Faroese fieldsite in the Faroe Islands

Primary Site Researcher

Richard McElreath

Richard McElreath is Associate Professor of Anthropology and member of the Graduate Groups in Ecology, Animal Behaviour, and Population Biology at the University of California at Davis. He received his PhD in Anthropology at UCLA (2001) and did a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Human Developmenet in Berlin, before coming to Davis.

His work focuses on the evolution of human culture and cultural capacities. It combines ethnography, experiments, and mathematical modeling. His book, written with Robert Boyd, Mathematical Models of Social Evolution (University of Chicago Press, 2007) is a primer on formal theory in evolutionary biology.

mcelreath@ucdavis.edu | Website


The Faroe Islands are a group of 18 small basalt islands lying at 62 degrees north latitude, 300km due north of Scotland. The rainy climate varies quite little during the year, averaging 10°C in the summer months and 5°C in the winter, rarely freezing. Even in the dry months, it rains two of every three days. The islands are legally part of the Kingdom of Denmark, although they have substantial rights to home rule, and convene their own small parliament.

The Faroe Islands


The approximately 40,000 Faroese people are mainly descendants of Norwegian Vikings who arrived shortly after the year 800, fleeing taxation in Norway. The largest town is 15,000 people, and the rest of the region contains much smaller settlements averaging 500 or fewer people. Villages are built along narrow coasts, pressed against steep mountains. A large number of Faroese people live and work abroad, in other Nordic countries.


Faroese is spoken everywhere in the islands, and while a small language, shows no signs of being endangered. It is its own language, based on Old Norse. It is mutually unintellible with other West Germanic languages, because of its unique sound changes, but is structurally similar to Icelandic. Everyone speaks Danish as well, which they begin learning in elementary school. Young Faroese speak English very well, as they learn it in school, but English is patchily spoken among older Faroese.

Group identity/ethnicity

Faroese people have a strong Faroese ethnic identity and shared Faroese language that separates them from Danes and other Scandinavians. They also recognise important local identities, because of strong dialect and regional differences within the islands. Thus many Faroese consider themselves first to be a member of their village, next Faroese, and finally Nordic. In the eyes of the international community, the Faroese are Danish and carry Danish passports.

Village houses


The official church is Lutheran, and more than 80% of Faroese belong to it. Religion is very important in the Faroe, unlike in other Nordic countries. Young people are active in the church.

Social organisation

The Faroe Islands are governed by a locally elected parliament (Løgting), and tax rates are very high, as in other Nordic countries. Kinship is still a strong institution, being the basis for settlement patterns. Three-generation households were the previous norm, but now many families live in two-generation households. All land is privately owned, but inheritance rules are very flexible, with descent through both male and female lines being commonly tracked. The Old Norse system of a daughter taking her mother's name for a surname (as in Iceland) is increasingly popular.

Economic activities

Most Faroese work in fishing, which makes up more than 95% of the GDP of the islands. Fishing work ranges from fish farming to working boats to labor in factories. Many people in the largest town have office and service jobs. Sheep herding is still very important in the islands, with sheep outnumbering people two-fold. Mutton and wool are important sources of household income. Part of the sheep economy involves growing and storing grass for winter feed, and most cultivated fields are devoted to this purpose.

Potatoes and rhubarb also commonly grown. People also hunt sea birds and pilot whales. Sea birds are taken from cliffs, as well as off the water. Pilot whales are hunted opportunistically, but supply a lot of protein each year.

Hunting pilot whales


All Faroese receive free education through secondary school. The capital has a navigation college, a teacher training college, and a university - the smallest university in the world, by many metrics. Many Faroese go to Denmark for university, as they have done for centuries, in fact. Most people have no more than high school education, however.


Most people must leave their own village for medical care, and doctors are in short supply in the islands. Hospitals are location in the largest town and in larger villages in sub-regions. Helicoptors provide emergency transportation. Life expectancy is as high as anyplace else in northern Europe.

Explore this fieldsite with Google Earth

Google Earth allows you to explore sites anywhere in the world using satellite images of those sites. Navigate the fieldsite and explore it in detail using the files below:

Google Earth files for Torshavn (KMZ, 629B)


Christopher Dawes, et al. (2007). Egalitarian motives in humans. Nature, 446, 794-796.

Joseph Henrich, et al. (2006). Costly punishment across human societies. Science, 312, 1767-1770.

Robert Bettinger, et al. (2006). A simple model of technological intensification. Journal of Archaeological Science, 33, 538-545.

Joseph Henrich, et al. (2005). 'Economic man' in cross-cultural perspective: Ethnography and experiments from 15 small-scale societies. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28, 795-855. [Target article with commentaries and reply]

Richard McElreath (2003). Social learning and the maintenance of cultural variation: An evolutionary model and data from east Africa. American Anthropologist, 106.2, 308-321.

Joesph Henrich and Richard McElreath (2003). The evolution of cultural evolution. Evolutionary Anthropology, 12.3 ,23-135.

Richard McElreath (2003). The role of cognition and emotion in cooperation. In P. Hammerstein (ed.), The Genetic and Cultural Evolution of Cooperation.

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