The End of Vikings and Mayans

Vikings settled in Greenland and grew up to 6,000 over the centuries, but they came to an unclear end in the 16th century, leaving the island country vacant for 100 years. New research suggests one reason for this decline was the bottoming out of their economy, meaning the world stopped asking for walrus ivory.

Matthew Gabriele writes, “Specifically, the Greenland settlements built their economy around the trade in walrus tusks (ivory) and supplied maybe up to 80% of the ivory items for most of Europe between the 12th-15th centuries.”

Some thought the ivory used in medieval luxury items was from elephants, but this research argues that elephant ivory was rare and expensive. The more affordable ivory came from walruses. But this market dried up when the Black Death killed 60% of Europe.

Gabriele also writes about research into the collapse of the Mayan civilization. A paper published in Science this month says a 200-year drought crushed the Mayan empire, to which Gabriele says it’s more complicated than that and we already that part.

“Most likely, it was a number of factors that caused the decline, with the environment being only 1 of them. And this is what can happen when STEM fields ignore the humanities and social sciences. They too often ‘rediscover’ something that other scholars have known for some time.”

We all have our blind spots, don’t we?

4 thoughts on “The End of Vikings and Mayans”

  1. I find this article puzzling. I read years ago that the bulk of the ivory used in Europe during that period came from Greenland walruses. The trade routes to the east had been blocked by the Muslims; Greenland prospered. When the trade opened up again, Greenland languished.

    1. Perhaps that was one trend or interpretive camp that the author wasn’t as familiar with. It goes along with the second article … oops, I didn’t like to the second one. Sorry.

  2. Here’s the abstract from the Walrus Ivory study.

    The importance of the Atlantic walrus ivory trade for the colonization, peak, and collapse of the medieval Norse colonies on Greenland has been extensively debated. Nevertheless, no studies have directly traced medieval European ivory back to distinct Arctic populations of walrus. Analysing the entire mitogenomes of 37 archaeological specimens from Europe, Svalbard, and Greenland, we here discover that Atlantic walrus comprises two monophyletic mitochondrial (MT) clades, which diverged between 23 400 and 251 120 years ago. Our improved genomic resolution allows us to reinterpret the geographical distribution of partial MT data from 306 modern and nineteenth-century specimens, finding that one of these clades was exclusively accessible to Greenlanders. With this discovery, we ascertain the biological origin of 23 archaeological specimens from Europe (most dated between 900 and 1400 CE). These results reveal a significant shift in trade from an early, predominantly eastern source towards a near exclusive representation of Greenland ivory. Our study provides empirical evidence for how this remote Arctic resource was progressively integrated into a medieval pan-European trade network, contributing to both the resilience and vulnerability of Norse Greenland society.

  3. Now that you’ve set me looking, I found this 2012 book, “The Last Vikings: The Epic Story of the Great Norse Voyagers” by Kirsten A. Seaver, says breaking the monopoly on Muslim trade of elephant tusks wasn’t the reason for the decine in using walrus ivory nor was it market forces. She says it was still valuable and people wanted it, but what little evidence they have points to the source of the ivory dying off.

    https://books.google.com/books?id=-gGUBQAAQBAJ&lpg=PP1&dq=why%20did%20vikings%20in%20Greenland%20die&pg=PA103#v=onepage&q=Greenland%20ivory&f=false

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