A recent Smithsonian Magazine article explores the decline and disappearance of Viking settlements on Greenland. Previous scholarship argued that the Viking disappearance was caused by a combination of factors including temperature change linked to a volcanic eruption, environmental collapse caused by livestock overgrazing, and cultural inflexibility (Vikings refused to adapt or abandon their Scandinavian farming techniques and diet). However new evidence suggests otherwise.
New research proposes that the disappearance of Greenland’s Vikings was not linked to some of the above factors. The Vikings were not cultural inflexible, rather, they were quite flexible. In just a few years, the Vikings changed their diet to incorporate Greenland’s native flora and fauna. They relied less on farming and more on seafood and seals for food. They hunted walruses for their ivory and exported the ivory to mainland Europe. The Vikings did not experience an environmental collapse and instead improved the soil making it more conducive to traditional grazing techniques.
Three factors did contribute to the decline and disappearance of the Vikings in Greenland. The first is the 1257 volcanic eruption in Indonesia that cooled the climate creating more sea ice. The increase in sea ice made walrus ivory harvesting more difficult and dangerous. This corresponded with the expansion of the Portuguese into sub-Saharan Africa in pursuit of many commodities, including ivory. African ivory soon became more plentiful and cheaper than the ivory from Greenland, and it was also of better quality. The third factor was the spread of the plague which killed roughly 33% of mainland Europe’s population. The decline in Europe’s population contributed to the decline in Greenland’s economy because there was less demand for Greenland’s ivory exports.
The Smithsonian Magazine article mentioned that the grave of a bishop buried at the Viking settlement of Gardar contained a “narwhal-tusk staff.” In a previous blog entry, I discussed how narwhal tusk was believed to be unicorn horn/alicorn, and some people believed the narwhal to be a sea unicorn. Alicorn was used by royalty and churchmen. St. Mark’s cathedral in Venice possessed three alicorns which city officials used as batons, and the abbey of Saint-Denis outside Paris used a seven foot tall alicorn as a chalice until it was destroyed in the turmoil of the French Revolution. The Danish throne was made up of
various unicorn horns, probably in part to symbolize the strength and wealth of the crown, but possibly also to reflect the alicorn market captured by Danish merchants. Feodor I was crowned Czar of Russia in 1584 while holding a unicorn horn in his right hand.
How did the bishop in Gardar view his crosier? Did he think it was made out of the ivory from the narwhal, or, did he think it was made out of unicorn horn? Did he think the narwhal was a sea unicorn. Were Greenlanders selling fake unicorn horn to gullible mainlanders? Or did they think they were selling genuine sea unicorn horn?Hopefully further research will answer these questions.