One of the world’s wonderful mysteries is the fate of the Greenland Vikings. A theory to help explain their disappearance is that, despite a teeming abundance of fish, they refused to catch and eat them. Reading about this in Jared Diamond’s page-filled book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, I thought something didn’t seem right. If it was eat fish or die out, wouldn’t they just have eaten fish, even if it meant breaking a taboo? Rather than sitting around whining and doubting, I decided to test the fish theory with science. What followed was a weekend of deceit, death and, well, fish.
In 982AD Erik the Red founded a Viking settlement in cold, white Greenland. Vikings farmed there for half a millennium. At their peak they numbered 5000 – then the weather turned even colder, and by 1500 they were all gone.
Across the vast island, on Viking farms by the fjords and in their excavated rubbish pits, archaeologists have found the bones of hundreds of thousands of animals – pigs, cows, seals, birds. But no fish. Literally no fish. Why not? Did the Vikings eat the fish bones-‘n’-all? Did the fish bones rot away completely? Did they feed the fish to their dogs – or is this evidence of some sort of perverse Greenlandish attitude: “I hate fishing, hate fish, won’t eat it”? No matter how you Google it, the answer isn’t clear.
So, I decided to go fishing myself. If anywhere is the Greenland of New Zealand, it probably isn’t Paihia, but that’s where my family were having a weekend away, so that’s where I sailed. Like Eric the Red, I checked into my motel room then, like my Viking ancestors before me, I chartered a boat with four of my kinsmen. We met the skipper on the wharf at the crack of 9.00am.
Out in the bay, excitement turned to frustration faster than it does at a dyslexics’ Scrabble tournament. We pulled in fish after fish, but none was big enough to keep. The Korean family who shared the boat with us were much luckier. Their 10-year-old pulled in a good snapper and two nice tarakihi; the five of us scored just one snapper of legal size (when we stretched it a bit). I tried to joke that Koreans would probably favour sole – it was a mark of my desperation.
Conspiracy theories follow disappointment like bogans follow league. Perhaps the mark on the boat’s fishing table was deliberately long so that none of our fish could ever measure up. Had they purposely given us small hooks and small bait so that only small fish would go for them? Maybe the Korean family were hired fish sharps! As we carried our two measly fillets from the boat, I felt a distinctly Viking-like distaste for fishing.
That evening we suffered the indignity of buying fish and chips. A barefoot local walked past, holding a snapper so big he had to bend his elbow to keep its tail off the ground. I asked him how he’d caught the monster. He replied with a jabber of fishing jargon in such befuddling detail that he must have known he could never be understood by anyone wearing shoes.
Even his fish gave a smug twitch and winked one round wet eye. That’s when I knew they were all in it together. The huge snapper was clearly allowing himself to be carried about town to suggest that big fish could be caught. It’s a bit like the huge cuddly toys at an A&P show that become yellowed and dirty because they’re never won – but could be.
Now, I don’t know if the Greenland Vikings were given hooks too small to catch proper fish. My experiment cannot conclusively say whether they were discouraged by the relative success of Korean fisherchildren. But I can easily see them giving up fishing for a bad job – even when it meant dying out as a people. If ever KFC turns off its fryers, or if the apple harvest dwindles in this land and I am faced with a choice between fishing to live, dying out and going back to Norway, I’ll die out – like the Viking I am.