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  • September 30, 2014

We Are What We Eat: In the Arctic, It’s All About Meat

Over the coming weeks, photographer Matthieu Paley will be sharing his visual food diaries with Proof as he travels the globe in search of our ancestral ties to the food we eat.

His journal officially begins on the east coast of Greenland, the first stop on his six-country voyage.

December 2013

For four hours, the sun struggles to rise. Eventually, it decides to go back to sleep, as if to say, it’s way too cold to even bother. I would agree, but I am here to work. I plan to visit 6 countries in 4 months. It will be tight, but I like a challenge or two.

Helicopter flight over the pack ice from Tasiilaq to Isortoq—population 64—in eastern Greenland.
A view from the helicopter while flying over the pack ice from Tasiilaq to Isortoq—population 64—in eastern Greenland.

After much research—and after considering other destinations, family obligations and myriad other things—I have picked a remote Inuit village in eastern Greenland. It is December. Maybe not the best time to go towards the North Pole, but I have learned that going off season is often a bonus. At least that’s what I tell myself.

In a place of rock and ice, nothing dares to grow except some berries in the brief summer. All food not brought in from elsewhere must come from the animal world. The Inuit are at the pinnacle of this meat-only diet.

Isortoq is a tiny village of 64 inhabitants, huddled in wooden houses scattered like giant dice next to the ice cap. After four different flights and two helicopter rides over a glacial landscape, I have arrived. The nearest settlement is a two-day’s walk through polar bear country.

Picture of a man with his sled dog
After feeding his sled dogs, Bent Igniatiussen stashes seal meat in his basement for his family.

Bent, my host, opens the frigid guesthouse. I ask if I could stay with his family instead. I want to be with them, to share food and hopefully get good images. I show them an issue of National Geographic with a recent story I shot. Clamoring in Tunu, their local language, they check out the impressive yak caravan deep in Afghanistan’s Pamir mountains. Eventually, I am given a nice corner of the tiny living room, right next to the dinner table, and I lay out my foam pad. I am exhausted. Outside, the dogs are howling. I struggle to find sleep. There is always inner tension at the beginning of a story. I am about to jump in.

Picture of the head of a polar bear
The head of a polar bear is set out to defrost on the dining table.

When the light finally dawns (at 11am!), it is beautiful and soft. But it won’t last very long, so we hurry. We go out hunting on Bent’s boat. Dina, his wife, stands at the prow, scrutinizing the horizon, gun in hand. Her slanted eyes are partly hidden behind a hand-made fox-skin hat. In the dim blue light, we zigzag between icebergs. BAANG!!! The gunshot clashes with nature. I fantasize about the quiet days of harpoon hunting from a sealskin kayak. They wanted seal, but today we only get ptarmigans and a wild duck and then rush home before dark. It’s 2:30pm.

Inuit boil all their meat. Boiled meat looks like any other boiled meat. Incredibly unexciting. Back in the kitchen, I shrug. I explain to Bent what I would like to see. Maybe my excitement is too apparent. “If you are in such a hurry, why didn’t you arrive yesterday!” he smiles.

He takes me into an unheated room at the entrance of the house. It is freezing cold. The smell of fat hangs heavy, the wooden floor is slippery. But it’s not your average fat smell—more like fat mixed with cold ocean topped with seaweed. Here in a corner is the paw of a seal, there a hardened chunk of skinned killer whale meat. All is frozen, cut-up into pieces, and wrapped in plastic. I wonder about the larger pieces, the ones that wouldn’t fit in here. These, I am hopeful, could tell a story. “Oh, we keep it on the outskirts of the village. Sometimes we go there to get more meat for us and to feed our sled dogs,” Bent says.

Pictures of: Greenland
The small Inuit settlement of Isortoq in east Greenland (left). A scene from a family fishing trip for arctic cod (right).

We trudge through snow, passing the only general store. A mountain of neatly stacked beer is for sale at the entrance. There are lots of imported goods, processed food, and dried fish. “If you want to close a village, you just need to close the store,” says Bent. Most Inuit nowadays compliment their eating habits with “western” food. Many of the hunting ways have been lost. Diabetes is on the rise.

Picture of the frozen dorsal fin of a killer whale
The dorsal fin of a killer whale is left outside of the settlement, used for food for dogs and humans alike.

Leaving the last house behind us, we get to a large wooden box, half covered in snow. Bent removes the heavy stones laying on it. Inside, there is a frozen landscape of animal heads, bones, fins, and other parts I can’t identify—the antipode of the sparkling clean supermarket interior I just saw. This is the real food. This is what I have come to see, what the Inuit have survived on for thousands of years, in this land of the North.

With a crowbar, Bent separates a large whale rib from this frozen mess. “We got that whale last July, during migration, a real battle it was”. And then comes the head of a bearded seal. All lie in the snow, eerily quiet. Grabbing a large ax, Bent swings it at a narwhale part, stacking the pieces on a sledge. In the Arctic, the hunter is also the butcher.

Picture of an Inuit family going fishing
The family and friends of hunter Tobias Ignatiussen head out on a Sunday afternoon fishing trip for arctic cod.

I buzz right and left of him, clicking away. I am getting somewhere here. In my mind, we have just found the Tutankhamun of the Arctic kitchen, leftovers strewn here and there. It’s a small victory on my image front. Here, you finally see and understand where the traditional food comes from. Smiling, I help Bent’s son pull the sledge back up to the house. The chained dogs we pass are yapping excitedly, knowing food is on the way for them too.

I could tell you many more stories about this small Arctic settlement. Some are sad, reflecting the all too common story of people losing their lives to the glitter of the Western world. Others are glorious, steeped in knowledge of the land, blood spilling in the ocean, and the northern lights above.

Next, armadillo, plantains, and corn: The rainforest diet of Bolivia’s Tsimane tribe

*****

The Evolution of Diet“, featured in the September issue, is part of National Geographic‘s special eight-month “Future of Food” series. Follow Matthieu Paley on Twitter, Instagram, and his website.

Related story: Spring in Crete Means a Feast of Wild Greens  
Related story:Chai, Chapatis, and the Taste of Home 
Related story: Diving for Dinner With the Sea Gypsies 
Related story: The High Altitude Diet of Afghanistan’s Nomads 
Related story: Documenting Dinners Around the World

There are 25 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. melanie
    November 16, 2014

    Love your articles

  2. Juan R. Rodriguez
    October 12, 2014

    Very interesting to see the pictures and hear about their lives.

  3. martin møldrup
    October 9, 2014

    I was born and raised up in a small village like Isortoq. Nice to see some pictures “from home”

  4. Julia Hiebaum
    October 6, 2014

    Beautiful series, they’re all unique and enriching..looking forward to reading more!

  5. Isabel HernándezTibau
    October 4, 2014

    unartículo muy interesant, sobre todo por la vida tan diferente que llevan los nativos allí,Gracias!

  6. julito genon
    October 4, 2014

    nice article very informative.thank you ….e leared o lot from you sir

  7. erbPIX™
    October 2, 2014

    I have never lost my fascination for how the Inuit people chose to live in their frozen world. Thank you, Mr. Paley, for your photographs that provide a glimpse of that life.

  8. Elisabeth Nielsdóttir
    October 2, 2014

    thank you f. the article + the pictures,would like to hear + see more☺ was in Isortoq 1988

  9. michael silvestre
    October 2, 2014

    I like it, very nice article.

  10. Vincent Pardieu
    October 2, 2014

    As the others… Cannot wait to read more!

  11. Sam Pleitgen
    October 2, 2014

    Nice work Matthieu. Looking forward to more!

  12. adoken
    October 2, 2014

    i wanna try polar bear adobo

  13. Ansie Prosser
    October 1, 2014

    Wonderful article!

  14. Marco Vezzari
    October 1, 2014

    Just fantastic! I really hope one day I will visit a place like that and know this kind of people. Great photos and great article!

  15. Chavi nandez
    October 1, 2014

    Great article…!!! need more

  16. Raymond
    October 1, 2014

    i want live too!:Dliked it very much

  17. Captain Scott A Ross
    October 1, 2014

    What an amazing place , pictures are fantastic

  18. John Wright
    October 1, 2014

    Although I do not like to see orca killed I also appreciate that these people cannot be vegetarians.

  19. nesarahmad
    October 1, 2014

    دیدنی های شگرف جهان وحش

  20. sandeep yadav
    October 1, 2014

    liked it very much.. a whole new world through your lenses..thanks a few pics more would be GREAT!

  21. Monika Jongert
    October 1, 2014

    what a wonderful article! Thank you Matthieu! Thank you National Geographic!

  22. Indranil Sengupta
    October 1, 2014

    Amazed to see these photographs.Looking forward to your next article.

  23. Beth Kennedy
    October 1, 2014

    You’ve drawn me in, I want to know more.

  24. SIKANDAR HAYAT /PAKISTAN,LAHORE
    September 30, 2014

    NICE ARTICLE I WISH I COULD KNOW MORE ABOUT SUCH BRAVE PEOPLE LIVING IN SUCHA CHALLENGING SITUATION

  25. R Earvin
    September 30, 2014

    fantastic start. I’m looking forward to reading about the next location

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