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The Vikings in Greenland: Three Powerful Lessons for the Modern Day


Since 1932, we’ve known that the Vikings migrated to Greenland during the eleventh century. This was an amazing feat and something that no contemporary European power had been able to do.

But when Greenland was discovered in 1578 by Martin Frobisher, no Vikings were to be found.

Through archeological evidence, it was clear the Vikings had some well-established settlements there– so the question was, “What happened to them?”.

This was an inquiry we had wrestled with for years, and a question we thoughtwe had the answer to when I was in university.

While studying archeology, we examined the “Vikings in Greenland” case study, which involved examining all the potential reasons they failed to endure in Greenland until the modern day. The overarching answer was, “Their culture failed to adapt to Greenland’s harsh environment.”

Recent archeological evidence suggests that the Vikings thrived in Greenland, and still maintained many of their cultural practices. So, in this article, I’d like to examine three lessons we can learn from the prosperous Vikings who lived in a destitute environment.

1) Food is food

The reason archeologists believed the Vikings failed in Greenland was that their culture was maladaptive. Some examples of this included farming the land along with grazing cattle.

Since Greenland’s soil was not particularly rich and stable, this would have quickly led to erosion, environmental damage, and agricultural demise. Archeologists also thought that the Vikings were not willing to eat the local foods, namely marine mammals, that lived in Greenland.

However, according to Smithsonian Magazine’s, “Why Did Greenland’s Vikings Vanish?” article, this wasn’t the case. Archeologist Konrad Smiarowski said, “Probably about 50 percent of all bones [in this midden] will be seal bones”, as he was showing the author around a trash heap he had been excavating. Fifty percent is a high number, so in at least some parts of Greenland, Vikings were supplementing their diets with seals.

Despite what we thought in the past, the Vikings did adapt their diet to the local animals and were able to maintain their presence in Greenland.

This mindset “Food is food” is critical for adapting to change. Of course, food isn’t the only place this wisdom can be applied to.

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Given our current economic condition, we will need to change many things to survive. Our culture will drastically change as a result of Covid, along with the international pressures from war. As the generation that will need to adapt to those changes, I believe the mentality that “Food is Food” will be important– because in times like these, holding on to traditions will only make things harder for you.

Food is food, everyone. You need to do what you need to do to survive. Don’t be picky when the pickings are slim.

2) Profit through alternatives

Elephant ivory has been found throughout the archaeological record in Europe since Roman times.

It was prized for its beauty, carvability, and symbolism. However, elephant ivory had become scarce during the Viking Age, primarily due to disrupted trade routes. Where the rest of Europe saw a lack of a cherished good, the Vikings saw an opportunity.

After discovering Iceland, the Vikings began hunting walruses for their ivory to trade with other European powers. This was a great alternative to elephant ivory, having all the same qualities that European artisans loved. So after the Greenland Vikings discovered walrus populations in their newfound home, it was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up. Individual homesteads would organize walrus and seal hunts, both as a source of sustenance and as a source of trade. While the seal and walrus meat fed the local population, the hides and ivory were shipped off to Europe, where the Greenland Vikings made A LOT of money. This money was used to buy all the things Vikings couldn’t make on their own– which is just another reason they were able to live for so long in such a harsh environment.

This concept parallels so well with modern business, along with several other areas in your life. When you want something, seek out a shortcoming, find an alternative, and profit greatly. Look hard though– you never know where one may be hiding.

3) Interdependence is more powerful than independence

According to an article from Smithsonian Magazine, the Vikings were far from self-sufficient in Greenland. They relied heavily on trade with Europe, but they still needed to find ways to feed themselves– this is where the power of community comes in.

Greenland was composed of several independent homesteads spread out across the landscape. While these homesteads could produce a substantial amount of food, it wasn’t enough to feed a family over several years. The interdependence that helped solve this problem came in the form of a seasonal seal and walrus hunt, which involved all the able-bodied men in a regional area. Not only would this seal hunt feed the independent homesteads throughout the year, but it also provided the ivory they needed for trading.

If the independent homesteads were stubborn about relying on their own food, they wouldn’t have lasted nearly as long as they did. But through community and working together, they were able to do well in Greenland for centuries.

American society praises independence. So much so, that many people believe they have to do everything by themselves to be successful. In reality, if we can swallow our pride and learn to be interdependent, we could take that initial success from independence, and then compound it tenfold.

Excavation of these homesteads continues in Greenland, uncovering more and more what life was like for the Vikings. I hope as time goes on, we can continue to learn lessons from these persistent ancients. In the meantime, I hope I helped teach some of the lessons we already know.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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