by Greg McKenzie © Copyright 2016
Seals, Scurvy And Survival:Diet Secrets Of Ancient Cultures
Greg's articles

Seals, Scurvy And Survival:Diet Secrets Of Ancient Cultures (Part I)

Captain Robert Falcon Scott RN, leader of the British Antarctic Expedition, lay in the cramped tent writing the final, iconic words that were to become his epitaph. The dim, flickering light of a paraffin lamp burned the last precious fuel and cast an eerie glow over two shapes huddled in sleeping bags beside him. Bowers had given up writing his journal weeks ages ago, his entries petering to a halt, and even Wilson, the doctor, peacemaker and guardian of morale seemed worn out, a shadow of his former upbeat self.

I do not think human beings ever came through such a month as we have come through…We are showing that Englishmen can still die with a bold spirit, fighting it out to the end…”

Outside in the night, a thousand voices shrieked, a thousand icy fingers scrabbled at the tent, shaking it and snapping the canvas. Drift snow piled up against its walls. Scott looked up from his diary and listened. The wind dropped, the fingers stopped scrabbling. Perhaps the weather would ease. No matter, the blizzard always picked up again. They would not go out and face it again.

They had lain in their sleeping bags for nine days now, the die was cast. Oates and Evans lay far behind, out there on the Barrier, their bodies covered by snow. Before they dropped away, like men overboard a doomed vessel struggling through a strange sea, the ragged, exhausted expedition had approached the Pole, all still alive. And there was the thing that haunted Scott now as he wrote, and caused him to purse his blackened lips. Bowers had seen it first – a black speck on the horizon that grew into something that fluttered as they came closer. A black pennant atop a pole. It didn’t make sense. Out here, in this blinding white wilderness? The dog droppings and paw marks in the snow snapped them from their snow-blind daydream back to reality.

Beaten to the Pole.

Further on, the fluttering Cross of Olaf over the cunningly-designed black aerodynamic tent seemed almost friendly after that.

Beaten. Black, all black against the endless white snow. Black pennant, black turds, black, windburned faces grimacing for the camera.

Now the journey back to food, comfort and safety would proceed no further.

At least Scott, Wilson and Bowers would be found one day; their tent would act both as beacon and mausoleum.

Scott scrawled words onto the page, more boldly now, as the light sputtered and dwindled:

Every detail of our food supplies, clothing and depots…worked out to perfection. We should have got through…”

The blizzard whipped up, and continued to pile snow against the tent walls. He must have known these words would not ring true.

Eleven miles away sat One Ton Depot, a sanctuary of food and fuel. It may as well have been a million miles away – they would never reach it.

Perhaps, as he lay in the tent at the final hour, Scott recalled a conversation he had with Oates the previous autumn as he called off efforts to push One Ton Depot further south as a precaution against just the circumstances they now faced. The five little Manchurian ponies were struggling to haul the vital depot supplies in the windy conditions, their heads bowed, their hooves breaking through the snow crust, sweat frozen into icy plates on their flanks. Oates was a cavalry Captain, who had spent most of the long voyage south to Antarctica aboard Terra Nova caring for the ponies. He held Weary Willie’s bridle and stroked his muzzle tenderly. The chunky, diminutive fellow was all in.

He won’t make it, sir,” said Oates. “I should put him down and let the others push on.”

Scott looked at Oates with that faraway, melancholy gaze that was irritating to those who needed decisive command.

I have had more than enough of this cruelty to animals,” said Scott. “And I’m not going to defy my feelings for the sake of a few days march.”

I’m afraid you’ll regret it, Sir,” replied Oates.

The depot was laid, but no further south. Weary Willy didn’t go home with the others.

In Hobart, Tasmania Scott’s Norwegian conqueror was reading congratulatory telegrams. Roald Amundsen had won the prize, and his thoughts were already turning to the northern hemisphere, where he planned to drift with the Arctic pack ice for three years on another voyage of discovery. The world’s laurels were going to the victor. Only the laurels seemed a little tarnished. US President Theodore Roosevelt was gracious enough in his congratulations, but King George V seemed a little miffed. His praise was not for the act of sweeping to the South Pole in a symphony of Nordic efficiency, but for first announcing the deed on British soil.

After all, who was this upstart to claim line honours in what author Roland Huntford called “the last classic journey of terrestrial discovery?”

The year was 1912, and the race to be the first party of human beings at the South Pole was a feat that brought national prestige into competition and thrust two ways of seeing the natural world into collision, culminating in tragedy.

Britain was a powerful, wealthy empire and though in decline, it stood at the pinnacle of industrialism and technology. Britain made a cult of heroism, and even if its heroes failed they could be swept up by worshipful praise if enough glory accompanied their failure.

Norway was a young nation, only seven years independent of Sweden, and poor and sparsely populated. Their king, Haakon VII was the first monarch of an independent Norwegian realm for over five hundred years. And Haakon was not even Norwegian. The Norse had to turn to Denmark for one of their princes to rule over them.

So many things taken for granted today were in their infancy. Aircraft flight and wireless radio were not yet available for the extremes of the polar regions; an expedition there was like to a journey to the Moon. Make that the dark side of the Moon. News from men on grand deeds in Antarctica could not reach civilization until a ship docked at New Zealand or Australia and a telegram could be sent to the northern hemisphere via trans oceanic cable. Getting back to civilization first was as important as being first to the Pole. The scoop was everything.

The world held its breath and waited. When news arrived, the shock was seismic. How could a mountain-covered backwater like Norway, gripped by harsh climate extremes and its coastline carved by deep fjords beat mighty Britain to the punch? Amundsen must be an interloper, a modern day Viking like those who raided the coasts of England and scuttled away with the booty back in the eighth to eleventh centuries. The South Pole was British. What had happened to Scott?

The duel for the South Pole, a final chapter in the heroic age of exploration, when men pitted almost maniacal determination, and technology primitive by today’s standards against each other in remote, unknown parts of our world seems a strange place to begin an investigation into the diet secrets of ancient cultures. There are no ancient cultures in Antarctica. It is unpopulated, except by today’s scientists, cocooned in artificial habitats. Away from the coasts there is no life, not even bacteria. Yet the race for the Pole put two cultural traditions under the microscope, at the remotest fringes of human endurance. Two nations, two viewpoints. One looked forward, one looked back. One took with it the civilization it knew at home and relied on it to succeed, the other embraced the culture of prehistoric peoples skilled in living off the land at its most inhospitable and borrowed their techniques, equipment and diet. One failed, and forged a heroic myth to cover its faults. The other simply succeeded.

We should have got through…”

Had Scott, Wilson and Bowers somehow survived, their lives would have been a hell of incapacity and public scrutiny. Their badly frost-bitten, gangrenous feet would require amputation, they would live out their days under the bell jar of failure, and for Scott, worst of all, an inquiry into the expensive tragedy would put his claim of perfect planning to the test.

Why, oh why Scott? The critics would chorus. Why were you beaten to the Pole? Why did you not bring your men back safely?

Roland Huntford’s iconoclastic “Scott and Amundsen: The Race For The South Pole” was the most comprehensive attempt, in 1979, to weigh the evidence, separating it from the myth of glorious sacrifice that kept Scott’s legend unassailable and entombed in its icy cairn. The noble ideal of the British explorer beaten by bad luck and the cunning, duplicitous foreigner became an important ingredient in the spirit of sacrifice motivating generations of young British Empire men in both world wars of the twentieth century. Huntford smashed the plaster saint Scott had become, resurrected Amundsen to the throne of triumph he deserves, and in the process shed light on the dietary reasons for the British failure.

So many factors differentiated the two expeditions. Riven by class culture, Britain was dominated by privilege, rank and patronage. Norwegian culture was based more on egalitarianism and success through merit. The British hut at Cape Evans was divided by packing cases; the officers, scientists and gentlemen on one side, the ratings of the lower decks and the two foreigners on the other. At “Framheim,” the Norwegian base camp, men lived without class distinction, and although Amundsen – “the Captain”- had the final say, decisions invited input from all before being made. Earlier in his career, Amundsen had served on a sealing vessel where the proceeds of the catch were shared equally amongst crew members, regardless of rank. Only the captain received extra.

In Britain, the Admiralty had a stamp marked “NMH,” or “Not Made Here,” for use in automatically rejecting any equipment from foreign sources. After all, didn’t Britannia rule the waves? The Royal Navy motto at the time was: “There Is Nothing The Navy Cannot Do” and spit-and-polish and a rigid, fossilized chain of command prevailed.

Norway promoted competence more than privilege and had a culture closer to the influences of nature. Her northern region was home to the Lapps (Sami), a neolithic people who lived to the rhythm of the reindeer. Norse peoples had a long tradition of contact with the human cultures of the Arctic.

But it was the diet of the two expeditions that really mattered.

It was Amundsen himself who underscored the fundamental reason why the British did not make it home. He wrote in his 1927 autobiography, “My Life As An Explorer”:

Scott and his companions died on the way back from the Pole, not because they were broken by our own earlier arrival, but on account of hunger, because they were not in a position to obtain sufficient food.”

Not only did the British not have enough food for the energy-sapping man-hauling they chose as their mode of transportation, their diet was lacking in essential nutrients and unsuitable for the extreme climate. A terrible danger lurked for Polar explorers at this time, greater than falling down a crevasse, frostbitten feet, or being chased across an ice floe by killer whales. That danger had lurked for centuries and resisted European understanding of it like no other phenomenon encountered during the Age of Discovery.

That danger was scurvy.