…“the lost European explorer experiment,” has been repeated many times during the past several centuries. Typically some explorers get stranded in an unfamiliar habitat in which an indigenous population is flourishing. Despite desperate efforts and ample learning time, the explorers die or suffer terribly owing to the lack of crucial information about how to adapt to the habitat. If they survive, it is often due to the hospitality of the indigenous population. The Franklin Expedition of 1845–1846 provides a good example. Sir John Franklin, a Fellow of the Royal Society and an experienced Arctic traveler, set out with two ships to explore the northern coast of North America and find the North West Passage. It was the best-equipped expedition in the history of British polar exploration, furnished with an extensive library, manned by a select crew, and stocked with a 3-y supply of food. The expedition spent the winter of 1846 at King William Island, where it became trapped in the ice. When food ran short, the explorers abandoned their ships and attempted to escape on foot. Everyone eventually perished from starvation and scurvy, perhaps exacerbated by lead poisoning from their tinned food.
King William Island is the heart of Netsilik territory, and the Netsilik have lived there for almost a millennium. King William Island is rich in animal resources—the main harbor is named Uqsuqtuuq which means “lots of fat.” The British sailors starved because they did not have the necessary local knowledge and, despite being endowed with the same improvisational intelligence as the Inuit and having 2 y to use this intelligence, failed to learn the skills necessary to subsist in this habitat.
From The cultural niche: Why social learning is essential for human adaptation which looks quite an interesting read but if a 41 page pdf is a bit weighty for this time of the morning there’s a good article here about Cultural Evolution that references the study along with (rabbit-hole warning!) a bunch of other interesting studies and examples. Well worth your time.
(via Andrew Ducker)