In the 15th century, Norse colonies in Greenland began to slowly disappear, leaving scientists unable to explain the mysterious drop-off. The colonies had been thriving for centuries and established strong trade with European civilisations which saw the Norse people exchange ivory from walrus tusks for Europe’s timber and iron.
However, new research suggests the Vikings may have over-hunted the walruses in Greenland, leading to a drastic decline in the aquatic mammal’s population.
Dwindling walrus populations, in turn, meant the Norse people had to travel farther north in Greenland to hunt for the animal, which equated to more treacherous and dangerous journeys.
Archaeologists from the University of Cambridge found evidence of this in Norse artefacts discovered in Inuit settlements in this most northern of regions.
Additionally, it meant the Vikings had less to trade with mainland Europeans which led to dwindling resources.
Dr James Barrett, from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology, said it was the “perfect storm” of depleted resources and volatile prices, exacerbated by climate change.
He added: “Norse Greenlanders needed to trade with Europe for iron and timber, and had mainly walrus products to export in exchange.
“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 meagre ivory harvests.
“This would have exacerbated the decline of walrus populations, and consequently those sustained by the walrus trade.
“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.”
However, it was not only the dwindling walrus population which led to Greenland’s Norse people dying out.
Some scientists theorise a ‘Little Ice Age’ took place in the 14th century, where temperatures in the northern hemisphere dropped by an average of 0.6C degrees up until the 18th century.
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The ice age, coupled with the Black Death killing up to 200 million people in Eurasia in the 1300s, meant there were significantly fewer people to trade with.
Co-author Dr Bastiaan Star of the University of Oslo said: “An over-reliance on walrus ivory was not the only factor in Norse Greenland’s demise.
“However, if both the population and price of walrus started to tumble, it must have badly undermined the resilience of the settlements. “Our study suggests the writing was on the wall.”
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