With a name as alluring and promising as Greenland really is, it’s safe to say that its settlers must have held it in high regard. It’s either that or they really wanted to portray their newfound land in a much better light and trick other settlers into coming, the latter one being accepted as the actual reason why the Norse named it the way they did. The topic of the origin of Greenland’s name is often the perfect prelude to an article disseminating certain aspects of this unusual country, especially Greenland population.
Many theories exist, with the one about deliberate swapping of Iceland and Greenland’s names to fool potential invaders not even being the weirdest one. The story historians agree on goes something like this – Eric the Red was exiled from Norway after murdering three men as a result of a feud they’ve had. Having been given the choice between execution and banishment, he naturally opted for the latter and became known as the first European man that settled Greenland.
The arrival of Eric Thorvaldsson, blessed with his nickname ‘the Red’ either because of the beard or his murderous ways, has introduced Norwegians, Icelanders and thus Europeans to the population of Greenland.
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For a country nested on the largest island of the world, Greenland certainly features only a minuscule portion of the overall population of the world.
Greenlanders are few and far between, an entire group of people that could all comfortably fit in what we would call a large town. With such a small population, tracking demographics is a much more personal pursuit with higher accuracy, more reliability and better representation of actual individuals.
Structure of the Population
After going out of our way to express how few Greenlanders there are, it’s time to get down to actual data and show how many people make up this fine country and who they really are.
Currently, the total population of Greenland consists is 56,673 people, making it the 207th most populous country in the world. This number has been mostly growing since the 1950s when Greenland became a part of the Kingdom of Denmark and gained Danish citizenship, ending its colonial status. During World War II, while the United States was in the protective custody of Greenland due to Denmark being occupied by Nazi Germany, the population of Greenland was about 20,000 and stagnated.
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When it became a part of the Kingdom of Denmark in 1953, Greenland had approximately 25,000 citizens, a number that has doubled by 1974, reaching 50,000 for the first time. From then on, there were slight fluctuations in population number, with neglectable ups and downs or just plain stagnation. Today, when they’ve finally come so close to the 57,000 population mark of the 2000s, they are again seeing negative population growth of -0.1%, a negative trend that is unlikely to be fixed by a fertility rate of 2.1 births per woman. Such population trends have already occurred in the past, caused by a major problem existing in the society that we’ll discuss later on.
When looking at the total population of 56,673, there are more men than women. To be precise, 52.40% of the people are men, while 47.60% are women.
This trend reoccurs for almost all age groups except for the elderly, when the number of women finally surpasses that of men due to differences in life expectancy.
Most of the Greenlanders fall under the age group of 25-64. Almost 32,000 of them belong to this category, which is about 56% of the population aging less than 64. Other than that, a significant portion of the population comprises the 18-24 range group, the rest being only children. Only 4% of the Greenland population are people older than 64.
At birth, Greenlanders are estimated to live 72.7 years on average. This number translates to 69.9 years for men and 75.5 years for women. Even though this might seems like a decent life expectancy, it’s still a decade lower than that of other European nations, including Denmark.
Mortality and Social Issues
Serious issues are gnawing at the very core of the country of Greenland and its indigenous population.
A situation that often happens to places and peoples that face rapid changes is that they undergo a certain social trauma. The same can be said for Inuits, who form the large majority of the population. They used to be simple folk, hunting and fishing year after year, rarely disturbed by the occurrences from the outside world. However, after becoming one with the Kingdom of Denmark, they were introduced to the world outside of their own. More disturbingly, their lives and relevant decision making were out of their hands. Even though they’ve been given more independence on several occasions, such as in 1979 when the Home Rule Act restored a portion of their autonomy and in 2009 with self-rule, these problems still haven’t gone away.
They’ve mostly manifested themselves as a smoking and drinking epidemics, as well as increased childhood obesity. Alcoholism is running rampant among the population that’s trying to cope with the new technologies that have been introduced.
The worst of all the issues and a result of lower life expectancy and higher mortality rates is suicide. Never a symptom of only one problem, suicides happen among the youngest population making the entire situation far more tragic than it already is. As a matter of fact, Greenland is the world’s suicide capital, an issue often connected to multiple causes such as alcoholism, isolation, high incest rates and endless summer days that often hit those in the north much harder. There’s a serious epidemic that Greenland has been struggling to deal with by opening suicide hotlines while trying to get to the bottom of this horrible problem.
So far, we’ve only given you a statistical representation of who those 56,673 people are, but we haven’t really talked about the groups that comprise what we refer to as Greenlanders.
While human species are highly diverse, this diversity is not at all present or noticeable among the inhabitants of Greenland.
We’ve already told you the story about Eric the Red and his fellow Norwegians and Icelanders that came with him to settle the southern coast of Greenland. The first of these settlements was formed towards the end of the 10th century. The Norse must have had great things planned for their new home, however, by the end of the 16th century, they were all gone. It’s still somewhat of a mystery as to what happened to these settlers, the commonly accepted theory being that a combination of a minor ice age and conflicts with the Inuit tribes. For that reason, Norwegians don’t account for even a single percent of the population.
The Inuits, on the other hand, are the majority of Greenlanders. 88% of the total population are of Greenlandic nationality! They’re the indigenous people of Greenland, who call their homeland Kalaallit Nunaat meaning ‘Land of the Kalaallit’, or ‘Land of the People’, referring to themselves of course. They’ve come from mainland Canada a couple of thousands of years ago in several waves, with the first immigration taking place somewhere around 2,500 BC, and settled here for good. When talking about this 88%, it’s important to note that this number takes into account mixed-race persons as well. The remaining 12% are Danish, either born in Denmark or Greenland.
As you can see, the Greenland population is low and not as diverse, which is quite understandable considering their remoteness.
There’s only one official language in the country and that’s Greenlandic. It is spoken by about 50,000 people, meaning it takes up almost 90% of total language usage in Greenland. Three dialects are most commonly associated with it, Kalaallisut being the most used one since it’s the dialect spoken in western Greenland that also happens to be the most populated part of the island. Kalaallisut is spoken by about 44,000 people, while Tunumiit gets some 3,000 speakers in the east and Inuktun only 800 speakers in the north of Greenland.
Besides Greenlandic, schools also teach Danish and English languages alike and they’re mandatory subjects. So, don’t be surprised if you’re able to have a conversation with Inuits in one of these languages!
The spiritual roots of the Inuits are deeply intertwined with shamanism and worshipping Sedna, Goddess of the sea and marine animals. The Norse brought more than a fair share of their traditions which were mostly pagan, but they have never had that much of an impact, and have passed away with the settlers that brought them. Leif Erickson, son of Eric the Red, was a converted Catholic Christian and he brought his religion with him to Greenland, constructing parishes and monasteries. Among other reasons, this sparked the great Danish recolonization, the need to find these colonists and convert them to Protestantism.
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The 21st century Greenlanders are mostly Protestant Christians of Evangelical Lutheran orientation. Throughout history, there were several attempts at translating the Bible into Greenlandic, but only the version from the year 2000 uses modern orthography.
Now, we’ve already established that mere 57,000 people are living on the largest island in the world, which is as big as all the countries of Western Europe combined.
Geographically, Greenland is a part of the continent of North America, but as you’ve seen so far, they’ve always had more to do with their European neighbors socially and politically. But why, you might be wondering, is it so poorly populated? The third biggest country in North America occupies 2.17 million square kilometers or 840,000 square miles. It’s bigger than Mexico, and just a bit smaller than Argentina.
However, the population density is just 0.028 per square kilometer, which makes it the least densely populated country in the entire world. The reason for such low density lies in the fact that most of Greenland – 81% in fact, is covered by a permanent ice sheet. It is the only such an ice sheet outside of Antarctica! This 4-kilometer thick layer of ice covers most of Greenland, making only the coastal areas habitable.
Towns in Greenland
The capital of Greenland, Nuuk, holds almost one-third of the entire population of the country. It is one of the thirteen cities with a population exceeding 1,000 people. Other than that, there are numerous smaller towns and settlements scattered across the island, most of which are located in south and west of the country.
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Here, we’ll focus on the three largest and most populous places to be found on Greenland.
With almost 18,000 people that live in Nuuk, you’ll surely meet a lot of foreigners as the city has been gaining more traction among the travelers of the world.
Urbanization has brought about a sudden change to the lives of these people, and it’s been difficult for them to adapt to the new technologies. Regardless of all the changes, Nuuk is the place to go to meet all the different cultures of Inuits that come from all corners of Greenland.
About 5,500 people reside in Sisimiut, descendants of many different cultures and peoples – Sassaq culture, Dorset culture and people of Thule.
It’s one of the few ports that haven’t iced over, so it’s an important hub for transporting people around Greenland.
The third-largest city in Greenland has a population of approximately 4,500 people.
It’s one of the main tourist hotspots on the island, thanks to the beautiful Ilulissat Fjord which is featured on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list.
Despite the small and not that varied population, Greenlanders and the island they inhabit are as unique as any other place in the world. Tourism here is still in its infancy, but it’s looking promising. Hopefully, they’ll avoid the pitfalls of becoming a huge travel destination and let people in responsibly!