The Extinct Walrus: How Vikings Hunted a Walrus to Extinction

Written by Taiwo Victor
Published: August 20, 2022
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Once upon a time, walruses lived in Iceland. However, these marine mammals vanished in the distant past for mysterious reasons, which have only recently come to light. The timing of the walrus population decline raises the possibility that it is one of the earliest documented instances of humans causing a marine species to go extinct. As it turns out, the Vikings may have played a significant role in the extinction of the Icelandic walrus. Did Iceland’s walrus population perish naturally, or did the Norsemen wipe them out?

Walruses were a prominent feature of life in Iceland; for anyone looking to make a fortune out of them, this was the place to be. For years, people argued over why the Norse chose to live in a hazardous climate and how they managed to prosper there. They relied on farming, fishing, and trading to exist, but a recent study revealed a particular trade good may have contributed to either their wealth or demise: walrus ivory. Although it may not have much significance to us today, it was a valuable gift befitting a king. This article will explore the tragic story behind the walrus extinction in Iceland and other interesting facts.

Is Ivory Present in Walrus Teeth?

*Icelandic Walruses

Walrus ivory is distinguished by a marbled-appearing central core surrounded by a smooth, creamy white dentine coating.

©Liliya Butenko/

Since the Middle Ages, carvings of art objects have been made in North America, Europe, and Asia using walrus teeth, which have a composition comparable to that of ivory. Although walrus teeth are considered ivory, their diminutive size makes them of little commercial value today.

Walrus ivory is distinguished by a marbled-appearing central core surrounded by a smooth, creamy white dentine coating. Tusks can weigh up to 15 pounds and grow up to 1-2 feet in length.

How Did Vikings Hunt the Icelandic Walrus to Extinction?


A thousand years ago, walrus tusks were a valuable commodity.

©Design Projects/

In the Middle Ages and the Viking Age, walrus ivory was a luxury product in great demand and was traded widely throughout Europe. Tusks with exquisite decorations have been found as far away as the Middle East and India. The tusks and the leather were both in a growing market. The walrus skin was used to make rope, while the tusks were used as ornaments in the cathedral. The most likely explanation why Norse people eventually settled in Greenland was walrus hunting. The Vikings’ ship technology allowed them to travel great distances for both commercial and raiding purposes.

Today, walrus tusks may not mean much, but 1,000 years ago, they were a valuable commodity that drove people from northern Europe to leave their entire lives behind and voyage thousands of miles crossing the Atlantic Ocean to live in Greenland to participate in the lucrative walrus tusk trade. It has now been established that the extinct huge mammal existed around 1,100 years ago, or around the time the Vikings became the first known modern people to enter the North Atlantic island. That’s some coincidence, don’t you think?

To be clear, no one is blatantly blaming the long-dead Nordic sailors for wiping out the unique Icelandic walrus. Iceland’s environment is not the most favorable, with a battle between fire and ice being fought by volcanoes and glaciers, which may have killed the slow-reproducing giants. The walruses, however, had long since grown accustomed to the local environment. The most likely explanation is that they were exterminated by the Vikings, who hunted and ate the big, slow-moving creatures and traded their tusks to the point of driving them to extinction. Without the walruses, seals dominate Iceland’s biggest animal population.

Was There a Population in Iceland Before the Vikings Arrived?

northern lights Iceland

Irish monks had lived in Iceland before the arrival of the Vikings.

©Thampitakkull Jakkree/

Without a doubt, Icelanders are descended from the Vikings. Irish monks had lived in Iceland before the arrival of the Vikings, but they had subsequently given up on the remote and difficult terrain and left the nation without leaving behind even a recorded name. As a result, when the Vikings first came to the realm of ice and fire, they tried their best to give it a name that would endure. Documents mention concepts like Thule, Snaeland, and Gardarsholmi, but none of them really took off.

Eventually, a daughter of a Viking named Flóki Vilgerarson drowned while traveling to Iceland, and as the winter stretched on, all of his livestock perished from starvation. When Flóki, depressed and disappointed, ascended a mountain, he was surprised to see a fjord filled with icebergs, which gave the island its new name. 

Why Did the Norse Vanish?

The disappearance of the Norse settlements took place in the 1400s, sometime after the Black Death and the Little Ice Age had devastated European life. These significant occurrences might have caused the Europeans to turn their focus away from walrus ivory, leaving the Norse with a trading gap they could not fill.

Other things may have contributed to the Norse’s demise besides the loss of the walrus ivory trade. According to some, factors including climate change, the devastation of Norse farms owing to increasing sea levels, and the separation from Norway, a significant trading partner, all played a role. However, no one is aware of what struck the fatal blow.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Mikhail Cheremkin/

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About the Author

For six years, I have worked as a professional writer and editor for books, blogs, and websites, with a particular focus on animals, tech, and finance. When I'm not working, I enjoy playing video games with friends.

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