Most People seem to agree that we cannot and do not want to go back to the past, but the reason given is often wrong; that time has moved on and what was can never be again. The truth is that we cannot go back to what we never left. Our home is the earth, our time the Pleistocene Ice Ages. The past is the formula for our being.
(Paul Shepard)

Monday, 2 January 2012

my life with the eskimo


When we look at the lifeways of our Paleolithic ancestors in Ice age Europe comparisons are often drawn with the Inuit. There are quite a number of major differences between the modern arctic and subarctic and Upper Paleolithic Europe (UPE) but Inuit are still perhaps the closest we have to humans living in the UPE environment. The ecosystems of the UPE changed over the millenia but can be characterised as being relatively open Savannah or plains type environments with extreme cold. There are no modern analogues to dry mammoth grassland steppe but we can say that tundra is quite a rich ecosystem for big game with a biomass of 440-800 kg per km2 (compare with 80-600Kg for boreal forest). It is likely that the Dry mammoth steppe of the magdalenian reindeer hunters was richer in biomass than modern tundra.
Like Inuit UPE hunters would have exploited animal sources of food extensively even exclusively in some seasons so the preferences and practices of Inuit can shed some light on the distant past, always remembering that Inuit are not fossils and have had meaningful interactions with other Native Americans and Europeans for millenia. The Inuit (frequently referenced by paleo-diet types) are also worth looking at in-depth as they are frequently fought over in the "diet wars". UPE Diets high in animal protein have been reveled by tooth isotopes taken from UPE hunters.

One analysis if this could be that the hunters were eating way more meat than the foxes or indeed eating carnivores as the Inuit do. Taken from Dr Eades blog.


I bought Vilhjalmur Stefansson book "my life with the Eskimo" it is available online but I felt it was worth owning a hard copy as I wold use it for reference. I have a real penchant for the North and Arctic travel and I found this book absolutely fascinating and it is one of the few books I have managed to get totally engrossed in (and finish) since my daughter was born.
Beside being an arctic explorer V.Stefansson also proved his claim (against great scepticism) that man could live by meat and fat alone, now just to rescue him a wee bit and to direct you, gentle reader, to Anthony Colpo's brilliant blog V. Steffanson did die at the age of 82 of a stroke. He died in 1962 (at an age above modern U.S life expectancy in 2012) But he certainly wasn't a diet guru he was an explorer.
The book; the book is mostly dealt with his travels around the arctic collecting samples for museums I won't bore you with a long synopsis as you can just go out and buy the book. I will look at hunting in the Arctic and foods exploited by the Inuit. Steffanson says that the Inuit are in no way possessed of a fantastic ability to live in their environment and says that in a few years an outsider will have learnt all he needs to know to live there. Inuit are in general very pleasant but are not overly keen on travel or "adventure" He really seems to have been respectful of them, he states that the more acculturated or dependent the Indians or Inuit got to western life the worse they become, he is also massively critical of the negative effects "civilisation" had on their lives particularly religion. Guns ,he says, have hugely unbalanced things and as a consequence of this (and commercial hunting) game was becoming scarce. he manged to find some Inuit to whom he was the first westerner to visit  they used bows and lived more or less unaffected by western civilisation.

Fat was prized highly over meat indeed hair soaked in seal oil was preferred over lean caribou (which made them ill) he gives the hunting range of Inuit archers at a staggering 75 yards! As many animals were killed as possible and were cached against bears,wolves and wolverines. Wolves are rated as very edible.

Hunting a big herd of caribou (as is likely to have happened in UPE) is described in some depth
" tannaumirk according started, but when he got a mile or so on his way, he saw a place where the caribou were crossing the frozen river coming down a steep bank. As they did so it occurred to him that if he were to hide under the cut bank he would be able to stab the caribou as they passed. The animals were too quick for him however; and although (..) he was several times able to touch them with the point of his knife(..) he then went and cut down a stout willow and made a long spear-handle for his knife. He is very sure that if he done this in the first place he would have killed many caribou".

(hunting in severe cold) " wherever the animals were you could discover their presence by clouds of steam coming of them (..) if an animal ran past he left behind him a cloud of steam over his trail an marking it plainly for a mile (..) they could not only hear my footsteps (at a mile) but could even tell the difference in the sounds of my footsteps and the hundreds of caribou that were walking about at the same time"

" there are plenty of macu roots (..) people eat plenty of them"

" on may 17th (..) we shot some sea gulls near cape lyon. Otherwise we lived entirely on seals"

Fat caribou " the time (late July) had now come when the caribou might be expected to have some fat on their backs and the skins were becoming more suitable for clothing (..) toward the end of July the skin becomes of the right thickness while by October it has become too thick(..) hides taken in September and October are only used in emergencies or as bedding (..) many Eskimo claim to be able to pick out the fat caribou from a herd by observing the shape of their horns (sic) this is probably merely the ability to distinguish between the sexes in a herd at the different seasons.(...) in the fall before the rutting season the old bulls had the greatest quantities of fat In midwinter all the bulls were poor while the cows often had considerable fat. Towards the spring the young bulls began to pick up a little fat while the cows fell away (....) the largest slab of back fat which have ever seen taken from caribou (a bull killed in September) weighing 39 pounds. A large bull killed in October had back fat 72mm in thickness (..) must have weighed 50 pounds. the thicker the back fat of a caribou is the richer it is in proportion-the amount of connective tissue remaining the same, and the additional weight consisting of intestinal fat."


" I quite agree with hanbury when he says there is no way of telling about caribou migrations-when they will come or just when they will pass. It is a certain thing though that the time at which the freeze up of the lakes and rivers occurs with reference to the first coming of autumn has a marked influence on the direction of migration."
" the eskimo of coronation gulf have no firearms and kill caribou by driving them between two long rows of rock monuments into an ambush or into lakes where the caribou are pursued and speared from kayaks . two or three stones or a bunch of turf placed on top of a rock two or three feet high (..) extending for miles and ending in some valley or gulch.(the caribou when alarmed) become confused and do not venture across the mounds (..) as the caribou approach the people display themselves the herd ( rushes to the ambush) where concealed bowmen have the opportunity to shoot them at very close range (..) caribou drives are everywhere (..) caribou hunting requires nothing more than patience and hard work (..) the superiority of the Eskimo is mainly in their) willingness to spend unlimited time in approaching his quarry"

" rabbits shot by the men and ptarmigan snared and fish hooked by the women"
" musk oxen are so readily killed, often to the last animal in a herd, that the species cannot hold it's own against the most primitive of weapons"
" the western Eskimo sometimes catch seal in nets under the ice(..) wait at the hole for the seal to come up to breath then kill it with a spear (..) in all districts Inuit rely on seal for their fatty food"

Plant foods; Stefansson says Inuit eat about 10% of their diet from plant foods with that percent increasing through Alaska. Unless UPE reindeer were fattier (quite possible given improved range and potential lower human population/predation) or they obtained fat from another source, some carbohydrate source would be required by UPE hunters to avoid "rabbit starvation". It could be that the greater reliance on marine resources (in some locales) in the Upper paleolithic could be from seals or fatty fish.
foods eaten
polygonum bistortum










polygonum viviparum










polygonum fugax
"masu only when there is a shortage of animal food edible raw or cooked and have sweetish taste but are woody and fibrous, eaten in a fermented state on the colville river."
rubus chamaemus













mairania alpina










emptrum nigrum









"leaves of oxyria digyna fried in seal oil and eaten as a salad."



"frozen reindeer stomach eaten in winter one which has eaten reindeer moss is prefered. As with most other viands eaten with seal oil."





there's also quite abit in there about beards being a positive hazard in the Arctic! unexpected

1 comment:

  1. The back slab alone would have accounted for 159,210 calories, while the estimated 50lb slab would have been 204,116 calories. Though unusually big, reindeer represent a hugely important source of calories.

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