Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Icelanders & Greenlanders

Funny thing about Iceland: It has no human “prehistory,” insofar as anthropologists can determine. That is to say, the first people to settle there are believed to have been the Vikings -- and that wasn’t very long ago, in anthropological measurements: approximately the 9th Century A.D. An early record titled The Book of Settlements goes so far as to identify the first settlers, a Norwegian married couple named Ingolfr Anarson and Hallveig Frodatottir, and the year they arrived, 874. They named their new home Reykjavik. Other settlers followed. Reykjavik, of course, is the capital of modern Iceland. (Incidentally, Reykjavik means “Bay of Smokes.”)

What’s interesting about that, to me -- and the reason I include this in my “mystery” blog rather than my “anything in the world I care to write about ” blog ( -- is that the much larger but bleaker neighboring island of Greenland does have what’s called a “prehistory.” Inuits, crossing the arctic and subarctic longitudes from what is now Canada, are believed to have inhabited Greenland as early as 1400 B.C.

One has to wonder: Why Greenland but not Iceland? Iceland is well out to sea from anywhere, it’s true. But it isn’t that far off Greenland’s southeastern coast -- about 200 miles. Why was Iceland discovered by Europeans rather than by the Inuits of Greenland centuries earlier?

Greenland is a dreadful place.
It’s a land that’s never green. . . .

So goes the folk shanty. Perhaps the Inuits, as scientiests assume, held to Greenland's western shoreline and ventured no farther, either into the mercilessly inhospitable interior or around the southern tip of the island by boat. If not, why not?


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