This section is from the book "Practical Dietetics With Special Reference To Diet In Disease", by William Gilman Thompson. Also available from Amazon: Practical Dietetics with Special Reference to Diet in Disease.
The food of prehistoric man necessarily consisted of the simplest elements, represented by fruits, berries, nuts, insects, and an occasional piece of raw fish or meat. Such food is, in fact, the diet of primitive tribes to-day. The Fuegian lives chiefly upon shellfish and seaweeds, and the Central African dwarf upon plantains and insects (see p. 33). The name "Eskimo " was first applied by natives of eastern Canada in opprobrium, to signify "raw-fish eater".
The history of the development of diets and of food cultivation and preparation is practically a history of the progress of culture, and most of our present foods were quite unknown to our earliest progenitors. The discovery of the uses of fire greatly increased the variety of available foods for man, for all the cereals which are cultivated require its use to fit them for digestion. As Gerland has said, men obtain their food from natural products, by cultivation, or by barter and commercial exchange, according as nomadic or fixed habits predominate, and "no mere hunting or fishing tribe can be large and remain in one place," for it is estimated that in the temperate zone to support one man by these means at least sixteen square miles of territory are necessary.
Many a tribal, and even national war has been the more or less direct outcome of the necessities of obtaining food supply from distant sources, and the economic, commercial, and social development of all matters pertaining to food among civilised people to-day far exceeds in importance all other practical questions. As man advanced in culture and began to live in communities where division of labour became an important factor in development, preference to some extent superseded necessity in the selection of diet, and as food acquired a commercial value, more and more labour was bestowed upon its preparation and preservation, until at the present time the rich are able to select their diet with almost total disregard of season or climate, and even the common labourer finds it economical to eat some foods which, like sugar or tea, may have been transported many thousands of miles.
Following is a synopsis of an exceedingly interesting report kindly written for me by Dr. Frederick A. Cook, the physician to the Peary expedition to northwestern Greenland in 1891-'92, which is appended to illustrate the dietetic habits of a race which, for nearly a thousand years, are believed to have been practically isolated from commercial or social relations with any of their neighbours. There is so little scientific information existing in regard to the dietetic habits of the tribe of Eskimos which he studied, who live the farthest north of any people in the world, that his statements will be found of exceptional value. One cannot peruse the account without being impressed with the fact that generalisations in regard to the influences of diet upon the system should be made with great caution when applied to different races of man. For example, both scurvy and rheumatism are sometimes attributed to an excessive meat diet, yet the Eskimo has no starchy food at all and does not suffer from these diseases, and, moreover, his bodily vigour and power of endurance compare favourably with that of any other race or class of men, and in some respects it is greater than that possessed by others.
Dr. Cook says in regard to the Eskimos of northwestern Greenland: "They usually eat but one meal a day, which they take at irregular times, being people without restrictions of any kind. They can be seen eating and drinking whenever able to procure sustenance. Their diet consists almost exclusively of meat, composed principally of the muscular tissues of the following animals, in the order of their importance to the natives: Seal, walrus, norwhale, white whale, polar bear, reindeer, arctic hare, and sea fowls, such as guillemots, gulls, eider ducks, etc. When food is scarce they eat every part of the animal, including the stomach and intestines; indeed, the only vegetable food that the most northern Eskimo can obtain consists of the contents of the stomach of the reindeer (lichens), which he is only occasionally able to secure. The women and children sometimes eat flowers of the arctic poppies and the so-called scurvy grass, but never to any great extent. In times of famine, in order to prevent wholesale starvation, the aged are turned out to starve to death, and their bodies are then devoured by the more vigorous members of the tribe. Occasionally, when the old people are shrewd and active, the younger children are sacrificed for this purpose.
As a rule, the Eskimo will not eat dogs, but when food is scarce dogs are first added to their larder, and when the last dog has been eaten, human beings come next in order.
"One of the greatest delicacies is old seal. A native never wastes the carcass of an animal; if he should kill the seal fifty or a hundred miles from home he will bring it to shore and cache it in such a way that the foxes, bears, and birds cannot attack it. He then leaves it, and may not return for two or three years, when he comes back in anticipation of a great feast, for the old seal seems to him like old cheese to us, and he enjoys it immensely, although a white man could not endure the odour. I have known twenty individuals to eat a seal of this character in less than two hours, leaving only shreds of the skin after them. I have never been able to verify the statement, so commonly quoted, ' that Eskimos can eat twenty pounds of meat or blubber.'
"Fully two thirds of the Eskimo food is eaten raw, and one half is consumed while in the frozen state. When an Eskimo woman starts her blubber lamp and places over it a conlipsie (the name applied to their primitive stew pot) she does so principally to obtain the warm drink which the cooked meat affords. It cannot be said that Eskimos cook their meat because they prefer it cooked, but because when the meat is heated slowly, as it can only be heated by their primitive method, the blood and fat ooze from the muscular tissues and form a thick soup, which, aside from water, is almost their only drink, and a cupful of this beverage is offered to every guest. The natives may consume three or four hours in eating one meal, and when they have thoroughly gorged themselves they will lie down and sleep; as they do this, however, they place before themselves a dish full of cooked meat, and those who awake from their sleep will finish their meal, but on rising no breakfast is served, for the Eskimo who has a day's journey before him would not think of eating before starting. He claims that this would prevent his ability to travel, and this rule the Eskimos apply to their dogs as well, who are often only fed every two days.