Humans have been interacting with reindeer for at least some 45,000 years and perhaps longer.
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.
There is some suggestion that not just Anatomically Modern Humans but that even Neanderthals – more than 60,000 years ago – hunted reindeer.
…. the emerging picture of Neandertal technological strategies to a changing climate. In short, during the middle of Marine Isotope Stage 4 (around 60,000 years ago), the regional environment in southwestern France shifted. Before this time, the Neandertals in the area made Denticulate and Typical Mousterian industries and hunted a variety of large fauna including red deer, roe deer, reindeer and horse.
The interaction most likely began therefore when humans were purely hunter-gatherers, living off whatever game they came across and which they were capable of bringing down. At some point the dependence of humans on just reindeer – probably those humans living on the fringes of the Arctic Sea – grew to such an extent that they took to following the wild herds of reindeer on their annual migrations and shifted to the nomadic style of life. The reindeer were no means domesticated at this point but the genetic development of the herds would have been subject to an increasing amount of human intervention. The intervention would have been unintentional to begin with as the hunting would effectively cull those that came closest to their human predators (perhaps injured animals or aggressive males). No doubt as humans learned more about the behaviour of the herds and of the consequences of their hunting they adapted and chose their hunting strategies not only for the immediate need for food but also for ensuring their meat supply for the future. The nomadic behaviour continues till today but in the mass-herding currently practised the herds are now semi-domesticated, have their migration routes and feeding places controlled by man and are subject to intentional breeding programmes.
The Sami identify three distinct phases of their relationship with reindeer:
- as hunter-gatherers
- reindeer pastoralism, also referred to as reindeer nomadism, or intensive reindeer herding
- large-scale reindeer herding, also known as extensive reindeer herding
Intensive herding is characterized by a maximization of herd size through controlled reproductive increase. Extensive herding systems are conversely characterized by maximization of the profits produced by the sale of reindeer bulls at slaughtering time in the fall.
The Sami and the Inuit are still active reindeer herders but the nomadic life is considerably altered from what it was:
There are 300 million indigenous people of the world, including 25,000 Inuit and 100,000 Sami, …… The Sami are spread across 400,000 square km2: 30,000 in Norway, 15,000 in Sweden, 4,000 in Finland and 2,000 in Russia. In contrast, the Inuit of Nunavut occupy 1,900,000 km2. ..
Since the 16th century, the Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish and Russian peoples have forced many Sami to abandon their nomadic ways of living and to settle in different areas. Like the Inuit, the Sami used to hunt, fish and trap between their winter and summer camps that were sometimes 500 km apart. Today, many Sami and Inuit continue to harvest reindeer and caribou, but these animals are not crucial for survival like they were in the past.
…. Starting in the late 1600s, Sami stopped hunting wild reindeer for subsistence and instead began to herd them. Up until 1927, some Sami herders had between 500-1000 animals. After this time, government regulations began to aggressively erode sijdda, a local social system composed of a number of families who occupied separate territories. This was accomplished by imposing restrictions on grazing areas, trek routes, calving areas, and fishing lakes as part of a collectivization process.
Today, only 10% of the Sami people are “reindeer people” . In the north, these herders move between winter camps in the interior and summer camps at the coast. They spend autumn and spring in the pasture lands in between. In the south, the herders move from their winter camps by the coast to their summer camps inland.
Mass herding of reindeer dates back around 7,000 years but true domestication of reindeer is probably quite recent and no more than 2-3000 years old and probably took place as a consequence of many domestication events.
A recent study on reindeer mtDNA 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. …..
…… 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.
How precisely reindeer came to be domesticated can only be a matter of speculation but Alice Roberts has a very plausible proposal:
I first visited the icy north of Siberia five years ago while making a BBC documentary about ancient human migrations. We were filming with indigenous Siberians of the Evenki tribe, and staying in a remote reindeer-herders camp – living in tents that were kept warm with larch stoves while it was a bone-chilling -40°C outside. (The stoves went out overnight and in the morning I would wake up to find my eyelashes stuck together with ice.)
There were reindeer all around us in the snowy, sparse larch forest. At night, they came in, walking cautiously around our tents, the thick fur behind their large hooves muffling their footsteps. One morning I wandered off into the forest to answer a call of nature. A single pure-white reindeer followed me. I wandered further and further with the reindeer following me a few paces behind. It felt as though I had made some kind of connection with this beautiful, ethereal creature. After I had done what I’d come for, I started to make my way back to camp, and wondered if the reindeer would follow me back. He didn’t. Instead, he started tucking into the yellow snow I’d created. The mystical moment was shattered. He wanted nothing more than a few salts from my urine. Later I discovered that this apparently common behaviour was enshrined in a Siberian myth about the domestication of the first reindeer: a woman who went for a wee managed to catch and tame a reindeer who, like mine, had been after the yellow snow.