New research has brought to light two amazing facts about pre-settlement Iceland: there was once a special “breed” of Icelandic walrus which was abundant across West Iceland, and the dawn of earnest settlement of the island heralded the end of the creature.
Fréttablaðið reports that the research was a joint effort of the University of Iceland, the University of Copenhagen, and the Icelandic Museum of Natural History, where the genetic material of some 300 hundred walrus bones found in Iceland was examined.
This genetic material contained particular mutations that are not found anywhere else in the world, indicating that this walrus population was particular to Iceland. By their estimates, the walruses, which inhabited the Icelandic coastline pretty much exclusively in the west, may have been here from as far back as 6,000 years BCE.
In a story that brings to mind such creatures as the great auk and the dodo, humankind would end up spelling the downfall of the creature. When the first settlers began to arrive in Iceland in the 9th century, the walruses were hunted enthusiastically. So enthusiastically, in fact, that the Vikings almost single-handedly wiped out the Icelandic walrus stock.
Today, walruses do on occasion find their way to Icelandic shores. In fact, there are some walrus populations in Greenland and Svalbard which bear some genetic similarities with the old Icelandic stock. The Icelandic settlers might not have cut down all of the country’s trees, as is popularly contended, but they are quite definitively the reason why there’s no such thing as an Icelandic walrus today.