History of exploration

1. Ancestors

The ancestors of today’s Inuits come from northeastern Alaska; at the beginning they inhabited the coast and the tundra. As a result of natural migration gradually they have settled the whole arctic Canada and about 1250 they have reached the northwestern parts of Greenland. The island has been “colonized” in waves, which differ from each other mainly by the technology used. We can distinguish 4 such waves – Independence, Saqqaq, Dorset and Thule. The origin of names comes from the names of the places where the groups have settled. Among these four waves, Thule gave the beginning of today’s Inuits.

The members of the Independence group came to Greenland about 2400 B.C. from a Canadian island Ellesmere. It is estimated that the group consisted of about 500 people, who were able to survive in harsh conditions till 1800-1600 B.C. The next group of settlers could have been competition for the Independence group. Unlike the Independence group they were a more numerous group and they have inhabited a larger area.  This group has eventually disappeared giving the beginning of a new wave – Dorset.

The settlers from the Dorset group were undoubtedly technologically more advanced than their predecessors. They gained the ability of obtaining whale oil, what allowed them to warm themselves during severe Greenlandic winters.

2. Thule Group – Inuits

The arrival of the Thule group to the coast of Greenland in the XI th century has changed the aspect of human presence on the island. The members of this group had bigger knowledge than the Dorset group. With the appearance of the Thule group came dogsledges, harpoons and a kayak. The technological advantage causes fast expansion of the group towards the western coast of Greenland what ended the existence of the Dorset group.  The little Ice Age caused the end of colonizing Greenland by Vikings and had a considerable influence on the Inuit’s life. As a result of temperature decrease, Inuits abandoned their villages on the northwestern coast of Greenland and made their way south, where the weather was more bearable. At the same time too intense hunting mainly for one species of whales led to the deterioration of the life conditions as it was getting more and more difficult to gain plenty of good food rich in nutrients.

Finally the Thule culture survived and the Greenland’s population today is said to be descended from them.

3. Vikings

For us, Europeans, the history of Greenland is inseparably connected with Erik the Red, a Viking who was exiled from Iceland in 982 AD for murder. It is for this reason that hearing stories about a land close to Iceland he reaches the biggest island in the world, where the climate then was much more mild than today. Therefore the origin of the name – Green Island.

After a few years of exploration Erik the Red returns to Iceland and then set sail once more leading a fleet of 25 ships on course for Greenland to colonize the island. Only 14 ships made their destination and the first settlement is established – Brattahlid (now Qassiarsuk). For many years it becomes the center of settlement in Greenland (East Colony). New settlements are established in Vesrebygd (West Colony). Further years bring more settlers who colonize today’s South and Western Greenland.

In year 1000 Leif Eriksson- the first Christian missioner comes to the island. Shortly afterwards the first Christian church is established. Leif Eriksson was not only interested in religion he also discovers present arctic Canada and probably was the first European on the American Continent.

The following years bring bigger areas. The first official note about Greenland comes from 1053, when Pope Leo IX conveyed the people of Greenland under the rules of bishop Adalbert. In 1124 Greenland become a seperate diocese of the Christian church with its seats in Igalik (South Greenland), close to the first settlement Brattahlid. In days of splendor there were 14 churches and one monastery.

Years 1100-1300 were a time of global warming in Europe what in practice helps to colonize the island. The settlers mainly hunted and the main export “commodity” were polar bear skins and whales’ bones. Trade was basically between Iceland and Norway. In those days many ships do not reach their destiny that is why trade is quite limited. In 1261 Greenland admits the sovereignty of the Norwegian King what puts an end to free trade – since then it was covered by the King’s monopoly and the King precisely determines the number of ships that could visit Greenland and Iceland.

In the middle of the XIV century the Western Colonies suddenly become deserted. The Bishop of Bergen – Ivar Bardarson while visiting the coast of Greenland find the rests of herds and no settlers. At the same time trade with Norway slowly comes to a down-still as a result of more and more difficult weather conditions. The coast of Greenland becomes ice-bound and this causes difficulties in sailing. Lack of wood also limits sea activities of the settlers. Fewer ships arrive to neighboring Iceland. Additionally the plague  spread over Europe and a s a consequence the colonization of Greenland becomes of secondary importance.

In 1408 there is a wedding of Thorstein Olafsson and Sigrid Bjornsdaughter in Igalik. This is the last known record concerning Greenland. Soon after that Thorstein Olafsson and other settlers leave Greenland and set off for Norway. Probably the last settlers die out in the second half of the XV th century. That is how the first era of colonization of Greenland by Europeans ends.  Till today there are disputes about the reasons of failure in colonizing Greenland by The Scandinavians. Generally it is assumed that the causes were:

- Destruction of the local environment ( mainly cultivable land), what led to famine;

- Deteriorating climate, decline in temperature negatively influenced the crops; it was getting more and more difficult to survive winter, additionally because of the severe frost the sea froze, what made trade impossible.

- Growing disability of establishing good relationships with local inhabitants – Inuits, what led to several conflicts between those groups (at the beginning the relationships were quite correct and for many years the Scandinavians and Inuits lived in symbiosis.

        It is not quite sure what happened to the last Greenlanders. There are different hypothesis – according to one of them, forced by tougher weather conditions, they had to abandon their settlements in the Eastern Colony, they reached the west coast of Greenland and from there through the frozen sea made their way to Canada were they lived among Algonquin Indians.   Such theory is supported bythe presence of some Scandinavian words in the language of Algonquin Indians.

        4. Abandonment

        For nearly 250 years Greenland was not an object of Europe’s interest. Of course there were attempts to discover the Northern Passage along the coast of Greenland and Europeans had occasional contacts with Inuits. Considering the richness of the surrounding waters, the island was often visited by whalers – mainly Englishmen and Scotsmen.

        5. Danes

        In 1721 a joint Danish- Norwegian expedition led by Hans Egede was sent to Greenland in order to contact the previous colonists of the island. At that time they did not know what happened to those people. The above mentioned goal was not accomplished, but a new settlement was established – “Good Hope” (Godthåb )- now Nuuk. That expedition began a new phase in the history of Greenland – a phase that still lasts and undoubtedly will end by obtaining by Greenland independence. Together with the colonization of the island the Danes started also the period of isolation from other than Danish influences in trade and settlement. This period lasted till 1953, when Greenland became part of Denmark.  As a result of that Greenlanders were able to sit in the Danish parliament and all citizens of the island were given the same rights as native Danes.

        It is worth to mention that territory claims to the north-east part of the island were raised by Norwegians. As a result of mediation held before World War II the whole island was admitted to Denmark.

        The Second World War brought the presence of American soldiers. Up till now there is a military base in Thule, the rest were closed. Unfortunately the signs of their presence are still visible.

        In 1985 Greenland left the European Union but still remains part of Denmark. This move was motivated by the objection against the union policy concerning fishing, which opened the waters surrounding Greenland for foreign, European fleets. That objection was the beginning of the Greenlanders aspiration to become an independent country. Lately in a referendum Greenlanders decided about greater independence from Denmark, which may probably lead to the independence of the island. The supporters of such solution base the independence and future of the island on natural resources which may lie in the ice sheet and in global warming – by the melting the resources may be more accessible.


        • History of Medieval Greenland;
        • Greenland – History;
        • Connection between Native Americans and Old Norse;
        • Wikipedia.org;
        • The Norse History of Greenland;
        • Canadian Inuit History;
        • Greenland & The Arctic, Lonley Planet;