Mathilde Vestergaard Meyer

(Growing Up in Little Ice Age Greenland – the Contrasting Roles of Norse and Thule Children in Adapting to Changing Climates)

Mathilde Vestergaard Meyer as the EAA 2023 Opening Ceremony © Joe Warden photography

Childhood is a life stage of great interest to many archaeologists, not the least because it is one we often find difficult to access and document. Children were (and are) significant members of their communities; and their play can help us understand social values, identities, and a wide range of practices, as well as the way childhood itself was understood in different times and places.

In her paper “Growing Up in Little Ice Age Greenland – the Contrasting Roles of Norse and Thule Children in Adapting to Changing Climates”, Mathilde Vestergaard Meyer examines children’s toys from Greenland, deriving from Norse and Thule Inuit communities. She uses these to gain insight into the different childhoods experienced by juveniles in these two societies and how those differences may have impacted their cultural adaptions to climate change.

Meyer situates her research within the broad field of Niche Construction Theory, a strand of evolutionary theory that focusses on how organisms adapt and alter their environments. Building on this literature, she argues that toys and play activities are loci of identity creation, social learning, and cumulative knowledge production, thus making them especially valuable for understanding cognition, adult behaviour, and social norms.

To test these ideas, Meyer collated a database of 64 Norse toys and 2271 Inuit toys from published excavation reports and her own investigation of museum collections. These she categorized into five shared types: game, social, transport, tool, weapon. She notes that, at all periods, there were more and more variable toys in Inuit communities; and the number and variety of these increased during times of major social and environmental change.

Meyer concludes by contrasting the narrower ‘toy kit’ of Norse settler children with the more diverse Inuit toys. She argues that Norse children had less scope to explore and exploit the resources around them because their toys remained few in type and closely linked to older ways of life. This, then, may have affected their cognitive architecture, hindering their abilities to adapt to a changing Greenland environment.

We congratulate Mathilde Vestergaard Meyer and look forward to the publication of her paper.