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Vikings shipped walrus ivory from Greenland all the way to Kyiv. Source: Nejron Photo /Adobe Stock

Vikings Shipped Walrus Ivory to Medieval Islamic Merchants 4000km Away!

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With the accelerated pace of climate change and global warming wreaking havoc on the ice sheets of the world, particularly Greenland, new evidence emerges from the ice-capped country. Greenland was a Viking colony from the 10th-15th century. They suddenly abandoned it and scholars are still debating why the Vikings left, with new evidence emerging just last month . Now, a study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B reveals Vikings shipped walrus ivory from their settlement in the icy colony all the way to Kyiv, over 4,000 kms away!

“Based on the [walrus] rostra finds reported here, it is reasonable to hypothesize that a Dnieper route may have augmented or replaced pre-existing practices,” write the authors of the study.

The Site in Kyiv: A Medieval Trading Waterfront

Evidence was collected from excavations carried out by archaeologist Natalio Khamaiko of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, who’s been persistently digging at a vacant lot at 35 Spaska Street in Kyiv, Ukraine since 2007. This site had notoriously disappointed all of Khamaiko’s predecessors, who had conducted detailed archaeological surveys here in the hope of uncovering gold – after all, Norse merchants used to trade furs for silver minted in the medieval Islamic world, and this waterfront had witnessed an all-around boom in economic activity.

Thanks to the periodic flooding provided by the Dniepr river, Ukraine’s longest river, layer after layer of settlement had been protected and preserved. One of the layers, dated to the 12th century, revealed a gold wire, glass fragments, carved ivory, an iron sword from Germany, and thousands of animal bones - of which nine huge pieces turned out to be walrus snouts.

The animal carvings and the walrus ivory came from a genetic group of walruses that were only found in the Western Atlantic Ocean as per ancient DNA (aDNA), suggesting the very real possibility that a 4,000 kilometer (2485 miles) long trade route covering Greenland and Canada finally made its way to Kyiv across the Dniepr. An Ancient Origins news report from 2015 had focused on how ivory was a major trade item for the Greenland Norsemen.

Walrus rostra from medieval Kyiv. (Barrett et al. 2022/Royal Society/CC BY 4.0)

Walrus rostra from medieval Kyiv. ( Barrett et al. 2022/Royal Society/CC BY 4.0 )

The Allure of Walrus Ivory

Previous studies have also examined the consequences of medieval economic globalization and human settlements on animal populations, like the one published in Quaternary Science Reviews in 2020, led by Professor James Barrett of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (Barrett is a lead author on the current study as well). This study revealed two vital pieces of information – firstly, that walrus ivory for medieval art was traded as tusks in modified walrus skulls, and secondly, that Greenland supplied most European walrus skulls.

Barrett’s study also revealed that walrus skulls in Europe got progressively smaller over 400 years between 1000 and 1400 AD, alluding to a switch to female walruses and smaller animals. This is because, clearly, the overhunted walrus population steadily dwindled, to the point of no return, prompting the abandonment of the Greenland settlement due to overhunting and a subsequent decline in trade. “The poor walruses in Greenland … are not just supplying Western Europe. It was Eastern Europe, too, and also Byzantium via Kyiv, and possibly demand in the Islamic world,” added Barrett.

“It’s an extraordinary example of human exploitation,” adds Søren Sindbæk, who was quoted in the same report published on Science. The archaeologist from Aarhus University termed the finds “very important and unexpected” in the larger history of trade in the Viking age and the early medieval period. “We’ve known walrus ivory was an important commodity, but it was difficult to see what scale we were talking about,” he added.

When Khamaiko and her colleagues analyzed chemical traces in the walrus bone, they discovered that cut marks on the skull fragments resembled the marks on Scandinavian finds. Additionally, near the snouts, a handful of gaming pieces from a hnefatafl set were uncovered, which is a chess-like board game from medieval northern Europe – this was also made from walrus ivory!

Knight chess piece made of walrus ivory, circa 1250 AD. (Public domain)

Knight chess piece made of walrus ivory, circa 1250 AD. ( Public domain )

A Trade Network and Ecological Disharmony

The study was able to effectively offer two vital pieces of historical analysis – the presence of a vibrant medieval trading route that stretched from North America to Northern Europe all the way to the Islamic world that was emerging in the post-Byzantine era.

Distribution of medieval European finds of walrus rostra. (Barrett et al. 2022/Royal Society/CC BY 4.0)

Distribution of medieval European finds of walrus rostra. ( Barrett et al. 2022/Royal Society/CC BY 4.0 )

Secondly, these same trading networks are one of the earlier examples of human desecration of the environment and the threats that rampant globalization and wanton greed present in a history of disharmonious living with existing ecological balances. This statement particularly rings true in today’s climate and context.

“The Kyiv rostra pre-date this evidence for serial depletion and the sex ratio (five males, two females) is consistent with the preference for large male walruses prior to the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries. Yet the finds are evidence of an expanding demand for Greenland's walruses that drove a wildlife trade with widespread consequences.”

“These consequences (e.g. the viability of the Norse colony of Greenland) were felt by hunted and hunters, traders and townspeople, artisans and patrons, along extensive networks stretching from the High Arctic to the banks of the Dnieper and beyond,” conclude the authors of the study.

Top image: Vikings shipped walrus ivory from Greenland all the way to Kyiv. Source: Nejron Photo /Adobe Stock

By Sahir Pandey

References

Barrett, J.H., Khamaiko, N., et al. 2022. Walruses on the Dnieper: new evidence for the intercontinental trade of Greenlandic ivory in the Middle Ages . Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 289 (1972). Available at: https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2021.2773.

Curry, A. 2022. Vikings shipped walrus ivory from Greenland to Kyiv, ancient skulls show. Available at: https://www.science.org/content/article/vikings-shipped-walrus-ivory-greenland-kyiv-ancient-skulls-show.

Recker, J. 2022. Why Did the Vikings Abandon Their Most Successful Settlement in Greenland? Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/why-did-the-vikings-abandon-their-most-successful-settlement-in-greenland-180979884/.

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