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. We are concerned to know the secret of this great achievement since his circumscribed life greatly reduces the factors that may enter as controlling units in molding this excellence. While we are primarily concerned in this study with the characteristics of the Eskimo dentition and facial form and the effect upon it of his contact with modern civilization, we are also deeply concerned to know the formula of his nutrition in order that we may learn from it the secrets that will not only aid the unfortunate modern or so-called civilized races, but will also, if possible, provide means for assisting in their preservation.
Weston Price, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration (1939)
We are particularly concerned with the foods used by these primitive Eskimos. They almost always have their homes on or near deep water. Their skill in handling their kayaks is most remarkable. During the salmon running season they store large quantities of dried salmon. They spear many of these fish from their kayaks; even young boys are very skillful. They land salmon so large that they can hardly lift them. They are expert in spearing seals from these light crafts. Seal oil provides a very important part of their nutrition. As each piece of fish is broken off, it is dipped in seal oil. I obtained some seal oil from them and brought it to my laboratory for analyzing for its vitamin content. It proved to be one of the richest foods in vitamin A that I have found.
The fish are hung on racks in the wind for drying. Fish eggs are also spread out to dry, as shown in Fig. 13. These foods constitute a very important part of the nutrition of the small children after they are weaned. Naturally, the drifting sands of the bleak Bering Straits lodge upon and cling to the moist surfaces of the fish that are hung up to dry. This constitutes the principal cause for the excessive wear of the Eskimos’ teeth in both men and women.
The food of these Eskimos in their native state includes caribou, ground nuts which are gathered by mice and stored in caches, kelp which is gathered in season and stored for winter use, berries including cranberries which are preserved by freezing, blossoms of flowers preserved in seal oil, sorrel grass preserved in seal oil, and quantities of frozen fish. Another important food factor consists of the organs of the large animals of the sea, including certain layers of the skin of one of the species of whale, which has been found to be very high in vitamin C.
If inexperienced in primitive cultures, one is likely to misinterpret general statements about food. I might tell you, correctly, that the chief food of a certain group of Eskimos with whom I lived was caribou meat, with perhaps 30 per cent fish, 10 per cent seal meat, and 5 or 10 per cent made up of polar bear, rabbits, birds, and eggs. This might lead one to visualize meals where there would be a fish course followed by a meat course, and where we would breakfast at least occasionally on eggs. Such is most unlikely to be the rase, with primitive peoples. If 50 per cent of the year’s food is caribou meat, the primitive likely eats practically nothing, but caribou during approximately half the year, seldom tasting this meat the rest of the twelve months. His fish percentages will come in similarly restricted periods, and they are likely to be fish exclusively. The eggs, far from being breakfasts distributed through several months, would be occasional days of nothing but eggs during only one month of the year, in the spring.
The Eskimo situation varies from ours still more when it comes to vegetables. In the Mackenzie district these were eaten under three conditions:
(1) The chief occasion for vegetables here, as with most Eskimos, was a famine. There were several kinds of vegetable things known to be edible and they were resorted to in a definite succession, as prejudices were overborne by the pangs of hunger. (True famines seldom, if ever, occurred in the Mackenzie, but small groups would get short of food through some accident and then famine practice in eating would result).
(2) Some vegetable foods were eaten because the Mackenzie River people liked them. These were chiefly berries; and among berries chiefly the salmon berry or cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus). The Mackenzie River people ate these only during the season; but in Western Alaska, and elsewhere, berries and some other vegetable foods were preserved in oil for winter use—sometimes as delicacies, sometimes to guard against famine, and no doubt frequently with a mixture of both motives.
(3) One form of vegetable dish is eaten strictly in connection with another that is non-vegetable—the moss, “twigs and grass from a caribou’s stomach are used as a base for oil. In my experience the commonest reason for this use was that someone from a distance arrived with a bag of oil that was either in a particularly delectable state of fermentation (corresponding to Camembert cheese that is just soft enough), or else this was an oil from a favored animal not common in the district, say white whale brought into a sealing community.”
Vilhjalmur Stefansson, The Fat of the Land (1956, originally published in 1946)
By means of some 90 models of Eskimo teeth, Dr. Adelbert Fernald, Curator of the Harvard Dental School Museum, has proved that eating a strictly meat diet is the ideal way in which to keep the human mouth in a healthy condition, and that it is due to the fact that civilized people do not eat enough meat that they as a rule have decayed teeth.
Commander Donald B. MacMillan, the noted Arctic explorer, obtained about 90 impressions of the teeth of the Eskimos of Smith Sound, “the meat eaters,” who live the farthest north of any human beings. He did this at the request of Dr. Fernald, who desired the models for the Dental School Museum. The impressions were made on one of MacMillan’s most recent Artic expeditions. From the impressions, models have been constructed. Commander MacMillan said that “the Smith Sound Eskimos average about four ounces of vegetable matter each year per capita.”
Only one tooth of the 616 contained in the models is deformed. All the models represent mouths and teeth wonderfully developed. A more definite proof of the efficacy of a meat diet in maintaining healthful teeth could not be desired.
Out of the 616 teeth only seven are missing, while Dr. Fernald states that of the same number of teeth in the mouths of New England people, he would expect to find more than 100 missing.
In connection with the securing of the Eskimo teeth models from Commander MacMillan, Dr. Fernald arranged with Professor Hooton of the Peabody Museum at Harvard to secure impressions of the teeth of Yucatan natives during a southern expedition. These people are famous as vegetable eaters. Most of them eat no meat whatever. It was found that their teeth were very much decayed. At a surprisingly early age, their teeth lost all semblance of even a normally healthy condition, and most of them, when middle aged, had practically no teeth, whatever. It has been the experience of most dentists that those people who have the healthiest teeth are those who eat the most meat, which points to the same conclusion as Dr. Fernald’s researches.
Many of the models of the Eskimo teeth are perfect in every way, not having the slightest defect either of form or condition. Dr. Fernald states that is the 32 years of his dental practice he has seen only one set of teeth which were perfect in every respect.
Dr. Fernald says “Studying the models of these peoples’ mouth in the interest of anthropology and ethnology, as well as from an orthodontic standpoint. I consider extremely valuable, as much more data, can be obtained from models of a living person than from skulls. For instance, if the models show that the gums are apparently firm and tight around the teeth and have not receded that alone indicates to some extent a healthy mouth. From the fact that the arches are so even and well developed I should say that these people with so large arches are not mouth breathers, and therefore are not suffering from adenoids, enlarged tousils, and so forth.
“Esquimo Teeth Prove Health of Meat Diet,” The Harvard Crimson (1929)