Modern pollen-vegetation relationships in subarctic southern Greenland and the interpretation of fossil pollen data from the Norse landnám

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Aim The objective of this paper is to explore the relationships that exist between vegetation and modern pollen rain in the open, largely treeless landscape of subarctic Greenland. The implications of these results for the interpretation of fossil pollen assemblages from the time of the Norse landnam are then examined.

Location The study area is the sheep farming district of Qassiarsuk in the subarctic, subcontinental vegetational and climatic zone of southern Greenland (61 degrees N, 45 degrees W). Between c. AD 1000-1500 this region was contained within the Norse Eastern Settlement.

Methods Detrended Correspondence Analysis (DCA) of harmonized plant-pollen data sets is used to compare plant cover in 64 vegetation quadrats with pollen assemblages obtained from moss polsters at matching locations. Presence/absence data are also used to calculate indices of association, over- and under-representation for pollen types.

Results Good correspondence between paired vegetation-pollen samples occurs in many cases, particularly in locations where Salix glauca-Betula glandulosa dwarf shrub heath is dominant, and across herbaceous field boundaries and meadows. Pollen samples are found to be poor at reflecting actual ground cover where ericales or Juniperus communis are the locally dominant shrubs. Dominant or ubiquitous taxa within this landscape (Betula, Salix and Poaceae) are found to be over-represented in pollen assemblages, as are several of the 'weeds' generally accepted as introduced by the Norse settlers.

Main Conclusions Due to their over-representation in the pollen rain, many of the Norse apophytes and introductions (e.g. Rumex acetosa and R. acetosella) traditionally used to infer human activity in Greenland should be particularly sensitive indicators for landnam, allowing early detection of Norse activity in fossil assemblages. Pteridophyte spores are found to be disassociated with the ground cover of ferns and clubmosses, but are over-represented in pollen assemblages, indicating extra-local or regional sources and long residence times in soil/sediment profiles for these microfossils. A pollen record for Hordeum-type registered in close proximity to a field containing barley suggests that summer temperatures under the current climatic regime are, at least on occasion, sufficient to allow flowering.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)473-488
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Biogeography
Issue number3
Early online date13 Oct 2006
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2007


  • Landnam
  • modern analogue
  • Norse
  • ordination
  • pollen representation
  • Southern Greenland
  • subarctic
  • vegetation


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