Can you imagine eating seal fat that hung on the outside of the house for a whole year? How do you think it smells or tastes?
This can be offered if you visit a family on Greenland, the world’s largest island, whose area is almost 86% covered by the ice sheet.
The first Inuit settled in Greenland more than 4,500 years ago. They called their land Kalaallit Nunaat – “Land of Men”.
The seal fat tasted different, I can promise, but it did not taste bad. Just unusual for Swedish taste buds. Getting to try the local food during a trip is a big part of the travel’s charm.
A trip to Greenland is an experience in many dimensions, difficult to put into words. Only one’s own experiences can give the right understanding of the fascinating and powerful nature and the encounters with the friendly people.
Greenland history in brief
Greenland history, prehistoric period
According to cheeroutdoor, the majority of Greenland’s inhabitants are Inuit. In the past, they were called Eskimos, which means “Those who eat raw meat”.
It is generally accepted that the American Indians are descendants of the people who migrated to North America over the land bridge that existed at today’s Beringssund between 25,000 to 23,000 years ago.
There is evidence that the first Inuit came to Alaska in umiaqs, leather boats, 7 to 8,000 years ago, which was a long time after the supposed land bridge over the Bering Strait disappeared.
The first Inuit probably immigrated from Ellesmere Island in Canada to Greenland about 5,000 years ago. At this time it was much warmer in Greenland than it is today. Finds from this Stone Age culture have only been made in the northern part of Greenland.
The first inhabitants are believed to have amounted to no more than about 500 individuals who subsisted on hunting polar bears, musk oxen, arctic hares and possibly other animals that lived in this barren part of the world.
This Stone Age culture has been called “Independence I” whose name comes from Independence Fjord in Peary Land in Northern Canada.
The people belonging to the Independence I culture are assumed to have either been pushed aside or integrated into the Independence II culture that was established in northern Greenland about 3,400 and 2,600 years ago.
About 3,800 years ago, another new culture was established in Greenland, which researchers call Saqqaq. Archaeological excavations have identified settlements belonging to this culture in East Greenland and along the west coast of Greenland all the way up to Upernavik.
About 2,500 years ago, the climate in Greenland changed, which meant more difficult living conditions for the inhabitants and the Saqqaq culture mysteriously disappeared.
The Saqqaq culture was replaced by the Dorset culture, which is believed to have sprung from Saqqaq or Independence II or from a combination of both. Dorset was more technologically advanced than the previous cultures and the people during this era lived in more social community. Weapons and works of art were made of bone and ivory. They used sledges for transport and burned oil from whales that provided light and heat, which probably helped them survive during colder periods.
Remains of the Thule culture have been found from western Alaska to Greenland, which reveals that the eastern expansion took place quickly. The general perception is that the Thule culture was established directly from Canada during a warmer period in the 12th century and spread throughout the island in less than 150 years and that other established cultures were integrated during this rapid expansion. There are also other views that assume that Dorset and Independence II were moved to northwestern Greenland and formed the Thule culture.
During the Thule culture, the kayak, harpoon and dog sled were invented, all of which are still used by today’s Greenlanders, to varying degrees.
Climate change in the 14th century forced people to the south where new, smaller cultures were formed. The ancestors of today’s Inuit, belonging to the Inussu culture, are descended from Thule.
Greenland history, Viking period (Nordborna)
The two main sources for the information that can be found about the northerners’ settlements in Greenland come from “The Greenland saga” and “Erik the Red’s saga”, written down by Icelanders long after the events took place. The tales are sometimes consistent, but also differ in important respects. They have been used as a basis for archaeological research and show that large parts of the information in the fairy tales correspond to reality.
According to these, Greenland was discovered, from a European perspective, by the Norwegian Gunnbjörn Ulfsson, living in Iceland, when he got off course during a sailing trip in the 870s after a storm due to bad weather. He is said to have come to a place near present-day Tasiilaq (Ammassalik) in eastern Greenland, but soon returned to Iceland.
Among the early settlers in Iceland, family feuds and acts of revenge often erupted with very cruel consequences. Snaebjörn Galti was involved in one of these feuds. He killed one person and in order to escape punishment and to be sentenced to lawlessness, he chose to, together with a few other people, flee Iceland. Galti followed the sailing route to Greenland that Gunnbjörn Ulfsson had described 78 years earlier.
They reached the icy Blaserkfjord, near Tasiilaq, just before the arrival of winter. Here they built a simple peat hut in which they would spend the winter. However, it did not take long before discord arose in the winter quarters. The result was that some died during the winter, it is unclear how, and that the rest of the group returned to Iceland in the spring.
Almost a century later, in the late 970s AD, Eirikur Raude Thorvaldsson, better known as Erik the Red, and his father fled Norway after being involved in bloody family feuds, with several murders as a result, to Iceland to avoid justice.
As early as 982, Erik was involved in new bloodshed when he murdered two of his slaves, who had vandalized a neighbor’s property. To avoid being convicted as an outlaw, he also decided to flee to Greenland.
He, just like Gunnbjörn Ulfsson and Snaebjörns Galti, first came to Blaserkfjorden. Erik associated this place with bad luck, so he sailed on along the south coast of Greenland, rounded Cape Farewell and set up a winter camp on a small island called Eiriksey.
The following summer, he explored South Greenland and found a place reminiscent of his settlement in northwest Iceland. Here he decided to build a farm and gave the place the name Brattahlid, the place with the steep slopes. Brattahlid is located in a fertile place at the far end of the Eriksfjord (Tunugdliarfik) with a sheltered location for the cold north winds. Nowadays the place is called Qassiarsuk and is a popular place for tourists to visit because there are many ruins left after the buildings of the northerners.
Erik the Red continued to explore southern Greenland in the coming years and mapped the area until he returned to Iceland in early 986 to tell about his successes in Greenland, how fertile it was on this island and that the country was waiting for new settlers. To emphasize what he said, he called his newly discovered country Greenland, which was a slight exaggeration.
Erik managed to convince a number of Icelanders and their families to come with him to Greenland. Later that year, 25 ships, with expectant settlers, departed from Iceland. Only 14 of these ships arrived in Greenland. A large number of ships sank in storms and others returned to Iceland voluntarily. These colonizers formed the basis of a new era in Greenland.
Settlers continued to come and when Österbygden, as the first area was called, was filled with settlers, colonization continued north, along the coast all the way up to today’s capital Nuuk. Västerbygden was founded here.
At first, the new settlements seemed to be successful and prosperous. Christianity was introduced around the year 1,000 and in 1124 a church center was created in Gardar (present-day Igaliko). Here the first bishop of Greenland, Arnald, established his episcopal see.
During the beginning of the 11th century, the first voyages were made to Vinland, today Canada.
At most, about 5,000 northerners lived in Greenland who lived on sheep, livestock and pig farming as well as hunting seals, pure walruses and polar bears. The Greenlandic settlers had a lively and successful trade with Bergen.
The development of Greenlandic history largely follows that which took place in Iceland and the Faroe Islands and therefore also had dramatic consequences for the northerners in Greenland.
In 1261, Greenland was incorporated into Norway and a trade monopoly was introduced, which gave the northerners the right to send only two merchant ships to Norway per year, which severely affected their living conditions.
In the 15th century, the climate in Greenland changed and it became increasingly colder. Some of the northerners’ livestock died and the fjords froze again, which limited the opportunities for trade. Nordic society was slowly but surely collapsing. The last reliable proof that the northerners survived is dated to 1408.
Was it climate change that finally made the northerners decide to leave Greenland? Or was it the attacks from the Inuit, who at this time reached the southern parts of the island, that made them leave Greenland?
The first expedition to search for the missing northerners was sent out in 1472. In 1605, the first Danish expedition to Greenland was ordered to search for the northerners. Since then, however, several investigations have been made without success. During the 1880s, further expeditions were sent to Greenland to find answers to the mystery of the northerners.
So far, no one has been able to provide answers to the questions posed due to the sudden disappearance of the northerners from Greenland. However, the traces of them are still there today!
Greenland history, from the Middle Ages to the colonization of the Danes
After Norway went to Denmark in 1380 and the northerners disappeared from Greenland, the island largely fell into oblivion for the Europeans. However, rumors soon spread about the fish-rich waters of the Davis Strait, which lies between Baffin Island and Greenland. Especially for whaling. From the 16th century until the 18th century, Basque, Dutch and English whalers came here, sometimes up to 10,000 hunters a year, to catch whales.
In 1605, in connection with the first Danish expedition to search for the missing northerners, the Danish king Christian IV claimed Greenland.
The first real attempt to colonize Greenland came in 1721 when Hans Egede, a priest from Lofoten, received permission to build a trading post and to Christianize Greenlanders. His primary goal was to find the missing northerners who, in his belief, had returned to paganism. Egede first settled on “Håbets Ö” but in 1728 moved his business to a place he called Godthåb. Nowadays it is called Nuuk and is the capital of Greenland.
Five years later, in 1733, Herrnhutarna’s mission station was founded in Godthåb, which together with Hans Egede successfully Christianized the local population. In 1900, Herrnhutarna ceases its mission in Greenland.
In 1776, the Danes introduced a trade monopoly in Greenland, the Royal Greenlandic Trade, which lasted until the 1950s.
Greenland history, from the 19th century until today’s Greenland
The magazine Atuagagdliutit AG was published as the first Greenlandic-language newspaper in 1861 and contains, in addition to news and articles, also stories that Lars Möller, one of the publishers, collected during his travels in Greenland. The magazine contained color illustrations and is thus probably the world’s first to be published in color.
The first embryo of Greenlandic self-government can be discerned when local councils, Board of Trustees, are established in 1861.
The monopoly trade was expanded in 1921 when the Danish government decided that the northeastern, uninhabited, parts of Greenland should also be covered by it. Greenland will thus be even more closed because everyone must apply for a permit to disembark on the island or call at a Greenlandic port. Individuals must also have a permit to travel to Greenland until 1954.
In the early 1920s, a conflict arose between Denmark and Norway over the right to East Greenland. The Norwegians claim that they have greater rights to the area because Icelanders, who were originally Norwegians, discovered East Greenland before the Danish-Norwegian Union came into being. As the conflict could not be resolved between the countries, it was referred to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which in 1933 established Denmark’s sovereignty over the entire island.
When Denmark was occupied by the Germans in 1940, the United States decided to build military bases on Greenland, which was done in 1941 before the United States had officially announced its participation in World War II, to prevent the Germans from occupying Greenland. At this time, Greenland was in a very strategic position for the Americans. Two bases were established, at Narsarsuaq in the south and Kangerlussuaq in the north. After the war, the airports were used partly as stopovers for the US Air Force planes and partly as civilian airports. Narsarsuaq was closed for military purposes in 1958 and Kangerlussuaq in 1992. Today, these are Greenland’s two international airports.
After the Second World War, it became unsustainable to maintain Greenland’s status as a Danish colony and in 1953 Greenland became a Danish county, county. This followed a rapid development of society which the Greenlanders did not really have time to adapt to with many negative social and economic consequences. An attempt to improve the situation was to give Greenlanders greater responsibility for decision-making.
In 1979, the Greenlanders gained internal self-government, so-called “home rule”. The Danish monarch would continue to be head of state and Denmark would continue to handle foreign and defense policy, the judiciary, the currency system and the administration of natural resources. All other areas would be transferred to the Greenlanders, however with unchanged financial support from Denmark.
Since then, the administration of natural resources has been moved to Greenland, with shared ownership, and Greenland has gradually built up a decisive influence over the parts of Denmark’s foreign and security policy that concern Greenland. As part of Denmark, Greenland joined the EC in 1973. The Home Rule Government held its own referendum in 1983 which resulted in the people wanting to leave the European Community, and in 1985 Greenland left the EC, the only region so far to do so. Greenland instead concluded an agreement on duty-free exports to the EC, which also agreed to pay for limited fishing in Greenlandic waters
In a referendum at the end of 2008, the Greenlanders adopted a proposal for increased autonomy. When the proposal entered into force on 21 June 2009, Greenlandic became the official language and the Greenlanders were recognized as a people from an international law perspective, and they were entitled to the natural resources that may exist under the Greenlandic land mass. In the long term, Greenland will also take over responsibility for more of the activities that Denmark handles today, such as the police, the judiciary and the coast guard.