A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Letter from Greenland
By HANS HARMSEN
Monday, April 10, 2017
By late August, most of the brash ice is gone from Greenland’s Nuuk Fjord, but occasionally the distant boom of an ice chunk calving off an iceberg echoes through the fog. A small boat owned by the Greenland National Museum, the Inua, cruises carefully toward the faint outline of an inlet. There are no trees on the shore, only bare rock, sea wrack, and patches of wild grass. The boat’s stern is angled toward a rocky point, and Henning Matthiesen, a soil chemist from the National Museum of Denmark, jumps over the bow and holds the nose of the Inua while colleagues scramble to pass boxes and backpacks over his head and onto shore. Matthiesen and five other scientists wait there while the boat returns to Nuuk, Greenland’s small capital city, to pick up their colleagues.
The researchers have arrived at a small, lifeless settlement called Kangeq. Several weather-worn houses can be seen through the dense fog, along with a boarded-up church, all connected by winding footpaths and dilapidated bridges. The ghost town was a lively community before it was abandoned in the 1970s. Giant whale ribs, broken glass, wood, and rusting metal poke out of a sludge pool near the water’s edge. Upon closer inspection, the earth around the pool is a thick layer of compressed turf containing thousands of disarticulated fish, bird, and sea mammal bones. It’s not a natural deposit, but one of the middens of Kangeq: a layered index of human occupation in western Greenland that covers at least two millennia.
“The atmosphere at Kangeq is unsettling,” says Jørgen Hollesen, leader of the project, known as REMAINS of Greenland (Research and Management of Archaeological Sites in a Changing Environment and Society). “People were living here for thousands of years, and then suddenly the whole town was deserted. There’s so much evidence of human activity—you can still see the playground where the kids used to play.”
Over the past several decades, archaeological surveys have identified hundreds of midden sites scattered throughout the interconnected fjords and archipelagos of western Greenland. The middens formed as generations of people threw their garbage out their front doors, and the unique combination of climatic and environmental conditions in this part of the Arctic preserved wood, bones, feathers, baleen, antler, leather, fur, animal dung, and even human hair. Under scrutiny, these materials can provide very specific information about how past peoples survived in the circumpolar north. But it’s clear that these deposits, like much of Greenland’s ice cover, are at risk from climate change. Fluctuating weather patterns are melting the permafrost and accelerating natural decomposition—turning the organic material into mush and what the Greenlandic archaeologists jokingly refer to as “butter bone.” The team at Kangeq is trying to track these changes and determine which sites are most at risk.
Greenland’s middens have already been a boon to the reconstruction of the country’s deep human past. For example, in 2010, researchers from the Natural History Museum of Denmark and the Beijing Genomics Institute sequenced the DNA from a tuft of human hair collected from a midden at Qeqertasussuk, a site north of the Nuuk Fjord. Results showed that Greenland’s earliest residents, the Saqqaq, known for their small-tool tradition, migrated from eastern Siberia, across the frozen ice shelves of Baffin Bay, about 5,000 years ago. Another distinct prehistoric people, called the Dorset, arrived around 900 B.C., but disappear from the archaeological record around A.D. 1300. Toward the end of their tenure in Greenland, the Dorset are believed to have shared the massive island with Norse colonists, though there is little evidence to suggest that there was much—if any—direct contact between the two peoples.
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