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Norse Fish Update

Bigwig is likewise skeptical about the "no fish" thesis, but Mads Kvalsvik informs us that while fish was eaten by the medieval norse, it was considered declassé which would at least provide a basis for the eventual development of a strong no-fish taboo among the settlers on Greenland. I hadn't realized, incidentally, that the extent of the settlements' isolation from Europe was so severe. Apparently, the Greenlanders didn't have the capacity to build boats (not enough trees) and eventually the Norwegian and Icelandic traders stopped showing up. I suppose strange things could happen to a very small number of people completely cut off from their cultural roots and all of a sudden confronted with an alien (i.e., Inuit) cultural presence.

UPDATE: Having scanned the two relevant chapters of Collapse I can report that Diamond is well aware that non-Greenland Norse ate plenty of fish. Indeed, he uses this fact to bolster his archeological evidence. "Fish bones account for much less than 0.1 % of animal bones recovered at Greenland Norse archeological sites, compared to between 50 and 95 % at most contemporary Iceland, northern Norway, and Shetland sites." More to the point, the fish argument isn't actually central to the argument Diamond is trying to make about the Greenland Norse. Roughly speaking, his take is that over time the environmental damage of the Norse lifestyle, combined with climactic change, rendered said lifestyle unviable. At roughly the same time, the Norse lost their trade connections with Europe, and with it their access to iron, and thus their main technological edge over the Inuit. The point about cultural conservatism is that to survive under the circumstances, the colonists would have needed to adopt the Inuit lifestyle in a much more far-reaching way (kayaks, igloos, some kind of special seal-killing harpoon) than simply eating some fish, and this is what they were unable or unwilling to do. That all seems perfectly plausible and understable however which way the fish thing turns out.

December 28, 2004 | Permalink

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Tracked on Jan 4, 2005 3:53:57 PM

Comments

Jane Smiley wrote a pretty good novel called The Greenlanders about what happened when the ships stopped showing up.

Posted by: William Burns | Dec 28, 2004 2:38:41 PM

I'm a little unclear on the mystery to be solved. The adults didn't all have to die at once for the settlement to disappear. They just had to fail to replace their population. Even if they tried to adapt their diet and lifestyle to a changing climate, they would probably have a higher rate of infant mortality as well as a shorter adult lifespan.

The Inuits had a much longer period of time to adapt to the climate. Who knows how many failed migrations occurred before a group of people settled on the right formula for subsistence in a place like that?

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Dec 28, 2004 2:47:13 PM

The lack of boats (due to the lack of wood) would have made it more diffiuclt to catch fish. Of course, one can cast nets from the shore, but perhaps a combination of that difficulty, along with their anti-fish eating bias carried over from from the homeland, might have kept them from trying.

How did the medieval norse make fishing nets? If it required wood or fibers from mature trees, that could also be part of the explanation.

I, too liked Smiley's novel. Not exactly a "feel-good" read, but very compelling.

Posted by: Dan F | Dec 28, 2004 3:26:28 PM

"the Greenlanders didn't have the capacity to build boats (not enough trees) and eventually the Norwegian and Icelandic traders stopped showing up."

How did the Norse of the time fish? If they fished from shore, fine. If they fished from boats, you might have stumbled onto something here. I am just speculating here, but I would wager that they became such a great seafaring people because of the necessity to use boats.

Posted by: Njorl | Dec 28, 2004 3:30:14 PM

Heh, Dan F. was a little faster.

Posted by: Njorl | Dec 28, 2004 3:31:19 PM

Has it occurred to you that maybe some of us (particularly us northerners) are just smarter and don't bite?

Posted by: Mr. Fish | Dec 28, 2004 3:37:51 PM

I find the whole line reasoning here very fishy indeed!

(sorry couldn't resist...)

Posted by: Tim Freeman | Dec 28, 2004 3:44:34 PM

The "they didn't adapt" theory begs the question of how such a post-Norse culture could have both remained identifiably Norse and have adapted as radically as was apparently required by the circumstances. It appears that some people did adapt, intermarry, and lose their Norse identity. Some people probably moved away. And some people died. But to imagine a bunch of canoe-paddling, sealskin-wearing, non-agricultural, harpoon-lugging, Norse speaking blondies is just silly.

Posted by: Christopher | Dec 28, 2004 3:45:24 PM

The point about cultural conservatism is that to survive under the circumstances, the colonists would have needed to adopt the Inuit lifestyle in a much more far-reaching way (kayaks, igloos, some kind of special seal-killing harpoon) than simply eating some fish, and this is what they were unable or unwilling to do.

Ah--I had not seen this update. But the question remains about being identifiably Norse. I think there's a confusion here between the colony and the people. The colony was no longer viable, and no amount of adaptation was acceptable that did not embrace some kind of semi-nomadic lifestyle. And how are you going to learn this lifestyle in just two generations if you don't learn from and join the Inuits?

Posted by: Christopher | Dec 28, 2004 3:53:35 PM

Another good book about all of this is Farfarers by Farley Mowatt. The book is about the settling of Iceland, Greenland and Nova Scotia by European settlers who were trying to find land beyond the reach of the Vikings. His theory is that if you looked at the DNA of modern-day Native American peoples on the Atlantic seaboard of Canada you would find at least some European ancestry dating from the Viking ages. He admits the book is conjecture, but it does hold together and is a very good read.

Posted by: Mary R | Dec 28, 2004 4:27:32 PM

Matt,

Very much an egghead discussion. Pleased to see that a time when 50,000+ are killed in a natural disaster that should lead to deep reflection, we are focused on the Norse and their fish.

Posted by: Jacko | Dec 28, 2004 4:37:40 PM

Pleased to see that a time when 50,000+ are killed in a natural disaster that should lead to deep reflection, we are focused on the Norse and their fish.

Is not thinking about Greenland going to bring those people back to life?

Posted by: P.B. Almeida | Dec 28, 2004 4:45:15 PM

Here's a suggestion Jacko, over the coming days and years, everytime someone says something less important than 50,000+ dead, tell them what they say is relatively unimportant to you. Have a nice life.

Posted by: PD Shaw | Dec 28, 2004 4:54:50 PM

Paul Callahan: A plausible mechanism is not the same as a definitive explanation. Perhaps they failed to replace themselves, perhaps they assimilated with the Inuits, perhaps something else happened. The question is which?

Jacko: Huh?

Posted by: Walt Pohl | Dec 28, 2004 5:07:09 PM

If we don't talk about Greenland then the tsunami wins.

[/countering banal political correctness with an idiocy of proportional stature]

Posted by: Nick Kaufman | Dec 28, 2004 5:10:04 PM

May the Norse be with you. I'm w. Jacko. An intellectual exercise leading to . . . absolutely nothing. Matt should get back to discussing issues of more pressing relevance - not necessarily the Tsunami, but anything less soporific. Please, Matt, I beg thee.

Posted by: Gloogli | Dec 28, 2004 5:23:37 PM

I'm w. Jacko. An intellectual exercise leading to . . . absolutely nothing.

Ummm...no. The question of whether and how a society committing ecological suicide can either change its destructive practices or adapt to the consequences is, to put it mildly, pretty goddamn important right now.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Dec 28, 2004 5:29:36 PM

It takes a shallow (all too godly?) mind to believe the proper response to a huge natural disaster is "deep" thinking. What we need is some practical thinking about (1) how to minimize the follow-on casualties from disease and (2) how to protect people against future calamities of this kind.

Posted by: aretino | Dec 28, 2004 5:31:10 PM

Aretino - Deep thinking is not the "only" response. Points (1) and (2) are indeed the most immediate responses, but it probably takes a shallow and all too ungodly mind not to at least think about this calamity in philosophical/spiritual terms.

Posted by: caligula | Dec 28, 2004 5:34:40 PM

So, its becoming more and more clear that the Norse did not have a "cultural taboo" against eating fish. Did the New Yorker misstate or exagerate Diamond?

Posted by: PD Shaw | Dec 28, 2004 5:39:50 PM

May the Norse be with you. I'm w. Jacko. An intellectual exercise leading to . . . absolutely nothing.

Nothing, maybe, accept enjoyable, interesting discussion. I like to think of the blogosphere as our day's equivalent of the salons of Paris. The reason people participate is that such discussions are, well, enjoyable. Anyone who finds such topics boring is free to pass on commenting.

Posted by: P.B. Almeida | Dec 28, 2004 5:49:28 PM

You know, some of us don't keep the deep thinking on ice until some natural or man-made disaster befalls the human species...

Posted by: oodja | Dec 28, 2004 5:59:50 PM

A plausible mechanism is not the same as a definitive explanation. Perhaps they failed to replace themselves, perhaps they assimilated with the Inuits, perhaps something else happened. The question is which?

I agree. I just meant that it is unsurprising that the Norse failed to establish permanent settlements in a harsh environment. It's interesting to study the exact circumstances of failure, but once the climate changed, their ability to hang on as a society depended on more than just a willingness to eat fish. It doesn't sound as if the settlement was self-sufficient even when the climate was hospitable. The chance of it becoming self-sufficient after the trading ships stopped coming seem almost nil.

The greater mystery to me is that a people like the Inuit exist at all. It's explainable, but only over a very long period of time in which any possible survivable niche--however improbable--may be discovered and exploited. Almost nobody with memories or recent records of living in an agrarian society would adopt the Inuit lifestyle willingly--and that goes for any other method of surviving using only homemade tools. To expect the Norse to adapt is a stretch.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Dec 28, 2004 6:01:08 PM

I pity the mind which insists on a spiritual "meaning" for a natural calamity which kills tens of thousands of people.

Posted by: aretino | Dec 28, 2004 6:30:27 PM

The Irish peasantry didn't fish during the famines of the 1840's, even though the waters were teeming. The reason seems to be that fishing takes more capital than they ever had -- no boats, no nets, none of the relevant skills.

Posted by: SqueakyRat | Dec 28, 2004 6:45:29 PM

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