Greenland's Thule and Vikings: More Than Ancient History

March 3, 2017 Nicolas Singh

Greenland is well-known for landscapes you won’t see anywhere else in the world, but visitors are also wowed by the richness of its history. The preservation of historical sites and artifacts, as well as the residual effects of Thule and Viking occupation on the country’s culture, lets you experience Greenland from past to present on an Arctic expedition. What are Greenlandic people really like, and how have their culture and traditions shaped their modern lives? Let’s explore.

Greenland is a photographer's dream.

Who were the Thule people, and how have they shaped Greenland’s culture?

At least six different Inuit cultures have survived Greenland’s harsh conditions over the last several thousand years, each the descendents of the Thule people who replaced the pre-Eskimo Dorset culture.  The Thules made a long journey from Alaska eastwards across Canada, finally arriving in Greenland sometime around the 13th century. What we know of the Thule people today stems from important archeological findings, like the Uummannaq mummies, and the traditions passed down through countless generations to today’s Greenlandic people.

Unique hunting tools like the half-moon shaped ulo, traditionally a woman’s knife, have been refined and perfected over thousands of years. Dogsleds, brought to Greenland by the Thule after proving useful in other Arctic hunting regions, are still a popular method of transportation for hunters (and now tourists). Greenland is also the birthplace of the kayak (“qajaq”), which was originally constructed of seal skin stretched tight over driftwood and custom-fitted to the hunter to whom it belonged.

Traditional Greenlandic kayaks were critical to Inuit hunts.

What are Greenlandic people like today?

When you visit Greenland today, you have a unique opportunity to explore the hunting and fishing tools and practices that have sustained a population over thousands of years in a region most considered completely inhospitable. You’ll begin to understand how this place largely covered by the Greenland ice sheet, with its seemingly hostile environment, earned the Inuit name Kalaallit Nunaat, or “The Land of the People.”

You might even fall in love with these people who’ve not only survived Greenland, but flourished. In communities like Qaanaaq, you’ll notice that residents still celebrate their hunting culture, sporting traditional animal skin clothing and boots, often adorned with beautiful embellishments that are as much an expression of themselves as a celebration of their heritage.

Traditional Thule boots in Greenland.

In Eastern Greenland, you can see the early Thule and Inuit influence in the region’s tightly clustered communities, where homes are either tented summertime homes of fur or skin, or houses made of stone, sod, or wood. Often, they’re strikingly similar to homes built by the land's original inhabitants.

What types of artifacts might we see on an Arctic expedition in Greenland?

Though the Thule were Greenland’s most influential inhabitants, they certainly weren’t the first. Archeological digs near Ilulissat have turned up signs of hunting and fishing activity on Greenland’s coast from as long as 4,500 years ago.

Mads Pihl, in-house photographer for Visit Greenland, says, “Although we have no written accounts from these earlier eras, an abundance of tools and settlements found throughout Greenland has confirmed that the Inuit cultures of the past were characterized by the same adaptability to the prevailing climate and geography as the modern day Greenlandic culture.”

Greenland offers fantastic wildlife and scenic photography opportunities.

Photo credit Chris King

There seems to have been a great deal of time when Greenland proved too far out of the way, too inhospitable, for even the nomadic Arctic hunters. About 2,000 years ago, Greenland was completely devoid of human life. That is, until the Dorset people crossed the Bering Strait to land in Greenland’s far north, near the town we now know as Qaannaq. It was about 700 A.D. and the nomadic people did quite well despite their lack of tools and practices you’d consider necessary for survival so far north. They didn’t use kayaks. They did not have dogsleds.

Pihl offers an explanation: “The probable answers have been widely discussed, but the prevailing theory explains them as a group of people arriving here from the Northeast American woodland areas, and that they differ from other groups by ‘smelling somewhat of forests’ as one Danish archeologist put it.”

Their inexperience in the farthest and coldest reaches of the Arctic could explain why, in the Little Ice Age of 1300 A.D., the Dorset people disappeared from Greenland, to be replaced in short order by the Thule.

Today, you can visit Deltaterrasserne, a stunning pre-Inuit archeological site near the head of the Jørgen Brønlund Fjord, at the entrance to Greenland National Park. Qoornoq, an abandoned fishing village in southwest Greenland, is another fascinating place to visit and view the archeological remains of ancient Inuit and Norse buildings.

What types of historic sites might you visit on a Greenland expedition?

But what of the Vikings? Norse ruins still stand and are open to visitors in South Greenland and at Nuuk, and we know famed explorer Erik the Red spent three years exiled on the landmass he called The Green Land.

In southwest Greenland, you can visit Brattahlíð, the famed viking’s 10th century estate. There, you’ll find a replica of a Norse longhouse and a reconstruction of what many consider to be the first church of the New World.

Late in the 10th century, two main settlements were established, each with a population of 2,500 to 5,000 people: Eystribyggð in the east and Vestribyggð in the west. Smaller villages dotted the landscape between them. Unfortunately, one of those who made the trek to join Erik the Red and Greenland’s new inhabitants in 1002 A.D. brought with them the scourge of a disease that killed many. Still, the Norse persisted until around 1500 A.D., when they were suddenly wiped out for reasons still unknown today. 

Greenland is as diverse as it is remote and pristine. The east coast offers its fascinating history and some of the most vivid aurora borealis (Northern Lights) on the planet, while the west coast is a fantastic location for hiking, trekking, and viewing wildlife. Home to the Illulisat Icefjord, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, west Greenland offers an adventure-packed experience that might include orienteering in the midnight sun, riding a dogsled or taking part in a local traditional coffee gathering called kaffemik.

See Greenland’s ice-choked fjords, stunning mountain tundra, and picture-perfect vistas for yourself:

Ready to keep exploring Greenland?

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