What Did Eskimos Eat?

In the early 1900s, the anthropologist/explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, after living with Eskimos for a long time, returned to tell Americans what he had learned about nutrition. Eskimos ate meat almost exclusively, he said, which contradicted the usual emphasis, then as now, on diversity and fruits and vegetables. Yet Eskimos were healthy. Eskimo diet became even more fascinating when it was realized they had very low rates of heart disease — much lower than Danes, for example. In the 1970s, two Danish doctors, Bang and Dyerberg, found that Eskimos had large amounts of omega-3 fats in their blood, much more than Danes; that was the beginning of the current interest in omega-3 and the idea that fish and fish oil are “heart-healthy”.

As I pointed out earlier, discussions of the Eskimo diet have ignored the fermented food they ate. Here’s what Stefansson said in 1935:

I like fermented (therefore slightly acid) whale oil with my fish as well as ever I liked mixed vinegar and olive oil with a salad. . . .

There were several grades of decayed fish. The August catch had been protected by longs from animals but not from heat and was outright rotten. The September catch was mildly decayed. The October and later catches had been frozen immediately and were fresh. There was less of the August fish than of any other and, for that reason among the rest, it was a delicacy – eaten sometimes as a snack between meals, sometimes as a kind of dessert and always frozen, raw. . . .

[At first, Stefansson didn’t want to eat decayed fish.] While it is good form [in America] to eat decayed milk products and decayed game [well, well], it is very bad form to eat decayed fish. . . . If it is almost a mark of social distinction to be able to eat strong cheeses with a straight face and smelly birds with relish, why is it necessarily a low taste to be fond of decaying fish? On that basis of philosophy, though with several qualms, I tried the rotten fish one day, and if memory serves, liked it better than my first taste of Camembert. During the next weeks I became fond of rotten fish.

So Eskimos ate fermented whale oil and a lot of rotten fish. (“A lot” because if they didn’t eat a lot of it, Steffanson wouldn’t have felt pressure to eat it.) I had no idea that Americans used to eat decayed game.

15 Replies to “What Did Eskimos Eat?”

  1. About a month ago I began taking 1/2 teaspoon of fermented cod liver oil each day along with my 1/2 teaspoon of butter oil (both from Green Pastures). At first it was a bit yucky and difficult to get down without a chaser (e.g., some strong coffee). But now I don’t find the taste unpleasant, nor do I need to immediately cover up the taste in my mouth with a chaser. Actually, I sort of like it! It’s a great way to get fat soluble vitamins A and D as well as some omega 3s (DHA and EPA). The butter oil provides some vitamin K2 as well, along with some CLA and other stuff that Weston Price wrote about. I think, by the way, that Weston Price should get the first Nobel Prize in nutrition. He was WAY ahead of his time, and still very underappreciated.

  2. Wow, that “decayed game” reference is fascinating!

    The closest thing surviving in the culture is “aged” beef…and we find it much better than the fresh variety.

    I agree about the Nutrition Nobel, but fear it would go to Ancel Keys and the like. Hell, they’d give it to Suzanne Somers before Weston Price!

  3. @Aaron Blaisdell

    I also supplement with fermented cod liver oil and butter oil — but I cannot say I have noticed any sort of difference since taking them.

  4. I thought about getting the Green Pastures butter oil for my Vitamin K, but I couldn’t shake the suspicion that I would be buying a bottle of exorbitantly-overpriced ghee. If that’s all it is (and I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t say so, if it’s not), I’d rather just get Anchor Butter from NZ and save the $.

    (How can Green Pastures get away with selling that stuff without giving any indication of what’s in it????)

    Anyway, I went with Carlson’s K-2 capsules.

  5. We eat fermented herring here in Sweden. It’s called surströmming and when my housemates ate it, we had to be very careful to open it outside and dispose of any waste quickly because if we left bones overnight the smell would take days to get rid of. Doesn’t taste as bad as it smells though…but it’s not exactly a regular part of my diet.

  6. @ Patrick,

    I noticed a big improvement in a number of dimensions of my health and well-being when I began making nutritional adjustments about a year ago, but especially 6-months ago when I began taking high-vitamin cod liver oil and butter oil. Seth blogged about it about a month ago. I haven’t noticed any change since switching from the regular high-vitamin cod liver oil to the fermented kind, however. Perhaps I’m already at a ceiling effect and I’ve been taking a lot of fermented dairy (cheese, yogurt, kefir) daily.

  7. Fermented fish is also a delicacy in Iceland, as in Sweden. I’ve read that it’s also a delicacy in the South Pacific, though I don’t recall any specifics–perhaps Samoa? Don’t know how widespread fermented fish is across Polynesian culture. The ancient Romans were very fond of something called garum, which was a sauce made from fermented fish guts. Perhaps any culture that eats a lot of seafood will also have fermented fish in its cuisine? Does anyone know if Japanese cuisine uses fermented fish? How about southeast Asia, leaving aside nam pla? Others? Perhaps isolated islands such as Shetlands, Falklands?

  8. Sheila,

    I believe a lot of Aisan fish sauces are fermented, as are soy sauces. This of course applies to the traditional sauces, not their poor immitations commercially available in supermarkets.

  9. Just to let you know:

    Yes. The Japanese do eat fermented (rotten) fish. It was in fact the original form of Sushi if I remember correctly. Fish would be stored with fermented rice for a long time, then eaten. The rice was discarded and not eaten. It is is still a delicacy I beleive.

    I also think that in some parts of Malaysia or Thailand they eat fermented fish. Obviously there will be a lot of similarities of diet and crossover from culture to culture in that area.

    Thinking about it…. Im sure in Korea they eat some fermented fish as well.

  10. > There were several grades of decayed fish. The August catch had been protected by longs from animals but not from heat and was outright rotten.

    ‘by longs’ ~> ‘by logs’? But where would Eskimo get wood logs to cover up their fish?

    Luke: I’m sure they do. If nothing else, the pervasiveness of kimchi probably means there are dishes where one tosses in some fish into the kimchi fermentation jars.

  11. There are no trees on the north coast of Alaska, but stray logs from logging operations further south frequently wash up on their beaches, and would have done in 1935.

    I’m not convinced that “longs” == “logs” though.

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