When vikings arrived in Greenland in 985 they found a land almost completely covered by snow and ice. Except for a few clearings of vegetation, mainly at the southern end, where they built their settlements.
One of these was the Qinngua Valley, where the only remaining Greenlandic natural forest stands, while all the other forests (if they ever existed) were cut down by settlers to make use of wood, and those that exist today were created by people in modern times.
The valley, which also has the warmest climate on the island, is about 50 kilometres inland, next to Lake Tasersuag.
It is precisely next to the mouth of the lake where the remains of an old Nordic farm survive, the largest one in the whole area, in the place known today as Qassiarsuk.
Some researchers believe it is Brattahlíð, Erik the Red’s own farm, located at the bottom of the Eiriksfjörd fjord (today called Tunulliarfik) and about 96 kilometres from the south coast. It is one of the 500 farms that made the Eastern Settlement and, of course, Erik reserved the most valuable land for himself.
Founded in 985, it was his family’ s place of residence, from where he controlled the rest of the Nordic settlements. Curiously enough, it seems that the Nordics in Greenland devoted themselves to livestock rather than fishing, subsisting mainly on sheep’s and goat’s milk, caribous and seals.
Although some farm buildings, stone walls up to a metre and a half thick covered by a layer of earth and grass as insulation, were still visible in 1953, nowadays only a few holes in the soil remain, where they were embedded. It is estimated that the main building was 54 by 14 metres in length. The remains that can be seen today are of later medieval buildings.
There in Brattahlíð it is known that the first church in Greenland, Þjóðhildarkirkja, named after Þjóðhildur, Erik’s wife who had converted to Christianity, was built of wood (if we consider Greenland as being part of the American continent, it would be the first church built by Europeans in America). In the 14th century, a stone church was built on top of it, and several tombs and tombstones with runic inscriptions that mark out the old shape of the church remain around it.
Vikings stayed in Greenland for 500 years, until the colony became extinct sometime in the 15th century. The last historical record of their presence is dated 16 September 1406, detailing the marriage of Icelanders Thorsteinn Olafsson and Sigridr Bjornsdóttir at the Hvalsey church, whose ruins are still in sight today.
Afterwards there is no more evidence until 1723, when Hans Egede explored the settlements and found them already in ruins. The causes for the abandonment of the settlements could be several: from the Little Ice Age that lowered temperatures throughout Greenland, reducing hay production, through possible deforestation and the reduction of grazing areas, to the arrival of the Inuit Thule culture, which entered Greenland from the year 1100 and spread southward.
At the same time an increase in the number of icebergs and sea ice along the coast made it almost impossible to travel by sea or receive supplies from Iceland. It is known that the last ship to return to Europe from Greenland arrived in Norway in 1410.
As for Erik the Red, he died on his farm in 1003, due to the epidemic brought by a consignment of new settlers the previous year, which wreaked havoc throughout the area. One of his sons, Leif Eriksson (already converted to Christianity) would be the first European to explore the lands of Vinland, Newfoundland and the Canadian Labrador by 1002.
Today Brattahlíð still offers the best arable land on the island, thanks to its location, which protects it from cold winds from the north and from ocean storms.
Sources: Saga de los Groenlandeses / Saga de Erik el Rojo / Was Erik the Red’s Brattahlið Located at Qinngua? A Dissenting View ( Kevin J.Edwards et al.) / Viking Archaeology / NASA Earth Observatory / Wikipedia.