Are the Vikings still there today?

Mystery of the end of the VikingsWalrus teeth could provide information

When Hans Egede landed in Godthabsfjord in western Greenland in 1721, he actually wanted to convert the Vikings to the Protestant faith. Nobody in Europe had heard of them since the 15th century, and so Egede feared they might have apostatized. But since he found only ruined stone walls in Greenland, he proselytized the Inuit and wondered what might have happened to the Northmen.

"The fall of the Vikings in Greenland has always sparked the imagination, and it was tragedy that was told. According to a version popular nowadays, the Vikings were unable to change their lifestyles: after that, they just kept farming even though the climate changed It's the story of a civilization that perished because it couldn't adapt.

Different theories are circulating

But this story is nonsense, judges the historian Poul Holm from Trinity College in Dublin. Excavations tell a different, more complex story:

"Climate change may have affected agriculture in the settlements of the Vikings. But the isotope analyzes of their teeth show that they switched their diet to marine resources and ate more and more seal meat. So they have adapted to climate change."

explains archaeologist Jette Arneborg from the National Museum of Denmark. In any case, the Vikings probably didn't come to Greenland just to raise cattle. Rather, trade was probably an important part of their survival strategy:

"They knew they could get walrus ivory in Greenland, and walrus ivory was very valuable in the European market at the time."

Trade in walrus tusks

Because trade routes to Africa were interrupted in the Middle Ages and elephant ivory hardly came to Europe, the seal tusks were used as a substitute. Until the 15th century. New delivery areas opened up in what is now the Russian Arctic, and trade across the Mediterranean started up again. At the same time, shipping between Greenland and the rest of Europe became more dangerous as the onset of the Little Ice Age resulted in more and more severe storms.

"The Vikings found it increasingly difficult to attract traders from Europe. But they were dependent on the connection to Europe, they needed iron, for example, and the Vikings themselves did not own any ocean-going ships. I believe these are changes in trade and in connection with Europe important causes for their disappearance from Greenland. "

In proving this thesis, ivory becomes important. Geochemist Karin Frei from the Danish National Museum has developed a new method with her team to use isotopes to clarify the origin of walrus tusks:

"Before we had developed our method, it was not possible to say whether walrus ivory came from Greenland, Iceland, Norway or the Barents Sea. However, walruses feed on mussels, and these mussels have different signatures on the lead, depending on where they come from. Isotopes that can then be detected in the ivory. So we can now go to the museums to determine the origin of the ivory. "

Viking retreat was not a disaster

However, the curators must agree that tiny samples can be taken. Whatever the reason the Vikings withdrew from Greenland, it doesn't look like a disaster:

"The cemeteries tell us that the dead were properly buried to the end. We also find no evidence of a violent end of the dead or of epidemics. The Vikings apparently simply left Greenland. The population was very small, even at weddings around 3,000 people. When people withdraw from a sparsely populated area, the young people and their children always go first. "

And at some point the population is too small to hold out.