14 February 2021

Walrus Ivory Holds the Clue to the Lost Norse Civilization in Greenland

 Here’s an interesting article from The Science Times about a much-debated subject: what happened to the Greenland Norse?

It’s a good question and one that isn’t answered by this article. It has all been said by other authors down through the years, but the fact remains that we simply do not know for certain and I doubt we ever will.

I prefer to think that the Norse settlers gradually assimilated with Indian groups in North America as their business with Europe dried up and the Mini Ice Age descended on the north country with a vengeance. (Ed.)


 Walrus Ivory Holds the Clue to the Lost Norse Civilization in Greenland

Margaret Davis Feb 11, 2021 12:27 AM EST


Around 985AD, Erik the Red founded Norse communities in Greenland after his exile from Iceland that thrived for centuries. However, it did not last as it vanished in the 1400s only leaving ruins as seen today in Greenland.


Artifacts found from this civilization revealed many walrus ivory sculptures, which provide evidence of a trade network that once extended from Northern America to the Mediterranean. 


The Norse communities were able to forge a lucrative economic mainstay in Greenland despite its harsh environmental conditions, Discover reported. Theories about why Norse communities in the area abandoned it is because of climate change with the climate growing colder.


But studies published in the last five years, particularly the 2019 study of the researchers from the universities of Cambridge, Oslo, and Trondheim, found that the Norse communities did not disappear due to climate, but because of the increasing unstable walrus ivory trade.


Walrus Ivory Trade Went From Being a Blessing to Becoming a Curse

A thousand years ago, walrus ivory was a valuable medieval commodity used by the Norse communities in Greenland to trade with those from Europe. Norse in Greenland carved ornate crucifixes, pieces for games like chess, and hnefatafl made from walrus ivory. Even the famous Lewis chessmen were also made of walrus ivory.


However, the study said that this trade slowly went from an economic blessing to become a curse. James H. Barrett, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge and lead author of the study, and his team found that the ivory came from smaller animals, often female, as time wore on.


They tested the bones and found that some of it could even come from ever farther north, which means they must have voyaged for longer periods of time in dangerous journeys but a lesser reward.


"This really cranks up the amount of danger they are facing," said Tom McGovern, an archaeologist from Hunter College in New York who was not part of Barrett's research team.


Science Daily reported that the increasing elephant ivory trade that flooded the European markets during the 13th century, and changes in fashion have led to the decrease in demand for walrus ivory. By the 1400s, walrus ivory imports to mainland Europe have slowly faded.


Barrett said that the Norse abandonment in Greenland may have been due to the depleted resources and volatile prices that were worsened by climate change.


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