Reindeer History - When Were Caribou First Domesticated

Despite Santa's reputation, reindeer are still not fully domesticated

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

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.

Ethnographic Studies

Ethnographic evidence from pastoral peoples of the Eurasian arctic and subarctic (such as the Sayan, Nenets, Sami and Tungus) exploited (and still do) the reindeer for meat, milk, riding, and pack transport. Reindeer saddles used by ethnographic Sayan appear to be derived from horse saddles of the Mongolian steppes; those used by Tungus are derived from Turkic cultures on the Altai steppe.

Sledges, or sleds drawn by draft animals, also have attributes that appear to be adapted from those used with cattle or horses. These contacts are estimated to have occurred no longer ago than about 1000 BC. However, evidence for the use of sledges has been identified as long ago as the Mesolithic in the Baltic Sea basin of northern Europe, some 8000 years ago; they don't seem to have been used with reindeer until much later.

Why Weren't Reindeer Domesticated Earlier?

Why reindeer were domesticated so late is speculation, but some scholars believe that it may relate to the docile nature of reindeer. As wild adults reindeer are willing to be milked and stay close to human settlements, but at the same time they are also extremely independent, and don't need to be fed or housed by humans. In this respect, the notion that domestication involves changes in behavior both in the animal and the human is upheld.

Although some scholars have argued that reindeer were kept as domestic herds by hunter-gatherers beginning the late Pleistocene, a recent study of reindeer bones dated from 130,000 to 10,000 years ago (Weinstock 2000) showed no morphological changes in reindeer skeletal material at all over that period.

Further, reindeer are still not found outside their native habitats; both of these would be physical marks of domestication.

In 2014, Skarin and Åhman report a study from the reindeer's perspective and conclude that human structures--fences and houses and the like--block the reindeer's ability to range freely. Simply put, humans make reindeer nervous: and that may very well be the crux of the problem.


Because there is so little concrete data to date, the domestication of reindeer is a complex issue; see the sources for more information, in particular Ingold pp. 95-143.

This article is a part of the guide to the Guide to the History of Animal Domestication, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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