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article imageOver-hunting of walrus may have led to Vikings leaving Greenland

By Karen Graham     Jan 7, 2020 in Science
The mysterious disappearance of Greenland’s medieval Norse society in the 15th century came after walruses were hunted almost to extinction, researchers have said.
Calling the disappearance of medieval Norse colonies from Greenland " a classic pattern of resource depletion," researchers from the universities of Cambridge, Oslo, and Trondheim found that, for hundreds of years, almost all ivory traded across Europe came from walruses hunted in seas only accessible through Norse settlements in south-western Greenland.
Dr. James H. Barrett, from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology, is the lead author of the study published in Quaternary Science Reviews that argues the disappearance of the Norse was a “perfect storm” of depleted resources and volatile prices, exacerbated by climate change.
Vikings in Greenland
Norse communities thrived in Greenland, from the time of their founding by Erik the Red around 985AD, according to the Sagas, until the 1400s, when the Norse vanished, leaving only ruins. The disappearance of the early Norse people has been a mystery, with some researchers believing it was due to the “Little Ice Age”, a sustained period of lower temperatures, that began in the 14th century
The early settlers to Greenland needed a commodity to trade with Europe for iron and timber, and walruses were abundant in the cold reaches of the north. They hunted the walrus for the tusks, which were a hot commodity in Europe at that time.
The walrus ivory was made into everything from crucifixes to game pieces, and the Norse had a near-monopoly on the trade. And the communities seemed to thrive during that period. The famous Lewis chessmen are made of walrus tusk.
The Lewis Chessmen reside at the 	
British Museum-National Museum of Scotland. Believed to have bee...
The Lewis Chessmen reside at the British Museum-National Museum of Scotland. Believed to have been crafted in the 12th Century, they are made of walrus ivory and whales' teeth.
Photograph Andrew Dunn (CC BY-SA 2.0)
After a long period of success, the researchers found that Europe's hunger for ivory was growing to the point that it became difficult to keep up with the demand. DNA and radioisotope analysis of ivory products from that period found that the Norse were increasingly relying on smaller, mostly female and young walruses to meet their trading quotas.
The analysis also indicated the Norse were having to travel further north to find the walrus, meaning the trip was even more dangerous and longer, even though the reward was smaller. “We suspect that decreasing values of walrus ivory in Europe meant more and more tusks were harvested to keep the Greenland colonies economically viable, said Dr. Barrett.
“Mass hunting can end the use of traditional haul-out sites by walruses. Our findings suggest that Norse hunters were forced to venture deeper into the Arctic Circle for increasingly meager ivory harvests. This would have exacerbated the decline of walrus populations, and consequently those sustained by the walrus trade.”
Atlantic walrus herd (Odobenus rosmarus rosmarus)  mother and cub  on ice flow in Foxe Basin (Nunavu...
Atlantic walrus herd (Odobenus rosmarus rosmarus), mother and cub, on ice flow in Foxe Basin (Nunavut, Canada).
Ansgar Walk (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Methods used in Analysis
The researchers used pieces of “rostrum”: the walrus skull and snout to which tusks remained attached during shipment, creating a protective “package” that got broken up in the ivory workshops of medieval trading centers such as Dublin, Trondheim, and Bergen.
A total of 67 rostrums were taken from sites across Europe that dated between the 11th and 15th centuries. The animal's sex and origins were determined using 25 ancient DNA samples and 31 stable isotopes samples. Traces of “manufacturing techniques” — changing styles of butchery and skull preparation — to help place the walrus remains in history were also analyzed.
Chess Figure (from a display with chess figures from Italy  Central Europe and Northern Europa  made...
Chess Figure (from a display with chess figures from Italy, Central Europe and Northern Europa, made from ivory or walrus teeth; 12th to 16th century. Skulpturensammlung, Bode-Museum Berlin.)
Andreas Praefcke
Interestingly, the researchers found a shift in the walrus rostrums dating around the 13th century - with a shift from an evolutionary branch most prevalent in the waters around the Baffin Bay. This meant the walrus had been hunted by sailing northwest up the Greenland coast. The finds also suggested the animals were smaller and frequently females.
“Ancestors of the Inuit occupied northern Greenland during the time of the Norse colonies. They probably encountered and traded with the Norse,” said Barrett. “That pieces of a Norse boat were found so far north hints of the risks these hunters might have ended up taking in their quest for ivory.”
The photograph shows a site near the beach in Narsaq  Greenland in the autumn of 2018. This is an ar...
The photograph shows a site near the beach in Narsaq, Greenland in the autumn of 2018. This is an archaeological site where Norse artifacts were discovered in 1953, including the Narsaq stick with a Viking Age runic inscription.
Melissa Cherry Villumsen (CC BY-SA 4.0)
And because the Inuit favored the taking of females, this is undoubtedly why the Norse traded so many females tusks. However, there came a time when West African trade routes opened up, and elephant ivory became the hot commodity of the 13th century.
“Despite a significant drop in value, the rostra evidence implies that exploitation of walruses may have even increased during the thirteen and fourteenth centuries,” said Barrett.
“As the Greenlanders chased depleted walrus populations ever northwards for less and less return in trade, there must have come a point where it was unsustainable. We believe this ‘resource curse’ undermined the resilience of the Greenland colonies.”
More about Greenland, Norse colonies, walrus ivory, overhunting, Globalisation
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