Skating Through Life and History

Struggling over rough sea ice during the Arctic Arc expedition. Making headway over the sea ice can be very difficult. Sometimes compression zones can be up to five metres high and recently open stretches of water has caused problems for the expedition. Credits: Arctic Arc 2007 - International Polar Foundation

When my daughter was 3 years old, I took her ice skating for the first time, even though I hadn't been on the ice for more than 35 years.

I laced up her tiny skates, my fingers performing the act as if I did it every day, and then we hobbled to the rink. She reached up, grabbed my hand, and we glided into the cold.

That moment of sliding across the ice, holding someone's hand was also surprisingly emotional. My father had died the previous winter, but suddenly there he was again, holding my small hand in his, pulling me across a pond, helping me to stay upright.

Who knew that my history was so entwined with ice skating?

But for those who live in cold climates, ice skating is part of life, part of human history, and sometimes a necessity. Recently, Federico Formenti of University of Oxford and Alberto Minetti of University of Milan demonstrated how ice skating has, in fact, been a major, and efficient, mode of transportation in northern climes since 3,000 B.C.

It's always been a mystery why ancient humans left more temperate places and headed north. Presumably, they were following game or looking for a new home devoid of other humans. Lucky for us, humans are highly adaptable when it comes to climate; technology and culture, in fact, probably arose as ways to survive in different geographical locations.

Nonetheless, the frozen north must have been a real challenge.

Perhaps the first humans arrived in summertime and were delighted by the fields of flowers and all the caribou wandering about. But soon, the landscape was covered in snow and ice, and it must have been a chore to get from one place to another.

Imagine trudging though snow drifts for hours only to be faced with a wide expanse of frozen lake. The prospect of walking all around the edge of that lake was probably enough to make anyone sit down and consider their options before proceeding.

And so ice skates were born.

People apparently scraped the meat off of large animal finger bones, drilled a few holes down the sides and laced the skates on with a leather thong. And then they grabbed a long stick, and like a gondolier, propelled themselves across the lake.

According to Formenti and Minetti, ice skating was probably first invented in Southern Finland, where the extensive system of lakes would make a combination of walking and then skating across the lakes about 10 percent more energetically efficient than trudging around the lakes. In other countries with a similarly ancient history of skating, such as Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands, skating was probably just for fun because the landscape isn’t as interrupted by lakes.

For my daughter and me, learning to skate was also a tradition, but not one born of necessity. Instead, it was being passed down from father to daughter to granddaughter as a way to have fun on a winter day in a cold climate.

After a few times around the rink, I let go of my little girl's hand and off she went, alone.

And I felt my Dad once again. Watching me skate away from him for the first time those many years ago, he must have also anxiously watched the small figure with outstretched arms and a big grin gliding away and thought: "She'll soon be skating through life on her own, but I hope to be there when she falls."

Meredith F. Small is an anthropologist at Cornell University. She is also the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves; How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent" (link) and "The Culture of Our Discontent; Beyond the Medical Model of Mental Illness" (link).

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Meredith Small is a professor of anthropology at Cornell University, and the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves". She is a contributor to Live Science.