Ancient DNA reveals the chronology of walrus ivory trade from Norse Greenland

Proc Biol Sci. 2018 Aug 8;285(1884):20180978. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2018.0978.


The importance of the Atlantic walrus ivory trade for the colonization, peak, and collapse of the medieval Norse colonies on Greenland has been extensively debated. Nevertheless, no studies have directly traced medieval European ivory back to distinct Arctic populations of walrus. Analysing the entire mitogenomes of 37 archaeological specimens from Europe, Svalbard, and Greenland, we here discover that Atlantic walrus comprises two monophyletic mitochondrial (MT) clades, which diverged between 23 400 and 251 120 years ago. Our improved genomic resolution allows us to reinterpret the geographical distribution of partial MT data from 306 modern and nineteenth-century specimens, finding that one of these clades was exclusively accessible to Greenlanders. With this discovery, we ascertain the biological origin of 23 archaeological specimens from Europe (most dated between 900 and 1400 CE). These results reveal a significant shift in trade from an early, predominantly eastern source towards a near exclusive representation of Greenland ivory. Our study provides empirical evidence for how this remote Arctic resource was progressively integrated into a medieval pan-European trade network, contributing to both the resilience and vulnerability of Norse Greenland society.

Keywords: Middle Ages; Odobenus rosmarus rosmarus; Viking Age; aDNA; high-throughput sequencing.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Commerce / history*
  • Cuspid / chemistry*
  • DNA, Ancient / analysis*
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / analysis*
  • Greenland
  • History, Medieval
  • Walruses / genetics*


  • DNA, Ancient
  • DNA, Mitochondrial

Associated data

  • Dryad/10.5061/dryad.425kd01
  • figshare/10.6084/m9.figshare.c.4163000