Living without salt – an anthropologist’s account

Vilhjalmur Stefansson, an American anthropologist of Islandic descent, left an interesting account regarding his life among the Inuit people. One of the chief difficulties in adapting to their dietary practices was the complete lack of salt. At one point the reasercher was so desperate that he attempted to make his own salt out of sea water (it came out rather bitter).Stefansson’s example provides solid evidence for the fact that high salt consumption is very much a learned trait and can be easily overcome. It is particularly interesting that Stefansson eventually did not experience the need to salt his food even when salt was made available to him.

The Mackenzie Eskimos, Roxy told me, believe that what is good for grown people is good for children and enjoyed by them as soon as they get used to it. Accordingly they teach the use of tobacco when a child is very young. It then grows to maturity with the idea that you can’t get along without tobacco. But, said Roxy, the whalers have told that many whites get along without it, and he had himself seen white men who never use it, while the few white women, wives of captains, none used tobacco. (This, remember, was in 1906.)

Now Roxy had heard that white people believe that salt is good for, and even necessary for children, so they begin early to add salt to the child’s food. That child then would grow up with the same attitude toward salt as an Eskimo has toward tobacco. However, said Roxy, since we Eskimos were mistaken in thinking tobacco so necessary, may it be that the white men are mistaken about salt? Pursuing the argument, he concluded that the reason why all Eskimos dislike salted food and all white men like it was not racial but due to custom. You could then, break the salt habit as easily as the tobacco habit and you would suffer no ill result beyond the mental discomfort of the first few days or weeks.

Roxy did not know, but I did as an anthropologist, that in pre-Columbian times salt was unknown or the taste of it disliked and the use of it avoided through much of North and South America. It may possibly be true that the carnivorous Eskimos in whose language the word salty, mamaitok, is synonymous with with evil-tasting, disliked salt more intensely than those Indians who were partly herbivorous. Nevertheless, it is clear that the salt habit spread more slowly through the New World from the Europeans than the tobacco habit through Europe from the Indians. Even today there are considerable areas, for instance in the Amazon basin, where the natives still abhor salt. Not believing that the races differ in their basic natures, I felt inclined to agree with Roxy that the practice of slating food is with us a social inheritance and the belief in its merits a part of our folklore.

Through this philosophizing I was somewhat reconciled to going without salt, but I was nevertheless, overjoyed when one day Ovayuak, my new host in the eastern delta, came indoors to say that a dog team was approaching which he believed to be that of Ilavinirk, a man who had worked with whalers and who possessed a can of salt. Sure enough, it was Ilavinirk, and he was delighted to give me the salt, a half-pound baking-powder can about half full, which he said he had been carrying around for two or three years, hoping sometime to meet someone who would like it for a present. He seemed almost as pleased to find that I wanted the salt as I was to get it. I sprinkled some on my boiled fish, enjoyed it tremendously, and wrote in my diary that it was the best meal I had had all winter. Then I put the can under my pillow, in the Eskimo way of keeping small and treasured things. But at the next meal I had almost finished eating before I remembered the salt. Apparently then my longing for it had been what you might call imaginary. I finished without salt, tried it at one or two meals during the next few days and thereafter left it untouched. When we moved camp the salt remained behind.

(Harper’s Monthly Magazine, November 1935)