Friday, August 14, 2009

I'm amazed by how many survived

Reading about the difficult living conditions (damp sod huts together with wind, snow and rain, a limited diet, disease, volcanic eruptions) in past centuries in Iceland, I’m not surprised to learn that the death rate was high. According the interesting book, A Ring of Seasons, 30% of children born in Iceland from 1750 to 1850 died within their first year. Between 1757 and 1845, 43% died before the age of 14. There was no doctor in the country until 1760.

One possible reason the author gives for the high death rate (among many others) is that the women rarely breastfed. This might have been due to the fact that the mothers worked hard and their milk therefore dried up quickly. Some babies died of malnutrition on watered-down cow’s milk.

Other sanitary conditions were also frightening. Women washed their hair in urine on the weekends, but otherwise, people almost never bathed. Sheets were washed once or twice a month, underwear less often. Trash was thrown into the central pond in Reykjavik and in other towns, collected behind the houses until dumped on the shore for the sea to take away. Lucky for Iceland, they didn’t have rats for a long time.

Children worked hard with little rest and Icelanders started to grow taller only after they were able to lessen their workload a bit.

Given these conditions, what surprises me is not the high death rate, but the fact that people survived and carried on to procreate. Living standards in Iceland have been good since World War II and now probably surpass the U.S. (yes, it can be cold and dark, but it seems the Icelanders have been genetically selected to tolerate the dark better than others). Still, when I look at people and think of what their descendants went through, from the Viking settlers to the women kidnapped from Ireland and brought over here, to the natural disasters and the poor conditions, I’m amazed by those who survived.

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