March 31, 2005

A prehistory of the North

A Prehistory of the North by John F. Hoffecker seems like an interesting book about the settlement of the northern regions of the Earth. A small description:
Early humans did not simply drift northward from their African origins as their abilities to cope with cooler climates evolved. The initial settlement of places like Europe and northern Asia, as well as the later movement into the Arctic and the Americas, actually occurred in relatively rapid bursts of expansion. A Prehistory of the North is the first full-length study to tell the complex story, spanning almost two million years, of how humans inhabited some of the coldest places on earth.

In an account rich with illustrations, John Hoffecker traces the history of anatomical adaptations, diet modifications, and technological developments, such as clothing and shelter, which allowed humans the continued ability to push the boundaries of their habitation. The book concludes by showing how in the last few thousand years, peoples living in the circumpolar zone-with the exception of western and central Siberia-developed a thriving maritime economy.

Written in nontechnical language, A Prehistory of the North provides compelling new insights and valuable information for professionals and students.

and an interesting excerpt about the contact between the Inuit and the Vikings:
Although the victory is not widely appreciated, it is apparent that native Americans won their first contest with European invaders. By AD 1500, the Norse settlements in Greenland and elsewhere in the New World had been abandoned. The Dorset people had also disappeared by this time, and the Inuit inherited all of the arctic-and some of the subarctic-regions of the New World.

The reason for the retreat of the Vikings from these regions has been the subject of much debate. Economic competition and warfare with the Inuit seem likely to have been factors, along with declining trade and the isolation of the settlers from the larger Norse population. The primary cause, however, probably lies in the return of colder climates that heralded the beginning of the "Little Ice Age" in AD 1450-1500. Falling temperatures were almost certainly the reason for the economic decline that took place at this time and the reduction in population that followed. Conflict with the Inuit probably exacerbated Norse problems, but did not create them.7

The real obstacle to Viking survival in the north was their inability to adapt to colder climates during the 1400s. The Inuit were also forced to make adjustments to their way of life at this time (for example, increased focus on seal hunting), but they seem to have accomplished this without major trauma and within the larger context of their existing adaptation.

Isotopic analyses of the skeletal remains of Greenland Vikings, combined with the study of food remains from their settlements, indicates that they gradually adopted a diet based more heavily on marine foods (and less on livestock).8 However, they never abandoned the fundamental traditions of a society and culture derived from medieval Europe. Dressed in woolen clothing, they were still struggling to maintain their farming estates as arctic climates descended on southern Greenland.9

1 comment:

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

More details in Viking climate here. Temperatures drop 6 degrees C on average in the period after their arrive and before their departure and also grew more variable.