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Why Did the Vikings Leave North America?

Why Did the Vikings Leave North America?

The Vikings have been a part of human history for centuries, leaving an indelible mark on many cultures and places. Yet one mystery that has long perplexed historians is why they left North America.

From their Norse colonies in Greenland to their Western settlement near L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, and Labrador coast, there are many unanswered questions surrounding their departure. 

However, recent archaeological discoveries have shed light on this long-standing question, and experts can now offer a few intriguing theories as to why the Vikings and Norse Greenlanders left.

The reasons include climate change, the harshness of the terrain, and conflict with local tribes.

North American Settlement in Greenland

The Norse settlement of Greenland and mainland North America is one of the most famous stories of exploration before Columbus. 

Like Columbus discovered America, Leif Erikson discovered and settled the first Viking settlement in Greenland. The Viking expansion was possible – thanks to their advanced seafaring technology – allowing them to brave the treacherous waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.

The Norse Greenland settlements began around 985 AD when Eirik Thorvaldsson sailed west from Iceland and first landed and settled in Greenland. Other Norse settlers soon followed him, and over the centuries, this settlement flourished, with a thriving farming and fishing community established.

The Icelandic Sagas tell how these settlers made it as far west as Newfoundland in search of gold and silver. However, there is no evidence that they ever encountered Native Americans or settled on mainland North America.

Confirmed Norse sites are found today in Greenland, and Eastern Canadian places like Meadows. Norse Sagas describe encounters with Native Americans in what is now known as the Baffin Islands and on the West Coast of Canada.

Godthåb in Greenland, c. 1878, artwork.
Godthåb in Greenland, c. 1878
Nationalmuseet – The National Museum of Denmark from Denmark, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Settlements at L’Anse aux Meadows

This Viking settlement was discovered by Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad in 1960 and was first occupied around 1000 AD, lasting for possibly a few decades before it was abandoned. [1]

It is believed that this settlement was a base for exploration further down the Canadian coast, but why it was abandoned has remained unclear.

There were few fjords along this coast stretch, making it difficult for them to find a suitable harbor. Upon landing, they encountered native people called the Beothuks, who would later play an important part in their sagas.

Apart from the Viking presence in Greenland, it is the only confirmed Norse site in this region.

Eastern Settlement on Baffin Island

Norse explorers would later spread out from this site to the Baffin Islands and possibly even further west along the coast of Canada. 

According to the Norse Sagas, Leif Eriksson, son of the Norwegian king, explored a region they called Vinland (which may have been in present-day New England) and found wild grapes, flat stones, and iron tools.

Relations between the Norse and Native Americans were often hostile, as described in the Icelandic Sagas, so it is unlikely that any settlements would have been established beyond Newfoundland.

Western Settlement

By the mid-14th century, all Norse settlements had been abandoned. It is impossible to know what caused the decline of these colonies.

Norsemen landing in Iceland. Painting by Oscar Wergeland (1909).
Norsemen landing in Iceland. Painting by Oscar Wergeland (1909)
Oscar Wergeland, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The most well-known Norse settlement was located near L’Anse aux Meadows, which is believed to have been occupied for at least a few decades. This site gave the Norse settlers access to valuable resources like sea ice, walrus tusks, and timber that could be used or sold in European markets. [2]

However, it is likely that climate change and diminishing resources, such as walrus ivory, played a role.

The Vikings were the first Europeans to explore and settle in North America, but their settlements did not last. Nevertheless, they left a lasting legacy in North American culture through their stories of exploration and discovery, which are still celebrated today.

Climate Change and the Little Ice Age

One possible reason why the Vikings left North America is due to climate change, particularly during the period known as the Little Ice Age (1400-1800 AD).

During this time, average temperatures in Greenland and Europe dropped significantly, which may have caused a decline in resources such as fish and timber necessary for the Norse settlers to survive.

This could have forced them to abandon their settlements in Greenland and L’Anse aux Meadows, leaving only small settlements on the Baffin Islands. [3]

Although their settlements did not last, they opened up a new frontier for Europeans and introduced them to an entirely different culture. 

Disruption of Trade and Resources

Another possible reason the Vikings left North America was the disruption of trade and resources. With the rise of Europe in the Middle Ages, Viking merchants had to compete with larger European powers for access to resources like fish, harvest timber, and metal ore.

This may have forced them to reduce their operations in North America or abandon their settlements altogether due to a lack of profitable trade routes.

Religious and Cultural Differences

Artist's conception of King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway.
Artist’s conception of King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway
Peter Nicolai Arbo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Norse settlers may have also been driven out by religious and cultural differences. The Native Americans they encountered had their distinct beliefs and values, which may have clashed with their worldview. 

This could have led to a lack of trust between the two groups and eventually to conflicts.

The internal factors within the Norse settlements may have also contributed to their decline. With a lack of resources and a hostile landscape, the settlers may have been unable to sustain themselves or grow their population.

Other Factors

In addition to climate change, trade disruption, and cultural differences, there may have been other factors that led to the decline of the Norse settlements in North America. These could include changes in the global economy or political power dynamics, disease and famine, and natural disasters like droughts or floods.

Conclusion

Although the Norse settlements in North America were short-lived, they remain an important part of history as a period of exploration and discovery that shaped the cultural landscape we know today.

Archaeological evidence suggests that it may have been due to a combination of factors, including change in climate, disruption of trade and resources, hostile relations with local Native American tribes, and more. Ultimately, the true reason for their departure will likely remain unknown.

Still, their legacy and stories remain in our collective memory and serve as a reminder of the incredible feats accomplished by our ancestors in their quest for discovery.