Archeology

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.

Hvalsey church ruin with flowers in the foreground in South Greenland

Hvalsey church ruin near Qaqortoq in South Greenland. Photo: Mads Pihl, Visit Greenland

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.

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.


DID YOU KNOW?

  • The Norse settlers disappeared from the area in around 1500. Why they did is still a mystery, but one thing’s for sure: their history still lives on in most of South Greenland.
  • Greenland Travel organises trips to southern Greenland and in the tracks of a dramatic past.
  • Erik the Red was overwhelmed by the green and fertile south and christened the country Greenland more than 1,000 years ago.
  • Greenlanders are a pioneering people, strong and full of vitality.
  • A special project in Qasigiannguit disseminates the Thule culture as it was in the 18th century. Volunteers and experts bring the period to life and perform everyday chores dressed in costumes from that time.

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.