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Ancient history

The Inuit, the original inhabitants of Greenland, migrated eastwards via Alaska and eventually arrived in Greenland via Canada's Ellesmer Island. This must have happened about 5,000 years ago during a climatically warm period. These Stone Age people are called Independence-1-culture (after the site of archaeological finds) and settled in the north of Greenland. This nomadic group probably consisted of no more than about 500 people who kept themselves alive by hunting polar bears, musk oxen and other animals.

The Saqqaq people reached Greenland around 1,000 years before Christ. They were the first to bring dogs that were used as pack animals. The Saqqaq culture and the Independence-1 culture merged and settled south of Disko Bay (West Greenland). About 500 B.C. the climate became colder again and the Saqqaq culture mysteriously disappeared. Around 100 B.C., the Dorset culture settled in Greenland. They came from Baffin Island, which belongs to Canada, and introduced the harpoon and the first snow huts or igloos.

Viking time

Around 900 AD, the Viking Gunnbjørn Ulffson went off course to Iceland and spent the winter in a fjord near Ammassalik on the east coast of Greenland. He was thus the first European to visit Greenland. Around 950 Snæbjørn Galti arrived who had fled from Iceland because of a family feud. When he returned home, many of Galti's companions had died. In 982, the Norwegian Erik the Red (Eiríkur Raude Porvaldsson) was exiled to Iceland after a blood feud. However, he sailed on to Greenland and rounded Cape Farewell before landing on a small island and spending the winter there. The following summer he sailed on and built a farm on a suitable piece of land.

In 986, Erik returned to Iceland and praised "Grænland" as an excellent place to settle. This, of course, was only meant to attract people to Greenland. Not long after, he left for Greenland with thirty ships, of which only fourteen arrived. Two settlements were founded, both on the west coast: the East Colony (Østerbygd) and the West Colony (Vesterbygd) in the area of today's capital Nuuk. At the height of the Viking Age, there were 300 farms on Greenland and around 5,000 Vikings lived there.

The Dorset culture and all other cultures merged around the year 1000 into the Thule culture, the last group of Inuit to reach Greenland and spread throughout the country within 150 years. They use the kayak for seal hunting and the dogsled for transporting people and goods. A climate change in the 12th century forced the Thule to move south and as a result the Thule culture splintered into a number of subcultures. There is much archaeological evidence that modern-day Inuit, the Inussuk culture, are descendants of Thule.

Norwegian rule

In 1261, Greenland was annexed by Norway and a trade monopoly was declared. At the end of the 13th century, the weather turned colder on Greenland, so glaciers advanced, animals died from the cold and the sea was covered with ice, making shipping impossible. The situation was made worse by the fact that the harbour of Bergen in Norway was destroyed in the war with the Hanseatic cities in 1392. This meant that supplies and goods could not be brought to Greenland. Around 1400, no contact was possible with Greenland and a century later, all Europeans had disappeared. There are various stories about what happened to them. It is unlikely that they were exterminated by the Inuit because they did not have the means to do so. Other theories include dramatic climatic changes, a caterpillar plague, mass emigration to North America, total interbreeding with the Inuit or kidnapping by English pirates. The latter theory is somewhat supported by written documents, but still explains why all the inhabitants disappeared at one point. The disappearance of the Greenland colony remains one of the greatest mysteries in history.

Danish rule

After Denmark's conquest of Norway in 1380 and the disappearance of the Greenlandic colony, it took a long time before attempts were made to make Greenland a colony again. Speculation about a northwest passage through Greenland to the Far East brought Greenland back into the picture. Whaling also ensured that around ten thousand Europeans, consisting of Danes, British, Norwegians, Dutch, Germans and Basques, came ashore in Greenland every year and, of course, mixed in with the Inuit. Although the Danish king Christian IV claimed Greenland as early as 1605, it was not until 1721 that a trading post and a missionary station were established in Greenland again. The missionaries of the mission station were very successful in converting the Greenlandic people to Christianity.

In 1776, the Danes declared a trade monopoly, allowing only Danish ships from the Royal Greenland Trading Company to trade with Greenland. This trade monopoly would last until 1950. In 1888, Fridtjof Nansen was the first European to cross the land ice. In 1924, the sovereignty over Greenland by Denmark was contested by Norway. The case was brought before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The result was that Denmark gained sovereignty over the entire island.

In 1940, Denmark was occupied by the Germans, and in early 1941, the Americans established military bases on Greenland even though they were not yet officially at war with the Germans. The Danes agreed with the Americans that the bases would be dismantled after the war. Because of the Cold War, this would not happen until 1958.

In 1953, Greenland officially became a province of Denmark and Greenlanders became full Danish citizens. Twenty years later, however, the people of Greenland wanted more control, especially over domestic affairs. On 1 May 1979, the provincial government was replaced by the Landsting (Parliament) and the Landstyre (Government) after the people of Greenland voted in favour of partial autonomy.

Greenland's largest party, the social democratic Siumut, formed a governing coalition with the far-left IA (Inuit Ataqatigiit, Eskimo Brotherhood) in December 2002. The new government sought greater independence from Denmark. On 15 January 2003, the IA left the coalition because the chancellery chief had ordered a woman to exorcise evil spirits. Prime Minister Enoksen then formed a new cabinet with the Atássut Party.

On 26 November 2008, the Greenlanders voted overwhelmingly in a referendum (with a three-quarters majority) in favour of self-government. As a result, Greenland will be granted self-government on 21 June 2009, and with it the right to self-determination over the country's natural resources. For the time being, Greenland remains a separate part of the Danish Kingdom. The autonomy of Greenland is extended to thirty new areas, including the police, the judiciary and the maritime environment.

The left-wing opposition party Inuit Ataqatgiit (IA) won the parliamentary elections in Greenland in early June 2009. This brought an end to the thirty-year rule of the social democratic Siumut Party. With 44% of the votes, the IA was the big winner. The Siumut Party, which had formed the government since 1979, received only 26% of the vote, a clear punishment by voters for a series of corruption scandals. In 2013, Aleqa Hammond of the Siumit Party was elected as the first female prime minister. In October 2014, she steps down due to a scandal surrounding her spending habits. In December 1014, the Siumut Party formed a new coalition after elections, Kim Nielsen became Prime Minister.

Mute Bourup Egede came to power in April 2021 after his left-wing Inuit Ataqatigiit Party won the parliamentary elections with the aim of halting a rare-metals mining project on environmental grounds.
Disagreements over the project led to the fall of the previous government earlier this year, paving the way for early elections.


Stadler, H. / Groenland

Swaney, D. / Iceland, Greenland & Faroe Islands
Lonely Planet

CIA - World Factbook

BBC - Country Profiles

Last updated June 2024
Copyright: Team The World of Info