Subscribe and save!

Reverse Colonialism - How the Inuit Conquered the Vikings

Posted by on Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Photo:Library and Archives Canada/e004665218

One of the strangest and least known chapters in North American history is surely the story of Greenland’s Norse (Vikings) and the Thule people (Inuit).

The standard narrative of North American history is turned on its head here, where centuries ago a Native American group displaced then colonized land inhabited by the Vikings.

Indeed, many of us don't know that Greenland is part of North America. Yet it's connected to Canada by a underwater ridge less than 180 metres deep, and at its nearest point, is only 26 kilometres from Ellesmere Island.

In 982 AD Vikings arrived in southern Greenland from nearby Iceland. They found a land that was uninhabited and soon established several settlements. Over the next few centuries the Viking settlements flourished and Greenland became medieval Europe’s "farthest frontier."

Though the first Vikings to arrive in Greenland followed traditional pagan beliefs, Christianity arrived there shortly after and churches and even a cathedral were built on the island.

The Catholic Church appointed a bishop for Greenland and as the Vikings gave up their old ways, they also lost much of their fierce reputation as warriors and raiders. Archaeologists estimate that at their height, the Norse numbered up to 5,000, perhaps even 6,000 in Greenland. (A very large amount given how small the world’s population was in the Middle Ages.) Some of the Vikings even ventured over to mainland North America, visiting what is now northeastern Canada and establishing a settlement at L’Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland.

And they also travelled hundreds of kilometres north of their own settlements in Greenland to summer hunting grounds, where they killed polar bears, narwhals, and seals, trading the pelts and ivory with Europe. But a happy end for the Greenlanders wasn't meant to be.

In distant Alaska, a new culture was rising — the Thule (ancestors of today’s Inuit). The Thule, originally from Siberia, were gradually expanding across the Arctic, displacing the older, aboriginal Dorset people.

By roughly 1200 AD, the Dorset had vanished, killed off in warfare with the Thule or unable to survive the hardship occasioned by competition for resources with the invaders. (Inuit oral traditions tell of how the Dorset were a gentle people without bows and arrows, and thus easy to kill and drive away.) The Thule continued their expansion across the Canadian Arctic and sometime between 1100 AD and 1300 AD, spread into northern Greenland (at least more than a century after the Vikings had settled there). The Thule then moved south along the coast, eventually coming into contact with the Norse settlements. The surviving written records from the Norse tell of attacks by the invaders. Some of the sources even say the Thule newcomers massacred a whole Norse settlement.

Faced with a changing climate (the world was then cooling during the little Ice Age), hostile invaders, and perhaps internal problems, the Norse society in Greenland collapsed.

By sometime in the 15th century, Greenland’s Norse seem to have disappeared entirely, their territory eventually overrun and colonized by the Inuit, and their story largely forgotten by the modern world.

  Comments (17)

Will the Norse or Vikings be seeking compensation and/or seeking land claims?

Submitted by brett gilmour on Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Well, their culture is long dead now, so probably not ;) Unlike our Cree, Haida, Iroquois and Ojibwa neighbours (among many others) who are still very much alive and competing (as other rural communities are) with corporate and government interests to carve out a place for themselves on this vast land.

Submitted by Pigglet on Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Interesting that you refer to the Thule as "Native Americans" while stating that they invaded Alaska from Siberia and wiped out the aboriginal inhabitants. But that's acceptable isn't it. Invasion of other peoples' lands is only a crime when white people do it, right? It really gets me how far these "racist" double-standards have penetrated into our society.

Submitted by Steve on Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Contrary to Steve's comment above, I don't think the writer was at all saying it was "acceptabe" that the Thule wiped out the Dorset people. I think the point he was making is that history is complex and that we should avoid simple formulations that try to turn it into a straight forward "good guys vs bad guys" narrative.

Submitted by David on Monday, February 6, 2012

I think the "reverse colonialism" heading is rather inapt for reasons Steve pointed out. The Maori in New Zealand also behaved in a way quite unlike our soft-focus ideas about gentle native peoples lived in harmony with nature etc.... however as David says I don't think the post is a celebration of Thule military prowess but a call for an appreciation of the complexity of history

Submitted by Living It Up In the Costa del Churchtown on Friday, July 13, 2012

there's scientific proof that the vikings died from starvation and disease. they depleted the land resources that they used for their livestock and never used the ocean's resources that the inuit exploited successfully. the vikings died off and the inuit replaced them without much warfare.

Submitted by marvin nubwaxer on Sunday, September 30, 2012

Yes, I disagree with Steve's tone about this article, even if his more general social commentary has merit. The mere fact that this article exists is a testament to the author's resistance to political correctness.

I remember seeing a something on TV several years ago that concluded that the Vikings in Greenland died out because conditions were changing and the isolationism of the church prevented them from learning how to adapt from the Inuit. This article has a refreshing honesty.

Submitted by Angus on Sunday, October 7, 2012

Your incorrect, the inuit weren't capable of conquering anyone much less arguably the most ferocious people on the planet. It's a historical fact that they left because of the change in climate (it became much colder than it already was).

Submitted by Unfortunately on Tuesday, March 17, 2015

All the Inuit had to do was hunt their livestock. How easy would that be? I think the norse travel far more into Hudson Bay then we think. Why not all the way to the red river drainage.

Submitted by Brent on Thursday, April 16, 2015

Colonialism - "the process of European settlement and political control over the rest of the world" - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2006)

Reverse Colonialism is an accurate description.

The only "racist double standard" here are comments like those of Steve and Brett.

The history of Turtle Island's first peoples is one that is balanced with nature. That is not synonymous with being gentle. There was much warfare before the arrival of the Europeans. Oral history speaks of times when no men grew old because they all died in battle.

Land claims and settlements are based upon treaties signed by European settlers and First Nations. There is no corollary from that to the Norse in Greenland.

It should be remembered that the history of the Norse traveling to Turtle Island was written off as fantasy by the majority of people only 50 years ago, until L'anse aux Meadows was excavated. Back then they were still teaching that Columbus 'discovered' America, and wrote off Norse oral history as much as First Nations oral history. The truth is contact was more than 500 years earlier.

The story of the Norse and the Inuit is evidence of how we are all interconnected. There is much debate, but it seems obvious to many that there are eastern Inuit people with Norse ancestors and Icelandic people with Inuit ancestors. The traditional cultures of both peoples also have the attack by the Catholic Church in common.

Submitted by Marc on Friday, May 15, 2015

People throw around the words "Scientific Proof" a lot. It is mostly all evidence and speculation.

Submitted by Bill on Monday, June 29, 2015

Whites are the scourge of humanity!

Everywhere they go they use up the resources for "entertainment" and make it worse.

No civilization they have EVER built has lasted 1000 years (look it up) and they are now faltering away, hence their need for invading poorer nations.

Submitted by Johnathan Doe on Saturday, July 4, 2015

Regarding Johnathan Does comment.
Though suspecting his comment being a flame bait and not really wort commenting, I'll comment it anyway.

There is a huge difference between civilization and nations.

The current civilization is way older than a 1000 years.

There has been a number of long lasting nations which for some reason or the other has succumbed often to some outside force like natural catastrophes.

China's and India's history is similar to Europe's, lots of different fractions competing for power, as is the history for the Americas as well as for Africa.

It is very common to forget that every nation and it's ruler and ruling class from a specific period acted among peers as bad or good as all the rest.

Going back a thousand years, slavery was commonplace everywhere. I recently saw a figure saying that 3 of 4 Africans where slaves long, long before Europeans or Arabs ever invaded. Not quite sure of this number though.

The Ottoman empire imported slaves from eastern Europe. Arabs in north Africa raided Europe for slaves.

From the prophet Muhammad time to the present day an estimated 10 to 15 million people where taken from east Africa to the muslem world. It is also estimated that for each of the slaves who survived 4-6 died (or even more) on the trip to their destination.

Thus the sum of slaves destined for just the muslem world is 40 to 90 million Africans which is in par with the number of people who died during world war 2.

Slavery was abolished first in Europe starting over a thousand years ago. Apparently the Quran (the holy book) and the hadith (the sayings of Muhammad) see slavery as an exceptional condition that can be entered into under certain limited circumstances (see Wikipedia).

Luckily civilization is thriving all over the world though always threatened by kleptocracy and under-information (like Johnathan Does comment reveals). Thriving which even this comment column is a testament for.

Submitted by Will Right on Wednesday, September 23, 2015

I do object to the "reverse colonialism" business and it's implications. Nothing Europe did was significantly different than all other races in all other times of history except one; they let their defeated enemies live and made treaties with them.

mind you

if they hadn't written the headline like that (inaccurate and shocking) how many people would have read it compared to how many did?

It is a very interesting blurb of history and I am glad I found it.

Submitted by druth on Saturday, October 3, 2015

That Stanford Encyclopedia definition is probably standard, since it does describe the way the word "Colonialism" with a capital C is used in the social sciences. Ditto "Imperialism", capital I, another common and actually multicultural human practice. So fair enough, as far as it goes. I am sure that is one reason why "reverse colonialism" is reasonable as a heading.

Still jarring if one takes a longer view of human affairs.

The term colonia for a settlement of one's own people among indigenous peoples goes back to the Romans, and the thing itself was widely practiced by the Greeks, Phoenicians and other ancient peoples.

It was and is also descriptive of Japanese behaviour during the settlement of their islands, again during a brief period in Korea in early times, and again recently. Not to mention Chinese behaviour during many periods from the first millennium BC to the present, not to mention the Arab expansions, the spread of Turkic and Afghan peoples into India, and on and on and on, everywhere, practiced by every people with any kind of numbers and degree of wanderlust or want of wealth.

On the specific case here, there is one other problem with "reverse colonialism", though, insofar as some might take it to imply the victory of an indigenous people by recolonizing land colonized against them.

The Norse were in Greenland before the Thule were even in North America, so far as I can find.

Submitted by Graham on Tuesday, November 24, 2015

You might find this book interesting. Eric is the head of our Danish Club in St. Louis and has written a very interesting book.

He spoke at a symposium at the Missouri History Museum.

Submitted by Paula on Saturday, March 12, 2016

As I learned it long ago from old texts at the University of Nevada, the vikings thought they were too superior to the Thule peoples, and thumbed their noses at the attempts of the Thule to teach them anything. When the Little Ice Age came, the Norsemen perished with their pride.

Submitted by Yogin on Saturday, May 21, 2016

  Leave a comment

* Your name:
* Your comment:
(HTML not allowed)
* Your email:
(Will not be displayed on website)
* Anti-spam: Please type the numbers in the image on the left.

«    |    »




Monthly archives

Canadian Geographic Magazine | Can Geo Education | Mapping & Cartography | Canadian Geographic Photo Club | Kids | Canadian Contests | Canadian Lesson Plans

Royal Canadian Geographical Society | Canadian Geographic Education | Canadian Geographic Challenge | Canadian Award for Environmental Innovation

Subscribe | Customer Care / Login | Renew | Give a Gift | Pay a Bill | Digital Edition | Back Issues | Calendars | Special Publications

Jobs | Internships | Submission Guidelines

© 2016 Canadian Geographic Enterprises