They came from the north and they came from the south. A past that stretches back 4,500 years leaves traces that continue to live today in culture, sagas, legends and people.
Photo Aningaaq R. Carlsen
The past has left its traces for thousands of years
The first Greenlanders came from a long way away when they arrived in Greenland some 4,500 years ago. Originally they were a nomadic people who moved around as the opportunities for hunting developed from Mongolia to Alaska, then onwards across Canada to Greenland via Nares Strait. How long they maintained this lineage is a question to which we don’t fully know the answer. However, it’s certain that Greenland was uninhabited for several periods until 900-1000 AD. Today’s Greenlandic population probably stems from the latest wave of immigration in around the year 1000.
In parallel with the final immigration from the west, the Norse settlers, led by Icelander Erik the Red, reached South Greenland. He had been expelled from his home country and spent his time on the sea until 982, when he discovered the lush country he named Greenland. Countless vessels sailed to the coast over the next few years and discharged Icelanders who began settling at the base of the long fjords. At these points there were – and still are – fertile plains for as far as the eye could see.
Photo Aningaaq R. Carlsen
Foto Mads Pihl
The past is at your feet
The Norse settlers left farms, stables and churches. Just 20 minutes by boat from Narsarsuaq is a reconstruction of Erik the Red’s farm and Tjodhilde’s church – the first Christian church on the American continent. Throughout South Greenland the ruins bear witness to the golden age of the Norse settlers. When this community was at its height, 6,000 people lived here. The well-preserved Hvalsey Church ruin from the 14th century and the Episcopal residence of Gardar are also well worth a visit.
You need never go far before you encounter Greenland’s past, with ruins of houses, graves, fox traps and settlements, such as Sermermiut valley just outside Ilulissat. All towns have a museum that provides excellent insight into the past at each particular venue and a collection of tools made from stone and bone, amulets and clothes. In Nuuk a visit to the National Museum is a must. Here you’ll find a collection of well-preserved mummies from around 1475.
In the bigger towns a walk with a guide explaining the cultural history of the region is a good idea, and more recent history is worth exploring, e.g. in Ilulissat, where you can see the birthplace of Knud Rasmussen, the ‘board’ and the Zion church. Bring the past up to date and digest these impressions with a cup of coffee in one of the town’s cafés.