Erik's bald-faced marketing worked. Some 4,000 Norse eventually settled in Greenland. The Vikings, notwithstanding their reputation for ferocity, were essentially farmers who did a bit of pillaging, plundering, and New World discovering on the side. Along the sheltered fjords of southern and western Greenland, they raised sheep and some cattle, which is what farmers in Greenland do today along the very same fjords. They built churches and hundreds of farms; they traded sealskins and walrus ivory for timber and iron from Europe. Erik's son Leif set out from a farm about 35 miles northeast of Qaqortoq and discovered North America sometime around 1000. In Greenland the Norse settlements held on for more than four centuries. Then, abruptly, they vanished.
The demise of those tough, seafaring farmers offers an unsettling example of the threats climate change poses to even the most resourceful cultures. The Vikings settled Greenland during a period of exceptional warmth, the same warm period that saw expanded agriculture and the construction of great cathedrals in Europe. By 1300, though, Greenland became much colder, and living there became ever more challenging. The Inuit, who had arrived from northern Canada in the meantime, pushing south along the west coast of Greenland as the Vikings pushed north, fared much better. (Modern Greenlanders are mostly descended from them and from Danish missionaries and colonists who arrived in the 18th century.) The Inuit brought with them dogsleds, kayaks, and other essential tools for hunting and fishing in the Arctic. Some researchers have argued that the Norse settlers failed because they remained fatally attached to their old Scandinavian ways, relying heavily on imported farm animals instead of exploiting local resources.
But more recent archaeological evidence suggests the Norse too were well adapted to their new home. Thomas McGovern, an anthropologist at Hunter College in Manhattan, says the Norse organized annual communal hunts for harbor seals, especially once the climate cooled and domestic livestock began to die. Unfortunately, harbor seals also succumbed. "Adult harbor seals can survive cold summers, but their pups can't," says McGovern. The Norse may have been forced to extend their hunts farther offshore in search of other seal species, in waters that were becoming more stormy.
"We now think the Norse had a very refined social system that required lots of community labor, but there was a major vulnerability—they had to have most of their adults out there trying to get the seals," says McGovern. "A trigger for the end of the Norse in Greenland could have been catastrophic loss of life from one bad storm." The Inuit would have been less vulnerable because they tended to hunt in small groups. "It's a much more complicated story than we thought," McGovern says. "The old story was just, the silly Vikings come north, screw up, and die. But the new story actually is a bit scarier, because they look pretty well adapted, well organized, doing a lot of things right—and they die anyway."