In the early fourteenth century, the settlers on Greenland were a flourishing colony, the farthest-flung outpust of Viking culture during the medieval warm period. They were a propserous, cathedral-erecting, people, and then they vanished. The colony’s extinction — and tantalizing pieces of physical evidence the colonists left behind, some more controversial than others — has led to widespread speculation about whether any refugees made their way to North America, but everyone agrees that Greenland was populated only by Inuit by the sixteenth century. Had the colony been destroyed by Inuit, English, or cod-seeking Basques? Did some unknown plague finish them off? Jared Diamond‘s theory is the one currently accepted by most archaelogists: the Greenlanders starved to death. Of course, the Greenlanders had access to one of the richest fisheries in the world. Would the Greenland Vikings have overlooked eating fish in the midst of that plenty? And if so, why? Simple societal taboo might be an explanation, although people can eat a lot of things. Modern Americans are squeamish about their food: eating all of the pig is reasonably uncommon these days; my friend Mary’s assertion that the best gumbo she ever ate was made from squirrel seemed weird and foreign (she’s from Louisiana, so I was half-right); something seen as a delicacy a few hundred years ago like lamprey sauce probably couldn’t get served to dogs today. But these things are learned — Koreans eat hagfish, and if they were hungry enough (or zany enough), even people who were appalled by the thought could probably learn to. If Americans don’t eat kangaroo meat, that’s simply a matter of personal taste; with the proper cultural background, even durian can taste good. So why not fish?

The answer, it turns out, is that Greenlanders did eat fish, and that Diamond is aware of this fact; the idea that they did not seems to be a shorthand established by Malcolm Gladwell in a typically well-written but somewhat sketched-in review. The colonists ate fish; what they didn’t do is adapt their society to the changing climate. They didn’t learn how to dress for the cold. They didn’t abandon their cattle. They didn’t adopt the Inuit harpoon to hunt seal year round. It wasn’t that they starved themselves out of spite; it was that they couldn’t figure out how to ensure a proper supply of food. During the siege of Leningrad, privation led Russians to eat horses, shoes, rats, and eventually one another. The city was stripped bare. The German chemical ingenuity that had created artificial indigo and the gas that burned the Western front devoted itself to making such necessities as fuel and bread from sawdust.

Hunger may be an art, but starvation is madness and ruin; eating grass is only marginally more likely to sustain life than eating crockery and mud, but people will try anything. To the Greenlanders, watching their society diminish and perhaps thinking longingly of the taste of blubber, the ability to survive on what little they had must have seemed superhuman, the stuff that dreams are made of. Today, it’s a sideshow act: eating a bicycle, eating a plane. The Greenlanders left everything behind:

As the archaeologists dug through the permafrost and removed the windblown glacial sand that filled the rooms, they found fragments of looms and cloth. Scattered about were other household belongings, including an iron knife, whetstones, soapstone vessels, and a double-edged comb. Whoever lived here departed so hurriedly that they left behind iron and caribou antler arrows, weapons needed for survival in this harsh country, medieval Europe’s farthest frontier. What drove the occupants away? Where did they go?

In the end, the cows died, the people died, the colony died. Even the flies died. And they buried one another in their tidy European churchyard, overlooked (Jared Diamond notes) by stained glass and cathedral bells, dreaming of a promised awakening that, glosses aside, they must have understood in a way that most contemporary Americans surely cannot: a land of no hunger, a land of no thirst.