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Via Ross Douthat, Malcolm Gladwell reviews a new book from Jared Diamond:

This doesn’t mean that acts of God don’t play a role. It did get colder in Greenland in the early fourteen-hundreds. But it didn’t get so cold that the island became uninhabitable. The Inuit survived long after the Norse died out, and the Norse had all kinds of advantages, including a more diverse food supply, iron tools, and ready access to Europe. The problem was that the Norse simply couldn’t adapt to the country’s changing environmental conditions. Diamond writes, for instance, of the fact that nobody can find fish remains in Norse archeological sites. One scientist sifted through tons of debris from the Vatnahverfi farm and found only three fish bones; another researcher analyzed thirty-five thousand bones from the garbage of another Norse farm and found two fish bones. How can this be? Greenland is a fisherman’s dream: Diamond describes running into a Danish tourist in Greenland who had just caught two Arctic char in a shallow pool with her bare hands. “Every archaeologist who comes to excavate in Greenland . . . starts out with his or her own idea about where all those missing fish bones might be hiding,” he writes. “Could the Norse have strictly confined their munching on fish to within a few feet of the shoreline, at sites now underwater because of land subsidence? Could they have faithfully saved all their fish bones for fertilizer, fuel, or feeding to cows?” It seems unlikely. There are no fish bones in Norse archeological remains, Diamond concludes, for the simple reason that the Norse didn’t eat fish. For one reason or another, they had a cultural taboo against it.
Sobering stuff, but is it true? Based on my brief stays in Finland and Iceland, modern-day nordic people seem to eat plenty of fish. And then there's the infamous lutefisk. This website about Vikings in Scotland says they ate "Things like root vegetables, barley, wheat, oats, rye, bread, apples, pears, cherries, assorted berries, greens like cabbage and lambs lettuce, fish, shellfish, hare (not rabbit, which was introduced by the Normans after 1066), hens, geese, ducks, pigs, oxen, deer, pidgeon, eggs from a range of birds, milk and cheese [emphasis added]." And here's a 2002 article on the subject:
   As a result of 80 years of excavations in Greenland, The Danish National Museum possesses a large collection of bones from burials in churchyards in the old Norse colonies. Stable-isotope analysis of selected parts of this bone material has enabled us to determine which kind of food each individual has eaten - or more precisely: the balance between terrestrial and marine diet (Box 3). At the same time, we have 14C dated the bones by the AMS technique (Box 1 and 2). We cannot claim to have solved the enigma of the disappearance of the Norsemen from Greenland, but we can at least exclude some hypotheses. The isotope analysis indicates that the Norsemen changed their dietary habits. The diet of the first settlers consisted of 80% agricultural products and 20% food from the surrounding sea. But seafood played an increasing role, such that the pattern was completely turned around towards the end of the period—from the 1300's the Greenland Norse had 50-80% of their diet from the marine food chain. In simplified terms: they started out as farmers but ended up as hunters/fishers. Some archeologists have claimed that the Greenland Norsemen succumbed because they—being culturally inflexible—either could not or would not adapt to changing conditions and therefore came to a catastrophic end, triggered by deteriorating climate. This hypothesis may now be refuted.
That's about 20 minutes of Google work, and certainly not a conclusive review of the literature. The most relevant piece of non-ambiguous information would seem to be this: Did Norsefolk outside Greenland at the time have a taboo against eating fish? If so, then the "they starved themselves to death by refusing the eat fish" theory has a certain plausibility. If not, then not. Here's a description of Icelandic "Bishop's Sagas":
Situated generically between saga, saints' lives and ecclesiastical history, these works trace the lives of early bishops of the two Icelandic sees of Skálaholt (founded 1056) and Hólar in the north (founded 1106). Best-known among these men are the ones venerated in Iceland: Thorlac Thorhallsson / Þorlákr Þorhallsson of Skálaholt (1133-93), Jón Ögmundarson of Hólar (1052-1121) and Gudmund / Guðmundr Arason the Good of Hólar (1161-1237), all of whose sagas exist in more than one version. The lives of Thorlac are considered the earliest, prepared in connection with a canonisation bid in 1198-9, which was followed in 1200 by claims of sanctity for Jón. Strongly influenced by European hagiography, these works nevertheless share, in varying degree, the stylistic flavour of the sagas, and capture something of the landscape, politics and cultural life of Iceland. Accounts of miracles both in vita and posthumous, for instance, include healing of people injured in hot springs, survival in snowdrifts, or plentiful fish appearing in a river. Hence these sagas are a rich source of vignettes of everyday life in medieval Iceland. The five bishops of Skálaholt before Thorlac are commemorated in Hungrvaka (literally 'Hunger-rouser, Appetiser'), and there are sagas about Bishops Páll, Árni and Laurentius, who were among his successors up to the fourteenth century. [emphasis added]

December 28, 2004 | Permalink


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The more sophisticated version of this argumnet -- which I recall reading in the NYRB, not sure if it was by Diamond -- is that the feudal structure of Norse society meant that political power was based on control over access to land. Hence a society in which grazing animals were of very little importance compared with fish would have undermined the status of the elite. So they quite naturally discouraged any such shift.

So the story is not of a society starving itself b/c of some silly taboo, but of a quite rational preference for a large share of a declining pie over a small share of a stable pie, by those in a position to make the choice.

Posted by: lemuel pitkin | Dec 28, 2004 2:47:23 AM


Now that's some tasty blogging. An interesting topic that I never would've guessed could possibly be a topic.


On a vaguely related subject, for crazy good delivery fish meals on a budget in lower manhattan, try win49. Amazingly delicious bento boxes for $7 with budget Japanese fish like salmon collar and cooked yellowtail. Norse-people are not welcome.

And going even futher afield, why do the English as an island-people have such poor fish preparations? Sure, all English food sucks, but wouldn't you think they'd at least do fish right?

Posted by: Petey | Dec 28, 2004 2:58:24 AM

MY: I live in Pacific time, and I just got paged because something at work broke.

What's your excuse?

Posted by: niq | Dec 28, 2004 4:46:33 AM

Of course the norse ate fish!

There was no lack of fish in contemporary norse cuisine and references to fish andd fishing is abundant in finds from the period (that´s hooks, nets, etc. and earlier periods had lotsa fishy remains in the kitchen heaps).

I wonder what mr. Diamond smoked?


Posted by: Grosbøl | Dec 28, 2004 6:45:54 AM

Clearly, the fish had developed legs.

Posted by: praktike | Dec 28, 2004 8:56:14 AM

The first mistake here is confusing Mr. Diamond with a reputable historian. I won't take the easy cheap shot and point out that he is a professor of geography, but his work is a bunch of questionable reasoning with one gross oversimplification after another. His much-celebrated "Guns, Germs, and Steel" is nothing but a slipshod retread of the works of Alfred Crosby et al*, only where Crosby was careful not to toot the triumphalist horn of implied Western manifest destiny, Diamond felt no such compulsion (that's probably why his book is ranked #114 and Crosby's "The Columbian Exchange" is #262,773).

For centuries Homeric scholars insisted that Bronze Age peoples eschewed seafood as well. The proof? No one eats fish in either in the Iliad or Odyssey!

Diamond may want to consider to possibility that fish bones are much more perishable (especially when the fish have been boiled, as occurs very often in Nordic fish cuisine) and therefore not very well represented in the archaeological record at all. There's a host of literature on the decay of fish remains, but it's so much easier to equate correlation with causation, especially with a Pulitzer under your belt.

* Disclosure note: I was a guest at Al Crosby's Austin, Texas home ten years back. The fact that he served me many beers has nothing to do with my glowing assessment of his work.

Posted by: oodja | Dec 28, 2004 9:12:59 AM

I'm shocked, shocked! that Diamond would come to a questionable conclusion based on sketchy evidence and an over-reliance on his own pet grand theoretical explanation.

Posted by: Doug Turnbull | Dec 28, 2004 9:17:24 AM

Hmm, Being a dane and living in Roskilde (smallish town in Denmark), old viking capital of Denmark, I find it strange that the norse are assumed to have starved. What evidence is there of this? I am not very knowledgeable about the history or the norsemen in Greenland, but unless they for some reason lost their ships, they should be able to sail off if it became to uncomfortable to live in greenland. The inuit had no such choice. Anyone know anything about this?

Posted by: Tomas Lauridsen | Dec 28, 2004 9:41:25 AM

Finland is irrelevant to a discussion of Norse culture.

Posted by: aretino | Dec 28, 2004 9:44:43 AM

Wow, commenters disagree with Diamond. Clearly, the best thing to do is to assume that, of the two, a Pulitzer-winning professor at UCLA is the idiot hack.

Maybe we should look for a more complete discussion of Diamond's argument?

My own googling turns this up:
A lecture by Diamond from October 2004, touching on most of the themes and examples in his book. If you'd prefer not to buy the hard-cover, try this. Here's the relevant portion re: Greenland:

My next to last example involves Norse Greenland. As the Vikings began to expand over and terrorise Europe in their raids. The Vikings also settled six islands in the North Atlantic. So we have to compare not 80 islands as in the Pacific, but 6 islands. Viking settlements survived on Orkney, Shetland, Faeroe and Iceland, albeit it with severe problems due to environmental damage on Iceland. The Vikings arrived in Greenland, settled Greenland AD 984, where they established a Norwegian pastoral economy, based particularly on sheep, goats and cattle for producing dairy products, and then they also hunted caribou and seal. Trade was important. The Vikings in Greenland hunted walruses to trade walrus ivory to Norway because walrus ivory was in demand in Europe for carving, since at that time with the Arab conquest, elephant ivory was no longer available in Europe. Vikings vanished in the 1400s. There were two settlements; one of them disappeared around 1360 and the other sometime probably a little after 1440. Everybody ended up dead.

The vanishing of Viking Greenland is instructive because it involves all five of the factors that I mentioned, and also because there’s a detailed, written record from Norway, a bit from Iceland and just a few fragments from Greenland: a written record describing what people were doing and describing what they were thinking. So we know something about their motivation, which we don’t know for the Anasazi and the Easter Islanders.

Of the five factors, first of all there was ecological damage due to deforestation in this cold climate with a short growing season, cutting turf, soil erosion. The deforestation was especially expensive to the Norse Greenlanders because they required charcoal in order to smelt iron to extract iron from bogs. Without iron, except for what they could import in small quantities from Norway, there were problems in getting iron tools like sickles. It got to be a big problem when the Inuit, who had initially been absent in Greenland, colonised Greenland and came into conflict with the Norse. The Norse then had no military advantage over the Inuit. It was not guns, germs and steel. The Norse of Greenland had no guns, very little steel, and they didn’t have the nasty germs. They were fighting with the Inuit on terms of equality, one people with stone and wooden weapons against another.

So problem No.1, ecological damage, problem No.2, climate change. The climate in Greenland got colder in the late 1300s and early 1400s as part of what’s called the Little Ice Age, cooling of the North Atlantic. Hay production was a problem. Greenland was already marginal because it’s high latitude short growing season, and as it got colder, the growing season got even shorter, hay production got less, and hay was the basis of Norse sustenance. Thirdly, the Norse had military problems with their neighbours the Inuit. For example, the only detailed example we have of an Inuit attack on the Norse is that the Icelandic annals of the years 1379 say ‘In this year the scralings (which is an old Norse word meaning wretches, the Norse did not have a good attitude towards the Inuit), the wretches attacked the Greenlanders and killed 18 men and captured a couple of young men and women as slaves.’ Eighteen men doesn’t seem like a big deal in this century of body counts of tens of millions of people, but when you consider the population of Norse Greenland at the time, probably about 4,000 people, 18 adult men stands in the same proportion to the Norse population then as if some outsiders were to come into the United States today and in one raid kill 1,700,000 adult male Americans. So that single raid by the Inuit did make a big deal to the Norse, and that’s just the only raid that we know about.

Fourthly, there was the cut-off of trade with Europe because of increasing sea-ice, with a cold climate in the North Atlantic. The ships from Norway gradually stopped coming. Also as the Mediterranean reopened Europeans got access again to elephant ivory, and they became less interested in the walrus ivory, so fewer ships came to Greenland. And then finally cultural factors, the Norse were derived from a Norwegian society that was identified with pastoralism, and particularly valued calves. In Greenland it’s easier to feed and take care of sheep and goats than calves, but calves were prized in Greenland, so the Norse chiefs and bishops were heavily invested in the status symbol of calves. The Norse, because of their bad attitude towards the Inuit did not adopt useful Inuit technology, so the Norse never adopted harpoons, hence they couldn’t eat whales like the Inuit. They didn’t fish, incredibly, while the Inuit were fishing. They didn’t have dog sleighs, they didn’t have skin boats, they didn’t learn from the Inuit how to kill seals at breeding holes in the winter. So the Norse were conservative, had a bad attitude towards the Inuit, they built churches and cathedrals, the remains of the Greenland cathedral is still standing today at Gardar. It’s as big as the cathedral of Iceland, and the stone churches, some of the three-stone churches in Greenland are still standing. So this was a society that invested heavily in their churches, in importing stained-glass windows and bronze bells for the churches, when they could have been importing more iron to trade to the Inuit, to get seals and whale meat in exchange for the iron.

“Greenland then is particularly instructive in showing us that collapse due to environmental reasons isn’t inevitable. It depends upon what you do.”

So there were cultural factors also while the Norse refused to learn from the Inuit and refused to modify their own economy in a way that would have permitted them to survive. And the result then was that after 1440 the Norse were all dead, and the Inuit survived. Greenland then is particularly instructive in showing us that collapse due to environmental reasons isn’t inevitable. It depends upon what you do. Here are two peoples and one did things that let them survive, and the other things did not permit them to survive.

There are a series of factors that make people more or less likely to perceive environmental problems growing up around them. One is misreading previous experience. The Greenlanders came from Norway where there’s a relatively long growing season, so the Greenlanders didn’t realise, based on their previous experience, how fragile Greenland woodlands were going to be. The Greenlanders had the difficulty of extracting a trend from noisy fluctuations; yes we now know that there was a long-term cooling trend, but climate fluctuates wildly up and down n Greenland from year to year; cold, cold, warm, cold. So it was difficult for a long time perceive that there was any long-term trend. That’s similar to the problems we have today with recognising global warming. It’s only within the last few years that even scientists have been able to convince themselves that there is a global long-term warming trend. And while scientists are convinced, the evidence is not yet enough to convince many of our politicians.

Problem No. 3, short time scale of experience. In the Anasazi area, droughts come back every 50 years, in Greenland it gets cold every 500 years or so; those rare events are impossible to perceive for humans with a life span of 40, 50, 70 years. They’re perceptible today but we may not internalise them. For example, my friends in the Tucson area. There was a big drought in Tucson about 40 years ago. The city of Tucson almost over-draughted its water aquifers and Tucson went briefly into a period of water conservation, but now Tucson is back to building big developments and golf courses and so Tucson will have trouble with the next drought.

Fourthly the Norse were disadvantaged by inappropriate cultural values. They valued cows too highly just as modern Australians value cows and sheep to a degree appropriate to Scotland but inappropriate to modern Australia. And Australians now are seriously considering whether to abandon sheep farming completely as inappropriate to the Australian environment.

Finally, why would people perceive problems but still not solve their own problems?

A theme that emerges from Norse Greenland as well as from other places, is insulation of the decision making elite from the consequences of their actions. That is to say, in societies where the elites do not suffer from the consequences of their decisions, but can insulate themselves, the elite are more likely to pursue their short-term interests, even though that may be bad for the long-term interests of the society, including the children of the elite themselves.

In the case of Norse Greenland, the chiefs and bishops were eating beef from cows and venison and the lower classes were left to eating seals and the elite were heavily invested in the walrus ivory trade because of let them get their communion gear and their Rhineland pottery and the other stuff that they wanted. Even though in the long run, what was good for the chiefs in the short run was bad for society. We can see those differing insulations of the elite in the modern world today. Of all modern countries the one with by far the highest level of environmental awareness is Holland. In Holland, a higher percentage of people belong to environmental organisations than anywhere else in the world. And the Dutch are also a very democratic people. There are something like 42 political parties but none of them ever comes remotely close to a majority, but this which would be a recipe for chaos elsewhere, modern Holland, the Dutch are very good for reaching decisions. And on my last visit to Holland I asked my Dutch friends Why is it this high level of environmental awareness in Holland? And they said, ‘Look around. Most of us are living in Polders, in these lands that have been drained, reclaimed from the sea, they’re below sea level and they’re guided by the dykes’. In Holland everybody lives in the Polders, whether you’re rich or poor. It’s not the case that the rich people are living high up on the dykes and the poor people are living down in the Polders. So when the dyke is breached or there’s a flood, rich and poor people die alike. In particular in the North Sea floods in Holland in the late ‘40s and ‘50s, when the North Sea was swept by winds and tides 50 to 100 miles inland, all Dutch in the path of the floods died whether they were rich or poor. So my Dutch friends explained it to me that in Holland, rich people cannot insulate themselves from consequences of their actions. They’re living in the Polders and therefore there is not the clash between their short-term interests and the long-term interests of everybody else. The Dutch have had to learn to reach communal decisions.

Whereas in much of the rest of the world, rich people live in gated communities and drink bottled water. That’s increasingly the case in Los Angeles where I come from. So that wealthy people in much of the world are insulated from the consequences of their actions.

Posted by: Silent E | Dec 28, 2004 9:45:00 AM

That link was the Google cache' here's the original.

Posted by: Silent E | Dec 28, 2004 9:50:17 AM

The Europhysics Journal abstract makes a clever dodge to imply that they have proved something more than they have. They imply that they have shown that fish played a larger part in the Greenland Norse diet: "seafood played an increasing role." But what they have actually shown is that a larger part of their diet came "from the marine food chain." This could happen without the Norse increasing their intake of seafood at all. For instance, they could have increased consumption of fish-eating animals (seals, for example). They really show their hand when they claim the Norse in Greenland became "fishers/hunters." Frankly, they still have no evidence that the Norsemen increased their fishing at all.

Posted by: aretino | Dec 28, 2004 9:57:19 AM

Aretino - good catch.

Diamond also states in his lecture that they WERE eating marine food - seals; but not fish.

"In the case of Norse Greenland, the chiefs and bishops were eating beef from cows and venison and the lower classes were left to eating seals"

Posted by: Silent E | Dec 28, 2004 10:40:09 AM

I am reminded of the famous story from the Lewis & Clark Expedition. When they reached what is presently Washington, and camped with natives on the banks of the Columbia, starving from the long trek thru the mountains...they ate the village dogs although the spawning salmon were almost leaping into their hands.

There was a prejudice, tho don't know why, or how widespread, or how historical.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Dec 28, 2004 10:42:37 AM

It's not without better established historical precedent, though. Plenty of folks starved to death in the early American colonies with lobsters so thick on the shores that even the smallest child could collect enough to sustain a family in an hour's time. I've heard stories from living persons in the Canadian maritime provinces who in their childhood buried lobster and crab shells in their backyard to avoid the shame of neighbors seeing them in their trash.

Posted by: Brad | Dec 28, 2004 11:15:42 AM

What passes for intelligent thought over
at Sullivan's holyday site is bad. But,
what can you expect from those who believe
in immaculate conceptions, etc.

Of bloody course the Norse ate fish!

Posted by: Hedley Lamarr | Dec 28, 2004 11:31:17 AM

Silent E:

Thanks for the extended entry. It has been my professional experience that Diamond gets some small points of fact wrong (at times) but always understands the big picture.

He is, in fact, the diametric opposite of a blogger and the blogging ethic.

Posted by: jlw | Dec 28, 2004 12:00:17 PM

lobsters so thick on the shores

IIRC, there were clauses in servants' contracts who worked in New England that allowed lobster or cod to be served a maximum of 3 times a week.

Posted by: The Dark Avenger | Dec 28, 2004 12:04:55 PM

I'm surprised no one took note of this passage (which reflects on the author Malcolm Gladwell, not Diamond):

"Diamond’s argument stands in sharp contrast to the conventional explanations for a society’s collapse. Usually, we look for some kind of cataclysmic event. The aboriginal civilization of the Americas was decimated by the sudden arrival of smallpox. European Jewry was destroyed by Nazism. Similarly, the disappearance of the Norse settlements is usually blamed on the Little Ice Age, which descended on Greenland in the early fourteen-hundreds, ending several centuries of relative warmth. (One archeologist refers to this as the “It got too cold, and they died” argument.) What all these explanations have in common is the idea that civilizations are destroyed by forces outside their control, by acts of God."

Now, what the HELL does the Holocaust have to do with the rest of these "society collapses"?!? Was the Holocaust really an "act of God"? Was the Holocaust a cataclysmic (violent and sudden) event at all? Did it not take centuries for Germans and the whole of Europe to develop such a level of hatred that extermination of a people from a continent was encouraged by many and overlooked by the most of the rest? I know I'm a Jew so I'm super-sensitive to these issues, but someone please tell me what this example has in common with the rest. It really is such a small detail but also symbolic of the typical trashy post-modern thought which allows Germans, Europeans and the rest of the world to look at the event of the Holocaust in a comfortable (but comletely inappropriate) manner.

Posted by: Glenn | Dec 28, 2004 12:32:21 PM

Maybe they lacked something critical to *how* they fished in the old country: twine for nets, hooks?

Posted by: Thomas Nephew | Dec 28, 2004 12:33:52 PM

Wow, jlw. That's the pithiest and most insightful thing I've ever seen written about the blogosphere, which often seems to consist of a bunch of nitpicking assholes high fiving each other for catching one of their betters in a minor and inconsequential error.

Posted by: Hank Scorpio | Dec 28, 2004 12:37:22 PM

I know that it's terribly uppity of me to question the brilliance of Jared Diamond, or indeed criticize him in any way, but I do have an academic background in anthropology, and as a result I have read a fairly widely in the literature that underpins what he covers in Guns, Germs, and Steel. As I read his book, I kept wondering when I was going to get to the interesting part that all of my friends were going on about: until I got to the whole north-south axis vs. east-west axis argument, I didn't encounter any ideas that were really new to me (and I wouldn't be surprised if the axis argument wasn't original to him either -- I just hadn't seen it before). None of this is necessarily a criticism: originality isn't always a virtue, and there's a lot of value to pulling together and synthesizing ideas and information. Still, I was bound to have a different response to the book than people who were encountering those ideas for the first time, which was probably the vast majority of people reading it. I found it dull, shallow, and way too impressed with itself.

P.S. oodja -- I had exactly the same thought about Guns, Germs, etc., and I've never met Dr. Crosby.

Posted by: janet | Dec 28, 2004 1:10:49 PM

Silent E,

Like jlw, I also want to thank you for the extended entry. Contra above, Jared Diamond was trained in physiology and evolutionary biology, not geography (although his background and current research interests lend themselves well to the discipline).

His work is not without problems (even within geography) - but he does raise interesting questions. They key point to think about in regards to the Norse in Greenland is not "did they eat fish?" is that "why didn't they adapt to the changing environment?"

And it seems that (at least to me) that Diamond's explanation lends itself quite well to issues relevant in Political Ecology.

Posted by: eponymous | Dec 28, 2004 1:13:23 PM

I believe Greenland's Inuit had access to meteoric iron even if they couldn't smelt their own. Meteoric iron weapons can be sufficiently effective against marauding malnutritioned invaders.

Posted by: phil | Dec 28, 2004 1:50:28 PM

If there was a cultural taboo about eating fish in the Viking culture it would be extremely unlikely that their cooks would have recipes for fish handed down from generation to generation, wouldn't it?


Not only did they fish but they whaled: they'd drive pods of whales onto the beaches and slaughter them there.

No, the real reason the Greenland colony failed was that it got just too damned cold to live there by choice. Certainly they could have lived like the Inuits but there was one important difference between the two peoples: The Inuits didn't have anywhere to GO when the weather turned cold. The Vikings had a choice: They could jump back in their ships and find some warmer land to the south instead of freeze. "Back" for the Inuits was back to lands just as cold and frozen as Greenland, if not moreso.

Posted by: Orion | Dec 28, 2004 2:13:44 PM

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