In AD 985, the Vikings came to Greenland. They plowed the land and sowed weeds to provide grazing for their livestock, the main source of food. At the height of the settlement boom, about 2,000 people lived. But in the early 15th century, the Norsemen disappeared from Greenland – why this is a mystery. Explanations range from economic collapse to epidemics to lower temperatures due to the Little Ice Age.
A team led by Boyang Zhao of the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the US has now reported that increased drought was responsible for the flight from Greenland. This is evidenced by sediments from a lake that borders an ancient Viking farm. The history of the microclimate in the last 2000 years can be reconstructed from sediments.
The peasants carried the weak cattle
Accordingly, the late 14th century was actually one of the warmest periods for this location. Rising temperatures may have exacerbated the ongoing drought.
Ranchers and farmers have long been pushed to the limits in southern Greenland by difficult conditions. For example, in the spring many cattle were so weak that they could not get out of the stables with difficulty. Under these conditions, farmers had to move their livestock to pastures.
Finally, the prolonged drought may have contributed to the fact that little grass was grown for livestock to feed on, and perhaps very little. This forced the Vikings to hunt marine mammals – a dangerous and relatively unsafe occupation. The research team suspects that, in combination with other factors such as social and economic instability, the drought may have contributed significantly to the settlement abandonment.
Also involved in the study was Tobias Schneider, who is currently conducting research with a grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in the USA. He completed his doctoral thesis at the Osger Center for Climate Research at the University of Bern.
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