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Reindeer History

The History of Human Interactions with Caribou


Reindeer Herd in Scotland

Eve Grayson, a Reindeer herder at the Cairngorm Herd, feeds the deer on December 23, 2013 in Aviemore, Scotland.

Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images News / Getty Images
Sami Reindeer Herd, Sweden

Sami Reindeer Herd, Sweden

Mats Andersson

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus, also called caribou in North America), were among the last animals domesticated by humans, and some scholars argue that they still aren't fully tame. There are currently ~2.5 million domesticated reindeer located in nine countries, and occupying some 100,000 people to tend them: that is approximately 50% of the total population of reindeer in the world.

A recent study on reindeer mtDNA (Røed et al. 2008) identified at least two separate and apparently independent reindeer domestication events, in eastern Russia and Fenno-Scandia (Norway, Sweden and Finland). Substantial interbreeding of wild and domestic animals in the past obscures DNA differentiation, but even so, the data continue to support at least two or three independent domestication events, probably within the past two or three thousand years.

Social differences between reindeer populations show that domestic reindeer have an earlier breeding season, are smaller and have a less-strong urge to migrate than their wild relatives. While there are multiple subspecies (R. t. tarandus and R. t. fennicus), they are not necessarily divided between domestic and wild animals, the result of continued interbreeding between domesticated and wild animals, and the likelihood that domestication took place relatively recently.

Reindeer Hunting Techniques

Reindeer live in cold climates, and they feed mostly on grass and lichen. During the fall season, their bodies are fat and strong, and their fur is quite thick. The prime time for hunting reindeer, then, would be in the fall, when hunters could collect the best meat, strongest bones and sinews, and thickest fur, to help their families survive the long winters.

Archaeological evidence of ancient human predation on reindeer include amulets, rock art and effigies, reindeer bone and antler and hunting corrals. Reindeer bone has been recovered from the French sites of Combe Grenal and Vergisson, suggesting that reindeer were hunted at least as long ago as 45,000 years.

Reindeer Hunting Facilities

Two large mass hunting facilities, similar in design to desert kites, have been recorded in the Varanger peninsula of far northern Norway. These consist of a circular enclosure or pit with a pair of rock lines leading outward in a V-shape arrangement. Hunters would drive the animals into the wide end of the V and then down into the corral, where the reindeer would be slaughtered en masse or kept for a period of time.

Rock art panels in the Alta fjord of northern Norway depict such corrals with reindeer and hunters, substantiating the interpretation of the Varanger kites as hunting corrals. Pitfall systems are believed by scholars to have been used beginning in the late Mesolithic (ca. 7000 BP), and the Alta fjord rock art depictions date to approximately the same time, ~4700–4200 cal BC.

Mass kills driving reindeer into a lake along two parallel fences built of stone cairns and poles have been found at four sites in southern Norway, used during the second half of the 13th century AD; and mass kills conducted this way are recorded in European history as late as the 17th century.

Reindeer Domestication

Scholars believe, for the most part, that it is unlikely that humans successfully controlled much of reindeer behavior or affected any morphological changes in reindeer until about 3000 years ago or so. It's unlikely, rather than certain, for a number of reasons, not the least because there is no archaeological site which shows evidence for the domestication of reindeer, at least as yet. If they exist, the sites would be located in the Eurasian arctic, and there has been little excavation there to date.

Genetic changes measured in Finnmark, Norway, were recently documented for 14 reindeer samples, consisting of faunal assemblages from archaeological sites dated between 3400 BC to AD 1800. A distinct haplotype shift was identified in the late medieval period, ca. 1500-1800 AD, which is interpreted as evidence of a shift to reindeer pastoralism. See Bjørnstad et al. for further information.

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