End of a World

All this discussion of people living in extreme climates has got me to thinking. There’s another reason why I’m intrested in this.

A common trope in speculative fiction is the lost colony. Often it goes something like this: Isolated Planet is colonised. Isolated Planet loses contact with the Homeworld. When contact is eventually re-established, often some time later, Isolated Planet is found to be deserted, with just ruins and enigmatic artefacts left behind. When the story is infected with Generic Plotlinitis, the critical symptom of narrative predictability ensures that these artefacts will be key to the denouement.

Don’t get me wrong – I like a bit of Generic Plotline every now and then. (Although it is also nice to see someone do something new and unexpected with an old form, too.) However, it’s rare for a fictional trope to be entirely fiction. People really aren’t that original. The interesting ideas tend to be the ones that connect in some way to our common experience as human beings. So, I found myself wondering whether or not there is any real-world precedent for this sort of thing.

The answer, like always, seems to sort of. Maybe. But.

Basically, human beings are actually pretty difficult to kill off. We like being alive, and we can be pretty damn stubborn. We’re actually very good at clinging on in hostile conditions. I’ve described a couple of examples in previous posts. In modern times, the only other mammal species that compete with us for global range also tend to be the ones that effectively ‘hang off of’ our extended phenotype – domestic animals like cattle and sheep and dogs and passengers such as rats and so on. Generally when we move into an area, it tends to be bad news for whatever the previous dominant species was. (Historically, the wolves would usually be the first thing to go, although as social attitudes and farming practises change, this isn’t so true today.)

So, the upshot of all this is that it’s actually pretty unusual for a human society to disappear completely. However, there is a bit of precedent.

One famous example are the Norse colonies in Greenland.

These were established around 1000 AD, originally by a man called Erik Thorvaldsson, AKA Erik the Red. Erik was very much the Viking – he had this little problem with murder, you see. However, contrary to stereotype, medieval Scandinavia was hardly lawless. In fact, at that point, the people of Iceland had a reputation for being the most litigious in Europe! Erik’s little difficulty with regularly getting into quarrels and solving them with his axe – well, it led to a lot of lawsuits. He eventually found himself banned entirely from Iceland for several years. So he took himself off to Greenland, and founded a farm at Brattahlid.

Others followed him, and a couple of colonies developed at Greenland.

Now, a word about geography. Greenland is mostly frozen. But the key word is ‘mostly’. Some of the fjords are free of ice. To the extreme south of the island, there are even some trees. In the inner regions of the fjords, summer temperatures can creep as high as 14 or 15 Celsius. Grazing is possible, as is a small amount of agriculture.

The Norse ended up in two main settlements, the confusingly-named Eastern and Western Settlements*. ‘Southern’ and ‘Northern’ would be more accurate, however they’re not the names that were settled on! Anyway, the land these two occupied were amongst the warmest and most fertile regions of Greenland, although Eastern was somewhat better than Western. This can be seen in the populations – Eastern is estimated to have had about 4,000 people against 1,000 or so at Western.

And there, for some time, they stayed.

The Norse colonies depended heavily on exports of animal furs and walrus ivory to Europe. Ivory was in demand on the Continent, and people were prepared to sail as far afield as Greenland to get it. The ivory brought in trade goods that were vitally needed on Greenland – things like iron tools, wine and so on. And, ultimately, this dependency may have doomed the Greenlanders.

One side-effect of the Crusades was the re-opening of trade routes to the East. Suddenly there was a new source of ivory for medieval Europe. Greenland was no longer as attractive a destination. Also, it wasn’t as easy to get to – Arctic icebergs could and did disrupt shipping. Worse, there was a little political problem. Greenland had nominally come under the control of the Norweigan kings. Back in better days, they had made a good living out of the walrus ivory. To ensure that they got their cut, they’d passed a law requiring all voyages to Greenland to have official sanction.

As Greenland ivory became less precious, and profit margins declined, fewer and fewer ships got sent.

But there was worse.

Greenland was settled during what we now know to have been an unusually warm period in the North Atlantic. Temperatures may have averaged as much as a 1 or 2 degrees higher than they are today. (That’s a lot more than it sounds – it adds weeks to the growing season.) But, during the late 1300s, temperatures started creeping downwards. (There may or may not have been a link to solar activity – there is some evidence to suggest a Maunder Minimum-like event between about 1450 and 1550. There is controversy over this, though! And the putative links between solar activity and terrestrial climate are a long way from fully-understood.)

Longer winters, shorter summers. Fewer ships getting sent. More ice clogging the shipping lanes. Declining values of trade goods. Little by little, Greenland’s pocket civilisation was becoming isolated.

We know that the Western Settlement collapsed first. After a particularly bitter winter, men from the Eastern farms went out to visit their neighbours, and found the Western farms quiet and deserted. There is some archaeological evidence to suggest that their food ran out during that winter. And, with the people snowed in, they couldn’t hunt and they couldn’t leave. Their end must have been protracted, lonely and cold.

Being somewhat less marginal, the Eastern Settlement hung out a few decades longer. We know that it was still populated as late as 1408 AD. Three years earlier, a ship had arrived at Greenland – no-one at the time was to know it, but it would be the last ship to visit the colonies. The ship left in 1408, bringing with it news of a marriage on the island.

That is the last documentary record from the Greenland Norse.

They seem to have endured for a bit longer. They survived certainly as far as 1410 AD. Some estimates even suggest that the colony survived until as late as the 1460s. However, we know that it had died by the 1500s. Probably we will never know exactly what happened, but the basic chain of events is clear enough. There were critical technology failures – without charcoal for forges and without bog iron to forge, key tools like knives and axes would eventually have worn down. There would have been repeated food supply failures. Without tools and without timber imports, buildings and boats couldn’t be repaired. And temperatures carried on drifting downward, falling like the freezing snow that accompanied them.

It seems that they didn’t go quietly. They seem to have tried to cling on for as long as possible. But, eventually, it seems conditions were just too marginal. Contact was eventually re-established in the 18th Century – by this point the claim to the island had passed to Denmark, due to various European monarchs and their dynastic shenanigans. (Not so much ‘pass the parcel’ as ‘pass the island’, really!) A Danish-Norweigan missionary called Hans Egede arrived in 1721, not knowing whether or not any surviving society existed. He and his crew were greeted by fjords, icebergs and ruins. The land was cold and empty – just like the stereotypical example-trope I described above. In fact, it’s possible that Egede’s experience may well have seeded this trope into the collective European imagination.

The Greenland Norse did what they could, but in the end, the ice won.

Certainly it’s interesting that even today, the modern Danish territory of Greenland is heavily dependent on Denmark itself for survival. It’s hard to see how it would manage without the several-billion-per-year subsidy it gets from the Danish government.

Of course, centuries ago, the climate changed things for the worse in Greenland. It’s possible that in the future, as the ice cap shrinks and the summer warms up, our changing climate may make things a bit better in Greenland, at least.

*There was also a much smaller so-called ‘middle’ settlement. It’s known to have existed from archaeological remains, but oddly, it seems to be missing from the sagas. It does appear to have been rather smaller than the other two, though. Some people have suggested that it was effectively a suburb of the Western, rather than a properly-separate entity.


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