IV. Environment and Conflict in History The database of conflict and environment cases shows a broad variety if issues but at a high level of inspection

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Neanderthals spent far more time hunting for sustenance compared to humans and thus had less leisure time for developing new tools. Both groups used a basic set of tools known as Mousterian technology, but the level of refinement by the humans was far superior. They no doubt adopted some Neanderthal techniques and exceeded them. Neanderthals also were able to control fire, but not to the extent of humans who used it to make pottery and weapons, for example.

The evolving view of Neanderthals says little about them, but of course says a lot about humans. Neanderthals have not changed, human tolerance has, and this change mirrors a new look at how we view our nearest relatives. Thomas Henry Huxley believed the real measure of humanity is evident in our relation to other apes and other primates.

After the humans finished their conflict with the Neanderthals they apparently started turning against each other in ancient times. Two recent finds demonstrate this: one in Oregon and the other in Italy.

The first example is from North America. In 1996 two hikers found a skeleton known as Kennewick Man near the town of Kennewick, Washington, along the banks of the Columbia River, just prior to the point where it meets up with the Snake River. (They said they had gone in a back entrance to an event with a cover charge, which they wished to avoid). The hikers stumbled upon the bones that only later were found to be ancient, dating back 9,200 years. Little is known about Kennewick Man because of a dispute over who owns the bones. His remains are a matter of dispute between scientists who want to study him and Native Americans who claim him under U.S. Federal Law. There is great debate about his characteristics. There is some preliminary evidence that he was shot with an arrow. His death may be related to territorial hunting claims.

On February 4, 2004, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that scientists may study the 9,200 year old body. The decision was the lack of existing connections between the modern tribes and the people of that time. His characteristics are alleged to be different from modern Native Americans who filed the case (the Umatilla, Yakama, Colville and Nez Perce tribes).9

The second example is from Europe. A couple from Germany, hiking in the Otzal Alps, happened upon bones later found to be about 5,000 years old. The area was near the Italian and Austrian border, in fact within 101 yards. The bones belonged to a man they called “Otzi” and were found a close distance within the Italian border. Belonging to Neolithic culture, he was part of a sophisticated socio-economy and technology, as shown by the artifacts with him. He was likely a trader whose ancient path later became Roman roads and the main highways and routes for north south trade in Europe. “The copper in the ax probably came from the mountains, which, as the source of valuable metals used to make tools, were worshiped by miners throughout the world.” 10

Otzi’s best weapon was his bow-stave made of yew for its flexibility and workability. Many prehistoric bow and arrow systems in Europe relied on the wood of the yew tree. There was also an axe with a yew handle and a copper blade. The bow of the Iceman was made of yew, as were most ancient bows, due to its pliability.
b. A Middle Case of Climate Change: The Vikings, Climate and the North American Experience




Environmental Breadth


General Resources


Climate Change

After the invasion of Britain, Rome grew weary of continuous war and built Hadrian’ Wall (more on this later). The wall separated conquered Roman lands to the south from the Picts and Scots to the north, which were difficult peoples to conquer. The lands the Scots inhabited were marginal in terms of agricultural productivity and the value of victory seemed little. Over several hundred years, two distinct systems emerged on each side of the wall. To the north was a tribal based system still reliant on herding and grazing of animals for subsistence. To the south, a more market based system grew and increases in population created large sedentary populations reliant on cultivating agricultural crops. The social stability provided by the wall allowed the development of settled lifestyles, power structures and the acquisition of wealth. These differences grew and accumulated over time and two differing environments and economies emerged on each side of the wall (see the later story of Robin Hood).

An unpredictable change in climate propelled events. The warming climate around 1000 AD made northern lands hospitable. Viking population surged in Scandinavia and they began move out to settle more distant lands. After invading Britain, to raid and in some cases settle, the Vikings traveled to Greenland and later on to North America.

The word Viking comes from the Old Norse “vik”, a bay or harbor. The Viking lifestyle was a reaction to the lack of arable lands and limited alternative means to survive. Fishing was not a major occupation for them until the Middle Ages.11 Vikings also included men from Scandinavia who ventured out to acquire new lands, as well as those who looted and robbed as an occupation. The Vikings really came into being as a distinct group around 780 AD and rapidly spread in many directions. To the east, they conquered and traded throughout Russia and into the Ukraine.

“The Vikings were infamous raiders and looters, but they were also farmers and herders at home and no less sophisticated in arts and invention than other medieval Europeans…They were successful ship builders who engaged in ever-widening trade, east to Russia and south to Rome and Baghdad. In their Iceland colony at the end of the 10th century, these people created the first democratic parliament. Their further western expansion brought about the first tenuous contact between the Old World and the New."12

There are many explanations for the Viking migrations that include political, demographic, or religious factors. No doubt the truth is a blend of these many causal instruments and played differing purposes for the differing Viking groups that migrated..

"Many theories have been advanced to explain the events that propelled Vikings outward from their northern homelands: developments in ship construction and seafaring skills; internal stress from population growth and scarce land; loss of personal freedom as political and economic centralization progressed; and the rise of Christianity over traditional pagan belief have all been cited. Probably all are correct in degrees; but the overriding factor was the awareness of opportunities for advancement abroad that lured Norsemen to leave their home farms."13

What was remarkable about the journey of the Vikings was that their voyages to the New World, from the East, effectively made the reach of human beings a global one for the first time in history. “Our ancestors left Africa between 100,000 and 120,000 years ago. Coming up out of the Middle East, some of them turned left at Europe, and others turned right into the farther reaches of Asia. Their descendants would not meet until 100,000 years later, at the Strait of Belle Island [in New Foundland, Canada].”14 This first global encounter did not have a peaceful outcome.

“It’s a pity that the first contact between the descendants of the People Who Turned Left and the People Who Turned Right should have ended in killing. Nevertheless, it is not surprising. The Vikings were a warrior culture with an in-built contempt for non-farming peoples and a major problem with impulse control. But frankly, it might well have ended in fighting no matter who they were, because anybody including another group’s traditional land is likely to run into trouble.” 15

Why did this convergence occur? “The answer has mostly to do with the climate,”16 but also the chaos of events that often propels history. "The motivating force for the Norwegians sailing west, the colonization of the lesser Atlantic islands, and thereafter of Iceland and Greenland, and the attempted settlement of America, was a need for land and pasture."17

The Vikings controlled large parts of France, Britain, Scotland, the Shetland Islands and Ireland by 700 AD. Irish priests came to the Faeroe Island around 700 AD and Iceland was discovered and settled between 860 and 870. The period of expansion was actually quite short-lived and suitable land taken by 930.18 In 962, Eric the Red, kicked out of Norway and two places in Iceland for murder, was banished and headed west where he happened to find Greenland. He called it "Greenland", but even with relatively warmer conditions then, this was quite an exaggeration or a public relations stunt to attract settlers. By 986, he returned with 450 people that later grew to 4,000, all emigrants from Iceland. Later, Leif Ericson, his son, would venture from Greenland in search of lands to the west.

The Vikings thought the lands they found would be as hospitable as Scandinavia – they were not. In the northern latitudes, the western edges of continents have better warmer climate conditions for human settlements, owing to the circulation of winds on the planet and the Atlantic Gulf Stream. “This explains why 20 million Scandinavians can live at latitudes north of Goose Bay [Canada] today. It also explains why even 1,000 years ago there were at least a million farmers in Scandinavia, but fewer than 10,000 hunter-gatherers in Newfoundland and Labrador.” 19

The westward migration of the Vikings was driven by a warming period around 1,000-1,500 AD. A “Little Ice Age” followed and lasted from about 1500-1700. The cooling led to an eventual cooling of the planet's northern extremes and thus rendering uninhabitable many of the places the Vikings had settled.

Climate research reinforces the sagas. “During the eleventh and twelfth centuries ice was virtually unknown in the waters between Iceland and the Viking settlements in Greenland, and the temperature in these settled areas was 2 degrees centigrade to 4 degrees warmer than at present. From the beginning of the 13th century a mini-ice age affected the northern hemisphere, plunging the seawater temperature to between 3 degrees centigrade and 7 degrees (about 23 degrees below the present day temperature). This change was enough to bring the ice further and further south. Seasonal ice floes began to appear in the sailing lanes and near the settlements; their quantity increased, the ice season lengthened, and the ice floes were followed by ice bergs."20

This period of Viking expansion was different from earlier ones. Earlier expansions re-enforced a plundering lifestyle. This occupation changed as the Vikings became agriculturalists and adopted settled lifestyles. "The era of Viking marauding had long since passed. To some scholars the Norman invasion of England in 1066 was the last great Viking raid; many Normans were descended from helmeted Vikings who had earlier seized their land."21

This new lifestyle marked a dramatic change in the socio-economic context of the Vikings. The lifestyle was context-based in a narrow niche of survival in the mostly northerly lands inhabited by Lapplanders, Eskimos, etc. This required a stable environment. ”The [Viking] style of living they developed is called crafting: growing some vegetables, catching some fish, keeping sheep for wool and meat, raising cattle for milk and meat, and growing enough hay to see the animals through the winter.” 22 This lifestyle required a fairly static type of environmental climate.

“During the 13th century the climate appears to have deteriorated, though the facts regarding this are not fully agreed upon. Climatic tables indicate, after a level, comparatively ice-free period 860-1200, a sharply rising level of marine ice in the years around 1260, declining thereafter only to rise again after 1300."23

After 1200, the northern Arctic regions of the planet grew colder, and by the middle of the fifteenth century, the climate reverted to its earlier state, if not even colder. Over much of Europe the glaciers advanced, the tree line crept south, and the alpine passes used for trade and travel were often impassable. “The northern coast of Iceland grew increasingly beleaguered by drift ice; and off Greenland as the sea temperatures sank there was a disabling increase in the ice which comes south from the East Greenland Current to Cape Farewell, and then swings north to enclose first the Eastern and then the Western settlement."24

The Vikings found artifacts in Greenland and Northeast Canada, and as they sailed south along the coast they could see plumes of smokes that indicated human presence.25 Bjarni Bardarson accidentally reached North America 986 where he was on a voyage to Greenland but lost his way. Leif Ericsson took an expedition further south in 1002 into Vineland and continued periodic trips for hundreds of years. "It has been suggested that the motive for such voyages [to North America in 1347] was more likely for the acquisition of timber for Greenland's construction needs."26 There were at this time virtually no forest resources on the entire island of Greenland. "In Greenland, emigration may have be abetted by the fact that "the Norse population reached the carrying capacity of the habitat, which may itself have been decreasing."27

"According to the sagas, Ericson's party first headed northwest across Baffin Bay and came upon a rocky coast they called Helluland, present-day Baffin Island. Then they sailed south, hugging the shore, to the wooded place they named Markland, probably Labrador. Finally, they entered a shallow bay and waited for high tide to bring them ashore to a green meadow. Here at L'Anse aux Meadows, they established a base camp, their beachhead in Vinland."28

In Newfoundland the Vikings settled in a place known as Vineland, because the early explorers found wild grapes. (Later accounts verify these events. Adam of Bremen wrote in 1070 that in Vinland "there grow grapes.”) The grapes are further evidence of a warmer climatic period, compared to today, since these areas are now too cold and wild grapes do not grow there but have moved further south.

Battling the changes in weather was not the only difficulty the Vikings faced. The Vikings interacted with the Native Americans who lived there, in terms of both commerce and conflict. The conflict, though relatively rare, proved fatal for the expedition. "The outbreak of hostilities between Skraelings [the name the Norse gave them] and Norsemen was decisive for the Vineland venture. The Norsemen had no marked superiority of weapons, their lines of communication were thin and overlong, and there was an insufficient reservoir of manpower back in Greenland."29 The attempt at colonization of Vineland probably lasted only until about 1020.

Soon after the arrivals of the Viking in Greenland, the few trees of birch, willow and elder were soon depleted and replaced with sorrel, yarrow and wild tansy. When the Greenland colony disappeared the trees soon returned. Both a cooling climate and human overuse of resources hurt the Viking chances for survival. As domesticated animals started to die off (cattle and sheep) "the colonists grew more dependent upon seal for subsistence." 30 In Greenland, "animals were even more destructive than people in changing local vegetation and ultimately whole landscapes, reducing forest and shrub lands, and through time, by overgrazing, converting grasslands to wastelands. These ecological stresses grew more difficult to manage in the harsher climates to the northwest and accumulated over time, more rapidly as the climate deteriorated generally after 1350." 31

The demise of Greenlanders probably took a very long time. Some suggest that Europeans lived there into the early 1500s. Toward the end, the Eskimos massacred many Greenlanders. (In 1492, ironically, Columbus arrived in North America and announced its discovery just as the Greenland colony was dieing out.) A combination of forces led to the demise of the Greenlanders and related to the changing climate and the arrival of too many people on the island. "I propose, therefore, that there was thus a conjunction of debilitating forces, environmental (the waxing cold), economic (increasing denudation of the soil, the wasting away of cattle and the few crops, the dwindling supply of fuel, the pressing competition with the Eskimos for marine game), psychological (a gradual reduction in the birth rate) and spiritual (religious deprivation and lack of cultural stimulus)." 32

Climate was only one of many factors that led to the demise of the Greenland colony. "An explanation that stresses climatic changes and plays down politico-economic factors probably lies as near to the truth as we can get at the moment. In 1261, this small, self-governing land came under the control of the King of Norway, who, it is often said, restricted trade. Since much of Greenland's livelihood depended on the export of goods such as homespun clothe, skins of oxen, sheep and seals, walrus rope, walrus tusks, and polar bears as well as the importation of timber, iron, and grain, in particular. Such trade restrictions, it is argued, made life difficult."33 Trade was the only way that the colony could survive.

In Greenland, "the Western Settlement was the first to be deserted. After 1349, the time of the Black Death, the Eastern Settlement' ties were hard-pressed." 34 The role of the church grew stronger. "Submitting to the nominal authority of Norway's Kind Hakon the Old in 1261, the Greenlanders were now subject of special clerical concern. Records show that a large part of the best land owned by the Greenlanders had gradually come into the possession of the church."35 Norway eventually abandoned Greenland and it remained uninhabited, at least by Europeans, for hundreds of years. The church played a key role in the process of recolonization many years later. Europeans re-colonized Greenland with the help of the cleric Hans Egede, who traveled from Copenhagen in 1721 to the island.

Unlike Iceland and Greenland, people were living in North America when the Vikings arrived. The people living there also changed over time as the climate changed. The Thules, ancestors of today’s Inuits, began move eastward from the Bering Sea in Alaska. The fortuitous climate played an inviting role to many peoples. "The Norse arrived in the new world in A.D. 1000, a time of diverse social and political landscapes for the peoples living on the western shores of the North Atlantic. Members of several different ethnic groups -- the Dorset people of the eastern Canadian Arctic and northern Greenland, the ancestors of the Labrador Innu, the Newfoundland Beothuk, and the Maliseet and Micmac of the southern Gulf of Saint Lawrence and Nova Scotia -- had divided this territory into a multicultural region of discrete homelands where their ancestors lived for many generations. After A.D. 1200 and during the height of the warming, the Thule-ancestors of the Inuit---would also arrive on the scene."36

The Dorsets, in turn, had displaced Maritime Archaic peoples, the latter who had been there since 6,000 BC. It is also possible they interacted with Algonquin peoples who generally lived south of the Saint Lawrence River. The Thule displaced the Dorsets under similar conditions to the conflicts with the Norse: they had superior technology for surviving in the environment. "Armed with lances and with bows powered by a cable of twisted sinew, as well as with warlike traditions developed in the large competing communities of coastal Alaska, such a band of warriors would have been a formidable enemy. They could have easily displaced the small and poorly armed communities of Dorset people from prime hunting localities, forcing them to retreat to more marginal areas." 37 By the period 1200-1400 AD, the Inuit began to replace the older Dorset culture that had arrived earlier.

The Norsemen encountered both peoples known as Native Americans and Eskimos. The Eskimos came to North America during the 11th century, much later than the Native Americans did. The Native Americans were "probably Beothuk, related to the Algonquians who occupied the coastal regions of Newfoundland during the summer, fishing and hunting sea mammals and birds - these would be puffins, gannets and related species - from birch bark canoes."38 The Eskimos were of the Thule culture.

When the chance meeting of east and west took place, who was more surprised – the Norse or the Inuit? The Norse had seen "Karelians" (Northeast Russia from the Karelian Peninsula) or Laplanders in the Artic who were seemingly more Asiatic in ancestry. The Native American, however, had probably never encountered anyone like these tall, blond, blue-eyed people. The Norse military technology was somewhat superior to those of the Native Americans.39 However, there is clear evidence of trade between the two. Norse products wound up in the hands of the Native Americans with the appearance of metal arrowhead points sometime replacing stone.40

By 1350, the Vikings abandoned the Western settlement of Greenland, which the Skraeling or Eskimos soon took over, and retreated to the Eastern Settlement. The Vikings survived until 1500 where the Skraelings killed off most of the Norse Greenlanders, save for a few they kept as few slaves.

The plague was a consequence of trade. It was also a vehicle for introducing disease and illness by bringing eco-environmental systems into a relationship. “Between 1339 and 1351 AD, a pandemic of plague traveled from China to Europe, known in Western history as The Black Death. Carried by rats and fleas along the Silk Road Caravan routes and Spice trading sea routes, the Black Death reached the Mediterranean Basin in 1347, and was rapidly carried throughout Europe from what was then the center of European trade.”41 The plague hit Viking settlements in Greenland and this had a direct impact on its ability to expand. By 1351, 25 to 50 percent of Europe people were dead, as well as the Middle East and south and East Asia.42

Theories of contact and migration to the Americas are undergoing a fundamental revision. Rather than a single entry point through the Bering Straits, it is now believed that there were probably multiple sources of migration in populating the hemisphere.43 In addition, some see the meeting of peoples as an important event. "Thanks to recent advances in archaeology, history and natural sciences, the Norse discoveries in the North Atlantic can now be seen as the first step in the process by which human populations became reconnected into a single global system. After two million years of cultural diversification and cultural dispersal, humanity has finally come full circle."44

c. A Modern Case of Climate Change: Conflict between Fulani and Zarma and the Role of Desertification

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