Why aren't all the eskimoes dead?

My 6th grade teacher taught me that eskimoes subsist on a diet of fish, seal and whale blubber (ugh) because they couldn’t grow food where they live. My 7th grade science teacher taught that British sailors had to eat limes or they would die of scurvy because they didn’t have fresh green food. So, why haven’t all the eskimoes die of scurvy?

Jeesh. You believe everything your teachers tell and trust them to tell you everything?

Obvious WAGs are:

  1. Trade. Blubber is a valuable fat.
  2. Nomadic lifestyle. People move around living in warmer climates during part of the year. When they are in places that grow food, they preserve some of it and take it back with them.

Of course, in the modern world you’ve got airplanes and canned goods and vitamins.

Unlike the sailors in the early days of European expansion, eskimoes do not dry and salt their meat. (They hardly cook it, as well.) Fresh meat provides enough vitamin C to prevent scurvy.

(Of course, starvation was always a threat for eskimoes, because they relied on finding game to survive. If the game was not plentiful in a given year, they were out of luck.)

(BTW, the limes that the sailors ate were insufficient to prevent scurvy. Lemons and oranges had enough vitamin C, but limes did not. Unfortunately for the men of the Royal Navy, the procurement officers discovered that limes were much cheaper than lemons and oranges, so after an initial success in suppressing scurvy with a wide range of fruit, they stocked up on limes. The association of citrus fruit with the prevention of scurvy was identified by James Lind in 1757 (and had been known anecdotally by the Dutch almost 200 years earlier), but the actual chemical analysis and identification of vitamins was not made until about 150 years later. The sailors, therefore suffered the double indignity of being called “limeys” for their diet, and suffering the same ills they always had.

The “secret” is that Eskimoes eat most of their fish and meat raw, or at best only lightly cooked (“Eskimo” is an Algonquian word meaning “raw fish eater”). Raw fish and meat contain all of the necessary vitamins, including vitamin C (ascorbic acid). Sushi and carpaccio notwithstanding, the eating of raw meat is uncommon elsewhere, particularly among 18th century British sailors.

Pretty much the same thing everyone else said, but I typed it, and I have a cite, so I’m going to post it anyway.

Most mammals (the exceptions are primates) synthesize their own vitamin C–that’s why carnivores don’t get scurvy. Somewhere along the way, humans lost this handy ability, so we have to eat things that have vitamin C in them. Any mammal that needs vit. C to survive (including seals and whales) will have the vitamin in their tissues, so it’s possible to get all the C you need by eating meat. There’s a catch, though–vitamin C breaks down in cooking, so you have to eat the meat raw to avoid scurvy. The sailors cooked their meat, so they had to get their C from a different (uncooked) source–fruit.

Humans can obrain all of the vitamins they need from a diet of raw meat. This was confirmed experimentally in 1928. A Google search on “Eskimo” and “scurvy” will provide more references.

I lived in Alaska for four years, and like most people my eyes were opened to the misconceptions. We tend to think only of Nanook of the North, frozen, snow-covered vistas, etc. Truth is, Alaska has an honest-to- goodness summer, temps range up in the mid-seventies or so, and has various climate diffeences in different parts of the state (it’s a damned big state, doncha know?). I don’t recall, but it would seem to me that there would be diferent native fruits, etc, more than just blubber (tastes nasty, folks, my opinion).

As one poster pointed out, Eskimo is not a native word, and though it’s nowhere nearly as offensive as the “n-word,” it’s sort of on that scale. I recall, early on, being told by someone that if I insisted on “tribalizing” them, to please use Inuit (just one of several cultures). Also, I was laughed at for saying “snowmobile,” and was told that “snow machine” was preferred. No idea why.


the eskimoe diet is a common refrence on low carb list-serves to prove that a low carb - high fat/protein diet exists even today.

[hijack] If cooking destroys Vitamin C, does that mean we must eat fresh (uncooked) vegetables or fruits every day? Somehow I never thought to differentiate between the nutritional values of cooked vs. uncooked vegetables. [/hijack]

Something my mammy told me, and she’s a smart lady with a biology degree – heating breaks down Vitamin C in foods, but it’s not an instantaneous process. If you like your vegetables soggy, you ain’t gonna get much C (or many other nutrients, either). The worst thing you can do to your spaghetti sauce is heat it in an aluminum pot. The aluminum, with heat, acts as a catalyst and greatly speeds up the breakdown of the Vitamin C.


So how do the Inuit people escape heart disease/arteriosclerosis? One would think that a diet high in animal fat 9whale blubber) would be death for most people. of course, maybe most of these people didn’t make it much past age 55-so the symptoms of heart disease nver showed up. Another interesting people-the Masia tribes men of kenya-they are cattle herders, and apparently, they eat nothing but milk and cattle blood 9they never slaughter their catlle for meat). They seem to get by without vegetables.

Lots of exercise and much lower daily stress.

The diet of many farming communities in the U.S. throughout the nineteenth century was also very high in saturated fats although they did not have a high incidence of heart disease. The same factors apply in both situations. Farming is a labor-intensive occupation even today. Prior to International Harvester and Oliver and Ford, farming involved constant labor. Most of the ill affects associated with a high-fat diet are not the result of simply eating the food, but of eating the food and then not “working it off.”

I have heard that stress plays a very great role in heart disease. A number of people report that modern North American stress levels are much higher than most other societies. At this point, I’m just passing on what I’ve heard. I’m not sure why we, who do not have to worry constantly about whether there will be game to eat or whether the weather and insects will allow us to harvest a crop, have more stress than our predecessors or neighbors, but that is the frequently stated opinion of a number of people who comment on health.

Oh, and as to Eskimo vs Inuit: it depends. As noted, Alaska is a big place (and Canada is decent sized, as well). In general, it seems that Inuit is the preferred term among the eastern peoples, with a range extending into Alaska, however, Eskimo appears to be preferred by a number of people (but certainly not all) at the farther western ranges. The several Aleutian guys I met were divided between preferring Eskimo or Aleut, but they were unanimous in their repugnance of Inuit. (I knew them far away from Alaska and I have not actually polled any groups to record their preferences.)

Yeah, but they could squeeze a lime or two into their daily tot of Navy Rum, and mix in a little sugar and a lot of ice from nearby floes. Nothin’ like a few frozen daiquiris to make those indignities easier to handle.


I’m not sure which period of British history you’re describing, tomndebb, but your post is inconsistent with what I understand to be true of the 19th century.

The fruit referred to as “limes” by the British Admiralty were lemons. All of the Royal Navy’s grandly stupid adventures to the Arctic, looking for either the North Pole or the Northwest Passage, had limes (lemons) on the stores manifests, and scurvy was never a problem until/unless they ran out.

Except for the one time when the misnomer got them into trouble: actual limes were provided, which have only half as much Vitamin C as lemons. Everyone got scurvy.

A pre-20th century British reference to “limes” really means lemons. My source for this is Pierre Berton’s book The Arctic Grail.

One earlier discussion in the case of Eskimo v. Inuit was in Comments for Cecil, in this thread :

What I learned coincides with what TomnDebb said.

Please continue with your scurvy talk.

It is entirely possible that what I read (it’s been a few years) was a corruption of this story expanded to be made into a general situation. The time period I was reading about was just after the Napoleanic Wars (and beginning before they ended), but the author may have been introducing subject matter from the wrong period or event(s). I’ll see if I can find my source at home, this evening.

Holy shit! This book is back in print?!? WOW!

Everybody with any interest in Arctic exploration, 18th-19th century maritime history, and just plain Weird Shit, stop what you’re doing NOW and go out and buy this book!!!

I have a copy of the old 1988 Viking hardcover, which stayed in print for about five minutes. I’m delighted to see this baby available again…hell, I’m gonna buy the paperback just to have an extra copy!

Regarding limes and the Royal Navy, on The Development of Preventive Medicine in the Royal Navy I found the following line that mentions that limes were officially substituted, but then notes that the only scurvy outbreak was on an Arctic expedition:

It would appear that while the Royal Navy did screw up, the shorter voyages of the latter half of the 19th century mitigated their error and my original statement was too broad an indictment.

From sources I read, circumpolar people (for lack of a better term) tend to have low levels of heart disease because, as mentioned here earlier, they exercise and lead a less stressful lifestyle. Another factor is that there isn’t a lot of smoking among this group. And of course, genetics is always helpful in matters like this.

The bigger public health problems are alcoholism, drowning, and suicide.

The average lifespan for a male in Greenland is 60.3 years.

Wouldn’t those “people of the North” get a lot of the good kind of fat from all the fish they eat? (My hunch is that heart disease is not really caused by eating fat anyway. It used to be claimed that eating eggs causes high cholesterol, but that’s not true.)