Greenland's Vikings Weren't Farmers, They Were Walrus Hunters
They apparently had a lucrative ivory trade going on: researchers
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 30, 2015 1:20 PM CDT
This May 2015 photo provided by shows walruses on a beach on Round Island, Alaska.   ( via AP)

(Newser) – For a long time, scientists wondered why Vikings settled in Greenland as farmers, since livestock doesn't thrive there and the growing season is truncated, notes Hakai Magazine. But while speculation as to why they eventually abandoned the island territory range from climate change to soil erosion, researchers now think there may be another reason: They could no longer sell the ivory they culled from walruses there. A new study published in the World Archaeology journal finds that walrus hunting may have been the Vikings' main source of income, not farming, with the Norse seafarers taking advantage of Europe's penchant for luxury goods during the Middle Ages. But while the ivory trade may have been lucrative—one ancient document mentioned by Hakai says a load of ivory equal to more than 500 tusks would reap a Viking enough to pay his taxes to the Norwegian king for six years—it certainly didn't sound easy.

A source cited by the magazine notes one expedition that took 15 days of rowing from a Viking settlement to Greenland's Disko Bay, where walruses proliferated. They would then have to row back with up to 160 severed walrus heads in the boat—it was apparently easier to remove the tusks after the heads had rotted for a few weeks. What apparently led to the eventual downfall of the trade: a changing European economy in the High Medieval period between the 11th and 13th centuries, with the focus moved to bulk goods like fish and wool instead of prestige goods like furs, hides, and ivory. (An Alaskan duo was busted a few years ago for trafficking walrus tusks and polar bear hides.)