Kabloona Friday

(Part of a series on de Poncins’s Kabloona, an ethnography of the Eskimo/Inuit.)

How’s winter treating you?

Up near the North Pole, I hear it gets really cold. Like, really cold:

That journey homeward in darkness was an unrelieved agony. I was cold; I was freezing; not only in the flesh, but my soul was frozen. As I sat on the swaying and creaking sled the cold became an obsession, almost an hallucination, and soon I was in a delirium of cold. … My brain had shrunk to the dimensions of a dried raisin. Stubbornly, painfully, almost maliciously, it clung to a single thought, made room for no other image: “I am cold!” I was not cold as people Outside are cold. I was not shivering. I was in the cold, dipped into a trough where the temperature was thirty degrees below zero…

During this same journey across the frozen polar sea, the Eskimo, dressed in the same clothes and just as many layers, experienced no such hypothermic delusions. Undoubtedly this is at least in part due to evolutionary adaptations that help them withstand the cold, but a few pages earlier, de Poncins had vividly (and unknowingly) described another reason the Eskimos were much warmer than he:

I do not know what the hour was, but I who had dozed off woke up. Under my eye were the three Eskimos, three silhouettes lit up from behind by the uncertain glow of a candle that threw on the walls of the igloo a mural of fantastically magnified shadows. All three men were down on the floor in the same posture… They were eating, and whether it was that the smell of the seal had been irresistible, or that the idea of the hunt had stimulated their appetites, they had embarked upon a feast. Each had a huge chunk of meat in his hands and mouth, and by the soundless flitting of their arms made immeasurably long in the shadows on the wall, I could see that even before one piece had been wholly gobbled their hands were fumbling in the basin for the next quarter. The smell in the igloo was of seal and of savages hot and gulping. …

I have seen astonishing things, in remote places and not merely in circuses. In the New Hebrides, for example, I have unpacked my own meat in a circle of cannibals and have seen in their eyes a gleam that was perhaps more intense than comforting. Here, in this igloo, all that I had seen before was now surpassed. There were three men, and there must have been fifty pounds of meat. The three men attacked that meat with the rumbling and growling of animals warning their kind away from their private prey. They ground their teeth and their jaws cracked as they ate, and they belched… The walls of the igloo were horrid with the ruddy dripping of bloody spittle and still they ate on, and still they put out simian arms and turned over with indescribable hands morsels in the beginning disdained and now become dainties greedily swallowed. And till, like beats, they picked up chunks and flung them almost instantly down again in order to put their teeth into other and perhaps more succulent bits. They had long since stopped cutting the meat with their circular knives: their teeth sufficed, and the very bones of the seal cracked and splintered in their faces. What those teeth could do, I already knew. When the cover of a gasoline drum could not be pried off with the fingers, an Eskimo would take it between his teeth and it would come easily away. When a strap made of seal skin freezes hard–and I know nothing tougher than seal skin–an Eskimo will put it in his mouth and chew it soft again. And those teeth were hardly to be called teeth. Worn down to the gums, they were sunken and unbreakable stumps of bone. If I were to fight with an Eskimo, my greatest fear would be lest he crack my skull with his teeth.

But on this evening their hands were even more fantastic than their teeth. … Their capacity of itself was fascinating to observe, and it was clear that like animals they were capable of absorbing amazing quantities of food, quite ready to take their chances with hunger a few days later.

The traditional Eskimo diet contains little to no vegetable matter, because very few plants grow up near the North Pole, especially in winter. It consists primarily of fish, seal, polar bear, foxes, and other meats, but by calorie, it is mostly fat. (This is because you can’t actually survive on a majority-protein diet.)

To run through the dietary science quickly, de Poncins has throughout the book been generally eating white-man’s food, which includes things like bread and beans. This is not to say that he disdained fish and seals–he does not make much mention of whether he ate those, but he does talk about bread, potatoes, beans, etc. So de Poncins is eating what you’d call a “normal” diet that makes use of glucose to transform food into energy. The Eskimo, by contrast, are eating the “Atkins” diet, making use of the ketogenic cycle.

No plants = no carbs; no carbs = no glucose.

But the brain cannot run without glucose, so luckily your body can make it out of protein.

Interestingly, you will die without proteins and fats in your diet, but you can survive without carbs.

Anyway, one of the side effects of a high-protein, ketogenic diet is (at least occasionally,) increased body heat:

Karst H, Steiniger J, Noack R, Steglich HD: Diet-induced thermogenesis in man: thermic effects of single proteins, carbohydrates and fats depending on their energy amount. Ann Nutr Metab 1984, 28(4):245-252.

Abstract: The diet-induced thermogenesis of 12 healthy males of normal body weight was measured by means of indirect calorimetry over 6 h after test meals of 1, 2 or 4 MJ protein (white egg, gelatin, casein), carbohydrate (starch, hydrolyzed starch) or fat (sunflower oil, butter). The effect of 1 MJ protein was at least three times as large as that of an isocaloric carbohydrate supply. [bold mine]

(isocaloric = having similar caloric values)

In other words, the Inuits’ low-carb diet probably increased their internal body temperature, keeping them warmer than our author.

I have attempted a low-carb diet, (solely for health reasons–I have never wanted to lose weight,) and one of the things I remember about it is that I would suddenly feel completely, ravenously hungry. There were times that, had I not been able to get food, I would not have begun devouring anything even remotely chewable. Of course, that may have just been a personal digestive quirk.

I feel compelled to note that this post is not advocating any particular diet; you are most likely not an Eskimo and there is no particular reason to believe, a priori, that you are better adapted to their diet than to the diet of your ancestors (whatever that happens to be.)

Unfortunately, this also holds true for the Eskimo, who probably are adapted to their ancestral diet and not adapted to the white man’s foods, which explains why diabetes and obesity are becoming epidemic among them:

Age-standardized rates of T2D show 17.2% prevalence of Type 2 Diabetes among First Nations individuals living on reserves, compared to 5.0% in the non-Aboriginal population; … First Nations women in particular suffer from diabetes, especially between ages 20–49. They have a 4 times higher incidence of diabetes than non-first nation women[3] as well as experiencing higher rates of gestational diabetes than non-Aboriginal females, 8-18% compared to 2-4%.[1]

“First nations” is Canadian for “Indian”.

In Greenland (majority Inuit):

The age-standardized prevalences of diabetes and IGT were 10.8 and 9.4% among men and 8.8 and 14.1% among women, respectively.

I am reminded here of the chapter in Dr. Price’s Nutrition and Physical Degeneration (copyright 1939) on the Eskimo (which is, alas, too long to quote in full):

During the rise and fall of historic and prehistoric cultures that have often left their monuments and arts following each other in succession in the same location, one culture, the Eskimo, living on until today, bring us a robust sample of the Stone Age people. … The Eskimo face has remained true to ancestral type to give us a living demonstration of what Nature can do in the building of a race competent to withstand for thousands of years the rigors of an Arctic climate. Like the Indian, the Eskimo thrived as long as he was not blighted by the touch of modern civilization, but with it, like all primitives, he withers and dies.

In his primitive state he has provided an example of physical excellence and dental perfection such as has seldom been excelled by any race in the past or present. … It is a sad commentary that with the coming of the white man the Eskimos and Indians are rapidly reduced both in numbers and physical excellence by the white man’s diseases. …

Bethel is the largest settlement on the Kuskokwim, and contains in addition to the white residents many visiting Eskimos from the nearby Tundra country surrounding it.

From this population, Dr. Price noted:

88 Eskimos and mixed-race people, with 2,490 teeth.

27 lived on the traditional Eskimo diet. Of their 796 teeth, one had a cavity.

21 lived on a mixed Eskimo/white diet. Of their 600 teeth, 38–6.3%–had cavities.

40 lived on imported white foods. Of their 1,094 teeth, 252–or 21.1%–had cavities.

In another location, 28 people eating a traditional Eskimo diet had one cavity.

13 people on traditional Eskimo diet: 0 cavities.

72 people on Eskimo diet: 2 cavities.

81 people eating white foods: 394 cavities.

20 people eating white foods: 175 cavities.

(Yes, Dr. Price is a dentist.)

It is a common belief around the world that childbearing makes women lose teeth (my own grandmother lost two teeth while pregnant;) Dr. Price notes the case of an Eskimo woman who had borne 20 children without losing a single tooth or developing any cavities.

One does not get a conception of the magnificent dental development of the more primitive Eskimos simply by learning that they have freedom from dental carries [cavities]. The size and strength of the mandible, the breadth of the face and the strength of the muscles of mastication all reach a degree of excellence that is seldom seen in other races. …

Much has been reported in the literature of the excessive wear of the Eskimo’s teeth, which in the case of the women has been ascribed to the chewing of the leather in the process of tanning. [de Poncins also makes note of the frequent chewing of hides–evX.] It is of interest that while many of the teeth studied gave evidence of excessive wear involving the crowns down to a depth that in many individuals would have exposed the pulps, there was in no case an open pulp chamber. They were always filled with secondary dentin.