This short foundational text provides a basic overview for those who are interested in understanding how paleoenvironmental, archaeological, and historical records aid in building knowledge about Icelandic pre-settlement environments, and the role humans have played in changing the land over time.
Iceland is the one terrestrial place on Earth known to have a nearly continuous sedimentary and plant fossil record of the subarctic North Atlantic.1 This mostly intact record spans the past 15 million years. Even though the spatial and temporal patterning of woodland retreat and landscape destabilization can be complex, and the underlying causes difficult to disentangle, the dynamics of past changes can be reconstructed using various sources of information.
Historical changes in the environment over time can be analyzed using different proxies. It is possible to determine how plant communities have changed based on the abundance of pollen and spores of different species. Changes in landscape stability can be understood through sedimentary proxies. During sediment accumulation, sediments become characterized by the environment in which they were formed. Past environmental processes can be reconstructed by using sediment cores collected from peatlands and lakes, and more recently, by analyzing ocean sediments.
Analysis of pre-settlement vegetation in Iceland is based largely on pollen assemblages preserved in lake sediments, peat, and macrofossils (organic remains large enough to be seen without a microscope). Pollen record analysis from several lowland sites in Iceland indicate pre-settlement conditions were wooded and stable, and that Betula pubescens, a type of birch, was widespread. The paleoenvironmental record shows that the extent of woodland in Iceland over the Holocene period prior to settlement corresponded to climate fluctuations. When times were warmer, birch forests dominated and when times were cooler they retreated to lower elevations. The record also indicates that 25-40 percent of Iceland’s land was covered by birch forest and woodland at the time of settlement3, while recent estimates put forest cover at 2%.4 This indicates that long-term, unsustainable, pastoralism has played a significant role in the degradation of Icelandic environments.
During Iceland’s pre-settlement period, not only were birch woodlands common, but heathlands and grasslands evolved in areas that were unsuitable for tree growth. Grasslands were dominated by grass-like plants, while heathlands were dominated by small shrubs. Lower elevation areas and depressions were composed of partly inundated wetlands or very moist areas. Mosses and lichens colonized young substrates, such as lava fields and ridgetops. There were also barren areas such as deserts.
Following human settlement in the 9th century, the record indicates that long-term, unsustainable pastoralism played a significant role in the degradation of Icelandic environments. Around the time of settlement, birch pollen levels were reduced, suggesting that land had been cleared for farming. Coprophilous fungi spores, which require herbivore droppings to germinate, along with increases in pollen from grasses and some weeds, also indicate an altered plant community typical of open grazing areas. Land use is regarded as the primary driving force that led to these environmental changes prior to the Little Ice Age.
Archaeological excavations of domestic-scale garbage dumps on ancient farm ruins or small settlements can provide numerous clues as to how residents handled the extreme challenges in Iceland during periods of climatic disruption, such as the Little Ice Age. Laboratory analysis such as carbon dating of discarded bones layered in the earth over time, be they whale, fish, seal, sheep or cattle bones, and the possible identification of functional tools, ornamental carvings, or the charred remains of campfires, can point to how people lived and ate in different periods and circumstances. If, for example, more domesticated animal bones are found in upper layers, and more fishhooks, especially in conjunction with oysters or clams (often used for bait) in lower excavated layers, it can be surmised that the people living at that location changed from a sea-based to land-based diet over particular periods of time. These changes in living patterns indicate how people survived during different periods. Further, sedimentary records at these sites where, for example, ash is uncovered, can provide corresponding geologic evidence of eruptions, when those eruptions took place, and how long they lasted. Different paleoecological proxies can also be used to discern how eruptions or climate changes impacted species populations. Together, these paleoenvironmental records, when studied alongside archaeological material, can help to determine how people living in a particular location adapted to a dramatically altered climate.
To reconstruct how people in Iceland and Svalbard adapted to survive during the Little Ice Age, a Colorado-based research team have analyzed geologic and archaeological material traces left behind by early Icelandic and Norwegian homesteads. A fascinating account of that research can be read here. These approaches, however, do not provide a direct insight into how humans perceived and interpreted environmental and climatic changes in the past.
What is significant and relatively unique about the history of Iceland, is that long-term environmental and climatic changes experienced by pre-modern Icelanders are preserved in a wealth of written documents, from literary texts to trade documents. These manuscripts, records, and diaries of everyday Icelanders provide an almost continuous historic record of the country since the time of settlement. Scholars working in the environmental humanities study enormous archives of material to discern, for example, how annual sea-ice levels correspond to increases or decreases in grain yields, flock sizes, and stocks of winter coffers.
Islendingasogur (Sagas of Icelanders) were written primarily in the 13th century, but they cover events that took place between the 10th and 11th centuries. Sagas include narrative descriptions of processes such as deforestation, soil erosion, and climate change, which provide insights into premodern perceptions and interpretations of long-term and large-scale forms of change. Birch woodlands, for example, were extensively cleared, burned, and cut for fuel following settlement, according to the sagas. The woodland at Þingvellir was described in the Icelandic sagas in the 11th century as being much more extensive than it is today.
As individuals, families, and a society, Icelanders have a rich written historical relationship to the past, which is actively used by scholars to predict potential changes in the future. Though the future will always remain speculative and fuzzy, Icelandic scholars can look to past influences that extend back in time from as little as one hundred years, to a thousand and in doing so, make more informed decisions about taking future directions. That is why integrating various forms of literary and scientific knowledge into our cultural understanding not only broadens our overall understanding of time and place but also offers a different way to understand how our worldviews have developed and the consequences of those views.
Understanding environmental change through multiple paleoenvironmental lenses (humanistic, ecological, geological, economic, political, scientific) provides a more holistic perspective of the country’s natural and cultural changes over a long timescale. In this conceptual space, science and commerce live alongside prose and poetry.
Mary Catherine Kinniburgh, Spatial Reading: Digital Literary Maps of the Icelandic Outlaw Sagas
Astrid EJ Ogilvie, and Gísli Pálsson, Mood, Magic, and Metaphor: Allusions to Weather and Climate in the Sagas of Icelanders 1
1 Torsten Wappler, and Friðgeir Grímsson. “Before the ‘Big Chill’: Patterns of Plant-Insect Associations from the Neogene of Iceland.” Global and Planetary Change 142, (2016): 73–86. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloplacha.2016.05.003
2 Camilla S. Andresen et al., “Holocene Climate Variability at Multidecadal Time Scales Detected by Sedimentological Indicators in a Shelf Core NW off Iceland.” Marine Geology 214, no. 4, (2005): 323–338. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.margeo.2004.11.010.
3 “History of Forests in Iceland.” Skógræktin, Accessed February 23, 2023. https://www.skogur.is/en/forestry/forestry-in-a-treeless-land/history-of-forests-in-iceland.
4 Magnús H. Hreiðarsson, “Tvö Prósent Íslands Er Nú Þakið Skógi Og Kjarri.” Visir, April 3, 2022. https://www.visir.is/g/20222243637d/tvo-prosent-islands-er-nu-thakid-skogi-og-kjarri
5 Gifford H. Miller et al., “Abrupt Onset of the Little Ice Age Triggered by Volcanism and Sustained by Sea-Ice/Ocean Feedbacks.” Geophysical Research Letters 39, no. 2 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1029/2011gl050168