The Amazing Vikings

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The Vikings held out in their harsh Greenland outposts for several centuries, but by 1450 they were gone. One reason was climate change. Starting about 1350, global temperatures entered a 500-year slump known as the Little Ice Age. Norse hunting techniques and agriculture were inadequate for survival in this long chill, and the Vikings never adapted the Inuit's more effective strategies for the cold.

Another factor was the rapacious overuse of resources. The goats, pigs and sheep brought by the Norse ate or trampled the forests and shrub lands, eventually transforming them into bare ground. Without enough fodder, the farm animals could not survive. The Norse were forced to eat more seal, seabirds and fish--and these too became locally scarce. The depletion of Greenland's meager trees and bushes meant no wood for fuel or for repairing ships.

To make matters worse, demand for the trade goods that Greenlanders exported to Europe plummeted. Not only was African ivory once again available (the supply had been cut off during the Crusades), but the material was falling out of fashion. And Europeans had their own problems: plague, crops failing in the colder conditions and city dwellers rioting in search of food. By the time the last Norse departed Greenland, the colonies had become so marginal that it took several hundred years before some Europeans realized they were gone. The Icelandic colony suffered too, though it managed to hang on.

But the true Vikings--those marauders of monasteries, those fearsome invaders from the north--had long since vanished, except in myth. As Europe's weak feudal fiefs had grown into powerful kingdoms, the Norse raiders had run out of easy victims. In England the victory in 1066 of William the Conqueror--a descendant of Norsemen from Normandy--marked the end of Viking terror.

Indeed, fear of the Vikings had played a pivotal role in reshaping Europe. "They helped develop nations and forced the Europeans to unite and defend themselves," says Fitzhugh. "It was a turning point in European history."

Back in their Scandinavian homeland, the Vikings' descendants also united into kingdoms, ultimately establishing Norway, Sweden and Denmark and pursuing a history no more or less aggressive than that of any other Europeans. The transfer of the Orkney Islands from Danish to Scottish control in 1468, for example, came not as the result of a bloody battle but as part of a royal wedding dowry.

As for the Norse settlements scattered around Britain and Europe, their inhabitants intermarried with the locals and finally disappeared as a distinct people. All that remains of them is their language and genes, spread widely through the Western world. Unlike Columbus, the Vikings may not have established a permanent presence in North America the first time around. But given the millions of Americans who share at least a bit of Viking blood, they are still there--and in considerable force.

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