Jared Diamond and the collapse of the Greenland Norse

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel‘s essential message is that there was nothing special about Europeans, their societies, or their culture that have led them to dominance of the world from the 17th century forward, which continues.  In all ways he has worked to explain why European and offshoot societies have had more goods, more freedom, and more power than other societies, not through any racial or cultural characteristics but purely through geographical, mechanical advantages.

I have seen him burst into tears on a PBS television special at the thought of racial or cultural differences between Africans and Europeans having any explanatory power whatever.

Diamond’s book is one that can be read for profit and pleasure without  being persuasive in the least. His anti-whitism is extreme but by no means untypical of self-hating academic circles.

His book Collapse explores several reasons why some societies have failed, including the Norse of Greenland, who died out, or emigrated out, during the Little Ice Age of 1300-1850.

This from the Wikipedia article on Diamond’s book Collapse:

Part Two describes past societies that have collapsed. Diamond uses a “framework” when considering the collapse of a society, consisting of five “sets of factors” that may affect what happens to a society: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, loss of trading partners, and the society’s own responses to its environmental problems. The societies Diamond describes are:

  • The Greenland Norse (climate change, environmental damage, loss of trading partners, irrational reluctance to eat fish, hostile neighbors and most unwillingness to adapt in the face of social collapse.

As you might expect, actual studies of the Greenland Norse reveal a much different picture.

  •  they quickly gave up herding cattle for sheep and pigs.
  • they adapted quickly to a fish diet

On the other hand, they did not want to become Inuit or live the lives of Inuit. They abandoned the settlements in an orderly way, taking gold and silver with them. The young and strong got out, leaving the aged to stay behind, as was ever the case with emigration.

Although the descendants of the Vikings had adjusted to life in the north, there were limits to their assimilation. “They would have had to live more and more like the Inuit, distancing themselves from their cultural roots,” says Arneborg. “This growing contradiction between identity and reality was apparently what led to their decline.”

An Orderly Abandonment

In the final phase, it was young people of child-bearing age in particular who saw no future for themselves on the island. The excavators found hardly any skeletons of young women on a cemetery from the late period.

“The situation was presumably similar to the way it is today, when young Greeks and Spaniards are leaving their countries to seek greener pastures in areas that are more promising economically,” Lynnerup says. “It’s always the young and the strong who go, leaving the old behind.”

In addition, there was a rural exodus in their Scandinavian countries at the time, and the population in the more remote regions of Iceland, Norway and Denmark was thinning out. This, in turn, freed up farms and estates for returnees from Greenland.

However, the Greenlanders didn’t leave their houses in a precipitous fashion. Aside from a gold signet ring in the grave of a bishop, valuable items, such as silver and gold crucifixes, have not been discovered anywhere on the island. The archeologists interpret this as a sign that the departure from the colony proceeded in an orderly manner, and that the residents took any valuable objects along. “If they had died out as a result of diseases or natural disasters, we would certainly have found such precious items long ago,” says Lynnerup.

The Greenland Norse are like the English speakers of Quebec, who abandon old towns and farms where they have dwelt for a hundred and fifty years for more opportunity in other provinces. In one case the reason is the Little Ice Age. In the other it is official suppression of their language and of their economic opportunity. The energetic emigrate; they do not stick around in order to become a people living on what the emigrants consider to be too poor or too small a scale, or too isolated an existence.

Sometimes it is advantageous not to adapt.




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Bubba Brown

You have made some excellent points I did buy Mr Diamonds book but did not much like his attempt to level the playing field.
The Europeans were energetic and innovative, they moved forward.
Other cultures not so much, not suprising that Mr Diamond would be moved to tears at somebody suggesting otherwise.
In my own family the “old country” Ireland, Scotland there were very limited opportunities.
They emigrated to Canada, they thrived.
Staying was not an option.
Cultures, races can adapt one need only look at the current faux crisis in Canada.
Some of the Chiefs want to stay in power and nothing to change they don’t want to lose their grip on their entitlements.
Moving the ordinary Indians out of their poverty is not a concern.
Having the kids getting an education and leaving a remote reserve with few opportunities would mean a loss of numbers and income for the Chief.
Some Chiefs have adapted and they and their people are success stories.
Sandy at “crux of the Matter has a very good post on this.
A very interesting post thank you.
Bubba Brown


Diamond’s great error is he makes observations about very small and isolated societies, economies and ecosystems (such as Greenland and Easter Island), and then claims these apply to continental societies, economies and ecosystems.

What rot.

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