14. The Longevity Of “Primitive” Eskimos

When Dr. John Simpson published the account of a two-year study in northern Alaska in 1855, he put his finger on a statistical difficulty when he said of primitive Eskimos that they “take no heed to number the years as they pass.”

At Point Barrow, a statistically valuable numbering was begun in the 1890's through missionary recording of births. The tally has established that in northern Alaska long life is not common. This, along with similar twentieth century statistical results from other northern fields, has strengthened two sets of convictions — the convictions of the frontier doctors and the convictions of their critics.

The medical missionaries, already committed to the opinion that primitive Eskimos were long-lived, see in the up-to-date figures confirmation of what they believe themselves to have observed, that Europeanization breaks down formerly good native health and thus tends to shorten life. But the critics of the missionaries, who always disbelieved what to them was a baseless legend, see in these first available statistics proof that the frontier doctors of the nineteenth century were deluded, and that primitive Eskimos were never either healthy or long-lived. I shall quote statements by a typical frontier doctor and one by a typical critic.

On behalf of the medical missionaries, and the rest of the frontiersmen, let Dr. Henry Greist speak (from Seventeen Years among the Eskimos, previously quoted at greater length): “For untold centuries ... the Eskimo of the far North was healthy ... He lived to a very great age.”

On behalf of the skeptics, nonbelievers in a high longevity among the pre-statistical Eskimos, I quote Dr. Ancel Keys, director of the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene of the University of Minnesota. In a newspaper exchange with Mr. C. N. Pearson, Dr. Keys wrote on December 30, 1958:

“May I correct some errors in your letter to the Minneapolis Star dated November 23rd?

“First, you should know that extremely little is known about the health of primitive peoples, including the tiny remnant of primitive Eskimos. It is known, however, that their life expectancy is very short and that a primitive Eskimo above the age of 50 is a great rarity.

“Second, primitive Eskimos eat no beef, pork, lamb, or chicken and never have butter, milk, ice cream or cheese.”

The frontier doctors, quoted in this book as believing that the natives formerly had good health and kept it so long as they remained primitive, would surely agree with Dr. Keys that an Eskimo can no longer be called primitive if he habitually eats the foods here listed. Some Eskimos have been eating most of them for decades, if chiefly in canned form. To find Eskimos who had not been contaminated by civilized diet, we must go to one of two sources, the records of the Moravian Church in Labrador or the Russian Church in Alaska. I have consulted both, seeking statistically significant material bearing upon the divergent views of Dr. Greist and Dr. Keys.

Fortunately I have long been in touch with the Moravians and their records. The records of the Russians, however, pertained to a field I had never much cultivated — the Aleut Eskimos. So I appealed to my friend Professor William S. Laughlin of the Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin. He replied from Madison on March 14, 1958:

“First, I should like to call your attention to the splendid table in Veniaminov, Vol. II, table 4, in which ages of those who died between 1822 and 1836 are given ...

“I have seen a number of skeletons of advanced age at death. Thus, one Aleut from Umnak Island gave every evidence of being over 80 years of age. I do not have enough records of this sort to be of much statistical value. They do serve to confirm my belief in the validity of local traditions about aged persons ...

“Concerning Anaktuvik persons [inland Alaska Eskimos] I have the list of birth places and birth dates which Mr. Robert Elsner of the Aeromedical Laboratory kindly made available to me. The number of aged men was notable, as was the absence of aged women ...”

Here Professor Laughlin goes into the details of a study being made jointly by himself and Professor Leopold Pospisil of Yale's Department of Anthropology on a small group of inland Eskimos at the Anaktuvik Pass. Of this group one subgroup of 8 consists of men all of whom were born during or before 1900, all thus 58 years old or older.

When I finally got around to formulating this chapter I wrote Professor Laughlin again. He replied on February 4, 1959:

“Concerning the diet of the Aleuts, we can happily document the fact that not only were they living on fish and sea mammals in the time reported (Veniaminov, Vol. II) but they still have a diet which is heavy in flesh foods ... The Aleuts still depend on salmon, sea lion, seal and store foods, in this descending order.”

Veniaminov's table, from which Professor Laughlin sent extracts, is for the Unalaska district of the Aleutians only, and records 1,170 deaths:

“For the period 1822-36 inclusive, the following numbers died: 92 for ages 1 to 4; 17 for ages 4 to 7; 41 for ages 7 to 15; 41 for ages 15 to 25; 103 for ages 25 to 45; 66 for ages 45 to 55; 29 for ages 55 to 60; 22 for ages 60 to 65; 24 for ages 65 to 70; 23 for ages 70 to 75; 11 for ages 75 to 80; 20 for ages 80 to 90; 2 for ages 90 to 100.”

On receiving Professor Laughlin's letters, I sent copies of them along to Superintendent the Reverend F. W. Peacock, M.A., Moravian Mission, Labrador. His records go back well toward 1771, the founding date of the mission; and there are several stations. Knowing that I had available only limited comparison figures for the Aleutians, he sent me only records from his Hopedale community and covering only the same years as Veniaminov's. Superintendent Peacock's letter is dated at Happy Valley, Labrador, March 25, 1959:

“Upon receipt of your letter I went to the records of the Hopedale [mission] from 1822-36. I discovered that 110 people were born during this period ... 29 died before reaching the age of 10 years; 9 died between the ages of 11 and 15; 4 between the ages of 16 and 20; 6 between 21 and 25; 7 between 26 and 30; 10 between 31 and 35; 4 between 36 and 40; 8 between 41 and 45; 2 between 46 and 50; 10 between 51 and 55; 4 between 56 and 60; 4 between 61 and 65; 8 between 66 and 70; 4 between 71 and 75; 1 reached the age of 79.

“From 1860 to 1879 there were 150 births in the same district, of which number 79 died before they were 5 years old, and a further 10 before they were 10 years old. Another 30 died before they were 60 years old; 30 died between the ages of 61 and 82. One is still living at the age of 81 [in March 1959] ...”

We have examined, then, the mortality records of 1822-36 for 1,170 cases from Alaska and 110 from Labrador. The base line of our immediate concern we shall take at 60, because of the assertion that “a primitive Eskimo over the age of 50 is a great rarity.”

According to our Russian information on 1,170 Aleutian Eskimo births, 46 died in the decade immediately past 60, 34 in the one past 70, 20 in the one past 80, and only 2 lived past 90.

According to our Moravian information on 110 Labrador Eskimo births, 8 died in the decade next past 60 and 5 in the one next past 70, only one of these reaching 79.

Thus the most nearly “primitive” sample group I was able to obtain does not support Dr. Keys very strongly in his contention that “a primitive Eskimo over the age of 50 is a great rarity.” Nor does it quite confirm Dr. Greist's statement that “the Eskimo of the North ... lived to a very great age.” More nearly do the largely non-Europeanized natives of Veniaminov and Peacock accord with the Biblical: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten ...”


As this chapter was being revised, I was reminded that a probably higher than average longevity for the northernmost Moravian mission is, in effect, forecast by what in an earlier chapter was quoted from Sir Wilfred Grenfell's 1909 edition of Labrador: The Country and the People. So I wrote Superintendent Peacock, who replied on March 11, 1960:

“At our most northerly station [Cape Chidley], now closed, births were first recorded in 1902. Between 1902 and 1911, inclusive, there were 41 births. Still living, at ages between 48 and 58, are 21. Deaths occurred as follows:

1 day to 6 years — 6
  6 to 11 — 2
12 to 17 — 3
18 to 24 — 2
25 to 30 — 1
31 to 36 — 1
37 to 42 — 2
43 to 48 — 3

True, this is a specially selected group which, by the accounts of both Dr. Grenfell and Dr. Hutton, lived in their youth almost exclusively on seals and generally in the old Eskimo style. Nevertheless it would appear more on the side of Dr. Greist than Dr. Keys that 21 of the 41 were “still living, at ages between 48 and 58,” in March 1960.

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