In the 10th century, Vikings sailing from Norway to Iceland made Greenland's accidental discovery. The Vikings were European, specifically of Danish and Norwegian descent, who were hardy explorers, sailors, shipbuilders, raiders and pirates. Approximately 500 years before Christopher Columbus sailed the world, the Vikings were already crossing oceans - and settling in Greenland.
Around the year 980, Viking Erik the Red, having been banished from Iceland for crimes he committed, namely murder, decided to set out from Iceland, leading explorers to Greenland. At the time, it was the very definition of far-flung. It is the largest island globally, which is not a continent. Over 80% of its landmass is ice three kilometres thick. When Eric and his crew arrived, they saw nothing but giant ice walls. They eventually found an ice-free cove with some greenery. Despite the harsh land conditions, they saw opportunities and decided to stay.
They eventually established two Viking settlements. There was Eystribyggð, or the Eastern settlement, at the southern tip of the island, and Vestribyggð, or Western settlement, near the modern-day capital of Nuuk, 700 km up north. Based on archeological findings the Norse Vikings thrived, despite the environment and cold weather, where summer temperatures could reach up to a "warm" -30 degrees celsius!
Their economy was a mix of hunting, raising livestock and farming. While the men were hunting, the women packed the soil with manure to make it more fertile. In time, hundreds of farms dotted the landscape, producing crops and dairy products like cheese and milk.
There was a period of frenzied construction, where they built churches, manor houses, big farmsteads and more. From quick trips to what is now Newfoundland, they had furs, hardwoods, ivory, and more. From Europe, they imported steel, glass and delicacies such as wine. Greenland's enormous wealth brought about this rapid expansion, all thanks to the one high-demand commodity they had in abundance, more than anywhere in the world: the Walrus.
Walruses were coveted by most of the Medieval world thanks to their ivory tusks that could grow over a meter and some long plus weigh as much as five or more kilos. Ivory was worth so much and sought after for carvings and other artifacts. Based on tax payments (Greenland paid their Norwegian king) ivory was worth more than all the wool from 4000 Icelandic farms or more than the price of 800 cows. This booming economy, also boosted by narwhal tusks which they sold as "unicorn" horns, attracted even more people to Greenland.
However, despite the prosperity and relative peace, by the mid-1300s, the Vikings from the Western settlement simply disappeared. By 1408, the Vikings left had also disappeared or forgotten in time. No one seems to know why but theories include changes in the climate, the effects of cultural and physical isolation, the rise of cheaper and more accessible Indian elephant ivory, and conflicts with the indigenous Inuit tribes.
Though the Greenland Viking settlements eventually collapsed and failed, it is a true testament to the resilience of man to live - and thrive - in a strange place under the harshest of conditions.
Directed by: Paul Cooper