The season finale starts with a trip to Greenland to explore why the Norse settlements on that island failed after almost 500 years. The question remains unresolved, but the best answer is that climate change and conflicts with both European pirates and the ancestral Inuit known as the Thule made Greenland less hospitable, reducing the birthrate below replacement levels, and the isolated settlements faded away over a several generations, until the last old folk died in the late 1400s. Hosts Mike Arbuthnot and Blue Nelson, however, suspect that the Greenland Norse did not fade away but instead moved en masse to America, chasing the utopian Vinland of the Icelandic sagas. This is the tenuously thin connection to America used to justify an hour that is otherwise a largely uncontroversial, straightforward, and very low-rent knock-off of a National Geographic special on Greenland.
The show consistently misidentifies the Norse Greenlanders of the late 1400s as “Vikings,” even though the Viking Age ended around 1066 CE.
The men wrongly claim that the Norse Greenlanders vanished overnight. In fact, there is no evidence of such a rapid disappearance. Archaeological evidence does not indicate any mass die-offs (there are no mass graves, for example) or catastrophes (there is no evidence of fire or war). But, on the other hand, Europeans were unaware of the failure of the Greenland colony until the 1500s, so there is no way to know how quickly or slowly the colony collapsed once the decline set in.
Inuit oral traditions suggest that war between the Thule and Greenlanders led to the colony’s collapse because the Thule killed the Greenlanders. There is no archaeological evidence of a sudden violent end to the colony. Our heroes propose that Greenland was a going concern because of its prime economic position as a hub of the ivory trade, so the ask why the Greenlanders would abandon their lucrative ivory industry—though how lucrative it was with extremely limited contact with Europe for a hundred years, I couldn’t say. It’s another example of the slipshod show skating over complicate questions.
Arbuthnot and Nelson quite reasonably ask if climate change drove the colony from Greenland because the island basically froze and could no longer support farming. The men ask if the Greenlanders succumbed to famine, and to test this, they go seal hunting. This is stupid. The Inuit survived on seals for centuries. Of course the Norse could have hunted seals. We don’t need to watch the men hurt animals to know that. The question isn’t if they could kill seals but whether they survived on them. Our hosts have a licensed hunter use a gun to kill a seal, even though the Norse clubbed them to death. Apparently, shooting animals is OK to show, but beating them alive is too much for the Science Channel. This is the second time this show has gone to the well of doing on-screen violence to animal bodies. This time Blue Nelson watches the hunter tear open the dead seal and then he tries to eat its liver. Nelson chokes on it and spits it out, failing to reenact the dining style of his “Viking ancestors.”
The men then travel to Europe to learn more about the life and times of medieval Greenlanders by examining skeletons of Greenlanders in a Danish museum.
Nelson practically orgasms upon arrival in Denmark and viewing the skeletons of Greenlander men because he is “in the presence of real Vikings” for the first time. “This is awesome!” he says as he goes in to view the skeletal remains. Sure, why not? That’s what I think when I visit my dead relatives: Dead bodies are “absolutely incredible!” These sorts of exploitative displays of dead people bother me. There is a quasi-scientific purpose behind it, but the hosts never really show the bones respect as dead people but rather treat them as super-cool props.
The show tries to make it appear like a set of misshapen bones from the 1400s demonstrate that over time, the Greenland Norse became increasingly malnourished and diseased, which the men suspect pushed them to America. But the seemingly diseased bones are actually from a peat bog, which gave a false impression of disease thanks to peat’s tendency to shrink and crack bones. Chemical inspection of the bones conducted by Danish scientists shows that over the 500 years of settlement in Greenland, the Norse diet transitioned from domestic livestock to maritime resources, primarily seal. They adapted, the Danes concluded, and were eating fine until the end.
Based on a text by a bishop who investigated the collapse of the Greenland colony in the late Middle Ages, Arbuthnot and Nelson suspect that the Norse Greenlanders joined with the Thule and moved westward into the high Arctic, where Norse artifacts have been found. A Thule statuette from Baffin Island seems to be a figurine of a Norse priest. This is not terribly controversial, but the show conflates the idea of survivors of a collapsed colony joining the Thule with the idea that the “Vikings penetrated […] into America.” It was not an act of colonization, and the High Arctic isn’t the continental US. Also: They weren’t Vikings.
There have been Norse artifacts found across the High Arctic, but their source—Norse visits, trade from eastern Canada, etc.—is unclear. Arbuthnot, from no evidence, suggests that these artifacts show that the Norse might have used dogsleds to travel to Alaska, which is not a place where Norse artifacts have been found. So the men nonsensically decide to leash dogs to a Viking-style horse sled to try to rope the United States back into a story that has distressingly remained too Canadian for U.S. audiences. The “experiment” is stupid, since the Greenlanders could just as easily have used Inuit transportation as they could “borrow” Inuit dogs. The last minutes of this misbegotten series feature the men harnessing unruly dogs and trying to make them pull the sled. The dogs ran off without the men, and Nelson concludes that the sled—which was not designed for dogs but horses—would not work with dogs. No shit. Arbuthnot says that the Greenlanders probably built something different to accommodate the dogs if indeed they used dogsleds. Again: No shit. And then the men drive off in a standard-issue dogsled.
The show ends by asking if the Vikings reached Alaska and admitting that the hour failed to provide any answers. (The answer was always going to be “No,” since fourteenth century Greenlanders were not eleventh century Vikings.) It was, like the show as a whole, a waste of time designed to flatter the egos of Americans who fetishize Vikings and devote far too much time to contemplating their Nordic bloodlines. The series concludes with no conclusion and very little connection made between episodes or topics covered across the six episodes. It leaves us with disconnected, impressionistic “questions” that never add up to a coherent story, and which the producers actively chose not to tie together.
Taken together, the six episodes of America’s Lost Vikings were among the most poorly produced quasi-documentary hours I have ever seen on cable TV. Poorly written, poorly edited, and pointless, they make America Unearthed look like a masterclass in storytelling. At least that show knows how to tell a story and build to a conclusion. The only real takeaway from this misfire of a series is that Arbuthnot and Nelson had a lot of fun playing Viking he-man in the winter wilderness. I’m glad they enjoyed it.
Note: As with last week, I am posting this review on Monday for timeliness, but it will count as my regular Tuesday blog post.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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