Finnish ancestors’ diet explains many modern ailments
By Touko Kauppinen
The corpse was buried with its knees bent. The body has been in the ground since the Stone Age, but it is apparent that bones had been broken, and contained lacerations.
The skeleton, about 5,000 years old, was found in Jomala in the Åland Islands. It indicates that our forefathers were apparently in the habit of eating each other. This may have been more about ritual than the acquisition of nutrition, but it shows that the ancestors of the Finns were willing to eat just about any kind of nutrition. Stone Age Finns would eat dogs, frogs, grasshoppers, and worms, for instance.
"Our ancestors spent all of their energy looking for food", says Dr. Heikki S. Vuorinen, an expert on the history of medicine at the University of Helsinki.
Finland has had permanent human settlements at least since the end of the most recent Ice Age. The Ice Age ended about 8,900 years before the Christian era, which is slightly before the Stone Age began in Finland.
It is not possible to get a very precise image of what people in those times ate, but it is possible to make reasonable assessments on the basis of bones, the remains of animals and plants, and weather information, as well as old texts.
"It is hard to generalise, but it is important as we try to learn why we Finns are the way that we are", Vuorinen says.
Compared with the present day our Stone Age ancestors had a rather healthy diet in good years. They ate many fibre-rich vegetables, berries, mushrooms, seeds, as well as fish and meat.
The role of fish is indicated by the fact that in certain periods nearly every person living in what is currently Eastern Finland suffered from anaemia caused by tapeworms from uncooked fish.
Stone Age food was also very hard and coarse-textured, damaging the teeth.
Famines were frequent when weather conditions destroyed seedlings. Those who coped best were those whose bodies were capable of efficiently turning fat derived from their nutrition into energy.
According to Vuorinen, the severe conditions of the Stone Age and the times that followed, and the periods of famine experienced by our ancestors at the time, seem to be reflected still in the Finnish genotype in the way that our bodies are good at storing fat.
Gathering, fishing, and hunting persisted in Finland longer than in other parts of Europe. Agriculture, which caused an upheaval in nutrition, began in Denmark in about 4000 BCE. In Finland it happened 2,000 years later.
It is agriculture that reduced the diversity inherent to the Finnish diet. The more people ate grain, the more they suffered from painful bladder and kidney stones.
In spite of agriculture, stockpiles of food would dwindle as winter turned to spring. Scurvy was a commonplace. Contagious diseases increased as people moved closer to each other. More protein than usual was needed to overcome the diseases.
Getting protein became easier when animal husbandry became more common. On the other hand, domesticated animals were also the source of new diseases, such as the influenza virus.
Food poisoning and illness caused by food and drink that had spoiled, as well as those spread by animals, were commonplace. Poor hygiene was the main reason why up to half of all people born would die before their 20th birthday, all the way to the end of the 19th century.
The late arrival of agriculture in Finland is still reflected in the Finnish people.
According to Markku Niskanen a researcher into archaeology at the University of Oulu, the Finnish genotype is still not adapted well to the food that was introduced through agriculture, to say nothing of industrially produced nutrition.
Niskanen believes that a possible reason why we have more adult-onset diabetes than other Europeans is that we are not accustomed to eating large amounts of grain.
All the way to the early 20th century, Finnish jawbones were conspicuously more robust than those elsewhere in Europe. The reason for this was the long history of rough food.
"In an agricultural community it was no longer necessary to chew tough sun-dried meat, leading to smaller jawbones in different parts of Europe", Niskanen says.
The problems with soft food are reflected even today in the teeth of the Finns. Softer food has led to an increase in malocclusions.
The level of nutrition in Finland improved from the Stone Age all the way to the mid-15th century, when there was a period called the Little Ice Age. In this period, which continued all the way to the 19th century, the climate became colder and the level of nutrition became dramatically weaker. This resulted in severe periods of famine. From 1695 to 1697 a third of the population perished. Things were made worse by several rainy summers. Thousands died from poisoning cause by grain tainted by ergot fungus.
However, there were also good developments, according to Heikki S. Vuorinen.
"It could be that the increasing use of potatoes and the vitamin C that came from it helped wipe out scurvy from Finland in the 19th century."
Professor in Nutrition Mikael Fogelholm, at the University of Helsinki says that the biggest problem with our nutrition from the Little Ice Age to the 1970s was the lack of vitamins and minerals.
For instance, getting enough vitamin D was difficult in the dark northern winter, in spite of the large amounts of fish and mushrooms in the diet, which is why people suffered from rickets as late as the 19th century. People did not get enough iron because they did not eat enough meat, nor did they get enough calcium from dairy products.
Fogelholm also takes up the issue of carbohydrates.
"Just over 100 years ago people ate about 200 kilos of grain a year. Now it’s about 50 kilos. From the 1960s the amount has remained largely unchanged."
Favouring white grains may have led to an increase in intestinal cancers in Finland from the late 20th century. Growth in the consumption of sugar was reflected in an increase in tooth decay through the 1960s, when it was brought under control through dental hygiene efforts.
The main dietary problem for today’s Finns is clear: we eat too much.
Fogelholm points out that Finns got enough energy from their diet already in the early 20th century. Obesity started to be a problem in the 1980s when people started to burn much less energy. Alcohol and food allergies also caused problems. Allergies were increased by improved hygiene, which causes the immune system to malfunction and to reject ordinary nutrients.
When examining the history of food in Finland, there is one factor that we must not forget: people are living longer than ever before. In the Stone Age people are estimated to have lived an average of 20 years. Nowadays we usually live to be more than 80.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 4.9.2012
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TOUKO KAUPPINEN / Helsingin Sanomat