Digging for Clues in Greenland

Reconstructing diet and subsistence strategies

Shoveling, sieving and brushing away centuries of soil and debris to reveal remnants of past lives can take scientists back centuries in time to understand how ancient peoples survived and thrived in the face of environmental changes. That’s exactly what Konrad Smiarowski, an archaeologist, zooarchaeologist and Ph.D candidate at the City University of New York, is doing in southwest Greenland.   Over the past five years, Smiarowski and an international team of colleagues have traveled to two former Norse settlements in southwestern Greenland in search of buried animal bones and artifacts left behind by the region’s Norse communities. His area of study is located in the Eastern Settlement (Qaqortoq municipality today), while the Western Settlement (Nuuk fjord area) was studied by Smiarowski’s thesis advisor and the project lead, PI Thomas McGovern, whose work is funded by the National Science Foundation. 

The Life of a Medieval Norseman

At the height of the Middle Ages, many inhabitants of southwest Greenland led fairly simple lives. For some, everyday life involved either farming or hunting, or a combination of the two.

Farmers were closely tied to their land and animals, taking part in an annual cycle to meet the needs of the animals. In the winter, sheep, cattle and other animals were herded indoors for protection from the frigid conditions. In the spring and summer, farmers led the animals to graze in the highlands, produced hay for winter fodder, and in the fall slaughtered some animals and preserved the meat for future use.

During a spring communal hunt, people from nearby farmsteads would assemble for a seal hunt in the outer fjords. Around the same time of the seal hunt, other hunters would travel some 700 km (435 miles) north in search of walrus. The settlements relied on each other to make these hunting expeditions a success.

“This communal [hunting] venture required a lot of people—people who owned boats took other people and agreed on the divisions of the walrus or seal product, but there must have also been specific laws regulating a large part of this hunt.” Smiarowski explained.

But these generations-old farming and hunting techniques were coming up against an enormous challenge, a challenge no one could anticipate: climate change.

End of An Era

“The reconstruction of [mid-13th to 14th century] climate from ice cores from Greenland’s glaciers show an increased amount of storminess, weather unpredictability, as well as an increased amount of ice and snow accumulations, suggesting that colder conditions have started,” Smiarowski said. “It’s the end of the Medieval Warm Period and the beginning of the Little Ice Age that lasted until the 18th or 19th century really.”

Smiarowski explained that the cooler climate and increases in pack ice and snowfall likely had a deleterious effect on grass productivity, limiting an all-important food source for livestock. Without the favorable farming conditions, it appears the Norse settlements began relying more and more on their hunting skills.

“What we’re finding out is that with deteriorating climatic conditions, we see more reliance on wild resources, like seals, after ca. 1300 A.D. than before,” Smiarowski said. “We suspect grass is no longer as productive as it should be and at the same time we’re seeing an increased amount of bones from seals at the settlements, suggesting that these people put more pressure on hunting at that time than farming to survive.”

Interdisciplinary Science   

The Norse farm sites and settlements that are the focus for Smiarowski’s research aren’t new to the scientific and archeological communities. Researchers have excavated various parts of the Norse settlements since the 1880’s and as recently as the 1980s. But this new project brings new and interdisciplinary capabilities to bear that can tease out more detailed data from the bone fragments and other artifacts than before.

Aside from analyzing animal bones, Smiarowski and his colleagues at the Greenlandic National Museum and Archives, Danish National Museum, and the UK, are collaborating as part of the North Atlantic Biocultural Organization (NABO) research cooperative.  And with help from other NABO scientists, environmental samples are getting closer scrutiny to help reconstruct Norse settlement adaptations to the Little Ice Age. “Colleagues in Canada at Laval University are receiving soil samples and will look at insects that lived with the people or with the animals at that time. This could be a very nice climatic indicator,” Smiarowski said. “We are also employing palaeobotany. Our colleague at the University of Durham is receiving soil samples from our excavations and he’s reconstructing the vegetation and forest cover that was in Greenland at the time.”

Still another partner and project co-PI, Jette Arneborg at the Danish National Museum, is carefully excavating burial sites in both settlements to determine approximately when the first settlers arrived at these sites, where they originally came from, and when the settlement reached its height. The human bones and the isotopic studies serve as another line of evidence for the increased dependence on seals as the climate cooled.

“From isotopic studies of human bone we see that the early people have less marine carbon—which translates to the consumption of seal meat—than people who died later in the 14th or 15th centuries,” Smiarowski explained.

Next Steps

Smiarowski hopes the seal bones will take him beyond understanding the dietary changes driven by climate change. In the future, he will study seal teeth and bones excavated in the 1970s and more recently to conduct a seasonality study. Establishing the timing of these communal seal hunts will shed light on how the community functioned as a whole.

“Because we know that they are hunting these migratory animals maybe once, maybe twice a year in this large communal hunt, I would like to be able to exactly pinpoint when they are doing this. By sectioning seal canines we can find out the age of the animal and the season it was killed,” Smiarowski explained.

For more information about this research and similar projects, visit: www.nabohome.org. --Alicia Clarke