Greenland
Environment Video

To understand the history of human occupation in this region, one must understand the climatic changes which took place over time along the coast of North America. The native peoples who lived in these areas seem to have adapted, moved, or disappeared with the ebb and flow of the shifting climate.

In the past archeologists explained culture change almost exclusively in terms of migration. Today migration is still acknowledged as an important cause of culture change, but archeologists ask questions about why movements of people occurred and what their consequences were. Interpreting the cause of culture change is always a difficult task. However, combining information from different sources like archeology, history, climate and vegetation history, sea-ice studies, and even studies of insect and beetle remains helps scientists understand the past.

Willows Island, Frobisher Bay
Cultural Areas
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There is no question that the Norse migrated from their homelands in Scandinavia and the British Isles into the North Atlantic islands. The last stage of this movement, to Greenland, occurred at the end of the 10th century. Two hundred years later, either in northern Greenland or adjacent Helluland, the Norse met the eastward-moving Thule people, whose homeland only a century or less earlier had been the Bering Strait region in Alaska. It now appears that both of these movements had a common cause.

For many years it has been thought that climatic warming that began about A.D. 800 and continued until about A.D. 1300 facilitated Viking expansion and the establishment of thriving farming settlements in Greenland. This same warm period, which was probably five or six degrees (F) warmer than the present, was strongly felt in the western North Atlantic where it resulted in calmer weather and less pack ice around Greenland and in the Canadian Arctic.

Climatic warming may also have opened ice-blocked passages in the Canadian Arctic archipelago, allowing bowhead whales to travel freely between the Bering Sea and Baffin Bay. The appearance of bowhead bones in Thule culture sites in the Canadian arctic signals a major environmental, biological, and cultural change, all of which seems to have been related to climatic warming.


Pat Sutherland on Thule Eskimo

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By A.D. 500 Alaskan Eskimos had begun to develop the technology needed to capture and kill large baleen whales. When the ice passages that had previously blocked the Central Arctic opened, bowhead whales and Alaskan Thule culture hunters followed. Arriving in the Eastern Arctic, they-like the Norse-soon discovered they were not alone. These areas had been previously settled by Dorset people. Within a few hundred years the Dorsets were largely absorbed or replaced by the more aggressive and technologically advanced Thule people.

Willows Island, Frobisher Bay
Willows Island, Frobisher Bay
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Environmental studies have also suggested that the decline of whale-hunting that occurred in Central Arctic Thule culture after A.D. 1400 was caused by closure of the Central Arctic passage to large whales. The loss of whales forced Thule people to shift from whaling to ice-hole seal hunting throughout much of the central arctic. The onset of the Little Ice Age, well-documented in ice cores, pollen studies, and other sources, not only seems to have brought much of the Canadian arctic back to a Dorset-style economy. It also has been cited as the major cause for the extinction of the Greenland Norse colonies, for it is at this time that Thule Inuit begin to settle permanently in the area of the Norse settlements in southwest Greenland. Climatic cooling and the appearance of pack ice in southern Greenland is believed to have played a role in both the decline in productivity of the Norse farms and the expansion of the sea mammal-hunting Thule people. Even the Norse house fly had to abandon its old European Greenland home to make room for the companion fauna of the new Inuit residents!

 

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