Something smells fishy

I share with Tyler a high opinion of Jared Diamond’s work but at least part of his explanation for the collapse of the Norse settlements in Greenland does not pass the smell test.  As relayed by Malcolm Gladwell in his review, the Norse used inappropriate farming techniques which stripped the land bare.  Fair enough, mistakes happen.  But a key part of the morality lesson that Diamond wants to tell is that cultural straitjackets doomed the Norse to failure.  The most important piece of evidence being, in Diamond’s telling, that even as they starved the Norse refused to eat the fish that were there for the taking.

Frankly, I think this part of the story is absurd.  As Diamond notes, the evidence from bones is that at the end the Norse were eating their pets.  A cultural norm against eating fish that is stronger than eating pets?  I don’t think so.  A few martyrs might refrain but thousands of people?  No way.  We know that starving people eat insects, they eat dirt, sometimes they even eat each other.  I reject this one from my armchair.

Addendum: Matt Yglesias gets up from his armchair, at least far enough to reach Google, and casts further doubt on the fish story.


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