What 14th-century Greenland can teach Asian Islands 

African Elephants drove the Norse out of Greenland! Yes, that’s how tangled the interplay of transcontinental socioeconomic dynamics and sensitive environments can be. The intriguing historical puzzle of Norse disappearance from Greenland had eluded resolution, until late when an interdisciplinary approach seems to have done the trick – elucidated the disastrous effects of human indiscretion and imprudence. The new explanation holds lessons for us that are quite pertinent contemporarily.

Norse settlements that had been around on Greenland roughly since the 10th-century AD suddenly vanished without a trace from the records and continuity sometime after 1420. Dwindling temperatures in Greenland made an agrarian economy infeasible. The natural temperature decline when coupled with the Norse’s reaction to it led to their exit from the island. The denizens responded to their inability to sustain appreciable agriculture by wholly relying on Walrus hunting. Pastoralists and Cultivators all resorted to walrus-tusk procurement. In order to meet the timber and steel requirements, the famed blacksmiths and seafarers had a singular naturally-occurring exclusive resource to trade or barter – Walrus ivory. However, a challenge from the other side of the Mediterranean would make sure their bargain position would be further compromised.

University of Cambridge archaeologist James Barrett, the lead author of the paper published in Quaternary Science Reviews, stated detailing the study: “We suspect that decreasing values of walrus ivory in Europe meant more and more tusks were harvested to keep the Greenland colonies economically viable.” As trade with Africa flourished and expanded, Elephant ivory flooded European markets and societal tastes and aesthetics shifted.

Faced with the no-respite situation, the Norse had no choice but to quantitatively maximise their yield, given the low price they now received. In order to eke out a living, they embarked on quests for more and more ivory. They progressively hunted the walruses to nil in each area, and pushed northwards. As the walrus populations were gradually exhausted, the hunters kept moving. Eventually, most populations were either obliterated, or had not enough members to recover or sustain it. Ultimately, in their search of ivory, they reached so far north that no walruses could be found, and many of the seekers perished in the harsh, inhospitable semblance. Mind it that temperatures were naturally plummeting. Ultimately, most of the Vikings met either of two fates – Death or Emigration. The Norse sought short-term gratification and followed their instinct without investing thought. In fact, had they taken a lesson from their own history, as we can from them, they might have averted the crisis. Greenland was colonised by their migrating ancestors owing to overhunting of walruses in their native Iceland in the first place.

Today, geographically relatively secluded islands in the Indian Ocean as Mauritius, Maldives and Timor-Leste are bearing the brunt of climate change, mainly due to sea-level rise threatening inundation. As ocean contamination, warming and acidification upset reef ecosystems, fishermen are increasingly switching to commercial fishing, as large trawlers and expansive nets become an increasingly common sight. Timor-Leste’s grant of permission to massive Chinese fishing vessels which under the pretense of catching fishes haul thousands of sharks, has worsened the crisis. Asian islands have failed to diversify the economy and development is often equated with upscaling and expansion of mechanisation. Atauro island, lying at the heart of the ‘Coral Triangle’, a biodiversity bastion in the Ocean which has earned the sobriquet of “The World’s most biodiverse Island” is gravely threatened by overfishing. Serving as a fishing hotspot, its once plentiful reserves are now depleted beyond their ready-recovery threshold. The local population is traditionally supported by fishing but have resorted to extensive fishing means such as blast-fishing and poison-fishing – acts which are extremely detrimental to the overall health of the marine ecosystem in general as well. These fishing tactics, albeit appearing convenient in the short-term have severe insidious and indirect side-effects such as botching up normal mating, breeding, migration, coordination and behavioral patterns of fish schools, besides the obvious damage to the reefs they amount to. Fishing is competitive, disregarding the endemic, rare or novel status of the fish species and focussing only on the quantitative aspects to met demand and defeat competition. Akin to African ivory, artificial aquaculture is causing a lowering of rates while marine fishers continue to indiscriminately pursue trawling. International bodies have recommended that the locals be integrated into conservation efforts, extensive fishing be prohibited, and the area be turned into a marine reserve, generating a living for the locals by means of international ecotourism.

In the 1960s, in a desperate bid to stimulate the economy and revive export trade, the Indian government subsidised trawlers – large boats that haul fish using massive weighted nets that rake and scrape the seabed. These were extremely effective but vastly damaging to the seafloor and ecosystem and resulted in an ongoing informal maritime conflict between Sri Lankan and Indian fishermen and coastguards – a strife that has claimed scores of lives. Hauls initially soared before quickly depleting and never bouncing back owing to the lasting damage that had been dealt to the entire ecosystem.

The Swiss Watchmaking Industry has adapted to the new era by entering the Smart-Watch business while retaining its distinctive USP – a salient quality and intricate handicraft. Switzerland and Japan have overcome their natural ‘resource-curse’, diversified their economy, and fostered human-resource leading to a boom of the value addition sectors and the service sector. Similarly, Bangladesh has overcome its singular dependence on jute-production, and invested in skill-development and intellectual capital, setting a fine precedent for other monotonous economies.

What distinguished us from apes – that which enabled us to ascend to paramountcy among our beastly brethren, is lateral thinking and foresight. Unlike impetuous and prudentially-myopic apes, humans could make long-term decisions based on experiential prediction. This very forethought enables humans to invest a handful of seeds – sacrifice a portion of available food, time, labour and even emotional urges, to reap a far greater reward later. Delayed Gratification created agriculture. It also led us to cast food into the fire to cook it – render it tender, palatable and readily digestible. Chimpanzees who have demonstrated physical capabilities and even certain mental abilities exceeding humans, failed to override their instinct, idiosyncrasies and ‘in-the-now’ approach, which led to them to never get past using the crudest of tools, despite having an eidetic memory that well exceeds the short-term memory of humans in precision. Chimpanzees can remember multiple points of spatial information very distinctly for brief periods of time. This retention although very accurate is very shortlasting and is only concerned with the immediate well-being of the individual. The survivalist tendency is handy for discerning and escaping camouflaged predators and spotting potential mates in the wild at opportune times, but does not contribute to progressive development, given its high refresh rate. Today, in the era of climate-change, consumerism, partisanship, and conflict, humanity seems to be exhibiting a tantalisingly partial evolutionary atavism – as we regress to catering to urges, albeit collective and indirect ones, and seeking short-term gratification. Short attention spans and prompt fulfillment of spontaneous desires, in a consumerist and competitive, unplanned world, point to this retrograde psychosocial evolution. From our reluctance to seek alternatives to conventional, exhaustible resources to our general, lazy reliance on sheer number than quality, there is a lot to learn from the unsustainable brute-force economics of the Medieval Norse. When natural climate change is compounded by human excesses, more fatally if the former provokes the latter, a crisis becomes imminent – the Australian bushfires testify this. Our inflexibility and kneejerk reactionism to environmental vagaries and stresses further cripple the self-recovering ability and tenacity of ecosystems. This is what is happening with the fisheries of many isles in the Indian Ocean, where climate change is leading to precarious fishing prospects, and the desperate, impetuous and reckless reaction to which is causing further damage. Ultimately it is irresponsible and short-sighted human response to a global crisis that is worsening it, inching ecosystems closer and closer towards the critical tipping point.

Economic monotony, stagnation, and resource-curse were responsible for the Norse predicament. Perhaps, the Norse settlement extinction from Greenland can teach us a lesson or two about our current resource-extraction and production recklessness, economy-environment incompatibility and the importance of collective responsibility and globally-coordinated planning.

By Pitamber Kaushik, columnist, journalist, writer and researcher. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.