The Viking Age was a time of exploration, raiding, and trading for the Scandinavian people. Among the many goods they traded, one stands out as particularly valuable and fascinating – the walrus tusk. In this article, we’ll dive into the significance of walrus tusks in Viking culture, their impact on European history, and how they influenced the future elephant ivory trade during the colonization of Africa.
The Value of Walrus Tusks in Viking Society
Walrus tusks were highly prized in Viking culture for their versatility and durability. They were used for a variety of purposes, from carving intricate designs and jewelry to crafting weapons, knife handles, and even drinking vessels. The walrus ivory was also traded as a valuable commodity, both within the Viking territories and beyond.
Greenland, located in the icy North Atlantic Ocean, was a crucial location for the Viking trade in walrus tusks. It was home to large populations of walruses, many more than Iceland, which provided an abundant source of ivory for the Vikings. The first storied Viking to settle in Greenland was Erik the Red, who established two colonies in the late 10th century. These colonies, known as the Eastern Settlement and the Western Settlement, were the largest Viking settlements outside of Scandinavia.
Eirk the Red
Erik the Red, an experienced navigator and explorer, was the first European to set foot on Greenland. He had been banished from Iceland for manslaughter after a neighbor dispute. After this, he sailed west in search of new lands to settle. He named the land he discovered “Greenland” to make it more appealing for future potential settlers, even though much of the island was covered in ice and snow. Erik’s settlements thrived for several centuries, thanks in part to the walrus ivory trade.
However, the Vikings were not the only people who lived in Greenland at the time. The Inuit natives, who had been living on the island for over 4,000 years, also hunted walruses for their meat, skins, and ivory. The arrival of the Vikings had a significant impact on the Inuit way of life, as they competed for the same resources and occasionally clashed over territory.
The Vikings and the Inuit had starkly lifestyles and cultures. The Vikings were farmers, traders, and warriors who lived in large, communal houses called longhouses. They believed in the gods and goddesses, and their society was stratified into classes, with the jarl (earl) at the top. The Inuit, on the other hand, were nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived in small, mobile groups. They had a rich spiritual tradition and believed in animism, the idea that all things, including animals and objects, have a spirit.
Despite these differences, the Vikings and the Inuit had some interactions. They at times traded goods, such as animal furs and ivory, and occasionally intermarried. The Vikings also learned select survival skills from the Inuit, such as how to build igloos and how to properly hunt in the harsh Arctic environment.
Viking Decline in Greenland
The Viking colonies in Greenland lasted for several centuries, but they eventually declined and ultimately disappeared. The reasons for this decline are still debated by historians, but factors such as climate change, overgrazing of livestock, the bubonic plague at home in Norway, and conflicts with the Inuit all may have played a role.
One notable Viking who was born in Greenland was Lief Erikson, son of Erik the Red. Lief is famous for being the first European to set foot on North America, nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus. According to the Icelandic sagas, Lief sailed to North America in the year 1000 and established a settlement in what is now Newfoundland, Canada. The settlement, called Vinland, was named for the species of grapes that grew there. The Vikings traded with the indigenous people they encountered, who may have been ancestors of the Inuit.
Viking Walrus Ivory and Europe’s Demand for more
The Viking trade in walrus ivory had a significant impact on the future trade in elephant ivory across Europe. As the Viking Age came to an end, European demand for ivory continued to grow. However, the supply of walrus ivory was limited and could not keep up with the demand. This led to an increased interest in ivory elsewhere, notably in Africa, where it was seen as more abundant and accessible.
African Colonization and Ivory
The Portuguese were the first post-medieval Europeans to establish trade contacts with West Africa in the 15th century, paving the way for the later colonization of the continent. They were followed by other European powers, including the Dutch, French, British, Belgian and German, who established their own trading posts and colonies along Africa’s coasts. Ivory was a significant commodity in the African trade, and European demand for it was insatiable.
African ivory trade had a devastating impact on the continent’s elephant populations. Tens of thousands of elephants were killed every year for their ivory, leading to a dramatic decline in their once vast numbers. This not only impacted elephant populations but also had ripple effects throughout the ecosystem and the communities that relied on them.
The ivory trade played a significant role in the colonization of Africa. European powers used their control over the ivory trade as a means of exerting economic and political influence over African societies. They often relied on African intermediaries to procure the ivory, creating a system of dependency and exploitation.
In some cases, ivory trade was even used as a pretext for colonization. The Belgian King Leopold II, for example, used the pretext of a humanitarian mission to establish his own personal colony in the Congo, which he ruled with brutal force. He justified his actions by claiming that he was “civilizing” the Africans and putting an end to the “barbaric” practices of the ivory trade.
Ivory Trade’s Lasting Impact Today
The legacy of the ivory trade is still felt in Africa today. Many African countries continue to struggle with poverty, political instability, and environmental degradation, which can be traced back in part to the exploitation of their resources, including ivory. The elephant populations are still recovering from the devastating impact of the ivory trade, and conservation efforts are ongoing to protect them and their habitats.
In conclusion, the Viking trade in walrus tusks had a significant impact on European history, from the establishment of Viking settlements in Greenland to the discovery of North America by Lief Erikson. The trade also had a significant influence on the future trade in elephant ivory, which had devastating consequences for African elephants and societies. The ivory trade played a significant role in the colonization of Africa and the exploitation of its resources, leaving a legacy that is still felt today. As we look back on this history, it is essential to remember the impact that our actions can have on the world around us and to work towards a more sustainable and equitable future.
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Check out this interesting article for more on Greenland Vikings and the Ivory Trade.