Norsemen was at its highest point around 1200 A.D. An estimated 2,500 people lived in Greenland at this time. Trading with Europe was prolific, and the Norsemen received requests for luxury items like walrus teeth, which they would travel far, along the shores of Greenland, to obtain. 

Climate changes and the beginning of the Little Ice Age forced the Norsemen at the start of 13th century A.D., to consolidate and move everyone to the South of Greenland, where farming was still possible in spite of cold summers and longer winters. Some of the best kept ruins of farm buildings are actually found in the fiord by the capital city of Nuuk, on the west coast, and testifies to the fact, that they moved away due to climate change and hardship, and during a time when the farms in Southern Greenland were significantly larger, but fewer in number.

  • The Norsemen arrived in Greenland around 982 A.D. and left the country again during the 14th century
  • Eric the Red’s son, Leif Ericsson is known as the first European to travel to North America, and at Brattahli∂, one of the areas the Norsemen settled, known today by its current name Qassiarsuk, a statue has been erected in memory of Leif.
  • Today you can experience the history of the Norsemen in several places in south Greenland, especially in Qassiarsuk (Brattahli∂), Igaliku (Gar∂ar), by Hvalsey outside Qaqortoq, and in Narsaq.
  • At the church ruin in Hvalsey, in Igaliku and in Qassiarsuk information has been posted at the dig sites explaining what significance the different areas had for the Norsemen.

500 INTENSIVE YEARS IN GREENLAND

Eric the Red’s wife, Thodhilde, had been instrumental in introducing Christianity into Greenland, but the descendents of the family were forced to see the churches reduced in number and concentrated around the few remaining inhabited places in the South Greenlandic fiords.

After surviving for nearly five centuries in Greenland, the day arrived when not a single Norseman could be found anywhere in the country. The changing climate was not the only hurdle; their economic base became uncertain with fewer local people to do the work, as well as a decline in their international trade. Among other things, Europe was requesting less walrus teeth, but more food products which were easier to obtain in Iceland, or in other locations in the North Atlantic.

Left behind are a number of very well kept ruins in South Greenland, and Thodhilde’s church and an adjacent longhouse has been re-constructed in Qassiarsuk, or Brattahli∂, the name given to the place by the Norsemen. Excavations have been carried out at the Episcopal residence at Gar∂ar, present-day Igaliku, and the church ruin at Hvalsey, close by Qaqortoq has been secured for posterity and in many places in the landscape, there is unmistakeable evidence of the arctic farmers, who started a farming tradition lasting a thousand years and which lives on in Southern Greenland today.