Earlier this month, a walrus was seen at Þvottárfjara beach in Álftafjörður. The event was newsworthy because of the rarity of walrus sightings in Iceland. But new research suggests that walrus may not always have been so elusive on the island.
Though not unheard of, walrus sightings in Iceland have been sparse over the past few centuries. In 2013, six walrus were spotted in Iceland, including a walrus tagged in the Faroe Islands that journeyed between the two islands in June of that year.
In the 1980s, Wally the Walrus (Valli Viðförli) repeatedly beached on Icelandic shores. The local government relocated him to an ice floe in Greenland, but he returned to Iceland several months later.
Prior to that, the majority of walrus sightings in Iceland occurred in the 18th century; records indicate that 28 walrus were seen in Iceland in 1708. At least 20 written accounts of walrus sightings in Iceland during this period have been preserved.
Were Walrus Native to Iceland?
A 2015 study shows that walrus sightings in Iceland weren’t necessarily rare in earlier centuries, even describing the creatures as “native” to both Iceland and Greenland. The study suggests that “walrus hunting and ivory extraction was a significant activity for early settlers in Iceland,” and that walrus had probably established breeding grounds in certain parts of the island.
A full walrus vertebral column is set into the base of the turf wall at the Settlement Exhibition in Reykjavik, and a walrus scapula was placed under the western entry door. The placement of these bones would not have aided the stability or integrity of the structure, meaning that these elements were likely used to advertise the household’s walrus hunting and ivory processing skills, though they may have also been of ritual significance.
The implication is, according to archaeologist Kathryn Catlin, that “the early settlers of Iceland hunted walrus, both for food and for ivory from their tusks, which was highly valued across Europe.”
The Scandinavian Ivory Trade
Yet another study suggests that, while early Icelanders largely relied on farming and fishing for trade and sustenance, they also traded highly valued walrus ivory with mainland Europe.
The study relies on genetic differences between walrus in Greenland and Canada and those in Iceland and Scandinavia. The scientists tracked down walrus tusks, bones, and objects fashioned from walrus ivory in collections across Europe and analyzed their genetic material to trace them back to a determinate location.
What they found was surprising: before the 1100s, around 100 years after the settlement of Greenland by Erik the Red colonized parts of Greenland, much of the ivory in these collections could be traced to locales east of Greenland—Iceland, the Barents Sea, Svalbard.
“Walrus likely had breeding grounds here in the past,” says archaeologist Cee Cesario, “since we have archaeological evidence of juveniles. It’s easier to hunt walrus when they’re on land sleeping or nursing.” The competency with which walrus tusks were extracted and processed indicates that early settlers had expertise in walrus hunting and butchery, and that both activities were significant in the Settlement Age.
However, where—and when—they acquired this knowledge remains nebulous.