When Vanishing Cultures Vanish

When Vanishing Cultures Vanish, they always do these two things: they become highly invested in boundary markers (defining who is in/out). And they become more concerned about the perpetuation of their own “way of life” than, the well being of the world around them…

About 1000 yrs ago a group of Vikings led by Erik the Red set sail from the coast of Norway for the vast Arctic landmass we know as Greenland. Greenland was (and still is) largely uninhabitable. It’s just this massive Island covered in a sheet of ice. But, along the southwestern coast they found 2 deep fjords that were shielded from the harsh North Atlantic winds & salt spray. As they sailed upriver, they began to see green, grassy slopes appearing through the fog, dotted with wildflowers & shrubs. They saw thick forests of willow, birch, and alder trees.

They settled there & formed two colonies about 300 miles apart that were known as the Eastern & Western settlements. And they began to raise sheep and goats and cattle. They turned the grassy slopes into pastureland, and hunted seal and caribou. They built a string of parish churches and a cathedral to rival those back in Norway. They traded actively with mainland Europe. They tithed regularly to the Roman Catholic Church. They were: law-abiding, economically viable, fully integrated European communities, & at their peak they were around 5000 people. They lived in Greenland for 450 years—& then they vanished. And until recently, nobody knew why.

This story is told in Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse. Diamond is a Pulitzer Prize winning Geographer. He studies why civilizations collapse (Mayans or Easter Island). For a long time we assumed it was always the result of wars, drought, or some cataclysmic events. But what we now know is that they collapse because they were not committed to the holistic stewardship of all of life… they become too focused on perpetuating their own culture & lose track of the big picture.

Diamond writes archeologists still come from all over the world to dig in Greenland & they are all looking for the same thing. (I read this and I’m thinking evidence of a war, or disease, drought). But what they’re looking for is fish bones: & they never find them. The Vikings who colonized Greenland were surrounded by some of the most fertile fishing waters on planet. And yet we can tell by studying the ruins… they were starving. So the question is, why would a society that was sitting on top of the richest food source the ocean has to offer starve to death?

The answer is that the Greenland Norse had a cultural taboo against eating fish. It simply wasn’t done. Vikings elsewhere ate fish, even exported dried fish—but these Greenlanders had some sort of strong cultural taboo against eating fish.

Vikings are portrayed as seafaring raiders. But they thought of themselves as farmers & ranchers. In large part, they raised cattle—it was a huge status symbol for them: real men raised cattle… they didn’t eat fish. So when they settled Greenland: they cleared forest for pasture, & began cutting down trees for barns, homes, firewood. The deforestation removed the critical footing for the thin fragile arctic soil. Over time the livestock over-grazed the hillsides, and wind and rain erosion began to carry away all the topsoil.

Pretty soon the crops wouldn’t grow, and the livestock couldn’t be fattened, so food became scarce… and even though they were sitting on top of millions of North Atlantic Cod, all archeological evidence suggests that the Norse would rather starve than eat a fish.

They could have learned from the native Inuit people… How to survive by using fewer trees; how to burn seal blubber instead of wood, fish, & hunt seals in winter when they were at their most vulnerable (instead of raising so much livestock & taxing the fragile land). But the Vikings despised the Inuit. They called them “skraelings” or wretches.

When archeologists dug through the ruins of the Western Settlement, they found plenty of valuable wooden objects: Crucifixes, bowls, furniture, doors, and roof timbers… which means that the end came too quickly for anyone to do any scavenging. They can tell from the skeletons left behind that the people suffered from horrible malnutrition. They found the bones of newborn calves—meaning that in the final winter they gave up on the future & ate the young animals. They found toe bones from cows that equaled the exact number of cow stalls in the barn—meaning they ate the cattle right down to the hoofs. They found the bones of dogs covered in knife marks—meaning in the end they even ate their own pets.

What they didn’t find were any fish bones. It seems right up to until they starved to death, the Norse never lost sight of what they stood for.

What Diamond demonstrates thru the telling of this story is that most vanishing cultures do at least 2 things wrong: They do a lot of other things, but they all seem to do these two. First, they become highly invested in boundary markers. Boundary Markers: cultural markers that define who’s in/out. Things like needing to raise cattle, build roaring fires, and never eating fish – those are boundary markers. (that’s the 1st thing). Second, they use the world around them selfishly. They become more concerned w/perpetuating their own culture that with the overall well being of the world. The Greenland Vikings tried to recreate a way of life that worked fine in Norway… but Greenland was too fragile for it. By the time they knew they were in trouble it was too late.

When Vanishing Cultures Vanish, they always do these two things: they become highly invested in boundary markers (defining who is in/out). And they become more concerned about the perpetuation of their own “way of life” than, the well being of the world around them.


Oddly, this is the first half of an article on religion. If you care to read the 2nd half (on Mark) here is the link:



4 thoughts on “When Vanishing Cultures Vanish

  1. Hello Muddy,
    As I was reading this, I was applying the lessons to those who deny global warming facts today.

    When given the chance, man does have the propensity to evolve into extinction.

  2. And, Engineer, I was anticipating a tie in to the Bible Belt and to what, M_R
    believes is the vanishing culture of the South……

      1. Interesting fact about the South: Just doing some research on my own, I found that higher education in the South generally stands about the rest of the Country. BUT, their primary and secondary education doesn’t just lag behind the rest of the Country, but trails it by a lot. Odd.

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