Greenland’s Vikings Got Wealthy Off Walrus Tusks

New DNA study reveals how the Norse Greenlanders cornered the market on ivory in Europe

Walrus Tusk
Walrus-tusk wealth University of Cambridge

Why did Vikings settle the desolate southwest corner of Greenland in the 10th century? And why, after surviving—even for a time flourishing—on the tip of the island for 400-odd years, did they mysteriously abandon the place? One hypothesis is that Vikings set up the colony to exploit a natural resource in the area, walrus-tusk ivory which was used throughout Medieval Europe to decorate churches and create luxury goods like ornate chess pieces. Now, reports Alejandra Borunda at National Geographic, a new study supports this idea, showing that Vikings in Greenland more or less had a monopoly on European ivory for more than 200 years.

For the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers looked at the DNA of 23 walrus skull and ivory samples dating between 900 and 1400 C.E. found in medieval trade centers including Trondheim, Bergen, Sigtuna and Oslo in Scandinavia as well as Dublin, London and Schleswig. While conducting the DNA analysis, the researchers discovered something interesting in the walrus family tree: After the last Ice Age, the species split into two distinct lineages, an eastern line found in Scandinavia and the Arctic and a western population found in southwest Greenland and Canada.

Using those genetics, they were able to determine where the various Medieval ivory items came from. In the early years of the ivory trade, almost all of the material could be traced to the Scandinavia walruses. But by 1100 C.E. almost all the ivory comes from the western population, likely supplied by the Vikings in Greenland. “Until now, there was no quantitative data to support the story about walrus ivory from Greenland. Walruses could have been hunted in the north of Russia, and perhaps even in Arctic Norway at that time,” says study lead author Bastiaan Star of the University of Oslo in a press release. “Our research now proves beyond doubt that much of the ivory traded to Europe during the Middle Ages really did come from Greenland."

Star tells Borunda of National Geographic that the finding was a surprise. The researchers aren’t exactly sure why the source of the ivory switched so dramatically. “Is this because the eastern [walrus populations] that were accessible to Europeans were already exterminated?” he asks. “Or somehow, that the socioeconomics of traveling from Greenland to Europe were so cheap that it was possible for them to create trade monopoly?”

Whatever the reason, it’s likely the Norse stuck around Greenland for several centuries mainly to exploit the ivory resource. While fishing in the area was good, agriculture was marginal. But ivory explains how the Greenland colonies got so wealthy. At the time the ivory trade switched over to western walrus, the settlements in Greenland saw a burst of activity, with the population going up and architecture “particularly church” construction booming. In fact, some accounts suggest that the Greenland colonies used walrus ivory to get their own bishop from the king of Norway, and they paid their tithes to the Catholic church using ivory as well. (“Although the historicity of [influential Norse figure Einar Sokkason]'s use of walrus ivory to secure a Greenland bishop and episcopal see in the early twelfth century cannot be confirmed, tithes (including papal dues) were paid in this material during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries,” the researchers note in the study.)

At the same time, Europe was also undergoing a population and economic boom, and demand for ivory ornaments and luxury goods also increased, keeping the Greenlanders busy.

The new study, however, does not shed much light on why the Norse abandoned Greenland. Barrett tells Tom Whipple at The Times that of the two main colonies, the northern one was abandoned in 1350 C.E. and the last anyone mentions the second one is in 1408 C.E.

There are several reasons why walrus ivory could have fallen out of favor. First, as time went on, Europeans developed a taste for elephant ivory, which is larger and smoother than the smaller walrus tusks. Also, the advent of the Black Death in the 1300s devastated Europe’s population and economy, likely reducing the demand for ivory gewgaws and church ornaments.

Borunda reports that archaeologists believe the Norse in Greenland may have also been cut off from traders in Norway, their trading partners and middlemen for their products. And since they did not have local access to resources like iron, their society began to crumble. It’s also possible that overhunting wiped out the walrus, making the walrus ivory trade impossible to sustain. There’s also the theory that the Little Ice Age, a period of lower-than-normal temperatures across the northern hemisphere which began in the 1300s, made Greenland even more difficult to live on as the scant patches of arable land disappeared. Whatever the case, when missionary Hans Egede decided to go looking for the colonies in 1721, he found the dilapidated former settlements, which looked like they were abandoned hundreds of years before.

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