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The History of Greenland: From Paleo-Inuit Immigration to Danish Colonization and Home Rule



Greenland is the world’s largest island, located between the Arctic and Atlantic oceans. It has been inhabited for at least 4,500 years by Arctic peoples whose forebears migrated there from what is now Canada. The first humans are thought to have arrived in Greenland around 2500 BCE.

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The prehistory of Greenland is a story of repeated waves of Paleo-Inuit immigration from the islands north of the North American mainland. Hunting and whaling have always been important ways to make a living in Greenland. One of the animals found here is the polar bear, which is on the coat of arms of the Danish royal family in Greenland.

The Norsemen settled the uninhabited southern part of Greenland beginning in the 10th century, having previously settled Iceland. There has been no evidence discovered that Greenland was known to Norsemen until the 9th century CE, when Norse Icelandic explorers settled on its southwestern coast. The ancestors of the Inuit Greenlanders who live there today appear to have migrated there later, around the year 1200, from northwestern Greenland.

While the Inuit survived in the icy world of the Little Ice Age, the early Norse settlements along the southwestern coast disappeared, leaving the Inuit as the only inhabitants of the island for several centuries. During this time, Denmark-Norway, apparently believing the Norse settlements had survived, continued to claim sovereignty over the island despite the lack of any contact between the Norsemen (specially Icelanders) installed in Greenland and their Scandinavian brethren.

In 1721, aspiring to become a colonial power, Denmark-Norway sent a missionary expedition to Greenland with the stated aim of reinstating Christianity among descendants of the Norse Greenlanders who may have converted back to paganism. When the missionaries found no descendants of the Norse Greenlanders, they baptized the Inuit Greenlanders they found living there instead. Denmark-Norway then developed trading colonies along the coast and imposed a trade monopoly and other colonial privileges on the area.

During World War II, when Nazi Germany invaded Denmark, Greenlanders became socially and economically less connected to Denmark and more connected to the United States. After the war, Denmark resumed control of Greenland and in 1953, converted its status from colony to overseas amt (county). Although Greenland is still a part of the Kingdom of Denmark, it has enjoyed home rule since 1979. In 1985, the island decided to leave the European Economic Community (EEC), which it had joined as a part of Denmark in 1973.