Skraelings - The Viking Name for the Inuit Owners of Greenland

Who Lived and Thrived in Greenland Before the Vikings Arrived?

Thule Period Camp Ring, Nunavut, Canada
Thule Period Camp Ring, Nunavut, Canada. Alan Sim

Skraeling is the word that the Norse (Viking) settlers of Greenland and the Canadian Arctic gave to their direct competition in their wanderings westward from their home countries. The Norse had nothing good to say about the people they met: skraelings means "little men" or "barbarians" in Icelandic, and in the historic records of the Norse, the skraelings are referred to as poor traders, primitive people who were easily scared off by Viking prowess.

Archaeologists and historians now believe the "skraelings" were more likely members of one or more of the extremely well arctic-adapted hunter-gatherer cultures of Canada, Greenland, Labrador, and Newfoundland: Dorset, Thule and/or Point Revenge. These cultures certainly were far more successful than the Norse in most of North America.

There is an island known as Skraeling Island with a Thule occupation on it located off the coast of Ellesmere Island. That site contains 23 Thule Inuit house ruins, numerous tent rings, kayak and umiak supports, and food caches, and it was occupied during the 13th century. The naming of the island of course neither supports nor disputes the Thule identification with Skraelings.

Norse Movements in the late 9th Century

Archaeological and historical evidence suggests that the Vikings settled Iceland about AD 870, settled Greenland about 985, and made landfall in Canada about 1000.

In Canada, the Norse are believed to have landed on Baffin Island, Labrador, and Newfoundland, and all of those areas were occupied by the Dorset, Thule, and Point Revenge cultures at about that time. Unfortunately, radiocarbon dates are not precise enough to pinpoint the timing of which culture occupied which part of North America when.

Part of the problem is that all three cultures were arctic hunter-gatherer groups, who moved with the season to hunt different resources at different times of the year. They spent part of the year hunting reindeer and other land mammals, and part of the year fishing and hunting seals and other marine mammals. Each culture has distinctive artifacts, but because they occupied the same places, it's difficult to know for certain that one culture didn't simply reuse another culture's artifacts.

Possible Skraelings: Dorset

The most convincing evidence is the presence of Dorset artifacts in association with Norse artifacts. The Dorset culture lived in the Canadian Arctic and parts of Greenland between ~500 BC and AD 1000. Dorset artifacts, most significantly a fragile Dorset oil lamp, were definitely found at the Norse settlement of L'anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland; and a few other Dorset sites appear to contain Norse artifacts. Park (cited below) argues that there is evidence that the L'anse aux Meadows artifacts may have been retrieved by the Norse from a nearby Dorset site, and other artifacts may have the same provenance and thus may not necessarily represent direct contact.

Traits which have been attributed as "Norse" in ca AD 1000 North America are spun yarn or cordage, human carvings which portray European facial features, and wooden artifacts exhibiting Norse stylistic techniques.

All of these have problems. Textiles are known in the Americas by the Archaic period and could easily have been obtained from connections with cultures from the northern United States. Human carvings and stylistic design similarities are by definition conjectural; further, some of the "European style" faces predate the securely-dated and documented Norse colonization of Iceland.

Possible Skraelings: Thule and Point Revenge

The Thule were long considered the likely colonizers of eastern Canada and Greenland, and are known to have traded with the Vikings at the trading community of Sandhavn in southwestern Greenland. But recent redating of the Thule migration suggests that they didn't leave the Bering Strait until about 1200 AD and, although they rapidly spread eastward into the Canadian arctic and Greenland, they would have arrived much too late to reach L'anse aux Meadows to meet with Leif Ericson.

The Thule cultural traits disappear about 1600 AD. It's still possible that the Thule were those people who shared Greenland with the Norse after 1300 or so--if such an unpleasant relationship could be called "shared".

Finally, Point Revenge is the archaeological name for the material culture of the immediate ancestors of the people who lived in the region from AD 1000 to the early 16th century. Like the Thule and Dorset, they were in the right place at the right time; but secure evidence making an argument for cultural connections is lacking.

Bottom Line

All sources unequivocally tie the skraelings to Inuit ancestors of North America including Greenland and the Canadian Arctic; but whether the specific culture contacted was Dorset, Thule or Point Revenge, or all three, we may never know.

Sources