Medieval Norse Trappers On Baffin Island

Icelandic sagas and a single archaeological site in Newfoundland document a Viking Period presence of Norse people in the Americas. Now National Geographic's November issue has a piece (here and here) on new work in the field, lab and museum collections by Dr. Patricia Sutherland. It deals with a group of additional and somewhat later sites that may expand that evidence. Dr. Sutherland, of the Memorial University in Newfoundland, kindly answered some questions of mine via e-mail.

The best site is near Cape Tanfield on the south coast of Baffin Island. Dr. Sutherland emphasises the following evidence as suggesting the presence of people with life-ways set apart from the local Inuit-speaking Dorset culture.

  • Cordage spun from of hare and fox fur, not the locally common sinew.
  • Textile woven from such animal-fur cordage.
  • Whetstones with traces of iron and copper alloy on them.
  • Wooden tally sticks.
  • Remains of Old World rats.
  • Wooden building details with nail holes.
  • Cut building stone.
  • Foundations of unusually large and sturdy stone-and-turf buildings.

Note that while NatGeo's writer calls the Tanfield settlers "Vikings", Dr. Sutherland wisely calls them "Norse". The sites are post-Viking Period, and even during the Viking Period, most people were never Vikings. That was a part-time men-only occupation, not an ethnicity.

To me, the absence of woollen textiles among the finds suggests that these sites were the permanent homes of Norse-speaking colonists, not temporary hunting stations in continual contact with the colonies on Greenland or Iceland. But the sites also have typical Dorset culture phases, and there is no reason to believe that the two groups avoided each others' company.

As for the possibility of sourcing the spun cordage using stable isotopes, she says,

aDNA and stable isotope work has been considered and, in some cases, initiated for samples that have been microscopically identified as "exotic" for Baffin Island. The cordage from the Helluland sites that is made from hare fur has not been analysed in terms of stable isotopes. Cordage made from Arctic hair fur and woven textile fragments made with cordage from Arctic hare fur are rare in the assemblages from the excavated sites in Norse Greenland. But, in the Baffin sites, most of the cordage is made from the fur of Arctic hare and fox and clumps of fur have also been recovered. It seems quite unlikely that our finds are from Arctic hare from other regions. Also, in terms of determining origin using stable isotopes, it is my understanding that it can be problematic using hair or fur from animals that shed their pelts.

Dr. Sutherland describes the situation for radiocarbon dating as rather tricky due to factors ranging from destructive earlier fieldwork to the marine reservoir effect. But she appears quite certain that all the foreign influences are High Medieval and centuries later than the one Viking Period site mentioned above – Jellyfish Bay, L'Anse aux meduses, L'Anse aux Meadows.

So what we have here is High Medieval Christian Norse-speakers gone native in Arctic north-east Canada. Interesting stuff! But as so often – don't believe the headlines.

Update same evening: Dr. Sutherland wrote me some corrections and clarifications, and she also kindly gave me permission to put a 2009 paper of hers on-line for anyone who wants to delve deeper into her work.

The Dorset culture people did not speak the Inuit language. If the aDNA analysis is correct, they were most probably related to northeastern Siberian peoples, and probably spoke a language related to those of that area. No woven textiles were found at the Helluland sites. The wood with nail holes is not building-material. "Trappers"? I would say more likely traders and/or hunters. ... it is my view that these early Europeans did not "go native" and they did not establish permanent residence on Baffin Island.

Update 7 November: Serendipitously, today I found an article in Populär Arkeologi 2004 about this very matter, animal fur cordage and all. So it's not really news. The news is that NatGeo has featured it.

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This find raises more questions than it answers. I'm not sure of the exact timing, but we know that the Inuit culture displaced the Dorset culture at some point while the Norse were in Greenland. Part of that process apparently involved Dorset women abandoning their men in favor of Inuit men. We also know that the Inuit were significantly more hostile toward the Norse than the Dorset were. Speculative question: is there any chance that (possibly rebellious) Norse gone native became the Inuit?

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 31 Oct 2012 #permalink

What are the grounds for seeing Inuit social anthropological culture as ethnically distinct from the prehistoric Dorset Culture?

-Did the Norse in Greenland have access to wood of sufficient quality to build boats, or were their boats imported? In Iceland the driftwood originating in Siberian rivers was an important resource once the woods were exhaused, I don't know if the timber was good enough for shipbuilding. If Greenlanders could make boats large enough to travel out of sight of the coast, it is hardly remarkable that they established a presence on Baffin Island.
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If I may indulge in "alternate history", had those Norse pushed on a bit further the indians would have been introduced to smallpox earlier, and maybe developed resistance by the 15-16 centuries.

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 31 Oct 2012 #permalink

I always wondered if the North American Norse settlements weren't the results of stranded expeditions. If I have a working ship to move around, Baffin Bay (and NFL) would probably not be the place I'd choose to make a living.

@Martin: I am vaguely aware of some DNA studies on the subject of Dorset/Inuit origins. The mitochondrial DNA (passed only via the female line) matches between the two, but the nuclear DNA does not. I don't know much more than that.

@Mu: The Greenland and Newfoundland settlements were definitely not stranded expeditions. The Greenland settlements were in regular contact with Europe for most of their existence. The frequency of contact decreased in later years as European trade patterns shifted more toward Asia at the expense of high-latitude locations, with the last recorded contact circa 1410. We also know that the Newfoundland settlement was abandoned on purpose, as the First Peoples in the area were more numerous and more hostile. The Baffin Bay settlement could have been a stranded expedition.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 31 Oct 2012 #permalink

Eric, Sutherland agrees with you regarding the DNA and a break between the Dorset Culture and modern eskimos. See the addendum above.

Neither language nor other aspects of culture are parts of our genetic heritage. Genetic 'majority' in a population does not imply cultural 'origin' or cultural 'dominance'

By Ivar Fylling (not verified) on 31 Oct 2012 #permalink

Eric Lund, Inuit were here way before Norse folk so Inuit did not come from the Norse.
Dorset people were here before Inuit. They had different clothing, different homes, different tools. In other words, they were a different people than the Inuit. They are now extinct.

Eric Lund. Norse gone native became the Inuit. Whenever Norsemen hit Inuit, Inuit left one person to pass on what happen to that group of Norsemen. So I doubt if what you say is the fact. Eric

Genetic analysis of human remains found together with the artefacts of each culture will reveal the truth.
However you will recognise that the Inuit have inherited the epicantic fold around the eyes common among asians and indians. They also have other features -short, stocky build- consistent with people genetically adapted to a cold climate. Such changes require a very long time.
The proto-inuit were one of several peoples migrating back and forth between Siberia, the Alaskan coast and northern Canada. Finding enough bones in conjuction with artefacts to unravel the convoluted prehistory may not be possible.

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 04 Nov 2012 #permalink

It would have been more surprising if they *didn't* go to Baffin Island. Particularly, given that export of luxury items like ivory, furs and falcons was an important part of the Norse Greenland economy. They had to have boats, and they had to range widely. I believe there have been Norse finds in Disko bay. Is Baffin any more distant from the settlements?

By Jon Kåre Hellan (not verified) on 07 Nov 2012 #permalink

Extremely interesting. Thanks for posting it, Martin. There must be many more similar sites to be found out there.
I also read the attached article which was very well written. If you like to learn more about similar stuff you should read "Grönlands Forhistorie", edited by H-C Gullöv. You can borrow my specimen, it's right now only 10 km SSW as the crow flies...

/Mattias P

By Mattias Pettersson (not verified) on 08 Nov 2012 #permalink

Thanks man! I think the second-last book you lent me is still waiting for you on the shelf at the East Stable...

In reply to KH. The link to the haplogroup map you shared shows haplogroup Q to be represented in both Norway and Iceland. What is interesting is that it is not found in Sweden, or Finland. The question is, how did Q get into Norway, and in even higher concentrations in Iceland. It could have come from Asia, but then you would expect to see it in between. The higher concentration of Q in Iceland as compared to Norway could be explained by a founder effect. But here is another idea. Some Dorset men (Q is on the Y-chromosome) traveled back to Iceland (where the Q haplotype is 8-11 %), and then on to Norway with the Norse and assimilated. We have genetic evidence of very racially different men assimilating into northern European populations (africans in England) so it can happen.…

Small nitpick here.

"The sites are post-Viking Period"

The Viking Age is usually set as ending in 1066, with Harald Hardraada's loss (and death) of the Battle of Stamford Bridge. As it was dated between 989 and 1020 CE, it is not really post-Vking period.

The site I'm commenting on has been dated to the 14th century. Which one are you referring to?