Early European and Greenlandic Walrus Hunting: motivations, techniques and practices

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Abstract

The earliest written information in Scandinavia about a trade in walrus products comes from the North Norwegian landowner and merchant Ohthere. The text dates to the late 9th century AD and describes the long-distance trading of walrus ivory, skins and other Arctic products that appear to originate in Northern Russia. Iceland offered an additional source of valuable walrus ivory and was colonised by the Norse at around this time, although the small local population was quickly hunted to extinction during Settlement and Commonwealth periods (ca. 870 – 1262 AD). From the early part of the 10th century AD the Novgorod elite exerted increasing control over the hunting and trading of Russian Arctic products, and decided to concentrate on supplying the lucrative markets of the Near East and Asia. This shift created supply-side problems in Western Europe, and these markets increasingly came to rely on alternative walrus hunting grounds in the remote North Atlantic. The search for walrus ivory may also have motivated initial Norse exploration and settlement of Greenland in the late 900’s AD. Walrus hunting - and the profitable trade in ivory – was central to the social and economic life of the remote Norse colonies in Greenland, and led eventually to the Norwegian Church and Crown seeking to increase its influence among the Greenlandic elite. Over time, however, the heavy reliance of the Norse colonies on long-distance trade networks generated inherent vulnerabilities, and the declining volume of walrus products circulating in Western European markets in the Late Middle Ages may have been one of the factors that triggered the depopulation and eventual abandonment of the Greenland colonies by the mid 1400’s AD.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationWorking title: ​The Atlantic Walrus: ​Biological,Historical,andIndigenousInsightsintoSpecies-Human Interactions
PublisherElsevier Science
Publication statusUnpublished - 2020

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