18 December 2015

Ancient Vikings Settled Greenland for the Ivory

This interesting article was published in the left-wing environmental periodical, Hakai Magazine. Like most such articles, it takes things out of context rather than reporting events in chronological order – as they happened, if you will.

The Norse knew that Greenland existed when they settled it from Iceland in the 9th century. Eirik the Red and his sons gave it the once over the year before settlement, but their knowledge of the flora and fauna must have been cursory at best. The particulars, such as abundant walrus, must have come later.

Thomas McGovern, one of Arctic archaeology's stalwarts, surmises that the chief reason for the Greenland settlement's existence was walrus ivory.

He is wrong about that, but being an archaeologist he must posit about something to maintain his grants and employment. Finding fault with past opinion seems in vogue for the discipline, giving contemporary archaeologists almost unlimited fodder with which to disagree, or posit.

As I stated previously, Erik the Red founded the Norse Greenland settlements because he knew of the island's existence beforehand. He had been banished from Iceland for murder.So he gathered up a following of kinsmen and other like-minded folks and launched a settlement expedition of 25-ships. These people populated the two known Greenland Norse settlements because they sought a new home, free of the strife of Iceland at the time, with a chance to live on their own land, something unavailable on Iceland or the homeland for most.

Pastoral farms were established for their livestock. Greenland is not conducive to the growing of any cereal crops because of the short growing season, except perhaps barley in small amounts, so their agricultural focus would have been their livestock. These people and their descendants lived on Greenland for almost 500-years. During those centuries vast herds of walrus were discovered in the far north of Greenland itself, and across the Greenland Sea on present day Baffin and Ellesmere Islands. The men capitalized on this resource to feed Iceland’s and the homeland’s thirst for ivory, not to mention the hides and meat that were also much sought after by all peoples in the northern climes. The finest rope obtainable at the time was made of twisted walrus hide strips.

So, the initial reason for settlement was not walrus ivory, it was primarily livestock farming. The ivory came along subsequent to the establishment of the farms.

But, like everything that happened centuries ago, nobody, including Dr. Thomas McGovern really knows what motivated the Norse to do anything, anywhere. That fact does not stop them from giving we, the unwashed masses, their opinion. We all do that, huh? The article is interesting, but the findings presented are pure conjecture, nothing more.(Ed.)

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New archaeological research hints at a new reason for Vikings’ Greenland occupation.

Published July 28, 2015

After Erik the Red killed his enemies in Iceland, he found himself banished and sailing westward. Around 985 AD, Erik settled his family on an unexplored island, and, in what is widely regarded as the first act of real estate branding, named the place “Greenland,” hoping to attract other Vikings with the implicit promise of rich farmland. But as archaeologists are now learning, Erik may have been better off naming the place “Walrusland.”

Scholars have long thought that Erik’s branding deception worked, and that Vikings flocked to Greenland to set up farms—even though the growing season is short and raising livestock difficult. Archaeologist Thomas McGovern and colleagues, however, are testing a new idea: that Vikings settled Greenland to provide European markets with luxury trade goods such as furs, eiderdown, hides, and walrus tusk ivory.

As new research suggests, it does appear that walrus hunting, not farming, was the main source of prosperity for many of the Vikings—an estimated 3,000 at peak population—who chose to eke out a living on the farthest fringe of European culture.

A replica Viking casket made of gilded bronze and ivory. Photo by Werner Forman/Corbis
Throughout the first millennium AD, European economics went through an important change as new trade networks across Europe and Asia opened markets for goods of all kinds. And in the first few centuries after Erik the Red’s westward voyage, the number of ivory artifacts in medieval Europe blossomed.

The Middle Age ivory trade was incredibly lucrative, but it was not easy money. One historical source describes a 15-day row in a six-oared boat from the nearest Viking settlement to the walrus colonies in Disko Bay, on Greenland’s west coast. Even in summer, the men would have risked hypothermia. With the hunt complete, the hunters would reverse the journey, now with up to 160 severed walrus heads piled in the boat. (Tusk extraction, it seems, was easier once the head had rotted for a few weeks.)

Still, the risks had a sizable reward. A document from 1327 AD, analyzed by Christian Keller of Oslo University, showed that a load of walrus ivory equivalent to 520 tusks was enough to pay six years’ worth of Greenland’s taxes to their ruler, the king of Norway. That much walrus ivory had the same value as 780 cows or 60 tonnes of fish.

During the Viking ivory trade’s boom years, Europe’s economy was based on luxury goods, with elites and nobles trading high-prestige gifts, says McGovern. But then, in the High Medieval period (about 1200 to 1400 AD), things gradually changed. The European economy transitioned from one based around luxury goods to something more akin to a modern economy, where bulk goods like wool and fish are sold for profit.

“The Greenlanders were left stuck in the old economy, they were left producing for the prestige goods market,” says McGovern. As European markets for bulk goods expanded and fashions moved away from ivory decorations, the incentive to visit Greenland may have disappeared.

The remains of a Viking settlement in Greenland. Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/Corbis
This was borne out in the 1300s when the number of Greenland ivory artifacts in Europe declined. Adding to ivory’s fall from fashion, in the mid-1300s Greenland’s economic connection to Europe was damaged when Norway was ravaged by the Black Death, leaving few people able to make the long voyage.

By around 1350 AD, the settlement closest to Disko Bay was abandoned. By the mid-1400s, Europeans deserted the rest of Greenland as well. Despite Erik the Red’s deceptions, Greenland was never very good for farming. But with European economics changing around them, so too went its appeal for Greenland’s Viking walrus hunters.


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