What Happened to the Unique Icelandic Walrus? The Vikings Ate It

The smoking harpoon behind the mysterious disappearance of the Icelandic walrus is the timing, archaeologists say: The unique pinniped vanished shortly after the Norse arrived

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Credit: Ryan Kingsbery/AP
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Until about a thousand years ago, possibly a little less, Iceland had its own unique species of walrus. All that remains of it are scattered bones and geegaws carved from their fangs, but science couldn’t explain what happened to them.

Now it has been demonstrated that the giant mammal went extinct roughly 1,100 years ago — about the time the Vikings became the first modern population known to reach the North Atlantic island.

That’s some coincidence, an international team reports in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.

Genetic analysis of the remains proves that the Icelandic species was unique. Come the Norse settlement, and clearly the Vikings encountered the Icelandic walrus. Their predilection for its meat and teeth was reported in medieval documentation of the time, including the Icelandic Sagas, which name the locations where walruses once dwelled.

This study of their disappearance, by an international collaboration of scientists in Iceland, Denmark and the Netherlands, was initiated by Hilmar Malmquist, the director of the Icelandic Museum of Natural History in Reykjavik.

To be perfectly clear: Nobody is categorically accusing the long-dead Nordic seamen of killing off the special Icelandic walrus. Iceland is not the most hospitable habitat, featuring a battle of the elements between fire and ice — volcanoes versus glaciers — which may also have had a deadly effect on the slow-reproducing giants.

But the walruses had been used to the local conditions for a very long time. The most plausible hypothesis is that the Vikings’ hunting and consumption of the slow-moving giant mammals, and selling their fangs as ivory to the point of its elimination, killed them off. That would make it among the earliest known instances of overexploiting a marine resource to death.

It isn’t the earliest known instance of terrestrial overexploitation, though. In fact, the devastating environmental impact of humankind has been demonstrated time and again, including from the dawn of human history.

Apropos prehistory, people in coastal civilizations were briskly trading even then. And in recorded history, one of the earliest examples of writing was a complaint about dissatisfaction in business. In the 18th century B.C.E., the Mesopotamian buyer Nanni who lived in the city of Ur wrote in Akkadian cuneiform to grouse about the customer service of one Ea-Nasir, griping that the errant merchant “withheld my money bag from me in enemy territory.” Vey iz mir!

And people all around the Mediterranean and in Europe as far north as Scandinavia were trading, by land and sea, before they could write the word “boat” — before, in fact, the horse had been domesticated, and well before the Vikings arose. Even people living in the Neolithic-period Jerusalem hills 9,000 years ago were trading.

During the Viking era, some of this ancient trade was notably in walrus “ivory.” Decorated walrus tusks traded by merchants have been found as far afield as India and the Middle East, the researchers say.

Volcanoes and ice

The Vikings were the first people known to have settled Iceland, in the 870s, taking advantage of the retreat of the last Ice Age (which, strictly speaking, isn’t over yet). When they got there they saw walruses, which had predated humans by thousands of years, if not more, say the scientists.

Scrimshaw: Decorated walrus fangCredit: Peabody Essex Museum

This island beast was a unique species, the scientists say after comparing its genome with that of other walrus species elsewhere in the North Atlantic.

Decorated walrus fangCredit: Gift of Mrs. Screven Lorillard, 1953

Today’s walrus consists of two basic subspecies: the Atlantic and Pacific walrus. The Icelandic species was an offshoot of the Atlantic type — which is severely endangered, as are so many species bigger than microbes. The Atlantic walrus population numbers no more than 30,000, throughout northern Canada, Greenland, the Svalbard archipelago of Norway, and northwestern Russia. That is it.

There aren’t many differences between the Atlantic and Pacific walrus. Both are sexually dimorphic flippered mammals; males are about a third larger than females. The Pacific subspecies is bigger with males maxing out at 3.7 meters (12.1 feet) in length, while the Atlantic walrus won’t pass about 3 meters in length.

Moreover, the Pacific walrus may weigh 1,700 kilograms (3,750 pounds), while the Atlantic titch won’t likely pass 1,500 kilograms. A lot of that is blubber, which protects them from the cold.

Another habit that may help protect the walrus from cold is gregariousness. Walruses live in packs, which must have been convenient for their Viking predators.

As for those long fangs, they grow throughout its life. The walrus is a carnivore but doesn’t use those extraordinary canines, which can be as much as a meter long, to hunt (at least not prey). The walrus likes to eat shellfish on the seafloor, which separate studies say it finds using its catlike whiskers, though it won’t cavil at eating fish or the odd small seal, apparently. The animals seem to use their tusks chiefly to haul their heavy bodies out of the water onto the ice and, in the case of males, to savage each other in courtship battles.

Those 3-foot-long fangs didn’t deter human hunters with their remote killing devices such as spears and harpoons, though. The walrus was hunted to extinction in parts of Canada too, but the species has been saved by legislating their protection.

In Iceland, their demise seems to have been swift — and, given that reproduction rates of giant mammals are glacial, overhunting must have sealed their fate quite fast. The walrus’ gestation period is about 16 months and she has but one pup, which will only reach sexual maturity after six or seven years.

The walrus is the last existing member of an ancient pinniped (flippered) family, the Odobenidae, which evolved in the North Pacific and looked like seals. (All the other pinnipeds still extant today are seals.)

So today’s walrus is therefore what’s known as a “relic species.”

We humans are also a “relic species,” because every other species of hominin has gone extinct — quite possibly with our help.

“Our study provides one of the earliest examples of local extinction of a marine species following human arrival and overexploitation. It further adds to the debate about the role of humans in the extinction of megafauna, supporting a growing body of evidence that wherever humans turn up, the local environment and ecosystem suffers,” said Morten Tange Olsen of the University of Copenhagen.

In short, they showed that as early as the Viking Age, more than 1,000 years ago, commercial hunting, economic incentives and trade networks had irreversible ecological impacts on the marine environment, explains lead author Xénia Keighley.

But the Vikings definitely didn’t invent this particular wheel.

In August, an international group of archaeologists sneered at the geologists’ definition that the “Anthropocene era” — meaning the era in which humankind managed to change its home planet — began in the mid-20th century. Nonsense, the archaeologists say: it began thousands of years ago. Here in Israel, a study published in 2014 found how the very first settlers on the coast caused significant ecological impact in one of the world’s earlier cities: Acre.

But it seems the ancient Acrites didn’t invent that wheel either. It isn’t sure modern humans did. It could have been our ancestors. Not a few paleontologists suspect that early modern humans hunted at least some of the megafauna that once thronged the northern hemisphere to extinction. In 2018, a slaughtering site for giant sloths was found in Argentina, and that wasn’t too long after modern man reached South America. We work fast.

As pointed out in 2018, from the dawn of our species, we have delighted in killing anything big. Within centuries, the biggest animal remaining on Earth could be the cow.

Of course, given the trajectory of climate change, it is possible that the biggest animal remaining on Earth in a few centuries could be the cockroach. If it’s true that they can survive nuclear blasts, they can probably survive us too.



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