Sunday, October 4, 2009

The People of the Deer

Lately I've been enjoying an anthropological narrative called People of the Deer by Farley Mowat -- the famed and tenacious environmentalist, humanitarian, and defender of true scientific inquiry. In this colorful true-story adventure, first published in 1952, Mowat finds himself drawn, as he so often does, to a place far away in the middle of nowhere in the deep northern territories of Canada. It is here that he befriends and lives among an Eskimo group called the Ilhalmiut and begins to understand how modern encroachment -- namely fur-trapping and government policy -- is negatively affecting the native peoples' ability to live in a place where their ancestors had thrived for thousands of years before them. Mowat writes, quite bluntly, in the foreward of the 1975 edition of the book: "Genocide can be practiced in a variety of ways." Similar to Weston Price, he is not hesitant to place blame on Western culture for the decimation and struggle of the traditional peoples with whom he became intimately acquainted. From the foreword:

We have long prided ourselves on being a democratic nation, dedicated to the altar of freedom. Freedom for whom? If it is only freedom for ourselves to do as we please at the expense of others, then our pious stance is even more abhorrent than that of any overt tyrant -- for ours is based on a vile hypocrisy.

Fat and Deer Hairs

While the book contains many fascinating tidbits, among the most intriguing are Mowat's detailed descriptions of the traditional Ilhalmiut diet and their shifting health as a result of Western influence. When he first arrives at the small settlement of Ilhalmiut, the author is welcomed with a tray of meat that might make any Westerner's stomach churn:

Half a dozen parboiled legs of deer were spread out in a thick gravy which seemed to be composed of equal parts of fat and deer hairs. Bobbing about in the debris were a dozen tongues and, like a cage holding the lesser cuts of meats, there was an entire rib basket of a deer.

Still hungry? There's more!

There were side dishes too ... a skin sack, full of flakes of dry meat ... a smoking bundle of marrow bones ... neatly cracked to so that we would have no trouble extracting the succulent marrow. (p. 82)


The cooking varied somewhat, but the food did not. The rule was meat at every meal and nothing else but meat, unless you could count a few well-rotted duck eggs which served as appetizers. To satisfy my curiousity I tried to estimate the quantity of meat Hekwaw [a member of the tribe] put away each day. I discovered he could handle ten to fifteen pounds when he was really hungry... (p. 85)

It doesn't take Mowat long to identify the key ingredient of the Ilhalmiut diet: fat. From his own experience on lean meat for an extended period of time, he describes the vast importance of fat in an all-meat diet through his battle with an affliction which he names, for want of a better term, mal de caribou, also known by a great many arctic explorers, prisoners of war, and human carnivores as rabbit starvation:

... persistent diarrhea was only part of the effect of mal de caribou. I was [also] filled with a sick lassitude, an increasing loss of will to work that made me quite useless ...

Mowat's guide -- a half-Eskimo, half-white man named Franz -- prepared and administered a peculiar remedy:

... he took out a half-pound of precious lard, melted it in a frying pan, and, when it was lukewarm and not yet congealed, he ordered me to drink it. Strangely, I was greedy for it ... I drank a lot of it, then went to bed; and by morning I was completely recovered ... I was suffering from a deficiency of fat and did not realize it. (p. 88)

Death and Disease Among the Ilhalmiut

Concerning the health of the Ilhalmiut people, Mowat goes into extensive historic, anecdotal, and statistical detail while attempting to get at the root of the Northern natives' plight of disease and illness following the arrival of Western culture. It's no secret to those who have studied into the writings and theories of nutritional heroes such as Weston Price, Sir Robert McCarrison, T.L. Cleave, and others that when modern foods such as white flour and sugar are introduced to a traditional culture ill health follows, worsening from generation to generation. Farley Mowat joins the ranks of these great independent thinkers when he waxes sensible, explaining his own theory as to why the people of the far North and other native peoples in history have succumbed to tuberculosis, measles, and small pox:

Perhaps you have heard of the decimation of the forest Indians brought about by disease, by lack of adaptability, by inherent laziness and indolence or by other causes ... you have never heard the truth, for all of these apparent causes are manifestions of the real destroyer, which is -- starvation. If you ask about the thousands of Indians and Eskimos who die each year of tuberculosis, if you ask about the measles and smallpox epidemics which ... have destroyed over one-tenth of the Northern natives ... these people too die of starvation ... (p.91)

Is it just me, or is Mr. Mowat on to something here? He goes on to tell the story of an Inuit tribe he lived with in the winter of 1948, the Idthen Eldeli -- literally meaning "Eaters of the Deer":

In 1860 ... there were about 2000 members of the Idthen ... when the deer moved ... the Idthen people followed after ... [they] anually traveled over a thousand miles through the Barrens.

In the eighteenth century the famous explorer Samuel Hearne journeyed ... with a band of these Indians and he speaks, as do many others, of the almost superhuman endurance and physical capacity of the Idthen people.

In the winter of 1948 when I lived with the Idthen ... they numbered a little over 150 men, women, and children who spent the winters on their scanty trap lines, starving through the cold months until they could fish for life along the opening rivers ... They are a passive, beaten, hopeless people who wait miserably for death. (p. 92)

What could be the instigator of such an unfortunate circumstance? Ol' Farley doesn't mince words:

Starvation first came to them when they began to subsist on a winter diet which now consists of 80 percent white flour, with a very little lard and baking powder, and in summer almost nothing but straight fish. The Idthen people now get little of the red meat and white fat of the deer, once their sole food. Three generations have been born and lived -- or died -- upon a diet of flour bannocks and fish eaten three times a day and washed down with tea. Each of these generations has been weaker and had less "immunity" to disease than the last. (p. 93)

Government aid: giving natives the short end of the stick in America since 1492. It's interesting how what Mowat refers to as starvation can also be seen as a displacement of native foods, as Weston Price pointed out in the 1930s. Either way, the result is lowered immunity and degeneration. Mowat's solution for the dilemma of this "starvation?" Here it is, in characteristic common sense:

Surely there is but one way to cure a man of the diseases which are the products of three generations of starvation, and that is to feed him. (p. 95)

Let them eat meat and fat!


Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Ryan,

I wonder if part of the problem is a loss of wildlife from too much hunting. Steffanson described how the caribou were decimated after guns arrived in the arctic (used by both whites and natives). Did they really have the choice to return to eating deer?

Matt Stone said...


It's this kind of thought process that led me to believe that starvation, which is marked by a low metabolism, is the root cause of most forms of illness. We're not starving now of course, but low metabolisms we have, yes? You've seen that almost everyone that comments on my blog has a low body temperature/low metabolism.

Of course, we have adequate calories now. I think a low metabolism can just as easily come about, not due to lack of overall food, but to going through a supply of anything faster than it is replenished. Lack of vitamins, like McCarrison showed, can certainly cause major metabolic changes.

But yes, anything that can cause a low metabolism can cause the health problems we now face. I think this is why Paleo nerds blame agriculture, as many starving peoples throughout history were agriculturalists. They have deficiencies of fat soluble vitamins, protein, and overall calories. The transition to farming was often something that was forced by scarcity as Jared Diamond brings up in Guns, Germs, and Steel.

As Price showed though, agriculturalists can obtain great health. So did McCarrison. It ain't carbs or cereal grains or corn n' beans that causes ill health.

But god bless meat and fat!

Can't wait to read Mowat.

Ryan Koch said...


Exactly. They didn't have a choice to eat deer because there simply were little deer to eat after Westerners established roots in the area. That's one of the main points of Mowat's argument which I didn't fully explain: modern encroachment, government regulation and "aid," and overall excessive hunting (for furs, mainly) all contributed to the demise of these native peoples' way of life and subsistence patterns.

Mowat explains how the government actually supplied the natives with fish nets and encouraged them to live off of fish and white flour bought from trading posts, rather than hunt deer. So, it was also a change in lifestyle that contributed to their ill health.

I would imagine that a lack of fat in fish combined with the detrimental properties of white flour created a starvation situation -- even with adequate calories. These people were "starved" without the nutrients found in a native diet -- not in a wasting away sense, but in an undernourished sense.


While I agree with you regarding low metabolism and the onset of poor health, I don't agree that certain foods aren't a major factor in disease. It is my opinion that metabolism can be affected profoundly by certain foods, especially wheat (see Dr. William Davis for more on that).

Perhaps it's a "chicken-and-egg" kind of thing, though. On one hand, we can look at it this way: First, poor vitamin/mineral status from lack of nutrients, then low metabolism/lowered immunity, then wheat and fructose negatively affect the body. Or maybe wheat and fructose cause poor metabolism, which leads to a poor vitamin/mineral status. It's hard to say, really.

My hunch is that Price and McCarrison are on point with their assertion that it is a lack of adequate nutrients -- particularly proteins and fats -- that ultimately intitiates the sequence of ill health. That being said, certain foods, like wheat and sugar, are more often than not at the scene of the crime.

LeonRover said...

There are many narratives into which the story of this encounter has a place. New Frontiers-men are more like poachers than Pioneers, except that by means of a superior killing ability, they reduce a prey species to non viability, cf. Jared Diamond. A more modern species cleansing a la the plains bison. A surfeit of the protein macronutient leads to "rabbit disease", while a surfeit of flour, the carbohydrate macronutrient leads to diabetes. The missing macronutrient is FAT, demonised by the mainstream. Perhaps we may have a reprise of Alcohol Prohibition with the enactment of another Constiutional Amendment!
In the end, it is so sad.
Deerslayerb is no more.

Jim Purdy said...

Excellent post. Starvation/malnutrition, even when overeating carbs, is deadly.

chlOe said...

That was a cool story. I love people that follow around the natives. This needs to get discussed mainstream so people stop assuming that "our ancestors"(who the fuck?) ate lean meat, hardly any saturated fat (or fat in general), and tons of fiber.

I think Vonderplanitz had discovered Inuit techniques (that he lives by) also, right? All the rotten meat and..goodies like that.

Crazy how varied the Inuits and their diet can be. I mean, it's like Native Americans. They were widespread across the country, so it's not like they all ate the same thing.

Ryan Koch said...


I agree. The reality of meat and fat consumption by many of our hunter-gatherer ancestors makes our meat-eating habits seem incredibly modest in comparison.

Vonderplanitz -- that guy is certainly an interesting case study in nutrition and health! I actually followed his dietary recommendations -- raw meat, tons of raw butter, unheated honey, and, yes, rotten meat here and there -- in the beginning of my journey back into eating animal foods. What fascinated me most was that I never had any sort of sickness while eating literally billions of microorganisms in the raw foods. And yes, some of his inspiration does come from the Inuit.

One of his most intriguing claims is that parasites in raw meat "detox" and cleanse the body of dead tissues if the body is otherwise nourished by adequate nutrients. Not much science behind claims like this, but interesting nonetheless. Antoine Bechamp, who Vonderplanitz cites often, has a similar theory about bacteria and parasites.

Michael said...


Perhaps it's a "chicken-and-egg" kind of thing, though. On one hand, we can look at it this way: First, poor vitamin/mineral status from lack of nutrients, then low metabolism/lowered immunity, then wheat and fructose negatively affect the body. Or maybe wheat and fructose cause poor metabolism, which leads to a poor vitamin/mineral status. It's hard to say, really.

I think if you look closely at the evidence it is the former scenario and not the latter which is closer to reality. There are carb eating/fructose eating cultures that are in superb health, but when they adopt these same foods in refined western forms, the whole scenario you mentioned comes into play, so it can't be genetics.

Nutrition and Physical Regeneration

Ryan Koch said...


While it's true that there are a myriad of healthy wheat and fructose-eating cultures around the world, the attributes of their wheat and fructose containing foods are a far cry from modern refined foods. For example, many cultures consume wheat in the form of sourdough, which breaks much of the guluten down and perhaps alters some of the detrimental properties. Modern wheat, engineered to be unnaturally high in gluten and not made into traditional sourdough, is a completely different food.

Same with fructose. Many healthy primitive cultures eat fruit and/or honey as part of their diet, but the fructose is in the form of D-fructose -- a natural form of fructose -- while that found in high-fructose corn syrup is manmade L-fructose. Scroll down on this page and check out the process behind creating L-fructose:

Biological process for L-fructose synthesis

A quote from the above paper:

"Exploitation of the favorable properties of L-sugars is hindered by their relative unavailability. L-fructose, for example, is not found to any significant extent in nature. This unavailability has spurred recent efforts in developing commercially feasible methods for preparing L-sugars in amounts necessary for their use as a staple of commerce. U.S. Pat. Nos. 4,371,616 and 4,421,568 describe a method of producing L-sugars, including L-idose and L-glucose, from the readily available D-glucose.

Since L-fructose is so unnatural, I'd wager a bet that it has significant effects on human metabolism. In fact, many studies have shown this to be true.

Yet, the question still remains: if a person is otherwise fully nourished by a nutrient dense diet, can they escape the effects of consuming large amounts of industrial wheat and fructose?

Thomas said...

Farley Mowat has a very mixed reputation in Canada's North. (See this article for a good overview:

Caribou are very fickle creatures, their population and migration patterns vary widely and it is no coincidence that most Inuit live in coastal areas where fish (char) and sea mammals (seals, walrus, whales) provide alternative high grade food options; but even coastal Inuit mostly prefer caribou if given the choice.

Thomas W, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories

Ryan Koch (Health Matters to Me) said...


Thanks for the perspective. I couldn't get the link you provided to work, but I think I found the article that you're referencing.

Interesting stuff about the validity of Mowat's claims -- I can only hope the details I referenced in The People of the Deer are facts and not a facet of his imagination. Seems like he enjoys blending facts and fiction -- a bit of a storyteller!

I'll read his material with a more skeptical mind now.

Re: Caribou

The Inuit that Mowat claims to have lived with ate deer as their main source of meat, not caribou. Different population and migration patterns than caribou, perhaps?

Thomas said...

Re: Caribou

I am sure Mowat meant caribou when he talks about deer and Inuit. There are no white tails or other deer in the barrens. Sir John Franklin and other early explorers frequently use the term "deer" in their journals but they are in fact describing caribou. "People of the Deer" is just a bit of literary affectation.

Ryan Koch @ Health Matters to Me said...


Thanks for clearing that up. It appears that you're correct, as I looked up white-tailed deer range for Canada and they don't seem to extend as far as the Ilhalmiut land of Mowat's book (check out the map on page 9). Furthermore, the range of white-tailed deer were historically even further south in Canada than where they are in modern times.

regular customer here! said...

thanks Ryan~

Am reading the original book currently and do understand the cogent message to us all.

Starvation is the reason.

Remember the white trader who turned them away after throwing at them the small sack of flour? How in hell are humans to gain any nourishment from eating flour granules? The misunderstanding and cultural ignorances led to the decimation of a whole intact culture.

mposinoff -->.