Think like an Inuit

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I just finished Dan Simmons's impressive new The Terror. The Terror is a novel based on the 1845-1848 Franklin Expedition to discover the Northwest Passage. Both ships, the The Terror and The Erebus get frozen into the ice off King William Land (actually King William Island) and as the men slowly starve to death they find themselves being stalked by some sort of polar ice monster (no spoilers here, this is all laid out in the first 50 pages). Things just get worse from there (think frostbite, scurvy, rampaging monsters, etc...)

Sort-of spoilers below.

One of the themes that runs through the whole book is how completely unprepared the officers and crew are for life in the Arctic. This despite the fact that they've had contact with Inuits (what they call Esquimaux). Based on Huntford's Scott and Amundsen, this seems to be fairly accurate:
Unfortunately, neither Franklin nor any of his 128 men survived to tell the tale. They all perished of starvation, exposure and disease. It was the supreme and, it may be, the characteristic disaster of the country and the age. While Franklin and his men were dying of hunger, Eskimos around them were living off the land in comparative plenty. But Franklin was hampered by grotesquely unsuitable methods, the product of rigid thought and incapacity to adapt to circumstances.

This sort of thinking extended well into the early 20th century. Here's Huntford again, this time on Robert Falcon Scott:

The derelict sledges, forlornly drifting up, stood as monuments to Scott's great foray into modern technology (Amundsen's was the diesel engine on Fram). The trouble was that even after the Discovery expedition, Scott had never come to terms with the Polar environment.

The ponies alone, totally unsuited to the conditions, fighting their way into the drift, their nearest food growing 2,000 miles away, bear witness to Scott's inability grasp the implications of the cold, storms and unpredictable surfaces of the Antarctic world. Perhaps he lacked the competence, the application, even possible the intelligence to carry technical aids through to success.

For at least four years he had known he would return to the Antarctic. He could have visited Norway or the Alps; learnt to ski and drive dogs himself; acquired a grounding in the internal combustion engine (he was, after all, a torpedo expert), or even tried some mountaineering. He had done none of these things.

Incompetent design penetrated into most details of equipment. Scott had learned nothing and forgotten nothing. He still used neither furs nor anoraks, but wore the same inefficient garments with separate hoods that had disfigured the Discovery expedition. His tents, without sewn-in groundsheets, slipped over a cumbrous framework of poles, like a tepee, were difficult to erect in a gale. And where transport was concerned, Scott trusted neither ponies, nor skis, dogs or sledge; in truth all he really believed in was human effort.

Jared Diamond's description of the Norse in Greenland 400 years earlier is strikingly similar:

Firmer evidence of face-to-face contact between the two peoples comes from nine Inuit carvings of human figures that were unmistakable Norse, as judged by depictions of a characteristically Viking hairdo, clothing, or a crucifix decoration. The Inuit also learned some useful technologies from the Norse. While Inuit tools in the shape of a European knife or saw could just have been copied from plundered Norse objects without any friendly contact with a live Norseman, Inuit-made barrel staves and screw-threaded arrowheads suggest that the Inuit actually saw Norse men making or using barrels and screws.

On the other hand, corresponding evidence of Inuit objects at Norse sites is almost non-existent. One Inuit antler comb, two bird darts, one ivory towline handle, and one piece of meteoric iron: those five items are the grand total known to me for all of Norse Greenland throughout the centuries of Inuit/Norse coexistence. Even those five items would seem not to be valuable trade items but just discarded curiosities that some Norse person picked up. Astounding by their complete absence are all the useful pieces of Inuit technology that the Norse could have copied with profit but didn't. For instance, there is not a single harpoon, spear thrower, or kayak or umiaq piece from any Norse site.


But we certainly don't find at Norse sites the bones of what I think would have been the most precious things that the Inuit could have traded to the Norse: ringed seals, Greenland's most abundant seal species during the winter, hunted successfully by the Inuit but not by the Norse, and available at a time of year when the Norse were chronically at risk of exhausting their stored winter food supply and starving.

Things didn't turn out much better for them than for the crew of the Terror.


I thought the Norse mostly left, rather than simply dying out. That would arguably have been a much better fate than befell the Inuit, who to this day suffer the misfortune of living in Greenland.

If this global warming works out O.K. Greenland will be nice real estate again.

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