13 May 2022

Ivory trade from Greenland to Ukraine

Vikings settled on the uninhabited southwestern coast of Greenland thousand years ago. That was enabled by a technological innovation that allowed them to use wooden ships in long distance sailing. However, after just few centuries the early settlements along the southwestern coast disappeared. 

The reason for the disappearance of Norse has thereafter remained a mystery. The explanations presented include cumulative environmental damage, gradual climate change, conflicts with Inuit peoples, loss of contact and support from Europe, cultural conservatism and failure to adapt to an increasingly harsh natural environment and opening of opportunities elsewhere after the black death had left many farmsteads abandoned in Iceland and Norway as well as declining value of ivory in Europe.

The last option was based on the fact that some Vikings are known to have organised summer trips to the more northerly area, where they hunted walruses, narwhals and polar bears for their skins, hides and ivory. Besides their use in making garments and shoes, these resources also functioned as a form of currency, as well as providing the most important export commoditie.

Recently it was reported in Science that Vikings shipped walrus ivory all the way to Kyiv, the capital of today´s Ukraine. This trade route is much longer than was thought based on previous studies - up to 4 000 km. This information was worked out by DNA and chemical analyses, which linked Ukrainian walrus tusk materials to a genetic group of walruses found only in the western Atlantic Ocean. 

The trade was obviously highly profitable, and may have lead to overhunting of Greenlandic walruses, due to the consumer demand in Eastern Europe. That seems to strengthen the hypothesis that Norse settlers abandoned Greenland in the 1300s at least partly due to the ending ivory trade.

This finding is just one of the historical facts that shows how medieval people had connections over long distances. And partially highlights how incorrect we are, if we consider our time as completely unique in its global connections and trade. Instead of qualitative differences, the change is only quantitative. That is, in the speed that allows us to make contacts throughout the world. 

Previous thoughts on the same topic:
World oceans are filled with previously unknown viruses
Soil subsides under cities, but every cloud has a silver lining
Vikings and the technological cutting edge

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