Viking flight

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Whatever happened to the Vikings?

NICK EICHER, HOST: Yeah, they flourished in Greenland from about the middle of the 12th century to the end of the 15th.

We know this by way of archaeological evidence. It reveals a quite prosperous settlement: there was a monastery, as well as ornate church buildings decorated with stained glass and bronze bells.

The community even had its own bishop.

But 300 years after the Viking settlement began, it just vanished.

REICHARD: The reason for that sudden disappearance has fascinated historians for centuries. And now new research may have the answer.

WORLD digital’s Julie Borg wrote about this and joins us via Facetime audio.

Well, Julie, what is this new research and what did it conclude about the disappearance of Greenland’s Vikings?

JULIE BORG, REPORTER: The new study was just published this month in the journal of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B and the researchers concluded that it was actually economic factors that led to the disappearance of the Viking settlement. And that was a real bombshell for environmentalists, because the commonly held view was that it was climate change that did the Greenland Vikings in.

REICHARD: Well, I’m curious as to what evidence the climate change proponents point to to support their view.

BORG: Well, because the disappearance of the Greenland Vikings roughly coincided with the time of the Little Ice Age, which was a time of cooling temperatures in Europe and North America between 1300 and 1870, some environmentalists concluded that it must have been climate change that brought an end to the Viking settlement in Greenland. And then in 2005 an American anthropologist, Jared Diamond, published a book entitled Collapse. And in it he blamed the Vikings for the collapse of their community, because he said they didn’t take necessary measures to deal with the changing climate. He said if they hadn’t cut down their trees for buildings they would have had wood to burn for fires and he said they continued to rely on farming for their food even when the colder winters were killing their livestock. He said they should have turned to fishing instead. And he said the Vikings’ trade practice did them in because they traded tusks and hides for religious artifacts instead of things like tools and food. So, they weren’t prepared for climate change.

Then, eventually, the environmentalists took up the mantra that the Viking community died out because of climate change just like we will today if we don’t do something about global warming. So, the vanished Vikings kind of became an object lesson used by environmentalists to warn about the tragic consequences of not taking climate change seriously enough.

REICHARD: Well, what have scientists learned now that this study says backs up a different explanation of Viking disappearance?

BORG: Well, this study changes the way scientists are looking at the Greenland Viking community. They’ve realized for a long time that these Vikings did some trading in walrus tusks, but they thought they just sort of dabbled around in ivory trade. They didn’t realize that it was a major source of income for the Vikings. But in this new study, scientists for the first time were able to use more advanced technology to analyze DNA samples from walrus tusks and skulls that they found at sites of former ivory workshops across Europe as well as some samples they found in museums. By analyzing the DNA of these samples, they were able to trace the origin of the walruses and the evaluation showed that the vast majority of ivory in all of western Europe at that time came from Greenland. So, basically the Vikings had a monopoly on the ivory trade, which would have been very lucrative for them.

REICHARD: And so how does that change the environmentalist scenario that global climate change wiped out the Viking settlement?

BORG: Well, it changes the scenario because the revelation about the extent of the Viking ivory trade throughout western Europe lends credence to a different reason for why the Vikings disappeared. The disappearance of the Viking colony not only coincided roughly with the Little Ice Age, but also with the onset of the black death or the bubonic plague in Europe. So, the researchers surmised that when the plague hit, Europe had more important concerns to deal with than importing ivory, so the demand naturally went down. And also about that time, according to archeological evidence, it seems that western Europeans started to develop a taste for elephant ivory instead of walrus ivory, so that also decreased the demand. So, in essence, it was likely economic change and not climate change that brought an end to the Viking settlement.

REICHARD: Julie Borg is a reporter for WORLD Digital. She writes a weekly Roundup called Beginnings with stories like this one. Fascinating! Julie, thank you.

BORG: Thank you.

(Associated Press/Photo by Christian Koch Madsen, File) The ruin of a Viking church in southern Greenland.

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