IPY: Long Term Human Ecodynamics in the Norse North Atlantic: cases of sustainability, survival, and collapse.

PROJECT SUMMARY IPY: Long Term Human Ecodynamics in the Norse North Atlantic: cases of sustainability, survival, and collapse. 1) Relevance to IPY: This proposal to the NSF IPY emphasis area Human and Biotic Systems; Humans in the Polar Regions represents the US component of an international, interdisciplinary research program recognized by the ICSU IPY committee under the European MARENA and NORCLIM initiatives. It brings together scholars, students, and local community members from Greenland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands in a unique cooperative effort to 1) better understand the complex dynamics of human-environment interaction on the millennial scale, including human impact on island flora, fauna, and soils, sustainable and unsustainable resource use, the impacts of climate change, interactions between subsistence and exchange economies. 2) collect and analyze directly comparable data sets (artifacts, zooarchaeology, archaeobotany, geoarchaeology) from coordinated regional-scale excavations taking place on all three islands as an IPY surge activity, sharing gear, specialists, and excavation staff for the highest possible degree of inter-comparability, 3) involve local communities in the research effort and aid them in making inter-island connections which will aid their own outreach efforts and more effectively manage ecotourism, 4) involve US and international students at high school, undergraduate, and graduate level in fieldwork (including a special outreach program and two formal field schools) and in the development of K-12 classroom materials, 5) collaborate closely with climatologists and oceanographers in the tracking of sea ice expansion in the later Middle Ages and its impacts on ecosystems and human economies, 6) expand the North Atlantic Biocultural Organization (NABO) data management program to leave a lasting IPY legacy. 2) Intellectual merit criteria: Radically different long term outcomes in sustainable resource use, climate impact, and culture contact followed the initial colonization of the three island groups by a common Scandinavian culture during the Viking Age (AD 800-1050). Current research indicates that the Faroese may have established economic patterns permitting long term sustainable use of both terrestrial and marine resources by the early medieval period, allowing remarkable settlement stability down to the present. The Icelandic interaction reflects both successes and failures in long term terrestrial resource conservation in a context of dramatic environmental change following first introductions of European domestic animals and farming systems. In the Icelandic case, intensive fishing and coastal-inland exchange of dried fish extends back to first settlement, and island-wide economic integration as well as local level social buffering may have become critical to survival following late medieval landscape destabilization and climate change. In Greenland, the collapse of the Norse settlement ca AD 1450 is still incompletely understood, but available evidence indicates different patterns of marine resource use from either Iceland or Faroes may have played a role in the ultimate failure to maintain long term community viability in the face of culture contact and climate change. Connecting field studies and specialist analyses will allow better understanding of regional-scale questions of differential climate impact, origins and spread of commercial fisheries, and the role of inter-regional trade and exchange. 3) Broader impacts: The unintended consequences of long term human impact on animals, vegetation, soils, and fresh water are widespread threats to community sustainability in many parts of the world today, and the long term consequences (for good or ill) of past cultural landscape formation are part of the environmental heritage of modern humanity. These three North Atlantic cases have direct and clear relevance to modern northern peoples now also faced with rapid climate change, resource fluctuation, and challenges in sustainably integrating maritime hunting and fishing economies, terrestrial farming and hunting strategies, and a cash economy. The project has a major educational component, and intends to make use of new and existing field schools and field programs to connect different generations of researchers from different national traditions to combine research continuity with innovation, student to student peer mentoring with intergenerational apprenticeships, and youthful energy with multi-decadal field experience. In addition to providing solidly based natural and social science data and analysis to global attempts to better understand long term human ecodynamics, the project will directly aid modern northern institutions and communities in the study areas to better manage the rapid spread of ecological and cultural tourism. The project will aid community efforts to share best-practice experience in responsibly and effectively managing tourism and heritage development by pooling resources and ideas to also achieve results beyond the reach of any single community or local organization. The proposed three year surge in international cooperative activity will produce a lasting IPY legacy in cooperative infrastructure, community inter-connection, directly comparable & widely disseminated scientific data sets, and will raise the archaeology of the region to a new level of accomplishment, connecting scientists, disciplines, and islands across the North Atlantic quarter of the circumpolar north.

Lead Investigator: 
Path Dependency
Reciprocal Interactions
PLACE, BuModel, CENTURY,Farmpact
Iceland, SW Greenland, Orkney, Faroes, Shetland
Temporal Scope: 
600 BCE- present
Spatial Scope: 
N Atlantic
Natural System: 
N Atlantic islands
Human System: 
N Atlantic fisher-farmers