A New Study On Walrus DNA Provides A Clue About The Demise Of Erik The Red’s Norse Colony In Greenland

An 'overreliance on a single commodity' may have led to the downfall of Erik the Red's Greenland colony

An overreliance on walrus ivory may have led to teh demise of Erik the Red and the Norse Greenlanders
Fotokvadrat / Shutterstock

An 'overreliance on a single commodity' may have led to the downfall of Erik the Red's Greenland colony

One of the most famous Norse Vikings, Erik the Red has always provided a mystery to historians. Erik the Red is believed to have been the one who established Norse settlements in Greenland. The Greenland settlers were known to have thrived — and then disappeared completely — leaving historians wondering what happened to them. Now, with new research into the DNA of ancient walrus tusks, there might be an answer.

According to Phys.org, Erik the Red was “exiled for murder in the late 10th century” and this is why he fled to Greenland, establishing a colony there which flourished until the 15th century. There have been various theories as to why this colony disappeared, including a change in climate and failing farming techniques.

Along with these theories, historians and researchers have assumed that the ivory trade was crucial to the survival of this Norse colony. Now, a new study involving the “DNA of medieval walrus bones housed in more than a dozen European museums” might help prove this theory according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

This new study, which had its results published in Wednesday’s Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggests that most of the ivory in trade during medieval times originated from walruses situated around Greenland.

Bastiaan Star, a scientist at the University of Oslo and one of the study’s authors, suggests that most of the walrus ivory traded in medieval times likely originated from the Viking stronghold of Greenland.

“It’s possible that almost all the walrus ivory in western Europe during the High Middle Ages came from Greenland. This result tells a very clear story.”

Greenland has been identified as main source of walrus ivory in medieval times according to a new study
A walrus rostrum (upper jaw bone) with tusks used in the study. Dated c.1200-1400 CE Musées du Mans

Most of the walrus tusks used in this study were found on “the sites of former ivory workshops across Europe,” according to Phys.org. Trondheim, Bergen, Oslo, Dublin, London, Schleswig, and Sigtuna were the sites identified and the tusks dated mostly between 900 and 1400 CE. The researchers were hoping to identify where the bulk of walrus ivory was coming from in order to determine who was the main suppliers to medieval Europe.

The researchers found that there was an “evolutionary split” in walruses at that time. As a result of this, “the Greenland colonies may have had a ‘near monopoly’ on the supply of ivory to Western Europe for over two hundred years.”

“The results suggest that by the 1100s Greenland had become the main supplier of walrus ivory to Western Europe — a near monopoly even,” said Dr. James H. Barrett, study co-author from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology.

“The change in the ivory trade coincides with the flourishing of the Norse settlements on Greenland. The populations grew and elaborate churches were constructed. Later Icelandic accounts suggest that in the 1120s, Greenlanders used walrus ivory to secure the right to their own bishopric from the king of Norway. Tusks were also used to pay tithes to the church.”

And it may have been this “near monopoly” that turned out to be the downfall of the Greenland colony. While the new study doesn’t show how the Greenland colony declined, researchers suggest, from the findings, that overhunting may have led to walruses deserting the region.

“An overreliance on a single commodity, the very thing which gave the society its initial resilience, may have also contained the seeds of its vulnerability,” said Dr. Barrett.

Alternatively, the researchers also offer that a change in the type of ivory people preferred could have led to the Norse colony on Greenland having to abandon the location after people turned to elephant tusk ivory.