Northern farming in a long-term perspective

In many parts of the North, domestic animals and cereal agriculture were introduced by neolithic colonists before 1500 BC. Elements of a mixed farming economy were adopted by local societies far back in prehistory in northern Scandinavia, Russia, and the Northern Isles. During the 9th and 10th Centuries A.D., Norse settlers spread a politically stratified, mixed agricultural society from the Baltic to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, briefly connecting the hemispheres with a single language and culture. Their colonies developed locally distinctive economies, balancing varying mixtures of local wild resources (fish, birds, caribou, marine mammals, plants, wood) with imported domestic species (cattle, sheep, goats, horses, pigs, dogs, barley, oats, grasses). Over time, these patterns shifted in some areas. In Greenland, for example, the archeological record shows that seal and caribou replaced domestic mammals, while in Orkney, cereal-based agriculture remained dominant until recent times.

Medieval and early modern mixed-agricultural economies of the North provide examples of both long-term success in resource management and some disastrous failures. The extinction of the Norse agricultural colonies in Greenland between 1350 and 1450 A.D. was the result of several factors, including climate change, Inuit contact, and political and economic changes. But soil erosion, caused by several centuries of progressive overgrazing, was a key factor in reducing the resilience of the farming system, and thus its ability to cope with any sort of change. By contrast, Saami reindeer pastoralists in northern Norway exercised their resource management systems through flexible social groupings. Although the record is not as well-documented, there is no historical evidence of overgrazing among the reindeer herding societies.

Since the late 18th Century, mixed agricultural economies have been further intensified or reintroduced to various parts of the North, either as attempts to broaden the local subsistence base or to advance commercial interests. While some of these ventures soon failed, others, such as the present-day sheep herding economy of southern Greenland, continue to provide subsistence and cash employment to substantial numbers of northern residents. In Iceland in recent decades, modern resource managers have attempted to halt landscape degradation by drastically reducing the numbers of sheep and freeing extensive areas from grazing. At the same time, crises in North Atlantic fisheries and restrictions in marine mammal hunting have had tremendous impacts on smallscale fishermen and hunters. Their needs have led to the perceived need for more intensive, though still sustainable, use of terrestrial resources, and thus to disagreements on the objectives and methods of land protection measures. How the situation will be resolved remains to be seen.

The record of northern agriculture shows that sustainability and resilience are often closely associated. Economic systems that are successful even for centuries may not be sustainable on the millennial scale if they cannot adapt politically, economically, and ecologically when conditions change. As we plan for the future, we must be careful to learn the lessons of the past.

Jón Haukur Ingimundarson, Stefansson Arctic Institute, Akureyri, Iceland Thomas H. McGovern, Department of Anthropology, City University of New York, New York, USA. From the CAFF publication, Arctic Flora and Fauna,