Friday, May 09, 2014

Everything's Relaxed and Groovy on Helluland

I've always assumed the relationship between the Norse colonists of medieval Greenland and Newfoundland and the local Native American (Indian and Inuit) population was stand-offish at best and violent more often than not. Alfred Crosby (Ecological Imperialism (1986), 48-52) noted routine skirmishing between Norsemen and Beothuks on Newfoundland and repeated Inuit raids on Greenland settlements. Jared Diamond (Collapse (2005)) argued that the Greenlanders' hostility toward the Inuit and their cultural isolationism helped doom their colonies, since it prevented them from copying the Inuit Arctic toolkit (parkas, kayaks, toggle harpoons) and learning their neighbors' survival skills. Something about this story, however, never quite rang true: the medieval Norse were as much traders as warriors, and it seems unlikely that their remote Arctic colonies would have survived for more than four centuries in a state of constant warfare with more numerous neighbors. Within the last decade, archaeologist Patricia Sutherland, formerly of the Canadian Museum of Civilization and now of the University of Aberdeen, has confirmed that the standard account of Norse-Native relations is flawed, and has usefully complicated the narrative of Norse American colonization.

In 1999, studying fibers found in an early 14th-century Dorset-culture (Paleo-Inuit) site on Baffin Island, Sutherland determined that the remains were yarn woven by Greenland Norse. A follow-up study of artifacts from four Dorset-culture sites on Baffin Island (or Helluland, as the Norse called it) and Labrador revealed wooden spindles, whetstones, and tally sticks of the kind used by Norse traders, and Dorset carvings of what appear to be Europeans. These led her and a Canadian team to a Dorset village site in Baffin Island's Tanfield Valley, where they located what is almost certainly a Norse trading post: a large structure with a stone-lined drain, a latrine that still stank after centuries, remnants of augur holes, and scraps of fur from black rats, which apparently accompanied the Norse voyagers. Sutherland has not yet determined how long the site was occupied, but believes the Norse and Dorset Inuit conducted a lively commerce, swapping walrus ivory and fox furs for wooden artifacts and metal. However poor the Greenland Norse relationship with other Native Americans may have been, it is now evident that at least one nearby indigenous culture was more than happy to trade peacefully with them. They had, if you will forgive the expression, taken a liking to a Viking.

(The National Geographic story on Sutherland's excavation mentions, incidentally, that medieval Norse mariners made it as far as Ellesmere Island, where evidence of a Norse shipwreck was found in the late 1970s. Ellesmere Island is NORTH of Baffin Island; its northern shore fronts the Arctic Ocean. Either the sailors were brave or drunk.)


(Image above is of Norse tally stick fragments in the collection of the Canadian Museum of History; original can be found here.)

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