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New DNA study shows Greenlanders had monopoly on ivory trade in Europe

Valross ivory
Ivory skull, Scandinavia, 1050 - 1100, Dezsö Laczkó Museum, inv. No. M.2007.4.1. Photo: Zdenek Kratochvil (CC BY-SA)

New study shows through DNA samples that the Norse settlements in Greenland provided Europe with virtually all the ivory used in the Middle Ages.

A completed study at the University of Cambridge shows through DNA analysis that the Norsemen who colonised Greenland had a virtual monopoly on the ivory trade in Europe during the Middle Ages.

Ivory may bring to mind elephant tusks, but this category also includes mammoth, hippo, walrus and narwhal bones. The Greenland ivory came exclusively from walruses.

Frank's Casket
The front of Frank's Casket, a runic carved and richly illustrated reliquary, made of whalebone, probably in the late 6th century. Photo by John W. Schulze (CC BY)

The study also shows that during the last ice age the Atlantic walrus split into two subspecies, the "eastern" and the "western". The eastern walrus spread over large parts of the Arctic, including Scandinavia. The western walrus, on the other hand, is unique to the waters between western Greenland and Canada. The study shows that from the 12th century onwards, Europe's ivory came almost exclusively from the Western walrus.

But how did northerners end up in Greenland? Firstly, it was the Norwegians' well-developed sailing skills and technology that enabled them to expand out into the North Atlantic to Iceland, Greenland and later Vinland. From what is now Norway, the Norsemen travelled west, while our ancestors in Sweden expanded eastwards, establishing settlements in the Baltic States and founding the first Russian Empire and sailing southwards on the Russian rivers. But in addition to the well-developed art of sailing, the Norse spirit of adventure also played a part in the colonisation of Greenland and, as we shall see, a great deal of murder and death.

Abraham Ortelius Islandia
Map of Iceland created by Abraham Ortelius, ca 1590

The Icelandic fairy tales, including The Saga of Erik the Red, tells how Erik Röde (Old West Norse Eiríkr rauði Þorvaldsson) in 982 was exiled from the then stateless Iceland for 3 years after being convicted of murder. It all started when Erik's neighbour Eyjólfr sour killed Erik's slaves after they accidentally started a landslide on the neighbour's farm. In revenge, Erik killed his neighbour Eyjiolf and Hólmgöngu-Hrafn. To live in peace, Erik moved on to the island of Öxney, but it wasn't long before he got into trouble again. Erik got into a fight with a Thorgest (Þórgestr) and in the battle Erik killed both his sons and a couple of other men. The quarrel was resolved at the court where Erik was sentenced to exile.

He then set out on a journey westwards where he reached the island previously sighted by Gunnbjörn Ulfsson and Snæbjörn Galti. The island that would be named Greenland. Erik Röde is considered to be the first permanent resident of Greenland, having settled on the island 300 years before the Inuits arrived, and Erik is also the one who gave the island its rosy name. Erik's son Leif Eriksson would later be the first European to discover Vinland - North America.

After his 3-year exile, Erik Röde returned to Iceland with tales of "Greenland", and he is said to have deliberately given the island a more appealing name than Iceland to attract more settlers. More northerners headed west from Iceland and settled in two areas along the south-western coast.

Greenland Vikings
Summer on the Greenland coast around the year 1000. Painting by Danish painter Carl Rasmussen (1841-1893)

At most, the Scandinavian population in the 12th and 13th centuries is said to have reached a size of 5,000 people, compared to today's population of 56,375 people. The western settlement (Old Norse Westribyggd) in the northwest, with up to 1000 inhabitants and the eastern settlement (Old Norse Eystribyggd) in the southeast, with up to 4000 inhabitants.

The Viking settlements on Greenland were then abandoned relatively quickly in the late 15th century. The Cambridge University study suggests that several factors may have played a role, including over-reliance on the ivory trade contributing to an economic collapse as interest in ivory waned in Europe in the 15th century.

During the 14th and 15th centuries, the climate was also called, the so-called little ice age (and lasted until the 1850s), which may have made living in Greenland more inhospitable - despite the rosy name. The western settlement was abandoned around 1350, and the last known written source is from September 1408 when a marriage is recorded in Hvalsey Church, an ancient Norse church located in Hvalsey (Qaqortukulooq) not far from Qaqortoq, the largest city in southern Greenland.

The ruins of Hvalsey Church still stand today, and are the best-preserved remains of northern settlements.

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