THE NEW GREENLAND
Greenland is melting. The largest island on earth, covered by two miles of ice, and it’s melting. There’s a lot of ice, it’s not all going away anytime soon. It will take a long time to melt. But now we’re looking at the chance that perhaps, in a few thousand years, we’ll see a new Greenland with the ice gone away, a real green land finally coming into being.
We’re not going there. Instead, for this thought experiment we will explore: What if Greenland was never covered by Ice? What if it was, for practical purposes, mostly ice free for most of its history? What if it was ice free now?
What would it be like? What animals would roam there? Would there have been people there? Who would they have been, and what would they become? Could there have been a civilization?
Let’s explore an alternate Greenland, a Greenland that, for whatever reason, never succumbed completely to the ice.
Let’s talk Greenland: 2,166,000 square kilometers, or 836,000 square miles, 1570 miles in length north to south, 680 miles at its widest. Stretching from latitude 59, just short of the arctic circle, to latitude 84 a barely 450 miles from the geographic north pole. Greenland is larger than Mexico, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan or Indonesia. It’s roughly as large as most of the countries of Western Europe put together.
It’s one of the most barren places on Earth, with 95% of it covered by a gigantic ice sheet up to two miles thick. That Ice Sheet, or parts of it, goes back 18 million years, although most of it probably dates back less than ten million years. If all that ice melted tomorrow, the ocean level all over the planet would rise twenty feet.
THE LAND BENEATH
Do we even know what that Greenland looks like?
As a matter of fact, yes, we do. Greenland’s coastal mountain ranges have long been identified by flyovers and satellites. Over the last few decades, starting in the 1970’s, deep radar and sonar imaging has slowly but steadily built us a picture of the landscape beneath the ice.
Discoveries are still being made. For instance, in 2013, we identified Greenland’s Grand Canyon, 466 miles long, six miles wide, 2600 feet deep. In 2014, a meteor impact crater, larger than Washington and the District of Colombia, was detected in the north of Greenland. We’ve discovered entire river systems. Ancient fertile soil has been found beneath the ice, hinting at a history of green fields, forests and marshes. It’s not a perfect picture, there’s still much to fill in. And it might not be perfectly accurate – this is the landscape being pressed down by two miles of ice. If all that ice was gone, there would be some degree of isostatic rebound. But it gives us something to work with.
At this point, we have a decent picture of what Greenland looks like under all that ice. That’s the topographic map image on the front cover. This probably gives us a pretty good read on what’s likely to be going on with Greenland. There are two major sets of geological features that shape Greenland’s geography, and in turn, affect climate, biology and ecology. The mountains and the Central Sea.
CLIMATE AND GEOGRAPHY
So, even if we take away the ice, wouldn’t we just still have a frozen wasteland? Greenland is pretty far north after all. It practically stretches to the North Pole.
As we’ve said, Greenland is immense. We think of it as arctic, and not without justification. At its northernmost, latitude 74, it really is one of the closest land masses to the north pole. Only a few small Russian Islands come closer, and then only by a few miles.
But Greenland is 1570 miles from north to south and stretches through to latitude 59. Latitude 59 or 60 is no fun. 60 latitude is officially the dividing line for the Canadian arctic, and it’s the dividing line between the populated Alaska panhandle and the frozen Alaska wilderness. North of 60 the image is a lot of tundra and muskeg.
But take a look at a map – Greenland actually stretches well to the south of Iceland, which lies between latitudes 63 and 68. It’s comparable to Finland which occupies latitudes 60 to 70. The southernmost point of Greenland is as far south as the northern tip of Scotland, or the mid and southern regions of Sweden and Norway. Latitude 59 includes large forest and lake-filled areas of European Russia and Siberia.
So no, we don’t necessarily get a vast empty landscape of barren rock and tundra. That wouldn’t be much fun. Greenland is going to be much more interesting than that.
NEW GREENLAND’S FAR NORTH, THE ARCTIC DESERT
In the north, top of the island, let’s say roughly 78 to 84 latitude, we’ve basically got arctic desert – kind of like the Canadian Archipelago. Cold, dry and arid, with very little precipitation. You are six to twelve degrees latitude from the actual north pole. It’s facing the open Arctic Ocean, and you’ve got the polar vortex to keep it chill. It’s pretty barren and very close to the popular concept of the high arctic.
You’ll get tundra and muskeg, lots of permafrost, no trees, no grasses. There’ll be rivers and lakes, but they’ll be frozen much of the year. The rivers will run for only a few of months of the year. In the far north, on the topographic maps, there maybe a couple of channels or sea accesses between the Arctic Ocean and that Central Sea where water might flow back and forth, but that’s likely to be seasonal.
In short, not very hospitable, and not terribly different from what we have now. Let’s assume that this represents about a fifth of Greenland. Old Greenland isn’t much different from New Greenland in its far north.
NEW GREENLAND, THE EASTERN MOUNTAINS AND PLAINS
The harsh barren landscape change as you move south. Let’s look at the mountains, specifically, that range of peaks and highlands running along the Eastern coast, between latitude 67 and 76. Got it? Take a look at the topography map. I’ll wait. Done? Okay. Now, these highlands comprise the Watkins Mountain Range, the Crown Prince Frederick Range, the Princess Elizabeth Alps and a few others. They’re fairly hefty mountains. Well, somewhat. They’re far from the stature of the Himalayas or the Rockies. But they’re not bad. The tallest peaks run over 12,000 feet, there are lots over 10,000, and lots more over 5,000.
So, what about these mountains? Well, a few things. First up, they’re a climate barrier. Now this gets a little hinky. Normally, seas and oceans are heat sinks. They tend to retain heat and manifest very stable temperatures. So, landscapes next to seas tend to experience moderated (not necessarily moderate) climates. Their temperature slides along a narrow range, they don’t get super hot because of the cool ocean next door, they don’t get super cold because of warmer ocean next door. Now, what does this mean for Greenland? Well, probably a mostly good thing, because Greenland isn’t warmed by the Gulf stream the way that Iceland and Norway are.
Instead, Greenland gets arctic currents from the cold and nasty side of the Atlantic Ocean, so without the mountain barrier, its inland temperatures would likely be flatter and colder and generally more unpleasant. With the mountains blocking the ocean, you’ll get warmer summers and colder winters inland, more temperature extremes.
But hey, if you want moderating bodies of water, there’s the Central Sea. Stick a pin in that, we’ll come back to it later.
The second thing about Mountains that’s really cool, is that – if they’re tall enough – they get a snowcap. Glaciers form from condensation and accumulated precipitation at the top of mountains. Sometimes, they’ll descend and crawl around like some geologic version of a B-Horror movie, but we won’t go there. Now, how tall does a mountain have to be to get itself a snowcap? Depends on a bunch of stuff, the big factors being location and height. Basically, the taller a mountain is, the more chance of a snowcap. Latitude is a factor. Obviously, a tall enough mountain can get a snowcap even at the tropics. Kilimanjaro, for instance, is about 16,000 feet in Africa, and had a snowcap. Same with the Andean mountains near the equator. But further north, it gets easier, you get mountains showing snowcaps at shorter and shorter heights. So, that Greenland range, with its whole passel of mountains between 6,000 and 12,000 feet in height … probably lots of snowcaps and mountain glaciers. Possibly too many, it’s probably why Greenland iced up in our world.
Anyway, so here we are with a lot of mountain glaciers all up and down across about half the length of Greenland’s eastern coasts. You know what Glaciers do? Apart from acting like B-movie horror monsters except at geologic speeds. They melt. Not completely, and sometimes not at all. But generally, they spend the winter storing up snow and precipitation, building up their snowcap and crawling down the sides of the mountain. Then spring, summer, fall comes along. You get warmer temperatures and they slowly start to melt. What this gives you is slow steady, glacier fed rivers. Some seasonal flooding, yes. But mostly, it’s a steady season long water supply. It doesn’t melt all at once, so no flash floods. Rather, it’s gradual, so you have a constant stable river system. This is a good thing.
So where does all this fresh glacial water go? Well, most of it, let’s say about two thirds, is just going into the Atlantic Ocean. So … pooh. Hardly seems to be worth the effort, eh? The remaining third goes inwards, to fill a Central Sea. But let’s come back to that …
But if you look on the other side of those Eastern mountains, what we see is that there’s a pretty gentle, gradual slope running a eventually to the central sea. So, what does that mean? It means that the water is moving more slowly. With slower movement, the erosional processes aren’t as fierce, you’ve got more silt and sediment deposit along the way, coming all the way down from the mountains, so you get more winding rivers, more lakes, more marshes, more peat bogs, swamps, muskegs, and generally more water in the landscapes. And with the silt and sediment deposit, sands and gravels, you get the makings of more productive, enriched soils.
The east side interior, between the mountains and the Central Sea is likely wet tundra – permafrost in the north, dotted with rivers and lakes, as you move further and further south, that will give way to shrub tundra, muskeg, marshland and bogs, with vegetation and species proliferation steadily and rapidly increasing in variety and density, into taiga and then boreal forest in the south. It’ll be slightly warmer than you’d expect for the latitude, because of thermal interaction with the Central Sea, and the mountain barrier against the cold north Atlantic air currents. Overall, it will be fairly reminiscent of Siberian arctic and sub-arctic zones.
Look over to the north east of our new Greenland – see a series of big islands. Likely not glaciated, not tall enough for snowcaps, and too evenly moderated by the Atlantic waters. Cold, wet, generally unpleasant. But likely supporting a healthy population of birds, and basking seals and sea mammals. It’s the sort of place that people can live, thinly populated, intensely specialized for the environment, and largely left alone because no one else wants it.
NEW GREENLAND, THE WESTERN DRYLANDS
Moseying on over to the west side, we don’t have anything like that huge 10 degree of latitude mountain range that drives the biology and climate of the eastern side and contributes so much to the Central Sea. There is a small cluster of western coastal peaks in the southern half about 73 degrees latitude, which look like they’d go snowcap. Going by the map, they’d likely produce a fraction of the water and a smaller drainage basin than the eastern range. Most of their water contribution would probably go towards the lower parts of the Central Sea.
Overall, the west side is dryer. Still slightly warmer because of the Central Sea, but with more risk of cold air sweeping in. The weather is generally going to be more unpredictable, more storms, more snows.
Luckily, the west faces a small sea, known as Baffin Bay, a quarter of a million square miles in area, and is bordered by Ellesmere and Baffin Islands, so you’re not going to have uninterrupted arctic savagery. The open ocean is a ferocious place, there’s a lot of space for winds and storms to build up. But in the west, there isn’t open ocean – geographical barriers slow things down. But it’s still going to be colder and more volatile. The upside is that you’ll see water coming in as precipitation, mostly winter snow. It will still be dryer, but not a desert.
This Tundra will be less productive, and it’s not going to enrich nearly as quickly as you move south. Not until you get to that small mountain cluster midway down and its drainage basin, which goes to fairly productive taiga, and eventually, boreal forest. This will tend to resemble parts of the North American arctic, particularly the Yukon.
On the west side, between the coast and the Central Sea, there’s a central elevated … I wouldn’t call it a ridge, maybe a highland or table lands, running north and south from which the landscape slopes downwards east and west, towards Baffin Bay on one side and the Central Sea on the other. This is different from the East side, where there’s a continuous slope downwards from the mountains.
There will be subtle differences – on the western side towards the Atlantic, more precipitation, but more wind and lower temperatures. On the eastern side towards the Central Sea, dryer and warmer, but both sides productive in their own ways and on different timetables, with the central table land that runs down the middle of the west side being relatively barren.
NEW GREENLAND, THE SOUTHERN QUARTER
Okay, now let’s take a jump south. What do we have in the southern quarter or fifth of the Island? Two coastal mountain ranges, an eastern range running almost due south, and a western range slouching towards the southeast, which meet in the southern tip, is almost looks like an arrowhead pointing south. These aren’t as mighty or as impressive as the great eastern range. But some of many of them will snowcap, and we’ll see a similar water dynamic, although with substantially less volume. So, a lot goes into the Atlantic. But given the morphology, you’ll see a large volume of water, as much as half, flowing inland, north towards the Central Sea once again.
The southern geography is even more gently sloped than the eastern tundra side. And it’s a long, long way to the south basin of the Central Sea. What you are going to get is very long, very slow meandering rivers and a lot of water deposition in the landscape, and a lot of silt and soil development. It will eventually drain into the Central Sea, but there’s going to be a lot of evaporation, a lot of local water capture.
At the highest elevations in the south, you’ll get mountain tundra. But as you proceed northwards towards the lower basin of the central sea, following the winding rivers, you’ll notice a paradox. It will get warmer, apparently, as you go north. This is a factor of moving from mountains and highlands through increasingly lower elevations which will tend to be warmer and come further and further into the thermal regime surrounding the Central Sea.
What you’ll find is scrub and shrub tundra, giving way to actual trees and taiga, and boreal forest, increasing in density and diversity. It’s going to be crap trees – a lot of spruce, larch, poplar, maybe some aspen, stands of birch. The species distribution, tree population, and density is going to shift dramatically, depending on where you are, and may be dramatically different depending on which side of a hill you’re on, or how close to a lake, or what the prevailing winds or elevation is.
There’s going to be a lot of fairly marginal territory – a lot of places where a really bad winter or set of winters, a twenty year or fifty year event will just kill whole forests. But there’ll be enough stable regions, that the forests will always recolonize. There’ll be grasslands and savannah mixed in. You may see an evolving series of forest stages, scrublands and savannah, depending on the activities of animal populations, as well as climate and water fluctuations. But hey, you are going to have a lot of water, some decent warmth. So boreal forest extending up to the shores of the South Basin, and maybe the southern shores of the central basin.
In terms of the interior and boreal forest, mostly, it’s not viable for grain, not even barley – maybe a few microclimates and sheltered zones here and there. You could probably grow vegetables in a number of places. There’d be lots of viable pasture for cattle, sheep, goats. It’s also pretty hospitable for the indigenous big mammals, obviously.
NEW GREENLAND’S CENTRAL SEA
But where is all that water going? Look at the topographic map. It’s all draining towards the center of Greenland, towards a vast Central Sea. And there are as many as three channels from the surrounding oceans, into that central sea – one in the Southeast, around Disko Bay, the other two in the Northwest and Northeast. In fact, some researchers have speculated that technically, Greenland should be considered three Islands, because of those channels.
What this gives us is an immense Central Sea in the heart of Greenland. On the topographic map, it’s coloured in blue to represent that it’s at sea level, loosely divided into three basins, a large north, and smaller central and south basins. Assuming it’s at sea level, or roughly equivalent to the surrounding ocean levels, it is immense.
Eyeballing the whole thing (including the southern lakes), I make it about 200,000, maybe 220,000 square miles. That beats the Caspian at 140,000 square miles, and the Black Sea at about 170,000 square miles.
It’s not terribly deep. I’d say that the average depth, going by the topography, is probably about 200 to 250 feet. That’s not much, compared to the Black sea and its average depth of 4000, and the Caspian’s of 700. It still adds up to a lot of water, continuously being fed by the oceans, and the mountain drainage.
That’s going to do a few things. First, all that extra water from the mountain drainages are going to raise the elevation. If there is ocean access, then it’s going to tend towards the same sea level as the ocean. But during the summer, it’s going to be continually fed by mountain ranges in the East, West and South. That’s a lot of water, and so the Central Sea level will rise higher than the ocean.
That higher elevation is also probably going to mean the Central Sea cuts channels to the Atlantic Ocean, so there’ll be some exchange. Now mostly, it’s going to be the Central Sea flowing out into the Atlantic. But during winter, when the fresh water flow stops, the elevation may drop enough that there’s occasional reverses, and the Atlantic flows into the Central Sea.
Most of the water will be coming in from the south; the Western mountains will drain into the southern part of the sea, the Southern mountains will drain towards the same basin. The Eastern mountain range runs almost the length of Greenland, but its northern rivers will thaw and run more slowly and for shorter periods than its more southerly rivers, so most of the Eastern water will be in the South.
That means that the south basins will tend to have the freshest water, the north the saltier water. Water from the south will tend to flow into the north basin in summer, and perhaps out to the ocean through the south-eastern channel.
When winter comes, the rivers, carrying water down from the mountains, freeze, the water inflow stops. At that point, you may even see currents reversing, with saltier water flowing from the north basin to the south, and out the south-western channel, until balance is reached. As I said, you may even see, depending on conditions, the winter flow reversing in the south-western channel to the ocean, with ocean waters flowing inland to the sea, though it’s more likely the channel would eventually freeze.
What else can we say about the Central Sea? Variable salinity. All that fresh water coming in particularly from the south. We can expect the south basin especially, but also the central basin, and the eastern lip of the north basin along the mountain drainage basin to be significantly fresher than average. The south may act very much like a freshwater lake, particularly in the summer. And of course, salinity will be seasonal, as the influx of fresh water varies with the seasons.
You’re probably going to get some significant thermal-regulation. Basically, it’s about heat storage. Bodies of water, large bodies of water tend to moderate climate. In the interiors, far away from seas or oceans, temperature gets extreme – things get really hot in summer and during the days, and get really cold in winters and at nights. Near seas and oceans, bodies of water act as heat traps and flatten out temperatures, it doesn’t get as cold in winter, it doesn’t get as hot in summer.
That Central Sea is a really big volume of water, it’s going to influence the thermal features of the landscape. Again, check the topography. Greenland is sort of a bowl, with the lake in the middle. That means that water will drain towards it. But it also means that air and wind will tend to flow towards it. Warm air rises, of course, so it’s a bit more complicated. And while the glacial rivers will be slower and take more time to warm up, they may still be fairly cold. But the likelihood is that the geography is probably going to tend to transfer seasonal warmth towards the Central Sea. So, it’s likely to be warmer waters than the arctic currents. That moderating effect will make the landscape on average a little warmer than it would normally be. It won’t be huge, a few degrees at best. But when you’re this far north, a few degrees can make a real difference in the quality of your tundra or taiga.
It’s going to be an active sea. It’s a narrow body of water stretching across ten degrees of latitude, so even small thermal differences will drive significant north/south currents. Throw in the contributions of major drainage from the south and east, variations in salinity – all of these are drivers for significant, stable seasonal currents. Despite currents, it’s going to be a pretty calm sea, at least compared to the Atlantic, and especially so in the south. So, calm, steady, stable, predictable, seasonal. And of course, it will freeze over in the winter … at those latitudes, everything does.
Let’s get out our old chemistry textbook. Here’s some interesting factoids about water, and about the ocean. Basically, life in the ocean, our fishy friends, survive by respirating dissolved oxygen in the water through their gills. I know that’s painfully obvious. But when you think about it, one of the boundaries for sea life is the ocean’s, or the water’s, capacity to carry dissolved oxygen. The more oxygen, the more fishies, or the bigger the fishies, they tend to go together, it’s a food chain thing. The less oxygen, the fewer fishies.
Now, this isn’t exactly rocket science. But let me throw in a couple of factoids. It seems that fresh water has a greater capacity of carrying dissolved oxygen than salt water. The fresher, the more oxy, the saltier, the less oxygen. That’s why the Dead Sea is dead, too much salt crowding out the oxygen, fish can’t breathe (or whatever it is called when you respirate through gills).
The next factoid: Cold water has a greater oxygen carrying capacity than warmer water. So, all those glacial streams entering the coastal Atlantic waters off Greenland are carrying and introducing a much higher dissolved oxygen content than the regular Atlantic waters. And the mixing of glacial fresh and Atlantic salt waters, the rapid currents coming off the glaciers are stirring up the sea bottom, producing turbidity and increasing the nutrient content of these waters. So, overall, good for fish, good for lots of fish, good for big fish and lots of them, and very good for sea mammals eating those fish.
Your Central Sea fishery is likely to be extremely productive. Maybe not as productive as the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, but maybe up there with or better than the Barents Sea or the Andean coasts.
For that matter, it’s likely that the external ocean around Greenland’s east and southern coasts will be extremely productive, fed as they are by fast moving glacial rivers rich with fresh water and oxygen, carrying nutrients down from the mountains, and stirring them up in their currents.
NEW GREENLAND, THE ATLANTIC OCEAN COASTS
Now, just a few more observations – check the coastline. What do you see? Fjords. Lots of fjords. Which amount to sheltered bays, protected from the savage Atlantic winds, likely with freshwater drainage, and relatively stable though cold microclimates. Probably lots of good terrain for seal and walrus haul outs, and for sea birds. Good fishing, too.
In the south, below 70 degrees latitude, and preferably below 65 degrees latitude, you might have enough warmth and water for decent terrestrial vegetation in the fjords, shrubs and grasses. And in the very south, you’ll probably see random stands of beaten up and puny looking birch and spruce trying to make a go of it.
You couldn’t grow barley anywhere along the coast. I’m not saying you could have much of a go at it in the southern interior (maybe in a few spots, with the right microclimate). Up to 65 degrees latitude in the fjords, though, you might manage to grow a few vegetables.
Up to 70 degrees latitude, you might be able to pull enough pasture in your fjord to support a few goats and sheep, maybe even cattle … if you invested heavily in protecting them from the elements and getting them through the winter. But I’ll be honest, past 65 and the further you go, it would be a pretty hardscrabble life for Norse settlers, and only the fishery and sea mammal harvest would make it viable at all.
But you could manage it. It’s not going to be uniform – you’ll get an incredible amount of diversity in the fjords, depending on the latitude, the orientation, the height of surrounding lands, proximity to glacial waters, the adjacent ocean currents and winds, etc., everything from blasted heaths and barren rock lands to fairly nice garden spots next to each other. And it’ll be tricky getting from one fjord to the next – overland travel will be intensely seasonal, and erratic, and some places will be inaccessible all year round, other places only accessible to specific other places.
Of course, coastal peoples would also be making a go of it, with a lower population density, more dependence on sea protein, and a seasonal subsistence basket.
Let’s take another look at the topographic map on your cover and the Eastern mountain ranges. We’ll notice on the Atlantic side, that curve is steep. It’s a downhill slalom. The water moves damned fast and at velocity into the ocean. Good for turbidity and coastal currents that stir up the bottom. Fair enough, most of the water depositing is forming on that side, so it’s good that it’s moving out fast.
Turbidity, silt and mountain run off, and injections of fresh oxygenated water in the summers will make the coastal waters off Greenland very rich and biologically productive. So, you’ll get a very productive fishery, lots of fish, lots of sea mammals.
NEW GREENLAND, REACHING THE INTERIOR
One interesting thing, looking at this topographic map, is that the interior is going to be pretty inaccessible from the coasts. Greenland is going to be hard to get into.
Most places out there, we have rivers draining their way out from continental interiors towards the open sea or ocean – the Nile, the Amazon, the Yellow, the Ganges, the Mississippi, the Rhine, the Danube, yadda yadda. All you have to do is sail along the coasts till you come to them, start sailing up them, and voila, you’re in the interior.
Not this version of Greenland. Most of the drainage of Greenland’s rivers, particularly the navigable rivers, is from the highlands and mountains to the interior Central Sea, not the coasts. There are coastal rivers of course, coming down from the mountains and highlands and emptying into the Ocean. But they’re short and fast moving, mostly not all that navigable, and they generally don’t connect to any of the interior water complexes. So, you’d have to do a lot of really hard climbing up and down mountains and portaging through mountain passes an unreasonable distance to try and get towards the interior river systems. I’m not saying it’s impossible, I’m just saying it can’t be done. The interior is going to be extremely, unreasonably difficult to access from most of the coast.
Not entirely impossible. On the east coast, there’s a stretch of a couple of hundred miles around latitude 65, between the Eastern and the South Eastern mountain complexes, where the hill country looks like it might be low enough and broken up enough that you could maybe find some pathways to the interior. Maybe. Particularly if you’re ready to do a lot of walking. It’s not easy, but at least you’re not climbing over mountains.
On the western coasts, between latitude 66 and 70, you might have better luck finding pathways to the interior, but mostly again, this will involve a lot of walking. However, if we look closely, there is, next to the western edge of the southern basin, a series of lakes and bays. Now on the topographic map, they’re not connected at sea level. But it’s likely that the southern basin is elevated above sea level, so there’s a good chance that here you might have an access channel to the Atlantic Ocean. Maybe that’s a navigable waterway, or maybe it’s a nonstop series of hellish waterfalls and rapids.
But note the presence of a fairly big mountainous island and peninsula immediately to the north – likely snowcapped, and potentially calving small icebergs or discharging fresh water – these are likely to produce unpredictable and unpleasant local winds and currents. Nothing that can’t be handled, but not inviting.
Of course, there may be a couple of sea accesses in the far north, but you’re up around 75 or 80 degrees latitude. It’s not practical or viable as a gateway. Those sea accesses would probably be frozen for three quarters of the year.
There are gaps in the mountain and highland ranges, particularly on the east coast, around a place near Disko Bay, which, depending on elevation, might give inflow or outflow from the surrounding saltwater oceans to the interior lowland.
NEW GREENLAND, FLORA & FAUNA
So, what’s our picture of Greenland? Starting in the north, rocky frozen tundra, in the mountains and highlands, the landscape won’t be too different, mountain elevations and snow caps mean colder temperatures and climate year-round. But as we move south, the landscape starts to change. The vegetation gets thicker, the soil more productive. Rivers and marshes proliferate along the lowlands sloping towards the central sea, with the eastern flatlands being wetter and richer, the western flatlands being dryer. The further south we go, the more trees and brush we see, more small lakes, eventually transitioning to full boreal forest in the southern quarter. What’s living there?
Let’s start with the Central Sea. There’s likely contact between the Atlantic Ocean and the Central Sea, outflow, possibly inflow. Biologically, we can assume that it’s heavily influenced by north Atlantic Ocean flora and fauna. Kelp, algae, fish species – arctic char, salmon, cod, all the way up to Greenland sharks – there’s pathways for entry. The variable salinity will mean that a lot of the saltwater species are going to evolve varying degrees of tolerance, all the way up to freshwater adaptation. They may colonize freshwater niches. You may also see, particularly in the south and east, freshwater species, perhaps fairly archaic ones – including big sturgeon.
It’s going to be an extremely productive sea biologically, particularly the south and central basins. You know the recipe – cold waters and fresh waters carry more oxygen, which translates to more biological productivity, shallow basin allows for more turbidity from the sea floor, releasing nutrients, and of course, the drainage from the rivers and lakes are carrying silt and sediments, which are also contributing nutrients. As I said, basically, this is a crazy productive sea, particularly in the south basin. We’re talking Barents and Andean shore levels of productivity, and a wide, diverse and very active biology, with a lot of lively biomass.
You’ll probably get marine mammals. Seals, certainly, particularly the arctic seals. Porpoises range extends around the waters of Greenland, so we might see them. Orca may or may not end up there, although that seems unlikely. Baleen whales like the Bowhead may be a long shot. If there is a local population, it’s likely a dwarf form of Bowhead.
Belugas are very tolerant to fresh water and are often found in rivers. Their natural range includes the coastal waters west of Greenland. They could likely get in there. Would they survive? That depends on the extent or degree to which the Central Sea freezes in the winter – if the whole sea freezes, then they may not be able to find breathing spaces through the ice. Freezing is a problem, some seals have claws to help them scrape holes through the ice, Bowhead whales have reinforced skulls to break through. Belugas not so much. On the other hand, if the lower basins don’t quite freeze solid in the winter, or the winter currents keep the ice breaking up, then the Belugas might make a go of it, seasonally migrating around the Sea.
Remember I said walrus? Walrus are benthic (bottom) feeders, they basically travel around the sea floor, at depths of up to 250 feet, using their whiskers and tusks to stir up sediment and feel around, and then hovering up mollusks with vacuum suction – because of their activity on the sea floor, they’re considered a pyramid species, liberating and stirring sediments and nutrients which then support an assortment of feeder species and charge up the ecology. And this sea is spectacular walrus habitat, it’s practically made for them. The central sea would be perfect walrus territory, so you could expect a dense population of Walrus, and if the theory is correct, a turbo-charge to the biological productivity.
Walrus have not done well in the human era. Their bones have been found as far south as the St. Lawrence in Canada, and in Scotland and Scandinavia in Europe. Unfortunately, their need to occasionally haul themselves out of the water, and their slow reproduction has resulted in extinction over much of their range due to overhunting.
One sea mammal you won’t get are sea cows. Sadly, Steller’s Sea Cow is native to the pacific only, on the other side of North America – no way for them to get from there to here. The other Sirenians are strictly tropical. That’s a shame, because there’s an empty niche for something like them.
You’re likely to see large colonies of opportunistic seabirds, from seagulls and puffin to fish eagles. You’ll also expect a good population of shoreline feeders, most likely polar bears, possibly brown bears, or speciated polar bears. Wolves. Not sure about otters, but even if we don’t get otters, it’s likely that some other mustelid will move towards that niche. If any herbivore can manage salt tolerance, there’s likely rich kelp beds.
What about land animals? Now that could get really interesting. At a minimum ,you might see Greenland colonized by the modern standard repertoire of arctic and sub-arctic megafauna: Caribou, Musk Ox, Polar Bears, Wolves … possibly Moose, maybe even Bison or Beavers, big Cats, or some additional variety of Bear. You might even get some specially adapted Greenland varieties, such as Polar Bear who have shifted back to being land predators, or Moose who got salt tolerant to take advantage of seagrasses.
NEW GREENLAND, A LOST WORLD? MAMMOTHS & CAMELS, TAPIRS & SLOTHS
Or, depending, we could get a little more exotic. How about Mammoths? We know that the Wooly Mammoths were active in both Siberia and North America. Obviously, they were crossing back and forth over the Bering Strait. So, they were up and about in the region.
Now, there’s no indication that Woolly Mammoths inhabited the eastern Canadian Arctic or Arctic Islands or ever got to Greenland. We don’t have any fossil record of Wooly Mammoths on Baffin Island, or Ellesmere which is next to Greenland. But we do have fossil forests on Ellesmere Island, and other extinct large animals. If Mammoths could cross the Bering Strait, it’s likely that they could have made it across the narrow spaces to Ellesmere, and from there, Greenland. It’s a long shot, but maybe.
Is there enough space in this Greenland for a population of Wooly Mammoths? A dwarf population survived on Wrangel Island for at least six thousand years, and Wrangel is only 4000 square miles. Greenland is 830,000 square miles. On the other hand, 830,000 is pretty good, but it’s not Eurasia or even North America.
But not all of that 830,000 is Mammoth habitat. Let’s break it down. Of that 830,000 miles, let’s assume about 20% – 166,000 square miles – is Arctic desert in the north. Mammoths aren’t good swimmers, so let’s knock off another 20%, roughly 166,000 square miles for the Central Sea and its waterways. Mammoths aren’t really mountain climbers, so let’s discount another 20% or 166,000 square miles.
That leaves about 332,000 square miles for Mammoths. About the size of France and Germany together. That’s everything from subarctic muskeg, to marsh, to taiga and boreal forest. Everything from no quality, to low quality, to high quality Mammoth territory. Let’s say no quality/low quality habitat is two thirds, It’s still Greenland. You’ve got maybe 111,000 square miles of prime Mammoth country. Let’s cut that in half, call it 55,000 square miles.
That would still be twice the size Sri Lanka, and it’s got a healthy population of Indian Elephants. But then, Sri Lanka is tropical, lots more biomass year-round, lots more energy. On the other hand, only a fraction of Sri Lanka, 20% or less, say 5000 square miles is Elephant habitat. So, Greenland seems to have at least ten times that. Lots of room for a Mammoth population.
So … let’s assume that Mammoth territory extended from Boreal forest to Shrub Tundra. With Shrub Tundra being shitty, low density, so thin the ribs are showing, but survivable mammoth territory, and boreal forest being buffet land. And let’s assume that they’re not taking up the entirety but sharing the vegetation with a bunch of other species, so they’re probably actually taking up 15 to 20% of the available food. And let’s assume that given the latitudes and stuff, that the regular elephants in Africa and India need a fraction of the territory ‘cause it’s so warm and productive and can have at least two or three times the population density …
What’s the likely mammoth population? Apparently, you can find anything on the internet, someone actually calculated population densities for Woolly Mammoths. They are considered to have population densities from 0.1 to 4 individuals per square kilometer. Let’s assume a relatively low density of 0.3 to 0.5. 50,000 square miles translates to 130,000 square kilometers – gives us roughly between 40,000 and 65,000 animals. Those are pretty big herds. Even assuming half those numbers, that’s a healthy population. Greenland is smaller than their native range, so you’ve probably got smaller Mammoths over time – but something between 80% or 50% of their original size would still be impressive.
In our history, after hundreds of thousands of years, Mammoths died out about 10,000 years ago. A relic population survived until 4000 years ago. That’s amazing. Literally, the final Mammoths died off at the same time as the pyramids were being built. They survived until the time frame of human civilization! Those Mammoths were a small relic population on Wrangel Island, that managed to survive because there were no humans to hunt them.
But the thing with Greenland, it wasn’t even discovered by humans until about 4500 years ago, and those humans would have found two or three robust populations of mammoths, on the East, West and South of the Central Sea. What this means is that Mammoths might have survived in Greenland longer, perhaps for thousands of years into historical times. Possibly long enough that the Vikings might have encountered them. Or even to the present. The thought of Mammoths surviving into the 19th or 20th century is … fun.
There are other possible exotic animals in Greenland. Not the Woolly Rhino, unfortunately. They never made it into North America. But other animals passed back and forth between North America and Asia, and were clearly operating at high latitudes and in the broad vicinity. Some of them might have made it into Greenland.
One possibility are sloths. Megalonyx was a bear-sized, flat-footed sloth, ranging up to nine feet long and weighing up to two thousand pound, whose range extended as far as Alaska and the Yukon, which survived into the Holocene, roughly eleven thousand years ago, and was definitely hunted by humans. I do think it’s a stretch to get Megalonyx up as far as Ellesmere and into Greenland.
Depending on time frame, whether Greenland never glaciated, never completely glaciated, or de-glaciated, it’s possible that other animals that inhabited the arctic in the last few million years might have ended up in Greenland.
Tapirs, for instance, although they’re now native to tropical regions in both South America and Asia. The Cloud Tapir finds itself at home in the Andean mountains and is very tolerant of sub-zero temperatures. Ancestral Tapirs must have travelled across the Bering Strait. Had they managed to find our Greenland, the Central Sea and the lakes, rivers and marshes would have been prime habitat. It seems counterintuitive to find such animals here, but species often end up in strange places.
An excellent candidate would have been descendants of Paracamelus, including the High Arctic Camel, and the Yukon Giant Camel. Paracamelus fossils have actually been found on Ellesmere Island, which is just a skip away from Greenland. Camels originated in North America, of course, before moving to South America, where they evolved into Andean Llamas and Alpacas, and crossed the Bering Strait for the varieties that we know today.
One really interesting thing about Camels is their utter ruggedness. They could adapt to be quite at home in the foothills and mountain ranges of Greenland, as the Llamas are in the Andes. One interesting species, the Wild Bactrian Camel, is actually able to subsist on water even saltier than seawater, which is astounding
Remember how I mentioned the likelihood that the shallows of the Central Sea would be fertile territory for seaweeds and sea grasses, but there were no sea cows to eat them? That was an empty niche. Well, hypothetically, you could have Moose, or Tapirs or Camels evolving to occupy that niche, all they’d really need would be adaptations to water, and salinity tolerance. Moose and Tapir are already water adapted, and Camels are salt tolerant, take your pick.
But is there a point? Assuming our hypothetical Greenland really was a Lost World, a refuge for extinct megafauna, wouldn’t they just go extinct anyway when humans show up? By the modern era, wouldn’t we be back to caribou, musk ox and polar bears?
If humans show up in 2500 BC, how much longer would Mammoths and other megafauna have survived? The North American experience seems to suggest humans co-existed with megafauna for twenty or thirty thousand years before the megafauna went extinct ten thousand years ago. So, either a particularly gifted big game hunting culture came along, or some kind of ecological bottleneck hit that tipped the balance.
There’s some evidence that humans were on Madagascar foraging as far back as 2000 years ago, although this is controversial. The mass extinctions of megafauna seem to have spread out around 1000 to as recently as 500 CE. So, there’s at least a few hundred years of overlap. They didn’t all get wiped out at once. In the Madagascar case, the megafauna extinctions came at least in part to habitat modification by human action, particularly fires and fire management.
As I modeled out the cultures invading Greenland, they seemed to consistently be coastal cultures whose lives revolved around harvesting sea protein, particularly sea mammals in what would still be a very difficult landscape, which orients towards conservative stable societies. Which means that their tool kits would not be well adapted to hunting megafauna, they’d probably be very slow to colonize the interior away from coasts, and they’re unlikely to radically transform the landscape in ways that spelled doom in other areas. And large parts of it are simply a harsh landscape for humans. So perhaps survival to modern times wouldn’t be out of the question.
In the end, it’s a matter of speculation and choice, as to what this Greenland could be like – we could populate it with a standard suite of Arctic and Sub-Arctic fauna. Or we could turn it into a veritable lost world with mammoths, mountain camels and herds of a seaweed munching salt tolerant herbivore species.
OLD GREENLAND, THE PEOPLES
In our real history, Greenland probably is in the running for the most inhospitable place on Earth. Antarctica wins. But Greenland? It’s definitely up there. That’s saying something.
Humans are an adaptable species. We go everywhere, we manage to find a way to make a living anywhere. Between 60,000 and 10,000 years ago, humans had colonized most of the planet – by that time, we’d found Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia, North and South America. Basically, the only places we hadn’t reached – Madagascar, New Zealand, Iceland, Antarctica, Greenland, were either incredibly hard to reach, or incredibly difficult to live in.
Humans crossed the Bering Strait several times. The earliest colonists may have gone as far back as 40,000 years ago. They immediately headed south; their traces have been found in South America. They don’t seem to have done much damage, though.
That’s the first thing, early humans overran every other bit of two continents, but when they looked to Greenland, it was 30,000 years of ‘nope.’
Then about 10,000 years ago, a new set of colonists, these were big game hunters came through. And that’s where you got the big mass extinctions all over North and South America. But they headed south, too. It seems that none of our early ancestors wanted to live in the Canadian Arctic or try Greenland. Almost anywhere but there.
Another 6000 years of ‘nope’ to Greenland.
Humans had managed to find and settle just about every remaining piece of real estate, short of Antarctica. We’d found the Azores, the Canaries, the Cape Verdes and Caribbean in the Atlantic, we found just about every Island worth having in the Pacific, including Hawaii, Rapa Nui and the Aleutians. We’d found Tierra del Fuego, Madagascar, Iceland and New Zealand, and we made a go of all those places.
But Greenland? Greenland was where humanity failed. Four times in a row. Greenland’s history is unique in that it’s been settled five times, by five different human cultures, including the Norse and the Inuit, and four of those attempts failed. Only the Inuit managed to stick. And even there, they find barrows where Inuit communities slowly starved to death in their homes during hard times.
That’s not surprising, given that the place is a giant Island bigger than Mexico under a two mile thick glacier, with only a narrow ring of inhospitable tundra around it.
Greenland’s first inhabitants were the Saqqaq culture, also called paleo-eskimos. That’s not what they called themselves, but they’re gone so we had to call them something. They showed up in Greenland about 2500 BCE, and they lasted until about 800 BCE before vanishing. From the remains, we know that they’re related to the Chukchi and Koryak of Siberia. So, they must have been the descendants of a people who came over from Siberia and somehow spread across Alaska and Northern Canada before reaching Greenland. But those intermediate steps seem to be lost to us. The Inuit, a separate people, also seem to have crossed over from Siberia in that time frame, but ended up staying parked in Alaska until about a thousand years ago.
The Saqqaq lived in small tents, used bows and arrows, and lived off sea mammals, seals and walrus mostly. It’s not clear whether they used boats at all or had simply marched across the ice floes. Although dogs came with them, showing up around 2000 BC they didn’t seem to use dogsleds. They used stone tools, obviously, but halfway through their era, they started working sandstone.
We don’t really know what happened to them. Best guess is that times just got tough – Greenland went through a long cold spell, or maybe the currents shifted enough that the sea mammals weren’t as easy to catch. They vanished.
Around the same time, there was another human culture that made it into Greenland. This group, though, clung to the northern part of Greenland, which was a polar desert. They didn’t move south, so odds are that the Saqqaq weren’t welcoming. Instead, they were stuck with the worst part of Greenland. These precarious survivors were called the ‘Independence I’ culture, and survived from about 2400 BCE to 1300 BCE before vanishing.
Several hundred years later, another group showed up, ‘Independence II,’ living in the same northern region for about 600 years, from roughly 700 BCE to 100 BCE. The Independence II culture occupied a territory the size of a European country, but they may have amounted to only a handful of families – a couple of hundred people if that, which illustrates how utterly barren their landscape was.
Next came the Dorset. The early Dorset appeared around 700 BCE, long after the Saqqaq had died off, and lasted until about 1 BCE. And then they disappeared. Greenland seems to have been utterly abandoned for most of the early Christian era.
Then, later, Dorset showed up in Greenland seven hundred years later, around 700 CE and lasted until about 1300 CE before disappearing again. Peculiarly, unlike either the earlier Saqqaq and the later Inuit, the Dorset seemed to lack bows and arrows, or drills. It’s not clear, but they seem to have had skin boats, and appear to have lacked dogsleds. Their technology was built around their harpoons. Perhaps these deficits limited their expansion and confined them to northern Greenland.
Meanwhile, in the south, the Norse showed up about 1000 CE. There’s some indication that the Greenland Norse may have traded with the Canadian Dorset on Baffin Island. But on Greenland, the Norse stayed in the south, don’t seem to have ever met the Dorset who clung to the north. The Norse only barely outlasted the Dorset, clinging on till about 1450 CE.
Around the time the Dorset were disappearing, the Thule were showing up – the people who would be known as Inuit. Eventually, they’d be the last people standing.
It’s not clear what was going on with them. For two thousand years, the Thule had parked in Alaska, doing nothing much. And through a lot of this time, the Dorset were the dominant ethnic group across the north. Then suddenly, the Dorset seemed to collapse – this seems to coincide with the Medieval Warm period, so it may be that their lifestyle couldn’t cope with climate change. Instead, the Norse exploded across the north as far as Greenland and Labrador. Dogsleds and skin boats allowed them to travel faster and further.
So this is the history of Greenland. Desperate cultures clinging to marginal existences in parts of Greenland, making a go of it for a few hundred years, and withering away.
NEW GREENLAND’S PEOPLES
Well, this Greenland is a lot friendlier place. Flat out, there’s just a huge amount of unglaciated territory in comparison. And the landscape is biologically richer, especially towards the south. There’s much more diversity of landscapes, different zones of tundra, desert tundra, dry tundra, wet tundra, shrub tundra, taiga, boreal forest, freshwater lakes and rivers, seas and oceans.
But it’s not any easier to reach. Greenland is mostly surrounded by cold, raging inhospitable oceans. It’s not easy to cross hundreds of miles of arctic and Sub-arctic Ocean. That technology wouldn’t exist until the Vikings around 1000 AD.
It’s possible to get to Greenland, but not easy. What you have to do is travel through the Canadian arctic, Island after Island, until you get to Ellesmere, the northernmost Island. Then you have to go to the far north of Ellesmere, approximately 80 or 83 north, within 10 degrees latitude of the North Pole. There you’ll find a channel between Greenland and Ellesmere, a few hundred miles long, ranging from 11 to over 100 miles wide. Now, if you’re lucky, you’re going in winter, the current isn’t too bad, and the ice has frozen. You can walk there … into northern Greenland, which is an arctic desert. It gets a lot nicer further south, but you’ve got to pass through the toughest parts first.
So, in this version of history, humans don’t find Greenland any earlier than they do in our history. It’s just that hard. What we’ll see is the same suite of suitors – the Saqqaq, the Independence I and II, the old Dorset, the new Dorset, the Norse and the Thule/Inuit.
But this is a nicer, kinder Greenland. What this means is that the successive cultures probably aren’t as marginal, and they don’t go extinct. At least, not naturally. Rather, they’re much more likely to expand, and to adapt to different regions.
So let’s chart them out. We’ll assume a butterfly net, and we’ll assume that Greenland not being glaciated changes no ocean currents, no wind patterns, the rest of the world simply goes on its merry way, with the same people being born and dying.
NEW GREENLAND’S PEOPLE’S THE SAQQAQ – 2400 to 1600 BC
The first visitors, once again, are the Saqqaq. In our history, their culture seems to have centered around Disko Bay, about halfway down the western side of Greenland. Disko Bay was pretty sheltered and a rich hunting ground for walrus and seal – both the Inuit and the Norse travelled there to hunt. For the Saqqaq to get to Disko Bay, it means that they had to come in from the north, from Ellesmere, and travel down the Western coast. So that’s how they come in, in this new history.
The Independence I culture, must have come later, since they travelled further along the northern shore. Otherwise, they would have headed south, unless the Saqqaq were already there. Basically, Independence I were stuck with the leftovers that the Saqqaq had abandoned.
So in universe, the Saqqaq had come across from Ellesmere. Once again, the northern part of Greenland is very much like our timeline – an arctic desert. The Saqqaq abandon it, heading south. In our timeline, the only thing they could do was follow the coast. In this timeline, they disperse south, some following the coast, but others go inland, where they come to the shores of the Central Sea, and split, moving down the eastern and western Central Sea coastlines.
Now, the Saqqaq lack dogsleds, and perhaps boats, so they have serious mobility issues. It’s hard to move far, it’s hard to carry a lot. They’re probably going to stick close to the coastlines and water bodies, where they can harvest walrus and seal, catch fish in spawning season, or with ice fishing. But mobility issues mean that it’s likely difficult to exploit the inlands – sure there’s game there, but it’s harder to get to, doesn’t come to where you’re waiting, is prone to running away, and when you kill it, you’re going to have to schlep it. So, the Inlands will tend to be thinly populated.
The Saqqaq diverge into three coastal tribes, Ocean Coast along the west coast, Central Sea East Coast, and Central Sea West Coast. All very similar, but physically, mostly out of touch with each other, and with enough significant differences in resources that the cultures will diverge. They’re also likely to move relatively slowly – the founding populations are small, perhaps only a handful of family groups, it will take time to grow. The Saqqaq cultures are probably going to take at least four or five hundred years to reach and begin populating the south and central basins. And probably a couple of hundred more years to populate the southern reaches.
Following on the Saqqaq will be the Independence 1 culture. The history will be similar. They’ll cross over from Ellesmere. The south will already be occupied by the Saqqaq, and so the Independence I will travel east, crossing and occupying the northern polar desert. It’s a harsh life, but still slightly more generous than our universe, and there are southern resources to plunder, if you can sneak past or fight the Saqqaq, or bypass them. You’ll see small groups of Independence 1 infiltrating the highlands and mountains of both the east and west, living on Caribou and Arctic hare, while the Saqqaq prefer the richer coastal regions. But there’s a limit to how far south they can penetrate – the further south we go, the more tolerable the Tundra becomes, and the more the Saqqaq are inclined to expand into it. Independence 1 infiltration stops about halfway down the north basin, about latitude 75.
The Independence Culture also follows the western coasts, settling on the coastal islands and peninsulas in the shadows of the glaciers. These isolated populations diverge strongly, becoming rather distinct from other Independence 1 groups.
This phase covers the first eight hundred years, give or take. From 2400 BC to 1600 BC. Human presence is thin, particularly in the uplands. Dogs are late arrivals, around 2000 BC, and they don’t seem to be used for much. There’s very little pressure on the local flora and fauna. Most of the harvest is sea based, and while the land animals are hunted, they’re not primary game.
NEW GREENLAND’S PEOPLES , THE SAQQAQ- 1600 to 800 BC
The East and West Coast tribes of the Central Sea reach, and within a century or two of each other at the most, begin to colonize the shores of the southern basin. By this time, the cultures have diverged strongly, but their dialects are still roughly intelligible to each other. Initially, the groups are civil when they encounter each other. There’s enough space and enough sustenance for everyone, and everyone can talk to each other. We see the beginning of ceremonial greetings and exchanges, which slowly evolve into formal trade networks, stretching up the coast.
The Ocean Coast people have moved south as well, finding and spreading up the southwestern channel to the Interior, which brings them into contact with the Central Sea tribes. They have also found telluric Iron from Disko Bay and meteoric Iron from Cape Hope, a significant edge in hunting, war and trading, which makes up for their otherwise thinner and more hardscrabble population. The eastern and western seacoasters have enough difference in their environments, in medicinal plants, stone etc., that trade works. The trade networks stretch up the three coastlines, with ceremonial and practical goods slowly moving back and forth.
In the north, Saqqaq at the far ends of the trading circuit, now acquainted with the idea of exchange, even begin trading with the Inland and northern Independence I. It’s not all ponies, however. The slowly expanding northern Saqqaq are impinging steadily on the inland Independence people, who have little choice but to withdraw. The result is often brushfire conflicts and raids. Trade up there becomes very formal, only at certain times, certain places, everyone shows up with their posse, everyone is armed with their hands on their weapons.
Around the Southern Basin, things are really starting to heat up, though. Over the centuries, the population density of the Southern and Central basins increases. Frictions increase between founding populations, and intermittent raiding emerges alongside trading. But more important things are happening. The landscape around the Southern and Central basins is extremely productive, supporting an increasingly robust population. But it’s also very different environment, with taiga and boreal forest, and a density of woodland species. There are different and new opportunities, inviting new words, new technology. From different starting points, the three coastal tribes adapt and evolve, sometimes borrowing words and techniques from each other, sometimes independently inventing, sometimes competing with and refining each other’s inventions.
The south and central basin Saqqaq evolve into a fourth Saqqaq culture, albeit a feuding and fractious one, with many local subcultures. Intermittent war and conflict makes them territorial. Competition and exchange of ideas, ceremonial and trade occasions drive an increasingly sophisticated culture, with several developing artistic traditions, including heavy cultural investment in the production of ceremonial and trade objects, and the creation of petroforms, landmarks and even forts to mark and protect territories. Eventually, towards the end of Phase 2, we will start to see local projects such as fish traps, dams, and crude rafts. No permanent or semi-permanent settlements yet, however. The populations are too dependent on sea mammals, particularly walrus, which suffer local depletions.
Conflict between these groups sometimes results in some of them being pushed out of the basin regions, forced to eke out a living with their woodland skills in the southern boreal forests. This becomes a fifth group, denied the traditional sustenance of sea protein, they survive as small, nomadic woodland hunters. This is the first Saqqaq culture to specialize in land animals. The Sea Basin Saqqaq consider them savages and cannibals. Although they occupy the lowland boreal forest, they generally avoid the less productive and less desirable highlands.
Meanwhile, the Atlantic Coast Saqqaq continue to move south. The western mountain range prevents them from moving inland. Instead, they occupy coastal fjords, jumping or climbing along shores or valleys from one to another, forming diverging microcultures.
NEW GREENLAND’S PEOPLES, THE DORSET – 800 BCE to 1 CE
So what are we up to at this point? Most of Greenland now has been colonized by two ethnic/cultural groups, the Saqqaq and Independence I. Mostly dominated by the Saqqaq. But over 1600 years, both groups have differentiated into some fairly distinctive cultures or subcultures. There are still large parts of Greenland that are unoccupied – primarily the central and southern East Atlantic coastal fjords, and the Southern highlands, and while the interior tundra is inhabited, the population is extremely thin. Most of the population is clustering along the coasts, both inner and outer, and only around the southern basin are you seeing anything like density or social complexity building up.
For the most part, the human presence hasn’t affected Greenland at all. The Central Sea is rich enough and productive enough that humans haven’t made much of a dent in the harvest. Only in the south basin are there transient local depletions of sea mammals, walrus and seals, and these pass quickly as the local people move elsewhere and neighboring sea mammals move into depleted territory and repopulate. Land animals aren’t much bothered. The interior population densities are so low that the great herds of caribou and musk ox, camel and mammoth barely notice the presence of humans. They’re well used to the occasionally biped polar bears, so they’re already half wary of these strangers and harder to hunt. Mostly, they get left alone.
All else being equal, we could just let the whole place sit for another several thousand years and not expect too much – maybe a steady gradual rise in population density – but never beyond hunter gatherer levels, and population crashes every now and then when the bad weather hits or some other threshold is reached. Maybe the gradual extinction of some of the more vulnerable species. But no reason to expect anything dramatic.
All else is not equal, because the third culture is going to be arriving. This is when the Dorset come to visit.
Now the Dorset are an interesting folk. We don’t know a lot about them. The Inuit described them as giants, extraordinarily strong, but rather timid, a people that could wring the neck of a walrus but be driven away by a shout. They lacked bows and arrows, and bowstring drills. But they did have sophisticated toggle harpoons. They seemed to have had yarn. They had kayaks, but no umiaks (big skin boats capable of carrying whole families and cargo). They had sleds, but not dogsleds. They lived in igloos. They seemed to have been well suited to their environment, their toolkit was overall superior to and more specialized than the preceding cultures.
In our time, of course, the Dorset walked into an empty Greenland, and mostly stayed in the upper regions where their toolkit worked best. In this history, the Dorset encounter two existing populations, both of which are doing relatively well.
It’s possible that nothing happens. The Dorset cross over from Ellesmere, take a look around, are met by the occupants, and come back the way they came. Which isn’t much fun. It’s certainly possible. For interpersonal tribal conflicts bows and arrows are a lot handier than harpoons. Whatever their skill sets, it’s hard to invade someone else’s territory and make it stick.
Hard, but not impossible. The Dorset invasions are more erratic in this history and more nuanced. The indigenous populations of Independence and Saqqaq are making a living on their coasts and tundra. But this is very marginal territory, and a sharp change in weather for a few years can bring disaster. And that’s happened again and again. When you’re passing time by centuries, a four or five year, or a decade long spell of unusually savage cold or disruptive warmth is almost common. When this happens, the local populations will try to adapt, to shift their subsistence basket. But if they can’t, if the disruption is too great, then the only thing the population can do is collapse. Not all of them, there’ll be survivors, places where for one reason or another disaster bypasses. And when good times come around again, they’ll repopulate what has been abandoned.
Except here in the third phase, during these periodic disaster seasons, the Dorset come in, surviving and thriving on a much better, more effective, coastal survival package. They settle, they spread, and eventually, they stop as climate stabilizes and the Saqqaq expand. But the Dorset remain in the territories they’ve settled. And when the next round of disruptive climate comes along, which brings a retreat or collapse of the Saqqaq and Independence folk, the Dorset expand again.
Over the next few centuries, the Dorset expand steadily, moving down the western Atlantic coast of Greenland, eventually almost completely displacing the Saqqaq. The Saqqaq aren’t driven entirely from the region. They survive in coastal pockets. And by the time the Dorset reach Disko Bay, they’ve reached the natural limits of their expansion – past that point, the Saqqaq are much too well established and too dense to be displaced.
In the north, they move across the Arctic Ocean coast, pushing the Independence culture east and south. Eventually, the Independence 1 are left only with the northeastern corner of Greenland, and their Islands. On the other hand, the collapse of the Saqqaq in the face of the Dorset leaves the thinly populated Tundra interior even more thinly populated in the north and west, so the scattered hunter gatherers of Independence abandon the sea and become an inland peoples.
As to the Central Sea, the Dorset barely make an impact. The climate around the Central Sea is simply too consistent and stable. It’s less prone to the savage oscillations driven in from the Atlantic and it tends to moderate. Saqqaq collapses are fewer and far less intense. A tributary of the Dorset occupy slivers of the northern interior coastline. But mostly, the Central Sea is a Saqqaq lake, and the Dorset are eventually merged and become a mixed population there.
The introduction of the Dorset isn’t as violent as you might think. Yes, there’s some raiding, some burning, some killing and kidnapping. But the Dorset expansions aren’t warlike, but a matter of simply being more efficient. Not that efficiency counts for much in good times. But in bad times, it means you survive when your neighbors don’t, that you expand where they’ve retreated. In circumstances like that, hard times, you learn to be good neighbors. Saqqaq wives and children are adopted into Dorset families, sometimes there’s begging or voluntary servitude. There’s communication and trade. Life is hard, no one needs to fight.
The result is over time, a trickle of cultural exchange. Not just ceremonial and religious objects, trade goods. But loan words make it back and forth. The Dorset pick up bows and drills, and this enhances their ability to harvest and spin yarn. Igloos, Kayaks and toggle harpoons transmit slowly through Greenland. This doesn’t happen right away, and it doesn’t transmit rapidly. One of the things you have to understand about cultures in a landscape this harsh and barren is that innovation is not a welcome thing.
The land is unforgiving, what works, works. New things usually get you killed – innovation is unnecessary risks, missed meals, lost game, opportunities squandered. You stick with what worked for your father and grandfather, mother and grandmother, because it worked and you can rely on it.
So if it takes hundreds of years for the Dorset to truly dominate their parts of Greenland, it takes more hundreds of years for their innovations to spread widely. It’s only toward the end of the third phase that Kayaks and Toggle harpoons really make it to the Southern basin.
And that is the third Phase, from about 800 BCE extending to the Common Era.
NEW GREENLAND’S PEOPLES, FUSION AND EXCHANGE – 1 CE to 700 – CE,
The fourth phase of Greenland’s ethnographic and cultural evolution we will consider having run from approximately 1 CE to 1200 CE, concluding with contact from the Norse and Inuit, in the north and south. Largely, this was a period without major changes, marked in most cases by a slow but gradual increase in population and in subsistence tool kits.
Despite this, there were significant developments. Sometime around 600 CE, there was a second wave of Dorset immigration. This secondary wave established themselves in the north, partially displacing the Independence 1 culture, and their own Dorset predecessors. This seems to have produced a marked pulse of Dorset artifacts, tools and techniques through the rest of Greenland.
In particular, Independence 1 culture was heavily influenced by the Dorset, to the point of transformation, and is referred to as Independence 2. Kayaks became particularly important, especially to the Island cultures.
Along the southern coasts, the kayak and variations thereof became a boon to the Atlantic Coast Saqqaq and accelerated their colonization of southern fjords. Between about 400 and 700 CE, the Atlantic Saqqaq rounded the southern cape and proceeded up Greenland’s eastern coast, falling just short of encountering the Independence Island populations. More significantly, the kayak allowed the coastal Saqqaq to communicate and interact more dynamically.
Local trading arrangements began to knit together into a trading network which encompassed most of the populations and ethnicities on the island. Obsidian from the far northern islands made their way to the coastal settlements in the south. Ivory, amber, herbs and ceremonial objects travelled hundreds of miles. Most of this trade was in extremely small volumes. But the south and central basin became a magnet for trade goods.
A major trade good was telluric iron from Disko Bay. However, sometime around 300 / 600 CE, copper deposits were found by Saqqaq in the eastern highlands, in the form of place deposits washed down by glacial rivers. At first, these were simply used locally. But copper artifacts were found in the south basin as early as 700. And by 800 CE, there was a well-established copper and gold trade.
Ethnicities changed, particularly in the north, as populations waxed and waned against each other, and territories shifted.
This period also saw a decline in Greenland megafauna, as a result of increasing population density in the interior, and more sophisticated hunting techniques. The population and range of megafauna, particularly camel and mammoth declined, and they were split into isolated populations. This decline was made up for by an increase in caribou populations. Megafauna also declined in the south and central basin sea mammal populations.
NEW GREENLAND’S PEOPLES, THE RISE OF A PROTO-CIVILIZATION
The slow percolation of elements of the Dorset cultural toolkit to the Saqqaq tribes of the South Basin had far-reaching effects.
The spread and use of the toggle harpoon changed the subsistence economy. Initially, it made hunting of sea mammals more effective. The rate of successful kills balanced against effort increased substantially.
The introduction of the kayak also changed hunting. The Dorset lands were far removed, so the diffusion of the Kayak accumulated a number of variations. No one quite built exactly the Dorset way, so there were improvisations and adaptations, workarounds. Often these failed, but the successful ones translated into innovations.
In the south basin, this evolved into a period of experimentation with forms, and the Dorset kayak diverged into umiaks, catamarans, outriggers and other skin boat variations, even wooden or partially wooden boats and rafts. These boats and rafts allowed hunting expeditions to travel substantial distances along coastlines, or to venture increasing distances offshore.
At the very least, I think that they’re going to take skin and bone, or skin and wood boats as far as they can possibly be taken. Some innovations, such as sails or nets might be a bit too big a jump. But they wouldn’t be vital.
The thing with an inland sea like the Caspian, Mediterranean, the Red, the Black, the Persian Gulf, is that these are pretty placid places to take a boat around. Open ocean waters are scary and dangerous places, even under normal circumstances, and hellish in a storm. Sheltered interior seas on the other hand, involve calmer waters, safe harbours and land not too far away.
The Central Sea will provide a safe opportunity for a sedentary fishing culture to build very ambitious boats, and to go out into the water and even travel long distances. The Central Sea is stable; its currents regular, the changes from season to season are predictable.
With the ability to travel on a relatively safe and predictable sea, the southern Saqqaq can explore far beyond their normal ranges, they can explore most of the coastlines and river systems, meeting the natives and exchanging with them.
For instance, this allows for hunting ranges to expand. You’re no longer limited by how far you can walk and how much you can carry. Travelling by boat, paddling or taking known currents, you can go much further, and carry much more out and back. You can dramatically expand your hunting territory. The south basin region was already the most densely populated area in Greenland, and the expansion of hunting territories and increased hunting efficiency, supported a steadily increasing population density.
In turn, this put increased pressure on the populations of sea mammals which formed the bulk of the subsistence economy. In the past, hunting pressure had resulted in local depletion and communities had been forced to disperse or relocate after a few years, or a generation or two. Because depletions tended to be local, once hunting populations dispersed or relocated, the recovery was usually quick.
The cumulative effects of new hunting innovation and increasing population, however, accelerated the problem. Larger and larger areas of the south basin began to see marine mammal population collapses, with recovery periods much slower.
The immediate effect was warfare and raiding along the South Basin, as different tribes competed violently for increasingly impoverished sea-hunting grounds. Accompanying this was increasing territoriality and formal territoriality centering around secondary food resources, such as fish runs, spawning grounds. Over time, treaties and arrangements between tribes attempted to allocate access to sea mammals, and preserve populations for sustainable harvest.
But neither warfare nor treaties could resolve the decline of sea mammals, the populations were heavily impacted and slow to recover.
The diets of the south basin Saqqaq shifted over time from 80% sea mammal protein – walrus, seal and beluga, to 80% fish catch. It’s worth noting that the Central Sea is almost certainly a hyper-productive fishery, and this offers the potential for a proto civilization.
There is precedent – it appears that the Chimu culture in Peru became a settled stable culture relying on the fishery, and only later branched into agriculture. On the British Columbia coasts, the fishery allowed the Haida and other coastal communities to live in permanent villages and towns, to build monumental totem poles, large houses, and develop a prominent artistic tradition. Rich sea fisheries may be key in other early civilizations, particularly around Lebanon or at the mouth of the Persian Gulf.
Sea mammals aren’t a terribly efficient diet. Basically, sea mammals like seals and beluga consume thousands and thousands of pounds of fish. So, if you switch from sea mammals to fish, cut out the middlemen, you can actually feed a lot more people … assuming you’ve the technology to catch them.
The early Saqqaq’s technology was appropriate for spearing seals and walrus, not good at catching large numbers. But cultural exchange and shifts of lifestyle has allowed the Saqqaq of the southern basin to acquire new tools and innovations. This dietary shift had profound cultural impacts. Fish harvest was a far more sustainable form of sustenance. In particular, the decline of many fish-eating sea mammals increased the available human harvest.
But key fishing grounds, river mouths, spawning runs, tended to be geographically fixed. Sea mammals moved but harvesting grounds didn’t. This tended to result in increasingly fixed communities.
The effort and process involved in fish harvest was significantly different from sea mammal harvest. Taking a walrus or a seal was an individual effort, or at the very least the work of small hunting parties out in the field. A fish harvest was a communal effort; harvests during a spawning run procured thousands of pounds of fish, but often within the span of a week or so. These fish had to be caught, dressed, smoked or dried, and stored. This called for systematic organization of community labour and divisions of communal labor.
The transition from semi-permanent small communities of sea mammal harvesters, to larger permanent communities of fish harvesters was neither easy, rapid nor straightforward. It went back and forth. Efforts were abandoned or failed. Social organizations evolved, communities fought internally and externally, negotiated, experimented.
But over the course of several hundred years, the south basin came to be dominated by relatively sedentary, long term communities, exhibiting increasing social complexity, and extensive relationships with their neighbors. You’d see hierarchies, divisions of labour and specializations, complex alliances and relationships between settled communities. So something resembling a proto-civilization, or the beginnings of one, without agriculture. Overall, relatively sophisticated non-nomadic or transient indigenous people.
NEW GREENLAND’S PEOPLES, THE COPPER TRADE NETWORK
Typically, in subsistence societies, trade is like a game of telephone. Goods are passed hand through hand until they get to where they’re consumed, or used, or stop being passed along. Now what this means is that ‘stuff’ can travel a long, long, long way. Meso-American obsidian all the way up to the Arctic Circle, Great Lakes copper down the Mississippi, tobacco as far as Hudson Bay. There are downsides to this. It’s pretty damned slow. And it can be hit and miss.
And it’s low volume – small amounts travelling, and heavily, heavily weighted to ritual and ceremonial objects, and small portable tools and items. Nobody wants to pass bulk and freight along hand to hand.
In any case, in most subsistence societies, the community usually has all of its key resources in or near its nomadic range, so they don’t actually need a lot of outside stuff. And being a nomadic community, you don’t want to have to schlep lots of stuff back and forth. You’d be surprised by how much weight is unnecessary, if you have to carry or drag it each day.
This is most of the Greenland historical trade networks. It’s how the Saqqaq, Independence and Dorset cultures traded within themselves and between each other. For instance, it’s how the Coastal Saqqaq are doing things around the Atlantic coasts. The Kayaks have enabled them to move a little further, a little faster, but there you go.
Boats are a potential game changer, in that, they offer an opportunity to travel further and carry more. But, at least initially, they aren’t revolutionary – not when the model is small volumes and hand to hand.
Two things change trade dramatically.
One is population density. When population densities are small, people are spread thin, then there’s not that much demand in any particular locale, and that ‘telephone’ trade system works pretty well. Population density though tends to create more demand than such diffuse networks can handle easily. As we can see, the south basin Saqqaq are building up rapidly.
The other is a particularly valuable trade good, one whose value is so extravagant that it overwhelms the sleepy telephone trade network and begins to drive a systematic trading system.
Which brings us to metals. The Saqqaq and their neighbors are Neolithic cultures, no question about that.
An import item for the south basin communities would be telluric iron from Disko Bay. Telluric iron existed naturally in relatively pure nodules. It could be harvested, and eventually beaten or ground into edges for cutting or chipping tools, and in fact, the local Inuit used it for these purposes. The Disko Bay iron was not the only metal finding its way into the trade network and into the south basin.
There’s a second source of iron. Cape York is the site of an immense iron meteor, at least sixty or seventy tons, which fell a few thousand years ago. The meteorite fragmented, with eight large chunks composing 58 tons. Once again, in our history, the local Inuit made use of pieces of meteoric iron.
In this different history, it’s almost certain that both Cape York and Disko Bay iron, in small but steady quantities, would have entered into the trade networks. Metals, iron, copper or bronze are always extremely valuable. It’s certain that it would have shown up in increasing quantities in the south basin, and that the growing population would create a growing demand.
There’s also a copper trade. Copper is a reasonable supposition. We can’t count on it per se, since we don’t know what copper deposits are under the ice, but it’s pretty likely. Copper tends to clump, and in copper-rich areas, it can often be found in stream beds in the form of nuggets.
In both Alaska, and near the McKenzie Delta in Canada’s Nunavut territory, the Dorset and the Inuit both learned to work copper and used it for tools. In the Great Lakes area, the Huron copper complex dug up raw copper and traded artifacts across North America. Copper use is the gateway to metallurgy for most civilizations.
Now the thing with copper is that the melting point is fairly low. It’s not so low that you can melt it in a campfire or in your oven. You need more heat than that. But copper is fairly soft and malleable as metals go, and with the heat of a campfire you can warm it up so that it gets even more malleable. Easy to pound nuggets together, easy to pound an edge to it, or to shape it into something useful – an axe head, a knife, a scraper, a chisel – or something ornamental, ceremonial or religious trinkets, or jewelry like armlets, bracelets, rings and necklaces.
Given the geography of Greenland, it is certain that there would be accessible copper deposits in some of the river systems feeding into the Central Sea. It’s equally certain that locals would have eventually made use of them, and that it would enter into trade networks.
And of course, copper is the gateway metal – so if you start messing around with that, you start messing around with similar metals that show up in nuggets and are soft enough to pound and heat into things – gold, tin, maybe silver or lead, iron if you’re lucky. You get better and better at heating things up. Copper and tin mix together to form Bronze. Get hot enough temperatures, you don’t have to mess with nuggets, you can melt the metal ore out of sand or rock. Enough heat and carbon, iron gets to steel. The Saqqaq just haven’t been around and in place long enough to get to smelting or bronze. They’ll stay as copper workers, or telluric iron workers, heating, pounding, annealing, yes. No alloys, no smelting.
But copper! Hey, that’s desirable stuff. The Saqqaq have a close trade route to telluric iron in Disko Bay. Iron is terrific, don’t get me wrong. Take an edge like you wouldn’t believe, keeps an edge, sharpens, hardest stuff around. But man, it’s a bitch to work! You have to pound away at that stuff for weeks to get something useful, and it don’t merge easy, heating it in the fire makes no difference.
On the other hand, copper is a lot easier to work with. Copper is like play doh, pound away for a few hours or a day, you get what you want, you can merge nuggets, it heats up good; what’s not to love. So even with iron, there would be a huge demand for copper. As much as they can get.
So the likely copper sources are up in the north basin Eastlands. In the region of those flowing glacial rivers. If you’re going to find placer mineral deposits in Greenland, that’s my bet. And, as with the Copper Inuit of Alaska and the Yukon, and of the Great Lakes people, it’s likely to be discovered and taken up by the locals, and eventually end up in the slow trade networks.
So, I am visualizing copper as a key element in this telephone-like trade network up and down the Eastern Lands to the south basin. But once you introduce the boat, or the concept and techniques of the boats to the people of the south basin, then they go out into the water, farther and further. Increasing population creates more and more demand. The system of telephone trade wasn’t delivering enough … wouldn’t that be an incentive to sailing up the Central Sea? It wouldn’t necessarily be that long a sea trip, maybe 100 miles distance, maybe 500 or 600, depending on the point where copper deposits are closest to coastlines, and where the exploring community is.
The entire north/south length of the sea is only about 900 miles. So, with reasonable sophistication in boatbuilding – say a couple of hundred years practice and exploration – the voyage would be doable. Potentially, the sedentary communities, if they were motivated, could explore the entire coastlines of the Central Sea and its tributary rivers. The south basin Saqqaq could even set up temporary mining colonies at northern deposits, gathering copper for a few weeks or months each summer, the cooperative labour required for massive fish harvest, and the elements of sailing technology could allow for it.
So what we might have in the south basins, are communities that are sort of like a Proto-Carthage, or a Proto-Tyr, the source of fleets bravely venturing out into the vast north basin, creating trading posts, or founding seasonal mining colonies. You would probably see an exponential volume of copper coming into the lower basins.
If there’s an intensive copper trade, you’ll inevitably see other metals with similar qualities, gold, silver, tin and lead. Particularly gold – Gold also tends to form nuggets, and end up in river systems, just like copper. Because of its luster and its soft malleability, it often becomes sought out.
Once you have a high volume trading system, copper expeditions travelling the length of the basin, then you’ll see other commodities also entering the bulk system: Mammoth and Walrus ivory for sure, amber perhaps, obsidian, exotic shells, musk ox hide, perhaps gemstones, soapstone and sandstone. These goods would concentrate in the southern basin, but small quantities would disperse throughout Saqqaq cultures, even out to the folk along the outer coasts.
This seems like a recipe for a dynamic and vibrant people, a pulsing proto-civilization, about to blossom and burgeon onto the world stage. It’s … romantic, it’s … beautiful.
NEW GREENDLAND’S PEOPLES, EXPLOSION OF ART AND ARCHITECTURE
We begin to assemble the elements of our Proto-Civilization. A lifestyle shift to organized cooperative fisheries, rather than bands of sea mammal hunters. We see sedentary stable communities occupying territory and resources. Increased population. New technologies, particularly boats, and a centralized bulk trading network.
Population, free time, and overall wealth in the south basin gave rise to both craftsmanship and productivity and to demand. South basin communities sent out expeditions to harvest soapstone, sandstone, amber, ivory, chert and obsidian. But as often, they learned to trade, driving and systematizing existing local trading relationships into coherent trade networks that extended from the desert north to the southern coasts.
Iron and copper, however, were particularly important to the south basin for stonework and woodwork. Both the Inuit of the north and the Haida of the British Colombia coast had remarkable artistic traditions. But ironically, it took European contact to allow these traditions to flourish fully. Why? Because before European contact, they were limited largely to stone tools. Europeans brought metal tools which allowed them to engage in stonework or woodwork to a greater extent than had ever been possible before.
But the Saqqaq already have access to iron and copper, albeit in tiny quantities compared to Europeans. But it’s there, and available.
A major outlet of the availability of metal tools and the increased skill in stone working was a widespread tradition of artistic stone carving. All arctic cultures, including the Saqqaq, the Dorset and the Inuit engaged in stone carving for ceremonial and ritual purposes. These usually involved smaller softer stones, like pieces of soapstone.
Copper and iron allow the south basin Saqqaq to be more ambitious and begin to reshape harder rock in the form of boulders. At first, boulders were simply used as parts of petroglyphs or megalithic erections – sometimes moved or turned, sometimes left where they were. Boulders were often etched or drawn with figures. With some boulders, the contours of the rock suggested faces or body shapes, and rock drawing emphasized these features. At some point, stone working techniques were used to enhance these natural shapes, with faces and figures carved into the stone.
Over time, this evolved steadily into carving boulders into humanoid or animal shapes, usually crouching or curled up, based on the original shape of the rock. Boulder carving became increasingly ambitious, with communities and artists reshaping increasingly large boulders and even cliff faces. Twenty and thirty foot sculpted rocks became almost common, with far larger efforts begun and sometimes concluded.
The artistic tradition included animals, including marine mammals, and humans, including males and females, dressed and undressed. Later archeologists would identify different artistic periods in these different subjects, but the reality was that the different subjects simply reflected different ceremonial or magical purposes, or different communities, or different constituencies within a community.
South basin cultures had sufficient surplus population and time that they could invest in stonework. Initially, this took the form of elaborate petroglyphs, boundary markers, fish traps, and practical structures. The availability of iron and copper for tools, however, meant that stone working leaped ahead, with a greater ability to carve, fracture and split, and dress stonework.
The Haida of British Colombia lived in an environment of tall trees, so that was their medium, and they created vast lodge houses and totem poles. This is the universal, you work with what you got – the Egyptians had stone and quarries, they built pyramids. The Mesopotamians lived on a flood plain, and so they baked bricks for their Ziggurats.
A post-glacial environment, Greenland was littered with stones and boulders. Naked rock had been crushed and broken many times by glaciers and earthquakes. As a result, throughout Greenland, even as far north as the polar desert, stone was a frequent building material, for walls, for fish traps, forming foundations for bone and hide structures. In the southern region, wood was more readily available, but also in demand for a number of purposes, including fuel.
Dorset igloo techniques, reaching the south basin, became the foundation for an architectural tradition of stonework. The same construction concepts that produced domed igloos lead the south basin peoples to create stone igloos, and to work dressed stone to create a variety of arched buildings and structures. South basin permanent fishing villages exhibited increasing architectural complexity and innovation, albeit sometimes on a trial and error basis, sometimes built up over a period of centuries, by the time of Norse contact.
NEW GREENLAND’S PEOPLES, THE LIMITS OF PROTO-CIVILIZATION
When following this pathway into New Greenland, it’s tempting to keep layering stuff on. This Proto-Civilization of Proto-City States around the south basin, these Neolithic, arctic analogues of ancient Greeks and Phoenicians … how far could they get, what more could they achieve?
But there are limits, time is against them. The Proto-Civilization begins to emerge probably around 400 or 500 CE, and takes a couple of hundred years to mature, say 600 or 700 CE. But the Norse will be showing up in only a few hundred years. That’s not much time left to accomplish big things.
Take boats – they’ve inherited and adapted fairly sophisticated skin boats from the Dorset, innovated, perhaps experimented with wooden boats and rafts, they’ve learned the stable currents and seasons of their placid sea. But boats have been developed independently by hundreds of cultures; they go back as far as 40,000 years.
Sails? That’s been independently invented perhaps three or four times in history, they probably won’t invent it, they don’t really need it.
They won’t invent literacy – again, that’s only a handful of inventions, and really, only once in North America. Although they use copper and iron, they won’t really invent smithing or smelting.
Agriculture is probably a step too far. They probably harvest wild plants regularly, may engage in some management practices. But it’s not clear that there’s any plant worth domesticating, or time to be able to do it.
Animal domestication? There’s no domesticating fish or sea mammals. The caribou’s cousin, the reindeer was domesticated or semi-domesticated by the Lapps, and there’s some theory that musk ox were domesticated at one time. Maybe those might be domesticated here, maybe there’s an option to domesticate salt tolerant camels, or moose, or tapirs. But domestication events are rare in history and unlikely here. As entertaining as it might be, I don’t think that there’s much chance of Mammoth riding Saqqaq warriors.
Astronomy? I think that they’ll have a strong grasp on the seasons, and maybe calendars. But they’ll probably be more interested in the northern lights as a source of augury, than the movements of stars.
In the end, there’s a limit to what the time available grants, or the environment and resources allow.
THE NORSE INVASION, ERIK THE RED, THE FIRST VOYAGE
Possibly around 976, possibly earlier, Gunnbjorn Ulfsonn is blown off course on a voyage from Norway to Iceland. He sights Islands or possibly land, but does not land there. Instead, he makes his way back to Iceland. The story gets around.
Approximately 982, Erik the Red is exiled from Iceland for three years, for the crime of murder. Eric is an interesting guy; he was born around 950 or 960. Probably closer to 950 than 960, since his son Leif was born 971, and I can’t imagine Erik fathering children at the age of 10. So, he was probably between 25 or thirty in 981. So, a relatively young man. A man in the prime of his life. A man with a wife, and presumably a network or relatives and kin.
Erik came from a violent background. He and his father were exiled from Norway when he was ten, for his father killing a man. They moved to Iceland, settling in a neighborhood called Dranga. This was 100 years into Iceland’s colonization, and most of the good land has already been taken up. He was likely either a pretty marginal farmer, or a tenant. Following his father’s death, Eric married into a wealthy family and inherited a large farm, and established a manor.
980-982 CE, Erik is doing well enough to have servants. Some of these servants accidentally caused a landslide that destroy a neighbor’s house. The neighbor kills the servants, and Erik kills the neighbor.
That tells us a few things – Erik is relatively wealthy and powerful, a householder, with people under him. And he’s violent, and people are pretty touchy. The whole incident seems to have left a cloud, and despite relative wealth and status, he’s not welcome in the neighborhood after that.
He moves to a settlement on the islands of Oxney and Sudrey. Again, things go bad, fighting breaks out, and several people, including the two sons of Erik’s neighbor, are killed. Erik went on trial, was found guilty of murder or manslaughter. He gets declared an outlaw and banished for three years.
Counting his dad, this is three incidents of murderous violence in a twenty year period, each incident escalating bigger and badder. Two other things come out of this – one is that Erik is not well liked by his neighbors. He’s apparently some kind of interloper, and it’s likely that he is pushing and encroaching on them. I wouldn’t put it past him to be encroaching on fields, quietly stealing cattle, asserting his water rights, abrasively and aggressively.
Iceland is a settled place, and the only way you’re going to really build yourself up there is if you push. But anywhere you push, it’s going to get your neighbors’ noses out of joint. And Erik doesn’t seem to mind that, up to and including violence. He’s very aggressive, very much a jerk.
But the other thing is, he’s got a following. In Dranga, he’s got a manor and servants. On Oxney and Sudrey, he’s got enough supporters or followers that he seems to get the better of a full-fledged riot or local war against the entrenched locals. And of course, when he’s exiled, he’s not alone. He’s got a ship full of followers, perhaps two or three. This also seems like a guy who lacked security in his early life, and who has consistently sought wealth and power, dominion over others and leadership, to make up for that lack. He seems driven. Overall, this is a guy who seems like he’s going to be bad news for anyone he meets.
Getting back to 982, he’s exiled for three years for murder or manslaughter. He’s heard Ulfsonn’s story from 976, so he decides to sail west. He ends up finding Greenland. He travels up and down the coast for a while, exploring. In our history, Greenland is uninhabited. Everywhere that Erik the Red goes is vacant land, waiting to be claimed. But it is also otherwise without apparent value.
Eventually, he returns home, claims he’s found a terrific place that he calls Greenland, to encourage people to settle there. 25 ships went out, 14 made it to form a settlement. Eric eventually founds two, maybe three settlements in Greenland, he’s elected leader.
But it’s a pretty tough life. There’s no one there to lord it over, it’s raw virgin territory, and pretty miserable territory at that. The only way anyone gets anywhere is by working at it, so the whole place operates on individual one-man labour. There’s little in the way of a convenient surplus to harvest, or to confiscate. It’s tough to be a king there, because in the end, you have to break the fields and feed the damned goats, the same as everyone else.
In this timeline, Greenland is inhabited.
So what or who does Erik the Red meet? He won’t encounter the Proto-Civilization developing around the south basin of the Central Sea. They’re far inland, and as we’ve seen, it’s really hard to get inland. At least, not early on.
Erik the Red sails west. Going by the currents, he could have gone northwest or southwest. I don’t see him going north when he reaches Greenland. Along the East Coast, he’s at some of the most inhospitable places around Greenland. The coast abuts the Eastern Mountain ranges, so you’ve got steep inhospitable rocky country, waterfalls and fast-moving rivers, small bergs calving. Fishing is good, but currents are treacherous. Further north are the sparse bands and tribes of the Independence Islanders and Peninsulares. But there’s little motivation to go there.
He’s likely to travel south, finding the relatively narrow lowland, but no rivers into the interior. He’ll travel the coastal fjords, moving south. From about 65 latitude, it’s about 700 miles, give or take, to the point where Eric the Red will later found the Eastern settlement of OTL, the first and largest of the three Norse settlements. We can assume that he explored at least that far in his initial voyages.
It’s possible that he sailed up the western coast. He did have three years of exile time to kill. But it would be at least seven or eight hundred more miles sailing north to where he would reach Disko Bay or the exit channel joining the south basin to the Atlantic. I don’t think that Erik the Red would have gone that far, either in old or new Greenland. Either reality, there’s no motivation for him to head north. He would have been most interested in the southern lands. North, up the west side, would not have been appealing. Old Greenland, he would have been most interested in potential settlement/landing areas, the best sites for an ambitious man to found a community. Of course, in Old Greenland, all he met were walrus and seal, the occasional caribou and a few stands of birch and scrub in the southern fjords.
This New Greenland though, is comparatively richer and more fertile. That’s not necessarily obvious from the coastline and fjords. Most of the southern coast borders on highlands and hills, brutal terrain with steep elevations, partially glaciated mountain or hill tops, and highland arctic tundra. The coastlines are better (more fertile and biologically productive, more visiting caribou) than OTL, but not that much better. They give no indication of the interior landscape. And there’s a distinct lack of rivers draining into the ocean that would give any kind of interior access.
So in this New Greenland, he’s stuck with the coasts. He travels a few hundred miles along these coasts, maybe a thousand, continually moving south. Who does he find?
NEW GREENLAND’S PEOPLES, THE SAQQAQ OR THE OUTER FJORDS
These people will have been in the areas anywhere from a few hundred to a thousand years. The outer fjords were not settled quickly or easily. The land was better in the interior, and so most Saqqaq tended to go there. But over time, a few tribes ended up on the western coast for one reason or another, and they began to settle, leapfrogging from fjord to fjord, making their way to the southern tip of Greenland, and then slowly up the eastern coast.
They’ve done better than the historical Saqqaq, who never got this far south, spreading further south and east along the coasts. Partly, because this is a more gentle Greenland than the one we know, the landscape a little more productive, mountain camels, caribou and musk-ox a little more common, the seas a little more productive. Their tool kit is a little bit better. Through diffusion from the Dorset, they have crude kayaks, possibly toggle harpoons, possibly igloos.
They subsist principally on sea mammals, with their diets supplemented by fish, birds, the occasional caribou or hill-dwelling herbivore, and whatever edible vegetation they can scrounge. The Coastal Saqqaq are nomadic, but a rigorous type of nomad, moving seasonally along well-established routes. Their environment is Spartan, the harvesting and feeding grounds, the sea mammal haul outs, the fishing runs, the caribou pathways and even berry patches are very specific and do not change from year to year. Their lives are almost regimented – their year consists of moving from one location to another, always specific locations, for specific times.
Regimentation allows them to construct semi-permanent dwellings along their route, stone or hide and branches, with larders, skinning or drying racks. Their fjords are marked with dwellings and campsites, sometimes occupied intermittently over hundreds of years. Their environments are marginal, and the Saqqaq colonization of this south was slow. The kayak has made fishing and seal hunting easier in the summer, and it’s also allowed bands to communicate and contact each other more easily, and to travel a little more easily.
This communication allows for occasional trade, mostly in ceremonial objects, medicines, small trinkets and handicrafts. We don’t see the centralized bulk commodity trade network operated by the south basin Saqqaq. Rather, on the coast, it’s old style, the trade routes are hand to hand, an extremely slow game of telephone, with low volumes.
It’s mostly local trade, the bulk of it depending on whether a tribe’s available resources include something like a particularly vital deposit of obsidian or flint, or useful soapstone or pipestone, or a desirable amber or shellfish. A desirable item, like a bit of pipestone for a ceremonial pipe might be mentioned in one gathering, and eventually show up years later.
Once in a while, some artifact or ceremonial object from the interior, a copper tool or a gold amulet might show up.
The Coastal Saqqaq are aware of the idea of strangers, albeit these are mostly the bands or tribes in the adjacent fjords, and tales of the bands or tribes further up and down the coast. Like everything else in Coastal Saqqaq lives, their visits to and from these strangers are heavily regimented, taking place at specific times and places, and accompanied by appropriate ceremonies and arrangements. But they at least have the idea of strangers and trade.
The Coastal Saqqaq have never seen a ship or ships like those of Erik the Red. They have at least the idea of boats from their kayaks. But Erik’s knars are immense, capable of carrying an entire tribe, men, women, and children. They know oars from their paddles but have never imagined sails. Theirs is a culture where trees are sparse, and wood is valued. The sheer volume of wood in use, and skillfully put together is mind blowing.
The wealth represented in the Norse tools and possessions is astonishing. The Norse themselves are utterly alien – the strangers who live in fjords up and down the coast speak the language obviously, but no meaning can be gleaned from these new strangers. Erik’s arrival will be miraculous.
THE NORSE INVASION, FIRST CONTACT
Erik’s first contact may be with these people directly, which would be a mutual shock. Or he may well have encountered their works first – empty and unoccupied dwellings and sheds, the remains of cooking sites, skinning or tanning rocks, while they are off somewhere else in their subsistence cycle. If unoccupied, he’s likely to find several similar places in succession, the ghostly remnants of unseen people – the Saqqaq elsewhere in their cycle. It will depend on when he arrives, where they are in their cycle.
But whether immediately or not, Erik the Red and his fellows will eventually encounter the Saqqaq. He and his Norse will find them a timid but curious people. Few in numbers, scrawny and impoverished, marginal savages leading a thin existence. Perhaps easily bullied, easily stormed and run off. The Coastal Saqqaq are decent hunters, even ambitious, but not warlike. The women are available for the taking, there may be a tradition of sharing.
Initial contact might be relatively peaceful. After all, Erik has only a few ships and a handful of men, maybe no women, likely no cattle. He and his men are probably careful and hungry and cautious.
But Erik, from the little we know of him, is an impulsive man, quick to anger, short on patience, ambitious and overbearing, not prone to moral reflection.
There are language barriers. Cultural barriers. And while the Saqqaq grasp the idea of peaceful meetings with strangers and even trade, their approaches are very regimented and formal, and Erik and his crew will not be familiar with them. In particular, their trade is often a slow thing, a relationship of exchanges year after year after year … while Erik is a ‘right now’ kind of guy.
So, odds are, things are likely to go bad, sooner or later. Eric, after all, is a violent man, and he comes from a culture which has been raiding and despoiling Europe for centuries.
The people he encounters will be smaller, weaker, unused to violence, and ill prepared. They’ll lack steel or iron weapons, or any kind of martial tradition. Initial encounters might be peaceful, but the minute Erik figures out he can get away with killing these people … the clock starts ticking.
Erik will sail the coast, making first contact again and again. Each contact a brand new and utterly disastrous experience for the Coastal Saqqaq he encounters. While there is communication back and forth along the coast, it is a slow and regimented thing with its own pace. Erik will almost certainly outrun it. Each group of Saqqaq will have no idea he is coming, and thus no way to defend themselves.
Eric slaughters his way up down the coast, raiding and looting what little there is to be looted, despoiling food caches and guaranteeing ruin in his wake. He finds some good locations to overwinter, likely the future sites of Eastern and Western settlements. Clears out the locals, perhaps taking some women, enslaving some men, and builds a little community, a safe haven and fortress from which he can raid.
Over time, he learns enough language, or the slaves learn enough Norse for communication. He shifts from slaughtering communities to forcing tribute, whatever they can offer – food, hides, ivory, trinkets. He may even inquire as to the source of the occasional gold or copper item and hear garbled tales of cities in the interior.
When his exile finally ends, he abandons the slaves, or slaughters them, or takes them back … and returns home with a cargo of valuable ivory and trinkets, and tales of a green and fertile land, with nothing holding it but a few handfuls of wretches easily conquered.
THE NORSE INVASION, ERIK’S SECOND VOYAGE
In Old Greenland history, Erik the Red came back to Iceland, talked the place up spectacularly, calling it Greenland in one of history’s most flagrant cases of false advertising. In 985, he persuaded twenty-five ships to come back to Greenland with him to found a colony.
Fourteen of those ships made it. Erick settled at a location called Brattahhlio, in Tunariliq fjord on the southern tip of Greenland. This area is sheltered from the Atlantic and contains some of the best agricultural land in Greenland. Presumably, Eric found it and decided on it during his first voyage.
How are things different in this alternate? Erik comes back, substantially richer, with a cargo of trinkets, ivory, furs and hides, perhaps slaves, maybe even a little gold. There’s probably a lot more interest. Erik’s tales are likely more extravagant, and this time he’s got actual proof. If any of his men are talkative, they’ll have better things to say.
So, is it still just 25 ships? Or more. We don’t know enough of the politics to really decide. Maybe 25 ships were Erik’s entire clan group, and that’s the maximum. Maybe a few more ships would have come along.
It’s likely that Erik, with visions of wealth dancing before his eyes, would have wanted to claim the whole place for himself, by hook or crook. He might have exaggerated the ferocity of the natives. Or claim trade deals were exclusively with him. He had the advantage in knowing the route and knowing the coast.
So, assume 25 ships, no more than 50, and about 14 or 20 making it. Assume that Erik sets up his base of operations in the same location.
What happens next?
Things don’t go exactly the way they did in our history, that fjord is too nice a spot to go unoccupied. If it’s his old site, he’s probably killed off the natives and slaves. But he likely selects at least a few new sites as well, unfortunately for the people living there. So, the Coastal Saqqaq are killed, enslaved, or driven off. Likely, a combination of the three. There might be initial coexistence, but the lifestyles are too distinct and too incompatible. Even basic concepts of property are different. Relations will go south, even in the best circumstances.
Erik, in this timeline, is much more likely to go up and down the coast doing some trading, raiding or tribute collecting. Probably not much in the first couple of years. Farming and getting established, collecting and training slaves, building a fort, sorting out the local Skraelings. But local trade is going to happen. Possibly, if Erik behaves badly enough, the Saqqaq up and down the coast may gather and mass for an attack. Not likely to turn out well for the Saqqaq. The Norse are used to fighting, and it’s not like they can just flee back home.
But assuming local trade, and a decently valuable cargo back to Iceland, this may inspire settlers to come at a greater rate.
In Old Greenland, the three settlements never made it past 10,000, and probably hit fewer than 2500 people max. This is an interesting contrast to Iceland, which seems to have filled up within sixty years of discovery, going from zero to 40,000 people.
Would we see comparable expansion in Greenland? Probably not. Greenland’s settlement is probably drawing mainly from Iceland. So, the base population, while growing rapidly, is still pretty small. You’ll get some contributions from Norway, but these are Norwegians who in our history would have settled Iceland first and stayed.
Greenland also has a native population – Iceland was uninhabited. The Norse didn’t mind settling or trying to displace locals – they did it to Ireland, to England, in France, so that’s not a huge obstacle. But going to an uninhabited place where you didn’t have to deal with locals was probably a big draw in the first place, and that makes leaving to deal with local schlubs less attractive.
With more value, and more potential land, Erik has a lot less ability to maintain a monopoly. It’s likely that in the next twenty or thirty years, there’s significantly more settlers, including settlers with less or no allegiance to Erik. This may imply less cohesion and perhaps genuine conflicts between the Norse groups. Erik was known for his temper, and I don’t think he’d appreciate interlopers pissing in his swimming pool. It may even come to violence. There may be an effort to drive people away.
Equally, more groups definitely equals more conflicts with the Coastal Saqqaq. So, off the top of my head, I’ll estimate maybe 2500 to 5000 settlers in the first 30 years. Maximum 10,000 to 15,000 at the end of the first sixty years, strung out in a handful of settlements along the southern coast, like a string of pearls, evicting the Saqqaq from choice fjords, enslaving and slaughtering numbers of them.
The other significant issue is exploration. We don’t have a good read on Norse explorations of Old Greenland. We know that they made it as far north on the Eastern side as Disko Bay, which became a popular walrus hunting ground. We also know that they made it to Baffin Island, which they called Helluland (The term translates as: Rock Land – Truth in Advertising!). Around 1000 AD, Leif Erikson got blown off course found Vinland, discovering North America.
So let’s assume that the principal coastal explorations of New Greenland, at least up to the point where it’s not completely horrible – say, latitudes 70 or 74, take place in the first forty years, 890 to 930. Most of this exploration is going to focus heavily on the Southern coasts. The exterior just gets less and less interesting and desirable the further north you go, and the best coastal places to settle are all in the far south.
THE THULE ARRIVE, INVADERS FROM THE NORTH
The Thule people were the ancestors of the modern Inuit. Approximately 3000 years ago, they had crossed over from Siberia, settling in Alaska. There for almost 2000 years, they had resided quietly, not causing too much trouble.
Then around 1100 CE, they’d exploded out of their northern refuge, west into the Bering Peninsula, throughout Alaska, and East driving across the Canadian Arctic to Hudson’s Bay. They’d gone expanded north throughout the Canadian archipelago, and crossed the Bay into the Labrador Peninsula. By about 1200, they’d crossed into Greenland. Without warning, they’d overtaken a vast stretch of territory, driving the Dorset into extinction.
The best guess seems to be that the Medieval Warm Period had destabilized the Dorset’s delicate balance with nature, allowing the Thule to overrun them. The other factor was that the Thule had perfected a more advanced Arctic tool kit, adding bows and arrows, dog sleds and umiaks (large skin boats capable of carrying a dozen or more people). The dog sleds and umiaks enabled the Thule to travel further and faster, to range more widely and carry far more resources with them than the Dorset.
But as disastrous as the Thule were for the Dorset, and as masterful as their arctic kit was, there was a limit to their ability. To the south, they were unable to displace the Dene, the Cree or the Innu, who resolutely defended their territories.
In our history, of course, the Thule occupied the whole of Greenland eventually, arriving south by about 1400 or 1500, replacing the departing Norse. The Dorset were probably already extinct in Greenland by the time the Thule arrived, or perhaps were driven out in Greenland, as they were everywhere else.
But in this history, things turn out a little differently.
In this new history, as in the old, the Thule enter northern Greenland. There they find the Dorset and the process of displacement begins. Elsewhere it was simple enough, the Thule with their dogsleds and umiaks are far more mobile, and mobile in greater numbers with more tools and resources, and displace the Dorset. That is how it goes here, somewhat.
But the mixture of folk across the northern half of Greenland is different. The Independence cultures, including their Island cultures, have been forced into marginal niches, but have become very sophisticated at holding these niches. They’re experts at utilizing barren lands, and the Thule make little headway. In large areas, the Thule successfully push out the Dorset out of much of the north. The result is waves of population displacement as the Dorset move south. In turn, the Dorset intrude on Saqqaq lands further south creating disruption. Nevertheless, the Dorset manage to hold on in certain areas. The northern quarter becomes a polyglot of cultures and languages.
The Thule reach the Central Sea. Their Umiaks allow them to sail along and dominate the northern parts of the sea. But by this time, the Proto-Civilization of the South Basin Saqqaq are ranging widely with their own improvised boats. The umiak are superior craft, faster more agile. The Thule become pirates of the northern sea, battling for dominance with the southern people.
Elsewhere, the Dorset are more difficult to displace. Firmly established along the Atlantic Western Coast, the Dorset and Saqqaq communities have through competition tempered each other, ably and efficiently defending their territories. There the Umiaks give no advantage.
Instead, the Thule move into the thinly populated western table lands where their dog sleds give them unparalleled mobility. Unable to practice their sea based subsistence, they begin to follow the caribou herds migrating back and forth. Already familiar with dogs as draft animals, some of them begin to apply similar principles to the caribou.
Within a generation or two, they shift to become a caribou herding, big game hunting nation of nomadic Mongols, migrating back and forth almost the length of western Greenland, neighbors and allies to their cousins, the pirate nation of the Central Sea. Their mobility, weaponry and lifestyle makes them akin to the later plains Indians, or the Mongols. They achieve a reputation as unparalleled warriors, unrelentingly fierce.
Their relationships with their neighbors, the Independence tribes, the Dorset, the various tribes of Saqqaq are complex and often hostile. The Thule after all, are feared, fearsome and expansive. But they are also willing participants, sometimes aggressively so, in the extensive trade networks. Peaceable relations do occur. Thule serve as mercenaries or allies of South Basin Saqqaq’s regularly warring proto-cities,
With this comes cultural diffusion. Thule tools, weapons, artifacts and loan words find their way into the south. Thule trade goods, spread. The most significant Thule innovation are dog sleds and draft animals, adopted off and on along the coasts, embraced heartily by the South Basin Saqqaq and their proto civilization. It is another element added to the intricate picture, already complicated by the Norse.
THE NORSE INVASION, THE SEARCH FOR THE CENTRAL SEA
The Norse steadily dominate the southern coastlines. But mostly only the southern coastlines. Past a certain latitude, the Saqqaq or Dorset hold their own – The climate unsuitable for Norse agriculture or herds, and the coastal territories useless, except for occasional slave raids or pirating sea mammals.
What about the Interior? That’s tricky. There are practically no good access ways into the Interior. The coastlines are rocky and high and difficult to penetrate. There are places where you could travel overland into the Interior, in gaps between mountain ranges, but that’s a lot of walking. There are almost no good river systems to sail up and find your way to the interior. And there may not be a lot of incentive.
The only real access to the interior is the outlet river/channel from the South Basin near Disko Bay and is probably identified sometime between 900 and 910. That may not be easily passable or navigable.
Depends on how ugly it is as to whether and how soon the Norse want to try going up it. They’re sailors. They’re not bringing along a lot of horses. So, they go up rivers in their boat, and then they have to physically drag that boat overland to get around rapids and portages. A lot depends on how far and how often the channel is navigable. If it’s relatively smooth sailing, then I think we may see the Norse reach the interior South Basin as early as 920 to 930.
If it’s a hellish succession of waterfalls, rapids and cataracts, with broken ugly terrain all around, they’ll probably say ‘heck with this’ particularly when there are easier, richer pickings along the coast. Which may mean the interior gets put off a lot longer, say 960 to 990.
The Norse actually got up to some pretty strange places in our universe. They were able to sail around the European coast into what is now northern Russia, and sail down rivers and portages to reach the Caspian and Black Seas. That’s how they got involved with the Byzantine Empire. It all depends on how difficult/brutal the passageway from the South basin to the Atlantic is. If it’s just a series of waterfalls, cataracts and rapids, with rough country surrounding it, they might say the heck with it. Or if it’s easy, they may sail a fleet of knars and go ‘nice country, we’ll take it.’
It’s quite possible that Erik the Red may simply concentrate on his little kingdom and his string of settlements along the south coast of Greenland. He has the natives to enslave and terrorize, tribute to exact, taxes to collect. In comparative terms, New Greenland is much wealthier for him than Old Greenland could ever be. It could keep him busy.
It’s not likely that the enslaved Coastal Saqqaq in the deep south have any clear idea of what lies in the interior – cannibals, savage tribes, monstrous beasts, evil spirits. Mostly the coastal peoples will be insular, knowing themselves, knowing their immediate neighbors and not much else.
Of course, there may be some motivation to try and get to the South Basin sooner rather than later. Remember that some of the key trading goods along the coast that aren’t locally crafted are coming from the south basin – this may include worked telluric iron, copper, mammoth ivory and even gold.
Particularly gold. If Erik the Red finds a few bits of gold in his raids or his tributes, he’s smart enough to know that natives didn’t produce it. He’ll want to find out where it came from, and eventually, he’ll get stories or legends of mighty cities of gold in the interior – half local fancy, half the desperate things you’ll say when someone is roasting bits of you in a fire. And if there’s gold, then Erik, or his men, or his successors will want it – or to find its source.
And the South Basin peoples have strong trading connections to the Disko Bay and adjacent coastal communities. If the Norse are able to communicate at all with the coastal Saqqaq in that region, they’ll know that there’s something worth investigating further in. Raids or forced tribute will produce more gold, more iron, more ivory around this area, a sure sign that there’s something deeper.
So let’s say that between 915 to 964, the Norse finally encounter the closest thing Greenland has to a sophisticated, organized series of sedentary societies – the Proto-Civilization of the south basin. That gets interesting.
NORSE AND SOUTH, WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
And here, we’ll pause the history of New Greenland, at that pregnant moment when the Norse explorers pass among wondrous megalithic sculptures, to rise a hill and gaze silently down at what they hoped was a city of gold.
It won’t be like anything they’ve ever seen or imagined. There will be roads and paths, but no farmers’ fields and no herds, few stone and wooden outbuildings. Instead, there are domes and fluting arches everywhere, protective stone walls and fortifications surrounding it, opening on a harbour filled with boats and rafts but none with sails, and beyond that an immense sea stretching off to the horizon. It’ll be smaller than they expected, perhaps a few hundred people. Visibly prosperous but not wealthy. What will they make of it? Will they do?
What happens next?
We will leave that to the reader, offering only a few thoughts.
By this time, the Norse will have mastered Saqqaq dialects, or their slaves will have mastered Norse. In practical terms, it will be the same thing. The Norse and the ‘cities’ of this proto-civilization will be able to speak together, if they wish.
If there is gold, then it’s likely that the true gold fields are far up along the eastern shores of the Central Sea. The Norse will not find an Eldorado, though they may find enough to whet their appetite. The true glory is still far beyond and very hard to reach. But even without gold, there may be other wealth to claim – mammoth or walrus ivory, amber, other portables.
At the very least, there may be land and slaves, since the interior lands are probably friendlier to Norse agriculture than the miserable coastal fjords. They may not even have to fight for that land, since the south basin peoples do not practice agriculture yet – they’re people of the sea. They’ll probably not object if the Norse start taking up interior plots of land that are useless to them.
Through Europe, the Norse were feared for raiding and looting. They might try that route here. But the south basin peoples are not like the peaceful isolated tribes in the coastal fjords. The people of this proto civilization understand war, they wage it on each other, and on the nomadic barbarians of the southern reaches. There aren’t that many Norse and they’re a long way from home. It could well end very badly.
With the Aztec and the Inca, these were empires full of ill-treated conquered peoples. The Conquistadores simply offered the subject peoples a better deal, and they rose up and went with the Spaniards. Here there is unlikely to be a dominant empire with hordes of resentful tribes as subjects. More likely, you’ll see something resembling the Greek or Phoenician City States, suspicious, squabbling, perpetually bickering and at war, but perhaps willing to unite in the face of a greater threat.
Or things might go in more complicated directions. Perhaps the Norse simply trade, perhaps they’ll set up trading stations, somewhere between Disko Bay and the south basin, someplace that offers good farmland. What the Norse can offer would be incredibly valuable to the south basin Saqqaq, woven cloth, nets, blacksmithed iron and steel items, and far more and better iron than they’ve ever had before. I could see the south basin peoples warring upon each other for the Norse trade. Or the Norse become involved in south basin politics, manipulating factions and communities. Or perhaps the Norse conquer communities or the whole south basin, setting themselves up as a temporary or permanent ruling class, as they so often did in Europe.
Whatever happens, the south basin peoples will be transformed by contact with the Norse. That is inevitable. New kinds of boats and boat techniques, sails will be revolutionary, fishing nets, writing and literacy, agriculture, horses, cattle, sheep and goats, pagan and Christian gods, mining, smelting, blacksmithing and metalworking. The south basin will be awash with new tools, new products, new ideas and new techniques. Food production, from enhanced fishing, from new animals and agriculture will expand, populations will explode.
The hunger for what the Norse offer will be insatiable, and that will transform societies. Gold might have been valued in the south basin, but it was stable within the local economies. Now it’s the key to purchasing from the Norse, they’ll be crazy for the Norse trade, and all you need to get anything and everything from the Norse will be gold. The importance of gold will skyrocket, there’ll be major expeditions north to collect it, wars over it, perhaps permanent or semi-permanent mines and fortifications far up in the north basin. Norse goods and Norse desires will transform them.
In the long run, the odds are against the Saqqaq. The explosive flowering of their proto civilization brought by Norse contact may result in collapse. No new world civilization survived European contact unscathed, most were wiped out. That may well be the ultimate result here.
The south basin proto civilization may not survive, between pandemics, conquest and settlement, they may, in the end, be swept away, reduced to second class citizens in their own communities, replaced by new Norse settlements. I think that would be rather sad.
The rest of the Saqqaq, the Dorset and the Independence cultures elsewhere in New Greenland will survive. Norse agriculture and animal husbandry will really only work well in the south. Beyond the south basin, and the river lands south of that, apart from a few mining and harvesting stations, there’s little to attract the Norse. The lands will support only subsistence economies, and a handful of trading posts.
Elsewhere, in the coming centuries, contact between Europeans and Natives introduced new diseases which devastated native populations. In some places, die-offs reached 90%. New Greenland might escape that fate for a while – New Greenland isn’t being settled directly from Europe, but from a small intermediate population in Iceland, the numbers aren’t large. So, there may not be much disease transmission, at least not in the beginning.
Iceland itself seems to have avoided pandemics until about 1401, at which point it killed off half the population, and then a generation or two later, something hit again that wiped out half the population again. Given that it killed off half the Icelanders in 1401, and possibly meant the death knell of Old Greenland (lots of free land and better opportunities back in Iceland to emigrate to), it would likely be horrible for a naïve virgin soil population in New Greenland.
The problem with virgin soil epidemics is that since there’s no resistance, everyone gets it at the same time. Which means that there’s no one to keep fires going, so people freeze; no one to catch and prepare food, so people starve; no one to carry fresh clean water, so dehydration; no one to look after the sick, so they don’t recover. The society, the tribe, the members that would have kept things running and allowed people to recover are all sick, so with no one to help, everyone dies.
For the south basin Saqqaq, a lot would depend on when the pandemics struck. If is hit during the summer, particularly during a food gathering season, then it’s doubly devastating. People go down, not only are there no caregivers, but there’s no food or water sources, no fuel, that’s all in the process of being harvested, starvation and dehydration rolls up already weakened immune systems. People are moving, it spreads everywhere quickly.
Hit in the winter, people are sick around stockpiles of food, water and firewood. They still die in droves, but food and water is readily available, the victims have a chance to recover, weakened immune systems aren’t overwhelmed, there’s less travel and communication, the rate of transmission slows and more chance of burning itself out locally. But even in the best case, it hits them hard.
After four centuries in Old Greenland, the Norse died off. Perhaps they went extinct there, perhaps the remnants simply gave up and went back to Iceland, or were taken by pirates, or wiped out by the Inuit. The stories differ.
But even before it vanished, the Greenland colony was in trouble. There were a number of factors in play. The little ice age was kicking in, and it was making farming more and more difficult. Barley could no longer be grown, the Norse were living on their herds and growing hay. Trees weren’t growing, so they couldn’t build or maintain boats for fishing.
They were dependent on trade with Iceland and Europe. But then Denmark changed the rules of trade, prohibiting trade between Greenland and Iceland, and requiring everything to go through them. That made things more expensive for Greenland, it cost them a lot more to import and export. And the value of their exports dropped – their most valuable export was Walrus Ivory, and that was being outcompeted by African Ivory.
It turns out though, that there’s more to the story. It seems that researchers have done studies of the Walrus Ivory coming from Greenland, and guess what, as time went on, there was less and less of it, and what there was, was poorer and poorer quality, coming from smaller and younger walruses. What that shows, is that the Greenlanders weren’t just being outcompeted by better African Ivory. They were steadily wiping out their Walrus populations, driving them into extinction. They had to keep travelling further and further from home to catch Walrus, and as they killed off the ones with the biggest tusks, they kept working their way down until they were wiping out juveniles who barely had tusks.
We’ve talked about this before – what spurs commercial trade. Density of population, demand, accessibility. Through the 17th and 18th centuries, rapacious European expeditions literally wiped out entire populations of sea otters, seals, whales and walrus through the north, driving them into extinction wherever they could reach them. The European populations were huge, the demand incredible, they just tore through, searching out populations of animals and literally eradicating them.
This doesn’t speak well for the fate of New Greenland. There will be much greater populations of Walrus, and Mammoths, but the demand for ivory and hides may well be bottomless and insatiable. In the Central Sea, the Walrus will be easy prey. Walrus and Mammoths may well be extirpated, many animals may well be wiped out. Caribou may survive, their herds seem fairly resilient. Musk Ox may or may not.
It doesn’t have to end badly. It seems a shame to explore a New Greenland, and simply bring it all to ruin. I like the idea of a New Greenland where walrus and whales cavort in the inner sea, where a Saqqaq nation Europeanizes but survives to contribute something unique to the world, where Woolly Mammoths roam the plains.
If we dream of a better, more interesting world, perhaps we should keep it that way.