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MoG Man & Society vol. 24               Order this book on-line

Niels Lynnerup, 1998
The Greenland Norse. A Biological-anthropological Study
149 pp. 225 DKK

The study concerns all known Norse skeletal material from Greenland. The material represents the human remains of the Norse who sailed out from Iceland to colonize the south-western part of Greenland one thousand years ago, and maintained two major settlements there for five hundred years. Although the demise of the settlements, which was more or less contemporary with the southward migrations of the Thule Culture Eskimos, has traditionally been the focus of research, the tendency is now changing towards a broader multidisciplinary effort to reconstruct the Norse society. Data gleaned from the remains of the Norse Greenlanders themselves are intrinsic to this effort.
Comprehensive radiocarbon analyses were conducted to place the anthropological material in a chronological setting. These datings corroborated the general ideas of church chronology in Norse Greenland. Furthermore, the results of the radiocarbon analyses indicate a dietary shift from predominantly terrestrial to predominantly marine foodstuffs over the settlement period.
The analyses of burial practices and burial patterns point to a society which by and large followed the burial practices known from other contemporary medieval societies. However, a rather large number of non-clerical individuals seem to have been interred inside the church structures. This may indicate an organization of the church in Greenland much like that of Iceland, where the churches were owned, at least for some time, by the local magnates.
No statistically significant differences emerged from synchronic or diachronic analyses of anthropometric or non-metric traits. A tendency towards smaller dimensions, in accordance with previous studies, was however indicated. The Norse population seemed rather homogenous. There was no indication of assimilation with Eskimos.
The incidence of infectious middle ear disease was assessed as an indicator of general health conditions. The results, while not displaying a statistically significant secular trend, could indicate worsening living conditions, which seems to be supported by some of the demographic results. Besides middle ear disease, occurrences of other pathologies were noted. Evidence of traumatic lesions seemed to reflect a society where combat with swords or axes was not unknown.
Palaeodemographical analyses showed that mean age fell slightly over time, and that subadult mortality rose. Female mortality rates differed from male mortality rates, basically because more females died at a younger age. However, this trend was not statistically significant. An attempt was made to estimate the total population size by calculating burial densities and total burial area. This yielded a total population of about 26,000, i.e. an average of 1,400 individuals throughout 500 years of settlement. Finally, a hypothetical population profile was modelled by assuming average values for certain demographic variables (growth, immigration and emigration rates, etc.). This showed that a founder population of about 500 people could well have increased to about 2,000 over 200 years. Likewise, depopulation could be accounted for by assuming an average emigration rate of 10-13 individuals per year, with corresponding falling growth rates. The total summated population of this model was 26,500 individuals. The significance of these calculations is that hypotheses about the demise of the settlements need not resort to "catastrophic" events such as epidemics or warfare.