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Jared Diamond's claims about the Greenland Norse are completely wrong?

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Odin2005 Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Jun-24-10 05:20 PM
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Jared Diamond's claims about the Greenland Norse are completely wrong?
I ran into this post on a history message board I frequent:

1) The Norse in Greenland didn't eat fish?

One Greenland archeologist (Jette Arneborg) whom Diamond quoted literally found that laughable, when she was interviewed later. The've got the fish hooks & the sinkers. Diamond points out that there are relatively few fishbones found at Norse Greenland sites, and cites the Hunting, Fishing, & Animal Husbandry at the Farm Beneath the Sands study (Inge Enghoff-I had to send to the U of Alaska to get it), ignoring the fact that the study itself points out that that's because 1) Fish bones are small (duh!), 2) Fish bones are highly perishable (duh!), and 3) The archeologists only started to use excruitiatingly thorough screening techniques part of the way through the excavation. Also despite the fact that one place Diamond went to had been named by the Norse "Salmon Stream." Besides, the theory that the Greenlandic Norse didn't eat fish: Does that even pass the smell test (so to speak)?

2) The Norse made a big mistake not going after ring seals (instead of all the other types of seals they hunted)?

The technique for ring seals requires very thick ice (so that you don't fall thru'). The Inuit (Eskimo) didn't do well where the ice was thin, since they fell in. The Norse didn't live in places with think ice.

Go figure;

3) The Norse did too much animal husabndry?

Diamond cites studies wrt continued animal husbandry in Greenland well into the 14th century, but doesn't bother citing the fact the the same acheologist (Nyegaard, IIRC) points out that they were doing quite well, and there is little evidence of harmful effects from over-grazing. Diamaond also talks about dairy having a short shelf life, aparently being unaware that the cheese could last for years (in some cases decades);

4) The Norse in Greenland were so poor that they built houses of turf?

Uh, they built turf houses in Iceland. And the Faroes. And Norway. And they worked pretty nicely, making a few adaptations in Greenland. Properly chosen and placed, the turf lasted for decades, and could then be re-used as filler insulation (Recycling!). When the old Norse moved, they usually took the inner wooden construction materials with them- like Eirik the Red;

5) The Norse were so poorly adapted that they starved to death?

Diamond mentions ONE case of a Norseman who may have starved to death (it's the only one) and goes into flights of fancy wrt mass starvation of the Norse. Meanwhile, on the exact same pages (pp. 273-274) where he fantasizes about Norse mass starvations for which there is no evidence, he himself mentions case after case of some archeologist opening an old site and finding heaps of Inuit who actually did starve to death. Diamond seems to have a knack for missing the obvious consequences of points he makes;

6) The Norse where a bunch of jerks who ticked off the Inuit, and got wiped out (i.e. they had it coming )?

Diamond does make reference to Inuit tales which show both positive & negative relations with the Norse, but glosses over them, and blames the Norse for any problems. If you read the Inuit stories, tho', you find that the Norse usually got along with the Inuit, and that when they didn't, the Inuit were as likley to blame as the Norse. Diamond also takes a report form the Norse discussing how, after an engagement which the supposedly poorly adapted Norse obviously won, they noticed that a mortally wounded Inuit bled less than a lightly wounded one (duh, actually), but makes it look like the Norse were performing Josef Mengele experiments. He also goes into the supposed massacre of the Norse Western Settlement, where he theorizes that they didn't talk about burying the hundreds of bodies because it was just too traumatic. The actual account makes it clear that there were no bodies to pick up (they did pick up some stray livestock to take back to the Western Settlement), probably because most had already evacuated to the Eastern Settlement, which is why they knew to check out teh western Settlement in the first place;

7) The Western Settlement died out in some Mad Max scenario?

Besides the fact that there is ZERO evidence for it, what we do have seems to indicate a long, drawn-out evacuation: Diamond mentions pieces of a church bell found later among the Inuit, but fails to point out that it was already obviously broken; no inatct religious relics have ever been found, indicating a gradual evacuation (maybe over decades). An example of that is one which he mentions- the marriage at Hvalsey Church in 1408. The happy bride from Greenland and the Icelandic captain went back to Iceland, setteled on a nice farm, and lived happily ever after;

8) The Norse didn't have any way to get out, or anywhere to go?

The Norse had boats and ships, to which Diamond himself makes occasional reference. Plus, see above. Iceland became very attractive after the Black Death hit (again) in 1403. See above.

Ugh. There's more. I wrote a whole frikin' research paper about about it. The piece de resistance is the article in June's National Geographic, where Tom McGovern, one of the archeologists who was touting the "Norse were a bunch of idiots" theory when Diamond wrote Collapse (2005), back tracks; I e-mailed my professor to gloat.

Anyway, the Little Ice Age probably didn't help, but it was compounded by tax/tithe and trade policies which made it unattractive to move to or stay in Greenland. The key thing was the collapse of the ivory trade in the 14th century as elephant ivory from Africa & Asia provided cheaper alternatives to walrus & narwhal ivory. It was sort of like one of those Western Boom Towns- when the gold is gone, the town withers away, and within a few years you had tumbleweeds rolling down Main Street. No one in their right minds would claim that they all starved to death, or that they all killed each other, or got wiped out by Indians. They just left for greener pastures (literally).


I always thought Diamond's claim that the Greenland Norse didn't fish was BS.
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semillama Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Jun-25-10 11:35 AM
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1. Yeah, me too.
But this sort of thing is exactly what happens when a non-archaeologist tries to use archaeological data without thoroughly consulting the experts in the field. The very first point, about recovery techniques, would have been a huge red flag to Diamond had he been an archaeologist - you just don't get fish bones unless you are using specialized screening methods and the soil chemistry allows for preservation.
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salvorhardin Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Jun-25-10 03:17 PM
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2. Was this claim in Guns, Germs And Steel?
I haven't read that yet, but I wouldn't have picked up on that error (no archaeological training) so it's good to know.

I was however seething after reading both Freakonomics and The Tipping Point. Both Dubner/Levitt and Gladwell made astoundingly bad errors, intellectually dishonest claims, and repeated well-disproved myths. For instance, both made great hay over the Kitty Genovese case but made conclusions based upon the myth there were numerous witnesses and no one called the police. Gladwell further uses Milgram's small-world experiment to back up his hypotheses. Which would be fine if for the fact that the small world experiment didn't show what Milgram claimed. In fact, it was structurally flawed to begin with.
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lazarus Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Jun-25-10 03:58 PM
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3. iirc it was in Collapse
not one of his better books. I preferred GG&S.
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