Walrus bones provide clues to fate of lost Viking colony

Walrus bones provide clues to fate of lost Viking colony

WASHINGTON — Clues to the thriller of why Viking colonies in Greenland flourished and fell have been discovered within the DNA of medieval walrus bones housed in additional than a dozen European museums.

For nearly 500 years, the Norse descendants of Erik the Red constructed church buildings and manor properties and expanded their settlements on the icy fringes of European civilization. On Greenland, that they had elaborate stone church buildings with bronze bells and stained glass, a monastery, and their very own bishop. Their colonies at one time supported greater than 2,00zero individuals.

And then they vanished.

Scholars have lengthy questioned why. “Why did they flourish and why did they disappear?” requested Thomas McGovern, an anthropologist at Hunter College in New York. “And did their greatest success also contain the seeds of their demise?”

Researchers who visited museums throughout western Europe to assemble a uncommon pile of artifacts — fragments of medieval walrus skulls — reported in a research in Wednesday’s Proceedings of the Royal Society B that the fate of these medieval outposts might have been tied to the demand for walrus ivory amongst wealthy Europeans.

The research revealed that through the peak of the Norse settlement — from about 1120 to 1400 — not less than 80 p.c of the walrus samples had been instantly sourced from Greenland.

“It’s possible that almost all the walrus ivory in western Europe during the High Middle Ages came from Greenland,” stated Bastiaan Star, a scientist on the University of Oslo and one of the research’s authors. “This result tells a very clear story.”

A dozen years in the past, many historians believed that the altering local weather of medieval Europe was the principle motive Norse settlements in Greenland expanded and went extinct. This view was popularized in Jared Diamond’s 2005 e book “Collapse.”

But proof akin to walrus bones at archaeological websites in Greenland and historic paperwork — together with church data of tithes paid in walrus tusks — advised one other potential issue: that the Vikings’ descendants thrived on a profitable commerce in walrus tusks, which had been offered to Europe’s elite and carved into luxurious gadgets, akin to ivory crucifixes, knife handles, and fancy cube and chess units.

Archaeologists suspected that well-known ivory artifacts from the Middle Ages — such because the Lewis Chessmen , a set of expressive and intricately carved statuettes from the 12th century now housed within the British Museum in London — had been comprised of walrus tusks from Greenland. But they might not get permission to bore into these treasured artifacts for genetic evaluation.

James Barrett, one other research creator and an archaeologist on the University of Cambridge, was “opening dusty boxes and poring through museum catalogues” in galleries in Norway, France, Germany, Ireland, and the UK when he realized that the tusks had been usually offered hooked up to fragments of walrus skulls — and that the bone might provide the DNA he wanted. Barrett didn’t get entry to the Lewis Chessmen, however his hunt produced 23 medieval artifacts for evaluation, after analyzing a whole bunch of associated objects.

“This is the first study that conclusively shows that Greenland walrus exports obtained a near-monopoly in Europe,” stated Poul Holm, an environmental historian at Trinity College in Dublin, who was not concerned within the research.

McGovern, additionally not half of the research, stated of the analysis: “It’s changing the story that we’ve been telling for years.”

If walrus ivory was the important thing to Greenland’s medieval wealth, specialists now suspect a collapsing marketplace for the ivory might have helped doom the outposts. The Norse Greenland settlements vanished within the 1400s, someday after life in continental Europe was badly rattled by the onset of the Black Death and the start of the Little Ice Age, an period of cooler climates. These calamities undermined demand for walrus ivory, stated Barrett.

After “a bonanza tied to the novelty of bringing exotic products to the market” in Europe, Holm stated, “the fading allure of the product locks the society in decline.”

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Follow AP Science Writer Christina Larson on Twitter at @larsonchristina .

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