#15 Iceland’s simple but amazing history…

I am (slowly) reading Jared Diamond’s book ‘Collapse’, it’s got some really interesting parts in it but gets a bit too detailed in some places. He tells us about Iceland’s whole history in just a few pages, here are the key points that fascinated me, oh how I want to visit…

Piece of Knowledge #15

  • Iceland’s colonization by the Norwegian and British Vikings lasted from 870 AD to 930 AD, by which almost all possible farmland had been claimed
  • Up to today 96% of the natural woodland has been cleared for farmland, 80% was in the first few decades of settlers
  • Vikings first looked at Iceland as a similar landscape to Norway and Britain, they didn’t realise that the soil was more fragile as it was made up of layers of ash blown from the volcano eruptions
  • They bought over sheep, pigs and goats, with sheep outnumbering the rest over time
  • They used sheep milk for butter, cheese and yoghurt
  • They also ate walrus, which consequently became extict and seabirds whose population depleated, they then moved on to seals
  • They relied on trout, salmon, cod and haddock as well as wild game to make up the rest of their diet
  • Over time, sheep grazing and deforestation made Iceland one of the most ecologically damaged countries in Europe, many parts looked like desert with nothing growing
  • Once they realised that Iceland couldn’t sustain sheep, pigs and goats for a long period of time the farmers got together to prevent soil erosion deciding on sheep quotas etc
  • This conservative and rigid attitude on sustaining the environment still remains today so that any new laws to improve farming that the Danes tried to introduce when they ruled Iceland (after 1397) were rejected, believing that experimentation of farming strategies could leave things worse
  • Iceland was self-governing from 870 AD until the 1200’s, when fights between chief’s occurred and farms were burned
  • In 1262 Icelanders chose the Norwegian king to govern them, believing that a more distant ruler would give them more freedom
  • The Scandinavian royals were marrying in the 14th century meaning that Denmark, Sweden and Norway became unified in 1397, hence the attempt at introducing laws at that time
  • Iceland gained full independence from Denmark only in 1944
  • Cod was an important export to Europe during the late middle ages
  • Iceland began to develop its own fleet in the 1900s so that by the 1950s, marine products made up 90% of its exports
  • Urban areas overtook rural areas in population by 1923
  • Over half of Iceland’s population now lives in Reykjavik, the capital
  • Iceland’s abundance of fish, geothermal power and hydroelectric power from its rivers have now made it one of the worlds richest countries

Go Iceland!

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