Photograph by Matthieu Paley
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Magnus Eraksen goes out seal hunting on a kayak.
Photograph by Matthieu Paley

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.