Greenland's viking settlers gorged on seals

November 19, 2012

"Our analysis shows that the Norse in Greenland ate lots of food from the sea, especially seals," says Jan Heinemeier, Institute of Physics and Astronomy, Aarhus University.

"Even though the Norse are traditionally thought of as farmers, they adapted quickly to the Arctic environment and the unique hunting opportunities. During the period they were in Greenland, the Norse ate gradually more seals. By the 14th century, seals made up between 50 and 80 per cent of their diet."

The Danish and Canadian researchers are studying the 80 Norse skeletons kept at the University of Copenhagen's Laboratory of Biological Anthropology in order to determine their dietary habits. From studying the ratio of the isotopes carbon-13 and carbon-15, the researchers determined that a large proportion of the Greenlandic Norse diet came from the sea, particularly from seals. Heinemeier measured the levels of carbon isotopes in the skeletons, Erle Nelson of Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver, Canada, analysed the isotopes, while Niels Lynnerup of the University of Copenhagen, examined the skeletons.

"Nothing suggests that the Norse disappeared as a result of a natural disaster. If anything they might have become bored with eating seals out on the edge of the world. The skeletal evidence shows signs that they slowly left Greenland. For example, young women are underrepresented in the graves in the period toward the end of the Norse settlement. This indicates that the young in particular were leaving Greenland, and when the numbers of fertile women drops, the population cannot support itself," Lynnerup explains.

Hunters and farmers

The findings challenge the prevailing view of the Norse as farmers that would have stubbornly stuck to agriculture until they lost the battle with Greenland's environment. These new results shake-up the traditional view of the Norse as farmers and have given archaeologists reason to rethink those theories.

"The Norse thought of themselves as farmers that cultivated the land and kept animals. But the archaeological evidence shows that they kept fewer and fewer animals, such as goats and sheep. So the farming identity was actually more a mental self-image, held in place by an over-class that maintained power through agriculture and land ownership, than it was a reality for ordinary people that were hardly picky eaters," Jette Arneborg, archaeologist and curator at the National Museum of Denmark, says.

The first Norse settlers brought agriculture and livestock such as cattle, sheep, goats and pigs from Iceland. While they thought of themselves as farmers, they were not unfamiliar with hunting.

They quickly started to catch seals, as they were a necessary addition to their diet. Toward the end of their stay, they became as accustomed to catching seals as the Inuit, who had travelled to Greenland from Canada around the year 1200 and inhabited the island alongside the Norse. Seals became more important for Norse survival as the climate began to change over time and it became increasingly difficult to sustain themselves through farming.

"The Norse could adapt, but how much they could adapt without giving up their identity was limited. Even though their diet became closer to that of the Inuit, the difference between the two groups was too great for the Norse to become Inuit," Arneborg says.
-end-
The isotopic analysis is an interdisciplinary collaboration between Aarhus University, the University of Copenhagen, the National Museum of Denmark and Simon Fraser from the University in Vancouver. The research is financed by the Carlsberg Foundation and the results will be presented in a series of articles in the Journal of the North Atlantic, Special Volume 3, 2012.

Facts about the Norse:

The Norse settled in Greenland around the year 1000 AD. Erik the Red arrived from Iceland as the first to settle in southern Greenland. At its height, the Norse population of Greenland reached between 2,000 and 3,000. They settled in western Greenland, near modern-day Nuuk, and in south-western Greenland, near modern-day Narsaq and Qaqartoq. They traded with Greenlandic Inuit and supplied Europe with Walrus tusks. They explored America and established a settlement there 500 years before Columbus arrived. The Norse populated Greenland until the beginning of the 15th century, when they disappeared without a trace. The Old Norse culture is the only example of a highly developed Western society that disappeared without any sources describing why.

Contact:

Professor Niels Lynnerup, Laboratory of Biological Anthropology, University of Copenhagen; Tel: +45 35 32 72 39. Mobile: +45 28 75 72

Jan Heinemeier, lecturer and head of the Institute of Physics and Astronomy, Aarhus University; Tel: +45 87 15 52 59, Mobile: +45 23 38 23 18

Jette Arneborg, senior researcher and curator, National Museum of Denmark; Tel: +45 41 20 61 14

University of Copenhagen

Related Diet Articles from Brightsurf:

What's for dinner? Dolphin diet study
More evidence has emerged to support stricter coastal management, this time focusing on pollution and overfishing in the picturesque tourist waters off Auckland in New Zealand.

Can your diet help protect the environment?
If Americans adhere to global dietary recommendations designed to reduce the impact of food production and consumption, environmental degradation could be reduced by up to 38%, according to a new paper published in the journal Environmental Justice.

Diet may help preserve cognitive function
According to a recent analysis of data from two major eye disease studies, adherence to the Mediterranean diet - high in vegetables, whole grains, fish, and olive oil -- correlates with higher cognitive function.

Diet quality of young people in US
This observational study used national survey data from young people up to age 19 to estimate the overall diet quality of children and teens in the United States and to explore how diet quality has changed from 1999 to 2016.

The keto diet can lead to flu-like symptoms during the first few weeks on the diet
A ketogenic diet can lead to several flu-like symptoms within the first few weeks on the diet.

Reconstructing the diet of fossil vertebrates
Paleodietary studies of the fossil record are impeded by a lack of reliable and unequivocal tracers.

Your gums reveal your diet
Sweet soft drinks and lots of sugar increase the risk of both dental cavities and inflammation of the gums -- known as periodontal diseases -- and if this is the case, then healthy eating habits should be prioritized even more.

Poor diet can lead to blindness
An extreme case of 'fussy' or 'picky' eating caused a young patient's blindness, according to a new case report published today [2 Sep 2019] in Annals of Internal Medicine.

New research on diet and supplements during pregnancy and beyond
The foods and nutrients a woman consumes while pregnant have important health implications for her and her baby.

Special issue: Diet and Health
Diet has major effects on human health. In this special issue of Science, 'Diet and Health,' four Reviews explore the connections between what we eat and our well-being, as well as the continuing controversies in this space.

Read More: Diet News and Diet Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.