There’s more to Scandinavian history than the Vikings. There’s resourceful settlers and the Sami people who adapted to the environment in order to survive, and so much more.
From watching TV and movies you’d think that Scandinavian history was all about the Vikings. Yet there’s millions of years of geological change and fascinating tales of early human settlers long before that.
There was the Ice Age, a time when nature worked its magic carving spectacular landscapes in northern Europe. Then came the Stone Age when the earliest Scandinavian settlers began to arrive. Then came the resourceful farming and trading times of the Bronze Age and Iron Age.
Scandinavia has been on an incredible evolutionary journey. Want to find out more? Pull up a comfy seat and let's get going!
The Ice Age and the creation of the fjords
The Norwegian fjords of today are world-famous tourist attractions. You could be forgiven for thinking these natural features have been around forever, but that's not the case.
During the Ice Age that began some 2.4 million years ago, mountain ranges were covered in ice and snow. It was this freezing environment that helped transform the Scandinavian landscape into the one we recognise today.
Read more: A Brief History of Norway
The first stage of this process started when falling snow compacted and turned to ice. This continuous cycle added to the physical weight and mass and ensured these formed glaciers gradually stared to move. This sliding movement was accelerated by the melting of the ice underneath, the place where it was warmest.
Massive rock boulders broke away from various points and became part of the glaciers themselves. This led to the erosion of the mountainside’s underneath and the carving of vast cliff faces and deep water inlets that today we call fjords.
When the ice melted around 11,500 years ago, it wasn’t just the fjords that were left behind. In the flat, low-lying fields of Rogaland, further dramatic scars of the ice age remain. Here, great rocks look out of place, scattered in random places.
These were once part of mountains before they were carried by the glaciers that slowly edged their way closer to the sea. When the Ice Age came to an end, the ice melted and they became stranded.
The Stone Age and early coastal settlers
The melting ice sheets brought in a new era, the Stone Age. These open coastal flatlands became ideal places for the earliest Scandinavian inhabitants to farm the land. These first setters of the region can be traced back to Stone Age.
Evidence suggests that this population first arrived sometime between 10,000 BC and 5000 BC. They first settled on the flat expanses of Denmark and in the south of Sweden. Other parts of Europe were already populated at this time.
The first-known Scandinavian was the Koelbjerg Man, dated to around 8,000 BC. His body was recovered from a bog in Koelbjerg, Denmark, just outside of Odense.
The Sami people
The Sami people are also an important part of Scandinavia’s pre-Viking days.
The hunter-gatherers inhabited northern parts of Europe (Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia) for around 5,000 years. They weren't reindeer hunters until much more recently, however.
The Sami people were also known as Komsa by archaeologists and researchers, or as lapps, a term which has since become offensive to some elements of the community.
Today, the Sami population numbers somewhere in the region of 80-000–100,000 worldwide. In Norway there are between 37,890–60,000 Sami people, in Sweden between 14,6000–36,000, Finland 9,350, Russia 1,991, United States 945 and 136 Ukraine. In 1990, the Sami were formerly recognised as indigenous peoples of Norway.
Next came the Nordic Bronze Age between 1,700 BC and 500 BC. In this period, we don't just see settlers in the flats of Sweden and Denmark but also Norway. Generally, populated areas sprung up in coastal and low-lying areas, from the boarder with Sweden all the way up to Trondheim.
There were no towns or large villages during the Bronze Age, only a small number of dwellings and farmstead in any one place. They were mostly comprised of long timber structures, similar to the longhouses built by the Vikings, and were home to large families and kinships.
At this time, people farmed from the land, with wheat, millet and barley the most abundant crops. Because these settlements were on the coast, fishing too became an integral part of the hunt for food. In addition, they took the hunt inland for animals like elk and deer.
The Bronze Age people also exported amber (fossilised tree resin) in return for metals. Through this trade, the Scandinavians became highly skilled in metalworks.
Following on from the Bronze Age, came the Scandinavia Iron Age from around 500 BC to 800 AD. It immediately preceded the start of the Viking Age, which began around 800 AD.
Still, populations were confined to the lowlands and coastal areas in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. However, the original settlements from the preceding ages were bigger and more robust. They sprung up on lands that had previously only been occupied by nature.
Due to conflict and wars in central Europe between Celtic tribes and Mediterranean populations, trade to and from Scandinavia was severely disrupted.
Most established routes ran right through these tense areas and so trade all but stopped. For the first time in many years, the people of Scandinavia had to be totally self-sufficient.
They had to be resourceful, so developed new ways of surviving. In Denmark, with the amount of imported metals now scarce, iron was produced from deposits found in bogs and swamps.
Iron was much stronger and more useful for weapons and tools, so the people no longer had to depend on imported bronze from Europe.
The Viking Age and beyond
Next came a time in Scandinavia's past much more familiar to most people: the Viking Age.
It is an era that is no more or no less important than what had come before, but one that we do know much more about. Tales from the era—some based on fact, others mostly fiction—have also become part of popular culture, especially in recent years.
It’s fair to say that it’s been quite a journey from the Ice Age to where we are today. But there are reminders of the past around every corner.
The vast and spectacular fjords are only here today as result of the Ice Age. While current farming methods may be more advanced than those of the Bronze and Iron Age, farming and fishing remain important to modern-day Scandinavians.
Next time you're in the fjords, stop for a moment to consider how these epic creations were made, and how life must have been for the first hunter-gatherers of Scandinavia.