Guns, Germs and Steel (Diamond 1997) argues that Old World invaders of the New World c. 1500 carried high-mortality infections to Native Americans, but the latter couldn't similarly infect the former, because such diseases' existence results from zoonoses in cities where both humans and domesticated animals have a high population density. This is the first of two videos giving a much shorter discussion of the idea than the book-length one due to Diamond.

But there was a limited presence of Norse people in the Americas c. 1000 AD. Did this also infect natives with something deadly to which they lacked immunity? If not, why not? I've found one online discussion of why this may not have happened, but I was hoping for something more concise than 615 comments. As best I can tell, the short answer is Norse practices didn't predispose them to such infections, but I'm unclear on the details.

  • If I recall correctly, GGS claims that urban old world invaders carried infectious disease. I'm not sure that I associate the Norsemen with high population density.
    – MCW
    Commented May 25, 2020 at 11:17
  • @MarkC.Wallace Could you write an answer, or suggest a source, on Vikings having much lower population densities than other invaders, even as they built an Empire? I don't know much about their strategies, but e.g. they couldn't have acted as Romans did if you're right.
    – J.G.
    Commented May 25, 2020 at 11:22
  • 1
    @J.G. You would have to source the "Viking Empire" in North America or Greenland. There are only very few Norse findsites in Greenland and North America. Their impact on local culture was low and their stay brief anyway.
    – user43870
    Commented May 25, 2020 at 11:31
  • 2
    "Vikings" didn't visit North America; the Norsemen did. It's highly unlikely the Norsemen were able to go viking in those areas given they low productivity and population at the time (and it's not called "to viking" if your main enemy are walrus).
    – gktscrk
    Commented May 25, 2020 at 16:44
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    @a_donda I'd be cautious about that claim (I know a couple of the team who were involved in the Hull excavations). The problems behind that claim were covered in the 2012 paper The Science behind Pre-Columbian Evidence of Syphilis in Europe: Research by Documentary, published in Evolutionary Anthropology. The evidence is suggestive, but by no means conclusive. It remains uncertain whether the lesions found were caused by treponemal disease, and even if they were, if the treponemal disease involved was syphilis. Commented May 25, 2020 at 17:20

1 Answer 1


There is this recent study:

Jackson et. al. Disequilibrium, Adaptation, and the Norse Settlement of Greenland

Under "Cultural Contact" they write

"Little is known of the possible interactions between either the Dorset Paleo-Eskimo or the later Thule Inuit and Greenland Norse, and hostilities mentioned in the Vinland Sagas and Ivar Bardarson’s accounts remain ambiguous and uncorroborated in the archaeological record ... A recent large-scale genetic study of the modern Greenlandic population found no evidence for any admixture with Norse or Dorset populations and argues for a single, substantial migration event ..."

DNA studies, for example based on ancient DNA

Raghaven et. al. The genetic prehistory of the New World Arctic

and on DNA of contemporary population

Moltke et.al. Uncovering the Genetic History of the Present-Day Greenlandic Population

found no evidence of geneflow between the Norse and the Dorset or later Inuit (though they were able to reconstruct the Inuit colonization), thus adding to the picture mentioned in the cited paragraph.

I would like to add: written or other wise traded testimony may be treacherous. As long as there is no archeological evidence there will be no certainty, but at least there is no genetic evidence of deeper contact.

All in all and because of missing evidence I would say: no, Vikings did not cause high mortality, neither by epidemics, nor by conflict.

The situation in high medieval times is not really comparable to the later "conquista" of Central and South America.

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    DNA studies in Iceland have found (some tiny amount of) Eskimo ancestry, iirc.
    – Tomas By
    Commented May 25, 2020 at 11:52
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    While I like this answer, I don't think there's a necessary link between "DNA mixing" and "transmission of diseases", especially when quite a few of the later infectious diseases were transmitted non-sexually.
    – gktscrk
    Commented May 25, 2020 at 16:48
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    @gktscrk Right, not necessarily. But we would need evidence of a higher mortality in the indigenous population and a link from that to the newcomers for a positive answer. Such links are unlikely, from archeology as well as genetics, and anything else is speculation, imo.
    – user43870
    Commented May 25, 2020 at 17:07

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