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Diets of Hunter-gatherers in the Arctic and Subarctic

Abstract and Keywords

The diets of Arctic and subarctic hunter-gatherers are the source of perennial theoretically relevant questions and debates, for example on cooking and raw food, the relative importance of protein in diet and its effects, the degree of labour specialization, and modes of food-sharing and trading. This chapter outlines the use of ethnographic enquiry to best inform archaeological interpretations in the Arctic and subarctic, with vignettes from the ethnography of northern Siberia. It discusses the advantages and disadvantages of methods typically used to study diet among contemporary hunter-gatherers. Development of quantitative data on food consumption is useful for developing information on seasonality, gender, taboos, and other kinds of effects on behaviour and data sets suited for comparative research. Ethnographers in the Arctic and subarctic have faced particular challenges with some observational methods, since the construction of permanent communities for indigenous populations over the last fifty to one hundred years.

Keywords: division of labour, raw food, taboo, trade goods, food sharing

History of Arctic and Subarctic Diet Studies

Cooking is the most important use of fire. Besides making some food taste better, it can make food easier to chew and digest, it kills bacteria in food, and is an important aid to food preservation. Cooking greatly expanded the range of substances humans could eat. Evidence of cooking is ancient and widespread.

Donald E. Brown, Human Universals (1991: 95)

In Brown’s (1991) discussion of the history of human universals in anthropology, fire and cooking are mentioned together as basic technologies found across the range of human subsistence strategies. Tylor (1898) and many others have discussed the relationship between, and presumed importance of, fire and cooking in the development of human civilizations. For example, Murdock (1945) listed cooking in his comprehensive essay on human universals. More recently, Wrangham’s book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human (2009) develops a number of themes about the relationship between fire, cooking, and the evolution of modern Homo sapiens. Importantly, Wrangham shows that ‘raw foodists’—people who attempt to survive solely (or predominantly) on raw foods, do not fare well nutritionally and only thrive in rich modern environments where high-quality processed foods are available. In Donald Brown’s examination of human universals the use of fire for cooking is classed as a ‘universal of accident’—something that is more easily imagined not being universal—rather than a ‘universal of essence’—something that cannot be eliminated except by unnatural intervention (Brown 1991: 49).

One issue in relation to the discussion of fire and cooking is the definition of cooking. Cooking, at its simplest, is just the preparation of food for consumption, which does not necessarily imply the application of heat from fire. The use of fire for cooking is, thus, a sufficient but not necessary condition for cooking. In other words, cooking is a set of learned techniques which may or may not include the use of heat from fire. Cooking with heat is not always necessary or desirable as sometimes assumed from Western perspectives. A case in point is the fact that animal flesh foods are often eaten in raw form, especially in the Arctic and subarctic, but also in Japanese and other Asian cuisines. The raw is not necessarily a realm relegated to nature, or the primitive in these societies (Levi-Strauss 1969). Ecological, nutritional, and cultural contexts create variation in the use of fire for cooking across human populations. In the Arctic and subarctic, raw animal protein consumption is more commonly found to be a normal part of the diet, for important nutritional reasons, alongside cooked foods.

Anthropologists historically explained the consumption of raw flesh foods among Arctic peoples as a result of difficulties in procuring fuel (Bogoras 1904; Høygaard 1941) or fuel scarcity developing into habit (Murdoch 1887). However, early European Arctic explorers who did not eat raw flesh foods are reported to have quickly developed scurvy, with many individuals dying from that disease (Stefansson 1927). With little fresh fruit or vegetables, and no sunlight in the winter, scurvy can develop within a few months in the Arctic or Antarctic. Stefansson reported that Arctic explorers who adopted indigenous traditions of eating fresh, uncooked meat and fish were not impacted by scurvy (1927). A small number of the members of Stefansson’s expedition who subsisted mainly on groceries and dried beef developed scurvy within a few months. They were later cured in several days with a diet consisting of raw musk ox meat. There are clear nutritional and medical advantages to eating raw animal meat and fish in the Arctic and subarctic.

The importance of raw flesh foods for nutritional health was also documented in Thomas’s (1927) study of Greenlandic Eskimo health and diet. The Greenlandic populations showed no scurvy, rickets, or unusual prevalence of vascular disease in populations where consumption of fresh, uncooked meat, fish, and fowl were common. In contrast, among the natives of Labrador, who had been in contact with civilization for a longer period of time and had adopted imported foods and cooking methods, both scurvy and rickets were ‘almost universal’ (Thomas 1927). Consumption of raw protein is the indigenous tradition among native people in the Eurasian north, as well as among other circumpolar peoples (Eidlitz 1969).

North Siberian natives often eat raw flesh foods, including fish and wild reindeer meat. In addition to the putative symbolic importance of eating raw fish and meat for native identity, raw animal flesh foods contain important nutrients not found in those processed with heat. The use of fire for cooking is rightly placed as a universal of accident, particularly in the context of Eurasian history and prehistory. Cooking by itself, with or without the use of fire as a source of heat to modify the foods, is a universal of essence. Careful ethnographic examination of Arctic and subarctic diets illustrates the variation in the use of food preparation techniques, both with and without the application of fire for cooking, which have implications for archaeological studies in these regions.

External sources of food in Arctic and subarctic diets

The availability of non-local foods, such as flour, sugar, canned foods, and vegetables, varies both geographically and temporally for indigenous communities in the Arctic and subarctic. Imported carbohydrates have been present in the diets of northern Siberian peoples for at least two centuries, but their relative importance in the diet has varied considerably through time and from place to place. Variation in access to imported carbohydrates reflects the organization and efficiency of trade networks and government subsidies. The merchant trade of the 1800s was fairly inefficient in Siberia. Supplies of imported carbohydrates were sporadic at best.

Imported goods, such as flour, tea and sugar were probably used by all the [circumpolar peoples] even in the nineteenth century, but the amount of such goods in the daily diet can hardly have been large. Islavin (1847) reports the diet of the Samoeds, for instance, consisted of bread, reindeer meat, fresh and dried fish, wild birds and berries. The consumption of bread was so small, however, that it did not make much difference whether it was included with reindeer meat and fish or not.

(Eidlitz 1969)

The Russian government has supplied flour and grain to the north Siberians for almost two centuries. In 1822, Count M. M. Speranskii, a progressive activist and governor of Siberia, set up ‘bread-reserve’ stores across Siberia (Okladnikov 1968; Troitskii 1987). The stores sold flour and grain at government-controlled prices for cash or in exchange for fur-bearing animal pelts. The bread-reserve system was part of a series of reforms in Siberia that were meant to improve the governance and regulate taxation for the indigenous population (Okladnikov 1968; Forsyth 1992). The stores reportedly saved some groups from starvation in the nineteenth century, providing an alternative to trade with private merchants. It has been reported that the Cossacks1 running the stores tended to abuse their power by charging natives more than they were supposed to (Forsyth 1992). The bread-reserve stores operated until as late as the 1920s, when they were nationalized by the Soviets under Gostorg—the new government trade organization (Troitskii 1987).

In North America the fur trade was not so clearly a means by which new types of foods, except for alcohol, were introduced to the indigenous peoples. According to Carlos and Lewis (2001 and 2008,) in their study of the economic history of the fur trade in Canada from 1670 to 1870, Europeans supplied little food to the native population. To the contrary, natives helped provision trading posts with fish and fowl. Mainly what was traded in exchange for beaver and other animal pelts were various items associated with hunting, metal tools, household goods such as blankets and kettles, and other ‘luxury’ goods, including cloth. The native role of food supplier grew in the nineteenth century with groups known as ‘home guard Cree’ coming to live near posts and supplying pemmican—an important source of nourishment for Europeans involved in the buffalo hunts (Carlos and Lewis 2008). Carlos and Lewis (2001) showed a shift to more luxury goods and ornaments as fur prices increased in their study of York post on Hudson’s Bay. As important as the fur trade was to Native Americans in the subarctic of Canada, commerce with the Europeans comprised a relatively small part of their overall economy, with little evidence for the early supply of carbohydrate foods. The tools and goods that were supplied, important kettles and fire steels, would have allowed for more native food to be boiled rather than cooked using some other method.

Owing to their scarcity and high cost, imported carbohydrates played a symbolic role in the diets of indigenous people living in northern Siberia during the pre-Soviet and early Soviet periods. In a story Aksenia Bezrukikh (b. 1904) told about her wedding feast (Ziker 2002), imported carbohydrates are noted for their ceremonial and social importance. The bulk of Aksenia’s wedding food consisted of reindeer meat, and when she left for her new husband’s camp, her parents sent her away with eight reindeer, each one loaded with two bags of dried reindeer meat and dried fish. The inclusion of jellied candies (‘Monposei’, or Montpensier) symbolized the wealth involved in her wedding, a point mentioned in several sections of her story. Describing the ‘Russian food’ as the reserve of her grandmother, Aksenia underscored its relative value at that time to a population that depended on subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering, as well as trapping and trade.

This oral account nicely parallels the available archival data from the 1920s (Ziker 2012). Securing food through hunting and fishing was a necessity for every family in the 1920s. The animals mentioned in these records as most often procured for food include several species of whitefish, goose, duck, hare, ptarmigan, and wild reindeer. The Polar Census also documented the consumer goods that each household purchased by trading furs and salted fish in 1926. Such foods included rye flour, wheat flour, finely sifted flour, pretzels, bagels, crackers, butter, brick tea, leaf tea, sugar, salt, and bread. Other goods purchased included dishes, cotton cloth, wool cloth, and tobacco leaf. Hunting and trapping equipment included powder, shot, lead, percussion caps, guns, and weights for gill nets. Based on the Siberian evidence, it is likely that by the early twentieth century, carbohydrate foods were well established in Arctic and subarctic diets.


Archival research, such as that performed with records of trading posts or censuses going back in time up to several centuries, can help to set the background to ethnographic studies of contemporary diet of peoples in the Arctic and subarctic. The advantage of this approach is that historical research can help to determine when certain foods became available in specific regions as well as occasionally to document the particular food habits of historical populations.

Ethnographic studies may entail a number of methods including behavioural observation techniques, interview schedules, and cognitive techniques. Jarvenpa (2008) used a combination of questionnaires, interviews, and direct observations to describe the components of meals common in task groups, family meals, and public/celebratory meals in two circumpolar societies. His methods do an excellent job in developing comparable descriptions but do not lend themselves to more detailed empirical investigation of the correlates of dietary behaviour. Searles (2002) used participant observation and informal interview techniques to describe the role of Inuit and non-Inuit foods in modern Inuit identity. The advantage of Searles’s methods is the detailed and nuanced understandings developed about the meaning of particular foods in particular settings—information that is rather difficult to capture by observation alone.

Food sharing is an important research topic in Arctic and subarctic dietary behaviour which is relevant to wider anthropological debates surrounding indigenous food sharing and human evolution (Wrangham et al. 1999). Descriptive data on food sharing can be generated through interviews and participant observational studies. Kishigami (2000) reviews the modes and phases of food sharing among the Inuit. Generating empirical data required for hypothesis testing can be accomplished through time-allocation studies of foraging along with distribution data (Ziker and Schnegg 2005; see also Alvard 2002; Hames and McCabe 2007; Koster 2011). Food sharing studies conducted in Arctic and subarctic ethnographic settings have particular relevance to understanding social processes occurring in archaeological sites of big game hunters.

This Study

In this study of dietary behaviour conducted in northern Siberia, a combination of behavioural observation techniques were used along with informal interviewing and methods of cognitive anthropology to develop both the empirical data on food consumption behaviours, as well as the local conceptual organization of diet and an idea of the symbolically important elements of diet to indigenous identity. Participant observation allowed for the observation of food consumption events (meals) using focal-follow, random, and opportunistic sampling techniques. Later, these data were combined with demographic information about meal participants and context to generate empirical data on food consumption patterns.

After each meal observation, information on preparation techniques, cut of wild reindeer meat, species of fish, fowl, other wild meats, imported protein, carbohydrates, beverages, fruits and vegetables consumed was documented. In addition, the ID numbers of individuals participating in the meal were documented. A community census conducted in 1997 provided information on the age and gender of meal participants, as well as their relationships to one another. Meals were analysed by location and month of occurrence in order to describe the distribution of the food preparation techniques across time and locations, providing a comparative framework for discussion of consumption patterns in indigenous communities in the Taimyr region.

A sample consisting of 1,176 meal observations was coded for location type and linked to census data. Twenty-six meals were removed from the social analysis because of incomplete information. The city meals are probably the least representative of the native community in the city, since the majority of the observations occurred in just one household. Village meals have much better representation across households, and bush meals provide the highest coverage of meals across people working in the tundra.

In addition to observation of meals, a free-listing task was used to generate food lists from which ethnoecological concepts organizing the food system were derived. With the free-list task, six Dolgan residents of Ust’-Avam were asked to name and describe Dolgan foods or to describe types of food that the Dolgan eat. These interviews resulted in food lists of ten to forty-five items. Names for preparation techniques were highly consistent in these interviews; most of the variation entered in with the type of animal flesh. Similar materials on the Nganasan food system can be found in Afanasieva and Simchenko (1993). From these materials a typology was derived.

Food preparation techniques

The following food preparation techniques were derived from lists of native food items from five informants in Ust’-Avam. These individuals were asked to list native Dolgan food items using the free-listing technique described in Weller and Romney (1988). A core number of items were repeated in each of the lists: two individuals listed over thirty dishes, while the other three listed fewer than fifteen. These listed items were divided into eight categories based on the method of preparation. Direct observation and participation in meals revealed similar variation in degree of food preparation.

Raw (hadugai)

The most common items eaten hadugai are: the flesh and liver of chir (Coregonus nasus), a two-plus-kilogram freshwater whitefish; and various soft organs and blood from wild reindeer (Rangifer tarandus sibiricus), such as kidney, liver, heart, and brain. Chir often has thick fat deposits on the underside and in the intestines, and this makes it, and other types of fat whitefish, the most desirable for hadugai. The intestinal fat is often separated and rendered in a water bath to make oil; fish oil is used as a vitamin supplement and for cooking (see ‘8. Rendered fat’). Usually, hadugai is eaten immediately after the kill or catch. The fish or meat is scaled or cut into individual portions. The person then uses his or her own knife to cut the item into bite-sized portions, often using their teeth to hold one end of the item while cutting. If hadugai is made from fish, certain portions of the fish are not consumed when eating. Whitefish hadugai is usually prepared from fillets. The backbone and ribs are not wasted, however. They are chopped up with an axe and also eaten raw. The dish is called doktoro. If doktoro is not prepared, the remaining pieces (head, backbone, and ribs) are usually boiled for soup.

Raw frozen (kyspyt)

Both meat and fish are eaten kyspyt. However, fish is the more common item. Kyspyt balyk, or raw frozen fish, is prepared in two ways (stroganina and rubanina) depending on the time of year, i.e. depending on storage temperature. Stroganina, from the Russian verb strogat’ or carve, requires that the fish be solidly frozen. The fish is scaled, warmed a little in a fire, stove, or warm water for a few moments, then the skin is peeled off with a knife and eaten. The flesh of the frozen fish is then carved into thin shavings, often dipped in salt and pepper, and consumed before it defrosts. Rarely, meat is prepared as stroganina. For example, the lower section of the wild reindeer leg (byl’ching) is sometimes prepared this way. More commonly, wild reindeer liver and kidney are consumed kyspyt. Rubanina, from the Russian verb rubit’, meaning hew, is usually prepared in warmer weather when the fish is not completely frozen or would melt quickly. After the fish is scaled, it is cut into 3–4 cm sections. Each person gets a section and uses his or her own knife to cut it into smaller pieces before it all melts.

Raw salted (tustak)

Fish is prepared with the use of salt, tustak balyk. Each person has his or her own hand when it comes to salting fish. Large and medium-sized fish are often gutted, butterfly-cut, and salted. Then they are rolled into burlap bags and stored in a cool, dry place for a day. The excess salt is brushed off and the fish can be hung to dry (vyalit’) or consumed right away, usually cut into sushi-sized pieces and eaten with bread. Kolodka is prepared with smaller fish, usually small whitefish, herring, or sardines (whitefish spp. sig, peliad, riapushka, tugunok). The fish are rinsed, but not scaled or gutted. They are placed in layers and salted in either a wooden barrel or large aluminium tray. The salt draws liquid from the fish and creates salty brine in which the fish remain until they are eaten.

Shish kebab (ölü)

Usually prepared on foraging trips, ölü requires only a sharpened stick and a fire. The stick is poked through pieces of wild reindeer meat, liver, kidney, and heart, or entire small fish and placed into the fire. Often ölü is cooked medium rare, or hürügüi.

Boiled (busput)

Meat and fish are boiled, pulled out of the water, cooled off, sliced, and eaten. This is called boiled meat (busput et) or boiled fish (busput balyk). Two main types of soup are also prepared: min, or consommé; and butuges (soup with flour added to thicken the stock). Depending on availability, some kind of industrially prepared pasta, potato, or other dried vegetable is added to min. Soup is usually prepared with quarter to half kilogram sections of fish, wild reindeer ribs, vertebrae, bones with meat, and internal organs, or goose.

Fried (zharitalybit)

Since frying requires fat or oil, the use of this technique depended on the fat of the animals or fish. During the Soviet era, with supplies of vegetable oil, lard, and butter, it became quite common. The most traditional form of fried meat is kerdi et, or cut meat. Kerdi et is prepared from the soft cuts of meat, heart, liver, kidney, and tongue, and usually fried with wild reindeer fat, either dried (intestinal) or rendered. Sometimes a boiled grain, such as buckwheat or rice, boiled potatoes or pasta, is added to the pan after the meat is fried. Kerdi et is usually fried well-done. Another popular fried meat dish is fried cutlets, or et kutlettar. As with the Dolgan word ‘to fry’, zharitalybit, the word for cutlets is also of Russian origin, possibly indicating the relatively recent adoption of this preparation technique. Preparation of cutlets requires a meat grinder, which was not widely available before the 1917 revolution. Fish is fried in a similar manner to cut meat. After cleaning and cutting into sections, the fish is immersed in flour and fried in vegetable oil or rendered fish oil.

Dried (kopyt) or smoked (kurbut)

Reindeer meat and fish can be dried or smoked, with or without salt, to preserve the food for some time. Large whitefish are scaled, fillets are prepared, and the flesh is cut every 2 cm or so without also cutting through the skin. These fillets are then hung in chum (a conical-pole tent with wild reindeer skin cover), where a small fire produces smoke, and flies and mosquitoes do not venture. If the weather is dry, the fillets are brought out to dry in the sun during the day. The result is iukola, alternatively pronounced diukola. The dried flesh and skin are eaten, often with tea. Meat is similarly prepared, cut into long slices and hung in a chum outside, or from the ceiling of some apartments. When partially dry, the meat can be cut up into small pieces and set out in the sun to dry completely. This is called ehlükte, or popularly, semochki (sunflower seeds, in Russian) and is traditionally prepared for the winter. Dried meat or fish can be hung outside in the sun. In the spring and early autumn, flies are not very numerous in the tundra, and meat and fish is dried outside without spoilage.

Rendered fat (busput he)

Fat surrounding a wild reindeer’s intestines, as well as fat from the outer layer of the meat, is rendered and cooled to produce blocks. Caribou bone marrow is also boiled and cooled to produce ongok heteh, which is used like butter for bread. Internal and external wild reindeer fat is used for frying, as well as in the preparation of a traditional dish, amaha. For amaha, boiled meat is dried and pounded, or, after drying, it is put through a meat grinder and pounded a bit. Rendered fat is melted and poured over the meat powder in a large bowl. The mixture is cooled off, and it congeals to a solid. The solid bar, amaha, is then sliced or broken off and eaten. Fish is prepared similarly with rendered fish fat. This is called barka. Rendered fish fat is also used to prepare fried bread of various types, although currently vegetable oil from the store is more commonly used.

Importance of subsistence procurement in the diet

Traditional foods and preparation methods are an important source of identity for the indigenous people of the Taimyr Autonomous Region. In contrast to households living on the tundra and in settlements, people in urban locations can buy non-local foods, such as beef, chicken, fresh and canned vegetables, and fruit from other parts of Russia and the world. Despite this availability, the Doglan, Nganasan, and Nenets that live in Taimyr’s cities highly prize, and consume whenever possible, country food, such as reindeer meat, fish, berries, and mushrooms. Relatives and friends in remote locations are important links to land and traditional food (Ziker 2002). Despite the importance of country food to identity, its availability in urban settings has decreased in recent years.

Diets of Hunter-gatherers in the Arctic and Subarctic

Figure 1 A young hunter butchers and distributes a caribou in the study community

Subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering significantly contributes to daily nutritional needs in indigenous households in the small rural communities in Dudinka district.2 In recognition of the importance of the wild reindeer, a great deal of respect is shown to the animals that are killed. Upon slaying and butchery, the carcass is handled with respect and care (Figure 1). Native butchery methods are exact, oriented to facilitating the use of the whole animal, with minor stylistic variations among individuals. This complete use of the animal is another way in which respect is shown. Often fat is placed into the fire, as a sacrifice to the spirits of the tundra in the hope that the wild reindeer hunting will be good in the future.

Diets of Hunter-gatherers in the Arctic and Subarctic

Figure 2 Husband and wife divide up caribou meat into portions for giving and cooking, using knives

Local reindeer and other game meat and fish make up the bulk of the flesh food consumed in the settlement and bush. Subsistence foraging in Ust’-Avam also contributes to the food consumed in indigenous households in Dudinka. Gifts of meat and fish from Ust’-Avam (400 kilometres to the east of Dudinka) and other settlements are regularly sent to relatives and friends in the capital (Figure 2). These gifts are of nutritional importance for the very elderly, single parents, and younger people living in the city where food prices are high. Such food gifts are also important for residents of the city who crave their ‘national’ food.

In remote communities, like Ust’-Avam, the use of locally obtained wild reindeer meat and fish is important because the meat and fish is given to neighbours, friends, single mothers, pensioners, and other people that need it (Ziker 2007). A small quantity of meat is sold for cash within the settlements. These transactions are made directly with non-natives living in the community. Infrequent transactions are made by hunters with large quantities of surplus reindeer meat. Entrepreneurs out of Dudinka send large flatbed trucks to native communities on winter roads and either barter or give cash.


Sub-zero storage is possible outdoors for six months of the year, and longer underground in the Taimyr region. Above ground storage platforms built onto living larch trees or poles and called rangas in Dolgan are used for autumn and winter. Longer term storage is accomplished with chambers dug into the permafrost, coated with water that freezes on the walls, and sealed with a number of insulated doorways. Such chambers (ledniki in Russian) have approximately 1x1m entrances at ground level, ranging from a few square metres to 100 square metres or larger for community freezers. Long-term underground freezer storage of fresh meat and fish is not desirable, however, because the foods dry out, lose taste, or go bad due to poor sanitary conditions. Various indigenous preservation techniques are used to store meat and fish for the rest of the year, such as drying and salting. These techniques are described above. Another way food quality is kept high is by hunting and fishing throughout the year, concentrated around the major migration periods.

Nutritional, social, and geographical analysis of meals

Carbohydrate to protein/fat ratio

Using meal observations categorized according to three types of location (city, village, and bush), basic nutritional information across social and geographical space is possible. Bush meals include those during hunting excursions, as well as those at hunting cabins. The relevant indigenous concept stated in Russia is ‘in the tundra’ (v tundre). Village meals include all records in the three settlements where observations were recorded (v poselke). City meals include all those observed in either Dudinka or Khatanga.

The carbohydrate to protein/fat ratio of menu items considers the number of high-carbohydrate menu items over items high in protein and fat. High-carbohydrate menu items include bread, sugar, vegetables, grains, and ethyl alcohol (i.e. vodka and grain alcohol), for example. High-protein and fat menu items include all dishes with meat, fish, or fowl as the main component. Caribou rib soup with rice, for example, counted for both one carbohydrate and one protein/fat item. Differences in the carbohydrate to protein/fat ratio can be observed as one moves from the bush to the village and city (Table 1). In city meals there are approximately 1.6 carbohydrate items for every protein/fat item. In village meals there are approximately 1.2 carbohydrates for every protein/fat item. In bush meals the ratio is reduced even further to 1:1, or lower.

Table 1 Menu selections by individuals across three location types

Carbohydrate menu items

Protein/fat menu items


Individual meals
















This pattern of decreasing carbohydrate consumption across the landscape may be influenced by a number of factors. First, the availability of carbohydrates in the city is much higher than in the village or bush. In villages, the actual stock of carbohydrate items available to local residents has been decreasing since 1992, when a wider variety of grains, dried potatoes and onions, canned vegetables, sugar, and flour were sold in government-owned stores for cash and credit. Once or twice a year, families that live in the bush come to the village to purchase quantities of basic supplies, such as flour, sugar, and tea. While some canned vegetables and grains are still available in village stores, these foods are not often purchased for meals in the village and are rarely taken into the bush, most likely because of high cost and reportedly deficient flavour according to informants.

Since sites of production are nearer at hand, the variety of local foods consumed in the village is greater than in the city. In the villages and bush it is not uncommon to observe individual adult portions of animal flesh foods in the 300–500 gram range or more. Village and bush dwellers often comment on the miserly portions of meat or fish provided in city meals (i.e. such as those served at the hospital). Vegetables and other carbohydrates are viewed as supplemental ingredients for basic dishes, such as soup or sauté, and are used sparingly.

The effort required to transport canned vegetables into the bush is high, with space on snowmobile sledges and small boats limited. Many people transport spicy foods, such as uncooked garlic, onion, and hot sauce, out to bush camps. Hot sauce from Vietnam became available more recently (after these data were collected), and it is something that is cheap and easily transported from the city and village.

Eating raw meat prepared using traditional techniques is a signal of native identity or acceptance of native values. For example, after an eight-hour hunting trip in March with temperatures in the minus 30s Celsius, the group of hunters with whom I was travelling ate two wild reindeer heads (sagudai). The mostly frozen wild reindeer heads were skinned, and the meat around the mandible and face, as well as the eyes, ears, and brains were consumed raw. After this meal, the elder hunter commented to me that Russians would not usually eat this way, and since I did, I would certainly survive in the tundra. I considered this as a compliment, and it articulated the difference between the importance of native (raw flesh) and non-native (carbohydrate) foods. The same hunter made fondly derisive comments to me when I made oatmeal (a type of ‘Russian’ kasha) for breakfast. Many indigenous residents living in the city keep whitefish and other products frozen on balconies in winter or in refrigerator freezers to be eaten raw/frozen on special occasions.

These data do not consider the weight of the various ingredients in meals, only the presence or absence of items. A survey conducted in the spring of 2003 in Ust’-Avam asked sixty adults in the community about their meals on the previous day. From the 2003 data it was estimated that approximately 60% of calories came from carbohydrate foods, mostly imported. The percentage of protein calories was largely from locally procured foods—significant since this was the ‘hungry’ time of year.

The dichotomous distribution of the sexes across the landscape (men in the bush, women in the village) is due to an intensification of labour division patterns developed during the Soviet era. During most of the year, hunters, who are generally men and boys, travel in pairs or small groups from the village to their hunting grounds and cabins. In the Ust’-Avam area, women and children rarely participate in hunting trips, with the exception of short berry-picking excursions from the village during the summer. Meals that occur during hunting reflect this division of labour. In communities that have maintained reindeer herding, sex ratios at bush meals have a more balanced distribution throughout the year, as the entire family, except those at boarding school and on occasional visits to the village, travels with the reindeer. This would be the case prior to the 1970s, including in archaeological contexts.


Seasonality was an important point brought up by Audrey Richards (1969 [1939]) for the study of diet in non-Western societies, and the effect of seasonality is observed in these data from Taimyr as well. In this data set, male choices account for the largest proportion of the seasonal variation in selection of protein/fat and carbohydrate menu items. The proportion of protein/fat selections increases from March until October and then declines from November to January, combined for the three location categories (city, village, and bush). Although the seasonal trend in female selections roughly parallels that of males during the winter months, during the late summer and early autumn (August to October) males made many more protein/fat selections than females. This pattern is most likely due to the fact that in the late summer and early autumn, males spend a lot of time in the tundra on hunting trips, where preparation time is minimized and opportunities for storage are limited. The types of items eaten raw (i.e. organs, bone marrow, heads, and fish) are generally those which would spoil more easily (Table 2).

Table 2 Flesh foods by type in individual meals. High-fat foods include amaha, reindeer brain, bone marrow from the tibia, fat, kolbasa (a fatty intestinal organ turned inside out and boiled), and rendered bear fat. Organ meat includes reindeer head, liver, kidney, and tongue. Meat and meat on the bone also includes dried/smoked reindeer meat, chopped and ground reindeer meat, reindeer fillet, and reindeer ribs, vertebrae, other intestinal organs, moose meat, and other meat (meat jelly, etc.). Fish includes eight varieties of whitefish, pike, burbot, lake trout, and sturgeon. Fowl includes ptarmigan, goose, duck, and ruff (Philomachus pugnax).

Number of protein/fat selections

Per cent (%)

High-fat foods



Organ meats



Meat and meat on bone












Hunting activities which intensify in the late summer and early autumn are reflected in meals when considering food preparation techniques by gender. The above mentioned food preparation techniques were analysed for biases among males and females in all locations. Males used the stroganina (raw frozen shavings), salted or marinated, and hagudai (raw) preparation techniques more often than females. Females used fried and soup preparation techniques significantly more often than males. The dry meat, boiled/broiled, and rubanina (raw frozen sections) preparation techniques were used approximately the same among males and females in all locations.

Women’s contribution to diet

There is a significant correlation between ratio of females and males at meals and the number of menu items consumed. In meals attended only by females, the mean number of menu items is five. By contrast, in meals attended only by males, the mean number of menu items is three. These data clearly show that as the relative number of females increases at meals, the mean number of menu items also increases.

The correlation between the number of menu items and sex ratio is clearly not the result of the bush effect, i.e. having less access to food as one moves away from the store or less time to prepare food because one is occupied by foraging. All-male meals in the village also have a low mean number of menu items, and bush meals in which females participated have a higher mean number of menu items. It appears that when men prepare the meals, less time is invested in preparation, and diet breadth is not necessarily related to time requirements of hunting or tundra living.

The correlation between the number of menu items and ratio of males and females at meals probably reflects the female contribution to family nutrition (i.e. division of labour by sex). The female contribution is in the form of preparation effort, as in the case of making iukola (smoked and sun-dried whitefish fillets), as well as the foods they gather and purchase. While it is common practice for the adult females to do the food preparation and serving when adult males and boys are at home, a similarly high level of effort appears to be expended on meals when the men are gone. To a large extent, cooking among the Dolgan and the Nganasan is gendered. Adult females more often than males grind meat, and use it to make meat pies or meat-filled pasta (pelmeny). Another example of the gender effect is that while both females and males gather berries, it is women and children under their direction who gather large quantities of berries and make preserves. Adult males generally pick berries while they are on hunting trips but very rarely collect berries for future consumption.


While cooking is a categorical universal for human societies, flesh foods are often eaten in raw form, especially in the Arctic. Consumption of raw animal and fish flesh and organs has a clear place in creating nutritional variation in the diets of Arctic and subarctic peoples. It is important from the ethnographic standpoint to examine dietary behaviour and cooking along with processes of production, distribution, and consumption of food as well as the ecological conditions. In addition to the putative symbolic importance of eating raw fish and meat for native identity, raw flesh foods contain important nutrients (particularly vitamin C) not found in cooked flesh foods (Kuhnlein and Soueida 1992).

In native communities in Taimyr, raw flesh foods are consumed throughout the year, although raw cooking increases during the summer and early autumn, when the people are in the tundra on hunting and fishing trips. In communities where men go out to hunt and women generally stay in the settlement, men make more protein/fat selections than women, although this is largely an artefact of recent changes in the settlement pattern of these communities. Gender differences in food consumption among Arctic peoples are noted in the ethnographic literature (Dentan 1981).

Taboos on certain parts of animals, or the whole animal, appear to be related to a number of ecological and traditional factors, such as relative abundance, herding behaviour, size, potential hazard, ‘humanity’, accessibility, taste, and percentage of edibility (Leary 1981). Among the Dolgan, for example, bear is generally thought of as a distant, if not dangerous, relative. Once skinned, it is said that a bear looks remarkably like a person. Bears are referred to by the euphemism ‘grandmother’ (emiaksin) in Dolgan, and consuming their meat is generally taboo among the Dolgan and the Nganasan. A few Dolgan individuals do hunt bear and eat bear meat. These people are called kohun (brave person). Some female relatives of the kohun also eat bear meat in Ust’-Avam. In eastern Siberia the Evenki in the Baikal-Patom uplands have no such taboo against hunting and consuming bear meat. Bear meat in these locations is boiled then cut into strips and smoked. Cree in the James Bay region hunt bear and consume bear meat as well. Significant regional differences in dietary behaviour are likely to be found across the Arctic and subarctic, some of which are related to ecological conditions (i.e. coastal vs. inland, lowlands vs. highlands, etc.). Some of this variation may be due to behavioural factors, such as taboos, and other differences may be due to historical changes and pressures.

Historical changes in native Siberian social organization that occurred with collectivization and the employment of native adults in state hunting and herding enterprises affect gender patterning in diet. Since adult females and children of both sexes spend most of their time in the settlement in non-reindeer herding communities, such as Ust’-Avam, and raw flesh food is more often consumed in the tundra, the result is that they eat less raw flesh than adult males. To some extent, current gender differences in diet are the result of the division of labour that has developed in recent history with the settlement into permanent villages. Deeper historical changes related to the fur trade and the availability of hunting equipment and household goods, such as kettles, would impact diet by increasing the ability to use fire to boil meat. Foods such as kholodets—meat jelly made from boiling reindeer hooves—would probably become available where they were not available prehistorically with the introduction of kettles.


This chapter outlined the use of ethnographic methods for best informing archaeological research in the Arctic and subarctic. It also touched on a number of the disciplinary debates surrounding the evolution of human dietary behaviour that can be investigated through studies of contemporary populations, such as the role of raw animal protein and cooking in human evolution and the relevance of food sharing in risk buffering. The chapter outlined methods typically used in the study of diet among contemporary Arctic and subarctic hunter-gatherers, and provides examples and discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of such methods. Of particular importance are historical sources of information on food consumption patterns and trade, as well as the use of methods from cognitive anthropology that can be used to develop understandings of food typology in Arctic and subarctic societies. Development of quantitative data on food consumption is useful for developing information on seasonal, gender, and other kinds of effects on behaviour and data sets suited for comparative research. The chapter provides vignettes from my own contributions in the ethnography of northern Siberia. Particular challenges are faced by ethnographers in the Arctic and subarctic with regard to some methods, following from the construction of permanent communities for indigenous populations, occurring over the last fifty to one hundred years. The diets of Arctic and subarctic hunter-gatherers are the source of perennial and theoretically relevant questions and debates that cut across the subfields of anthropology, regarding for example the relative importance of protein in diet and its effects, the correlates of labour specialization, and the modes of food-sharing behaviour.


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                                                                        (1) The Cossacks were freed peasants from southern Russia that acted as the czar’s mercenary troops.

                                                                        (2) The Nganasan, Dolgan, and Nenets traditionally hunted wild reindeer, fished, gathered, and herded domestic reindeer. Hunted foods comprised an important part of the nutritional requirement, even among the Dolgan and Nenets that still had domestic reindeer (Khlobystin and Gracheva 1993; Anderson 1995; Yosida 1997).