Fishing and hunting. Rock carvings from Alta, Finnmark, Norway - several thousand years old. | Photo: Oleg Kozlov - adobe stock - copyright.
Fishing and hunting. Rock carvings from Alta, Finnmark, Norway - several thousand years old. | Photo: Oleg Kozlov - adobe stock - copyright.

To survive, all humans must secure their basic needs: the need for food, water, clothing, and shelter. When humankind first appeared in the Norwegian landscape – sometime after the last ice age – the search for food was their primary motivation.

Hunters and gatherers

The early people were hunters and gatherers. They moved with the seasons and the availability of nature’s offerings. Other than the knowledge of how to survive, they brought with them little else than some simple tools and weapons, and the clothes they had on their body. Otherwise, all they needed to thrive had to come from the land surrounding them.

Finding enough food demanded a cunning plan, lots of experience, and lots of luck.

Not always the food that they wanted

For millennia, people ate the food that was available to them. This was not always the food that they wanted – or food that had the required level of nutrients. But, if they wanted to survive, eating was not a matter of choice.

The climate

The Norwegian climate is harsh; with long, cold winters – and short, intense summers. During winter, the ground is often frozen and covered by a thick layer of snow.

Fishing and hunting provided food all year around. However, plants, nuts, and berries were only available during a few summer and autumn months.

Securing the daily need for food under such conditions was arduous work – even when there was lots of available prey.

Agriculture and the domestication of animals

Living from day to day is a vulnerable existence. It was only natural that people started exploring ways to secure their food supply more predictably.

The introduction of agriculture – in this part of the world, some 4,000-5,000 years ago – was a great leap forward. From this point onwards, grain was a significant ingredient in the Norwegian diet. When handled properly, it was an almost non-perishable commodity, storable for several years if necessary.

An annual cycle

Throughout the millennia, the Norwegians developed an annual cycle of food gathering.
During summer and autumn, people harvested both the cultivated and non-cultivated land. They put the food into their storage houses – the stabburs – and frost-free cellars.

From the milk provided by the domestic animals came cheese and butter.

The ocean, rivers, and lakes were also important food sources; providing fish and other seafood.

When the winter came, there had to be enough food to tide people over, until next spring and early summer.

Rich and poor

As a more structured society developed, it was also a matter of being rich and poor. As the population increased, and people started monopolising the use of the land, life became increasingly difficult for those who owned nothing.

However, we should mention Norway’s general right to roam and some fundamental historical rights that people had locally – regardless of land ownership. Such universal rights did not extend to the cultivated land – but to the outfields: the mountains and the forests. In many places, non-land-owners could still let their domestic animals graze there, collect firewood, fish, go berry-picking and so on.

Harvesting the vast ocean outside Norway’s intricate and long coastline was always free for all.

Famine

Today – thanks to the discovery of oil – Norway is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. It was not always like this.

All through history, even Norway experienced periods of famine – with deaths and illnesses as a result.

If the crops failed several years in a row – any surplus from earlier years would soon be gone.

Read more about Norwegian history in The old Norwegian farm | and the need for water