Did the Greenland colonists really starve to death rather than eat fish?

Jared Diamond makes much of the fact that so few remains of fish can be found in old Greenland middens, despite evidence that the colonists were eating their dogs and horses just before the end. Yet the people in Scandinavia eat fish, the people in Iceland eat fish, and starving people will eat anything they can chew and swallow. Could they really have been that diehard stubborn?

I have not yet gotten to this work by Diamond. What conclusion does he draw?

(My first thought would have been that something drove the fish off so that they could not catch any, but without knowing the context, I recognize that that is wild speculation.)

(Or they used fish remains to bait their hooks rather than throwing them in the midden–although I do not know that baiting was common among fishermen in that group.)

A link would help.

And I think Jared Diamond is overrated. The more of his stuff that I read, the less I think of him. I’m sure he does some good fundamental work, but his “big ideas” just seem too facile to me.

Its not likely that the earliest colonists were skilled fisherfolk. My understanding is that the Norse culture was strong on navigation, trade and raiding, but their food supply was heavily centered on farming and livestock. So they may not have so much disdained fish as didn’t know how to catch enough.

You learned a few things from those Scandahoovians in MN, eh? :slight_smile:

I learned this: that when people are typically calm and placid, it takes a while to figure out that they’re totally batshit.

Perhaps there were no fish to eat? Or perhaps it was impossible to catch the fish? In a severe winter, the ice may have been too thick.

They were living side by side, practically, with natives who did just fine. The settlers just did not adapt. They did not learn how to fish in the winter and they stuck to their spear technology for fishing rather than adopt the sophisticated harpoon tech of the natives.

The bottom line is they all died while the natives lived because they did not adapt their lifestyle to the changing conditions.

Link 1

Link 2

The idea I got from the book was that preserving their European identity was more important to the Norse than surviving. Inuit were surviving in the same conditions right along side the Vikings, but they died rather than take tips from the dirty natives. Having a cultural distaste for fish – I’m assuming similar to Americans’ distaste for dog – didn’t help any either. In the end they just refused to adapt.

I thought there was some evidence that due to encroaching ice several of the more usable fishing ports were closed down for a good percentage of the year, and unlike the natives the colonists fishing boats required more of that infrastructure to be effective. Of course, I saw this on the History Channel, so…


It happened because, however hard they tried, they could never seem to catch any lutefisk.

You’re new to Minnesota, eh?

Actually, I’ve always thought the opposite. His big ideas are really interesting, but he doesn’t do as much of the fundamental work as I’d like to see. He seems to be utterly convinced of his own conclusions and to depend on his own conclusions as absolute facts to support more conclusions, even when they’re based on relatively scant evidence and shaky connections.

They ran out of spam.

The archaeological data, as reproduced by Thomas McGovern in his chapter on the demise of the Greenland settlement in the excellent Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga (Smithsonian, 2000), ed. by Fitzhugh and Ward, is certainly striking. The proportion of fish remains is essentially negligible.
However, his broader comparisons (see, especially, his figures 25.6-9) confuse the issue as to whether this should be expected. There are periods and locations within the Viking diaspora where a fish diet was dominant: for example, Norway and the north of Iceland in the 9th century. But in the south of Iceland in the same period they were mainly eating birds and no fish. The Greenland diet of mainly caribou and seals has no parallel, but McGovern suggests that the data generally supports the generalisation that the Vikings adapted to whatever the locally available food supply was. That hardly fits with Diamond’s views on their diet, but neither does it explain their demise. However, his broader conclusions more or less match: the settlers were a traditionally orientated society who couldn’t ultimately adapt to an essentially difficult environment.

By contrast, in the same volume Joel Berglund, but in the context of describing the Farm Under the Sand, suggests:

Have fish remains been found among the Norse ruins at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland?

Minnesotans are firm, Iowans are stubborn, Texans are pig-headed fools.

My old boss, a somewhat well-known population biologist, has a pretty low professional opinion of Jared Diamond because he remembers when he came out against the neutral theory of biodiversity (which my boss attributes to his lack of sophistification and familiarity with complex mathematics). I’m thinking a lot of his deterministic hypotheses in GGS probably grate a lot of evolutionary biologists. .

I’m sure he annoyed specialists in every area of science where he presumed to have an opinion. JD is being a generalist, pulling together disparate threads into a very large thesis (a lot of which I find persuasive…it helps explain why the Cherokee don’t rule the world…).

There is no academic discipline for generalistic studies like his, no Ph.D. can be awarded. But I insist that there is a legitimate place for such studies as his, to boldly, even recklessly, put forth an overarching scheme to connect the scattered dots of data. You should expect mistakes, if you don’t find them, you’re not looking hard enough, or you don’t have the specialized knowledge to spot them.

The way we structure scientific academics tends to stifle such grand theoretical adventures, to our loss. Bring 'em on, tear 'em up, bring on another one!