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(Looking at the Science on Raw vs. Cooked Foods--continued, Part 3H)

The traditional diet of the Inuit (Eskimos):
Were they the only raw-food culture?

Stefansson's firsthand early-1900s accounts of unacculturated Inuit

The explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson spent several years with the Inuit ("Eskimos") of Northern Canada and Alaska in the early 1900s, speaking their language and eating the same food. Although by that time some Inuit had already partially adopted the Western diet and lifestyle, those living in remote areas had not yet met any Westerners. Stefansson [1913] relates his first encounter with the Dolphin and Union Straits Inuit, and provides a firsthand account of the traditional diet and lifestyle of an unacculturated group of Inuit.

Stefansson reports that the Dolphin and Union Straits Inuit still used stone-age technology to procure and process their foods, and that he was the first Westerner to make contact with them. They spoke the same dialect as the Mackenzie River Inuit, which enabled Stefansson to interact with them, since he had previously lived 3 years with the Western Inuit groups and spoke the language.

Report of the Inuit diet on first contact. In regard to the diet of the unacculturated Dolphin and Union Straits Inuit, Stefansson [1913, pp. 174-178] reports:

My host was the seal-hunter whom we had first approached on the ice (...). [His wife] boiled some seal-meat for me, but she had not boiled any fat, for she did not know whether I preferred the blubber boiled or raw. They always cut it in small pieces and ate it raw themselves; but the pot still hung over the lamp, and anything she put into it would be cooked in a moment. When I told her that my tastes quite coincided with hers--as, in fact, they did--she was delighted. People were much alike, then, after all, though they came from a great distance. She would, accordingly, treat me exactly as if I were one of their own people come to visit them from afar...

When we had entered the house the boiled pieces of seal-meat had already been taken out of the pot and lay steaming on a side-board. On being assured that my tastes in food were not likely to differ from theirs, my hostess picked out for me the lower joint of a seal's fore leg, squeezed it firmly between her hands to make sure nothing should later drip from it, and handed it to me, along with her own copper-bladed knife; the next most desirable piece was similarly squeezed and handed to her husband, and others in turn to the rest of the family....

Our meal was of two courses: the first, meat; the second, soup. The soup is made by pouring cold seal blood into the boiling broth immediately after the cooked meat has been taken out of the pot, and stirring briskly until the whole comes nearly (but never quite) to a boil. This makes a soup of thickness comparable to our English pea-soups, but if the pot be allowed to come to a boil, the blood will coagulate and settle to the bottom...

Comments, clarifications, and conclusions. A few clarifications on the above, from Stefansson [1913]. The fuel used to boil the seal meat was seal oil. Stefansson describes an important cultural practice among the Inuit: families that had seal meat to eat shared their surplus with the families that did not. (Food sharing is a common cultural--and an important survival--practice among hunter-gatherers.)

As the above represents first contact with an unacculturated group of Inuit living their traditional lifestyle, and the evidence indicates that blubber (animal fat) is eaten raw by the Inuit but seal meat routinely cooked, we conclude that the Inuit were not 100% raw. Whether they met the standard terminology used in this paper (and elsewhere in the raw community) of 75+% raw foods by weight (to qualify as "raw-fooders") is uncertain--this is discussed further below.

More reports on Inuit diets from early contacts

Point Barrow, Alaska, 1881-1883. As part of the International Polar year, a group of people from the U.S. Army lived among the Inuit in the Point Barrow area of northern Alaska. The group included John Murdoch, an anthropologist, and his report includes discussion of the Inuit diet. Murdoch reports (as quoted in Stefansson [1960, p. 120]) that:

...Food is generally cooked... Meat of all kinds is generally boiled... Fish are also boiled but are often eaten raw...

The women keep a supply of cooked food on hand for anyone to eat...

Bering Sea, Alaska, 1896. Stefansson [1960, pp. 49-50] discusses the early contact by J.H. Romig, M.D., who visited the Inuit of the Bering Sea region of Alaska in 1896 and found them living a traditional lifestyle. Romig reports (as quoted in Stefansson [1960, p. 50]:

Their food was cooked mostly by boiling, and was rather rare; they ate as well, especially in winter, raw frozen fish and raw meat.

Labrador, Canada, 1902-1913. S.K. Hutton, M.D. spent several years in the early 1900s among the Inuit of Labrador in eastern Canada. Hutton is quoted in Stefansson [1960, p. 152] as reporting:

[C]ookery holds a very secondary place in the preparation of food--most of the food is eaten raw and the diet is a flesh one.

The above quote might be interpreted as suggesting that the diet of the Labrador Inuit was indeed a "raw-food diet" in the modern sense of the term, albeit a raw flesh diet. But--is that really the case? Elsewhere in Stefansson [1960], Dr. Hutton is quoted as reporting [Stefansson 1960, p. 57]:

...Plain raw flesh is the Eskimo's favorite food...

Other flesh foods, less important because less plentiful than the seal's flesh, are walrus meat, caribou meat, bear, fox, and various birds. These are eaten raw or cooked.

Fish is the staple food during the warmest part of the year. Trout and cod are to be had in plenty and are eaten either fresh (raw or boiled) or dried without salt.

No reports of 100% raw diets among Inuit. Thus we see that even the Labrador Inuit consumed cooked foods and were not 100% raw. Stefansson [1960, p. 68] reports that the Labrador Inuit were "the greatest raw-flesh eaters of the whole Eskimo world," but that consumption of cooked foods was higher in other areas, especially among the Copper Inuit (his first contact report above), the Mackenzie Inuit, and the Inuit of northern Alaska.

Were any Inuit groups "raw-fooders" in the modern sense of the term?

What percentage qualifies someone as a "raw-fooder"? The term "raw-fooder" in the modern sense, and as used in this paper, denotes an individual whose diet is on average 75+% raw foods by weight. Some of the more extreme rawists insist on requiring a 100% raw diet to call someone a "raw-fooder." We note from the above that none of the Inuit groups encountered followed a 100% raw diet, thus by that definition cannot be referred to as rawists.

The question then follows, for those of us who use the more realistic definition of 75+% raw: Did the Inuit groups mentioned above meet the 75+% level, such that they could reasonably be called raw-fooders? The answer to this is unknown at present. The write-ups in Stefansson [1960] do not provide percentage estimates (raw vs. cooked) of the Inuit diets. In some cases, Stefansson quoted from reports written long ago, which one might be able to locate with some effort. Whether such reports include data on raw vs. cooked-food percentages is unlikely, but one must examine the original reports to be certain. Other material cited (Romig, above) was from personal correspondence with Stefansson. Again, no percentage data, and no way to check for it unless Stefansson's personal papers are archived in some university library.

Level of evidence available doesn't permit exact determination as to percentages. Thus although the evidence available is that the Inuit diet included both raw and cooked foods, and in the case of the Labrador Inuit was "mostly raw" (paraphrase of Hutton quote above), we don't know if the diet of any Inuit group met the 75+% raw-by-weight definition. Thus we cannot say the Inuit were rawists, and we cannot say they were not. All we can say is that they had a mixed raw and cooked diet, with the percentage of cooked food consumption varying by Inuit group, and by season.

Why has picture of Inuit/Eskimos as a totally raw culture persisted if the evidence has never supported it? It is worth mentioning here that for some raw-food diet advocates (perhaps instinctos, perhaps others), the Inuit have served as perhaps the only potentially credible example of a pre-modern raw-food diet culture (the word "Eskimo" reportedly means "they eat their meat raw" in the language of the Algonquin tribe [Stefansson 1960, p. 67]). What is obvious, given the above, is that the idea the Inuit eat some of their meat raw has somehow been incorrectly transformed and reported instead as meaning that they eat all or nearly all of their meat raw. Ironically, however, the above picture, which has been available for many decades now, shows the idea of the Inuit as a raw-food diet culture to be simply another unsupported assumption that dies hard--and one that lives on for no other reason than lack of motivation to utilize actual verified evidence as one's standard, and to take the time to look for the available evidence at hand.

Comments on hunter-gatherers' health

Cooking appears to have little bearing on hunter-gatherer health. Further examples would not much change the above picture of the widespread use of cooking by hunter-gatherers. Suffice it to say that hunter-gatherers don't eat all-raw diets, not even predominantly raw. The above examples of the Aborigine, !Kung, and Inuit are quite typical of the hunter-gatherer literature, which suggests that there has never been, anywhere, a known culture with a 100%-raw diet. Thus, proponents who aggressively promote eating a 100%-raw (vegan) diet are promoting an unproven concept, or, if you prefer, an outdated and anachronistic concept that requires that one go back before the use of fire, and ignore the evolutionary changes since that time.

In summary, it can be noted that as far as plant foods go, at least, much of the cooking is done to neutralize native toxins in raw plants so that they can make use of what's actually available to them in their environment. They don't use particularly gentle methods of cooking either (which doesn't mean the raw part of their diet has no importance). And yet they have low cholesterol, and extremely low rates of heart disease and other degenerative diseases [Eaton 1996, 1985].

Other protective lifestyle factors. It should be noted that hunter-gatherers enjoy many factors protective against cancer, such as: high antioxidant and fiber intake; virtually no exposure to pollution, chemicals, pesticides, or preservatives; and have a healthy lifestyle in general. Similarly, they enjoy many protective factors against cardiovascular disease [Eaton 1996, 1985]. At least, what we can learn from the diet of hunter-gatherers is that diseases of civilization were not born with the advent of fire.

Very low incidence of degenerative disease. Okay, so hunter-gatherers have what appears to be a protective diet and lifestyle, but are they disease-free? A glance at Eaton [1996, 1985] shows that the incidence of diabetes and heart disease is extremely low, and that their cholesterol levels are astonishingly low, ranging from roughly 105 to 145 in most cases [Eaton et al. 1988], especially given the high levels of (cooked) meat in their diet. They do suffer from some infectious diseases, and their lifespan is intermediate between that of developed nations and Third World agricultural nations (which, given the lack of medical care, indicates the superiority of hunter-gatherers' diets compared to a basic agricultural diet). It is important to understand that while hunter-gatherers suffer from more infectious disease than those of us living in modern sanitized conditions, so also do animals eating their native diet suffer from infectious diseases. Diet is but one factor in susceptibility to infectious disease. In terms of long-term health, a better way of determining if a diet is "good" or not in such circumstances is to compare the incidence of degenerative diseases such as cardiovascular disease or cancer. (Average life expectancy figures by themselves can be heavily influenced by factors not necessarily directly related to diet, such as infant mortality, death by accidents, etc. (See Dunn [1968] for a discussion of the influence of such factors on mortality in hunter-gatherers.)

Cancer rare. The following is from "Food, nutrition and the prevention of cancer: a global perspective," World Cancer Research Fund [1997, p. 35].

It has often been said that cancer was rare among gatherer-hunter and pastoral peoples living in remote parts of the world, such as the Himalayas, the Arctic and equatorial Africa, when these were first visited by explorers and missionaries [Williams 1908, Bulkley 1927, Schweitzer 1957]. A summary of these early accounts can be found in Cancer Wars [Proctor 1995]. Such accounts have been taken to mean that cancer was generally rare in early history. The African explorer, Dr. David Livingstone, suggested that cancer is a "disease of civilisation" [Maugh 1979]. Practically nothing is known about rates of cancer until careful records were first kept in Europe in the eighteenth century. These suggest that, historically, cancer might have been a relatively uncommon disease.

The above brief synopsis is presented only in summary fashion here, and only hints at the known evidence in regard to the rarity of cancer in hunter-gatherers noted by Western explorers and anthropologists at first contact. For a more in-depth look at some of these accounts, refer to Hunter-Gatherers: Examples of Healthy Omnivores elsewhere on the website.

Other factors protective against cancer in the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Let's add that diet/cooking is not the only factor that can contribute to cancer. Recall that humans are exposed to many natural carcinogens [Ames 1990], and that smoking is quite common in hunter-gatherers [Bicchieri 1972]. In addition, carcinogens themselves are not the only factors in the development of cancer, as many other aspects of lifestyle may play a significant role. For hunter-gatherer women, late onset of menarche (16 years old), having a first child at a relatively young age (19.5 on average), longer duration of breast-feeding (average length 2.9 years for each child), large average number of children (6), earlier menopause (47 years old), exercise throughout life, along with dietary habits all suggest the incidence of breast, uterus and ovary cancer were very low in comparison with rates seen among women in modern industrialized countries [Eaton 1994].


(How Much Do the Hunzas, Vilcabambans, and Georgians Cook their Food?)

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GO TO PART 1 - Is Cooked Food "Toxic"?

GO TO PART 2 - Does Cooked Food Contain Less Nutrition?

GO TO PART 3 - Discussion: 100% Raw vs. Predominantly Raw

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