The Eastern Settlement was one of two Viking outposts on the west coast of Greenland—the other was called the Western Settlement. Colonized about AD 985, the Eastern Settlement was about 300 miles south of the Western settlement, and located near the mouth of Eiriksfjord in the area of Qaqortog. The Eastern Settlement contained a collection of about 200 farmsteads and supporting facilities.
History of the Eastern Settlement
About a century after the Norse settlement of Iceland and after the point when land became scarce there, Erik the Red (also spelled Eirik the Red) was kicked out of Iceland for killing a handful of his neighbors after a land dispute. In 983, he became the first recorded European to set foot on Greenland. By 986, he had set up the Eastern Settlement, and taken the best land for himself, an estate called Brattahild.
Eventually, the Eastern Settlement grew to ~200-500 (estimates vary) farmsteads, an Augustinian monastery, a Benedictine convent and 12 parish churches, accounting for perhaps as many as 4000-5000 individuals. Norsemen in Greenland were primarily farmers, raising cattle, sheep and goats, but supplementing that regimen with local marine and terrestrial fauna, trading polar bear fur, narwhal ivory and falcons for grain and metals from Iceland and eventually Norway. Although there were recorded attempts to grow barley, they were never successful.
Eastern Settlement and Climate Change
Some paleoenvironmental evidence suggests that the settlers damaged Greenland's arability by cutting down much of the existing trees—mostly isolated copses of birch—to build structures and burning scrubland to extend areas of pasture, resulting in increased soil erosion.
Climate change, in the form of a slow cooling of the average sea temperature by 7 degrees centigrade by 1400, spelled the end of the Norse colony. The winters became very harsh and fewer and fewer ships made the trip from Norway. By the end of the 14th century, the Western Settlement was abandoned.
However, people from Canada—ancestors of the present-day Inuits—had discovered Greenland about the same time as Eric, but they had chosen the northern, arctic half of the island to settle. As climatic conditions worsened, they moved into the abandoned Western Settlement and into direct contact with the Norse, who called them skraelings.
Relationships between the two competing groups were not good—much violence is reported in both Norse and Inuit records—but more to the point, the Norse continued to attempt to farm Greenland as the environmental conditions deteriorated, an attempt which failed. Other potential problems which have been discussed as reasons for the failure of the Greenland experiment include in-breeding and the plague.
The last documentary evidence from Greenland's settlements dates to AD 1408--a letter home concerning a wedding at Hvalsey Church--but it is believed that people continue to live there until at least the mid-15th century. By 1540, when a ship arrived from Norway, all the settlers were gone, and the Norse colonization of Greenland had ended.
Archaeology of the Eastern Settlement
Excavations at the Eastern Settlement were originally conducted by Poul Norlund in 1926, with additional investigations by M.S. Hoegsberg, A. Roussell, H. Ingstad, K. J. Krogh and J. Arneburg. C. L. Vebæk at the University of Copenhagen conducted excavations at Narsarsuaq in the 1940s.
Archaeologists have identified both Brattahlid and Garðar, an estate belonging to Erik's sister Freydis and eventually the see of a bishopric.
Arnold, Martin. 2006. The Vikings. Hambledon Continuum: London.
Buckland, Paul C., Kevin J. Edwards, Eva Panagiotakopulu, and J. E. Schofield 2009 Palaeoecological and historical evidence for manuring and irrigation at Garðar (Igaliku), Norse Eastern Settlement, Greenland. The Holocene 19:105-116.
Edwards, Kevin J., J. E. Schofield, and Dmitri Mauquoy 2008 High resolution paleoenvironmental and chronological investigations of Norse landnám at Tasiusaq, Eastern Settlement, Greenland. Quaternary Research 69:1–15.
Hunt, B. G. Natural climatic variability and the Norse settlements in Greenland. Climatic Change In press.