Reindeer Domestication

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

Sami Reindeer Herd, Sweden
Sami Reindeer Herd, Sweden. Mats Andersson

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus, and 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 about 100,000 people occupied in tending them. That accounts for about half the total population of reindeer in the world.

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 (such as R. t. tarandus and R. t. fennicus), those subcategories include both domestic and wild animals. That is likely the result of continued interbreeding between domesticated and wild animals, and support of scholars' contentions that domestication took place relatively recently.

Why Domesticate a Reindeer?

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 B.C.E. Evidence for the use of sledges has been identified as long ago 8000 years ago during the Mesolithic in the Baltic Sea basin of northern Europe, but they were not used with reindeer until much later.

Studies on reindeer mtDNA completed by Norwegian scholar Knut Røed and colleagues 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.

Reindeer / Human History

Archaeological evidence of ancient human predation on reindeer includes 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 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.

Mass Reindeer Hunting

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 B.C.E.

Evidence for mass kills involving driving reindeer into a lake along two parallel fences built of stone cairns and poles has been found at four sites in southern Norway, used during the second half of the 13th century C.E.; 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 is 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 B.C.E. to C.E. 1800. A distinct haplotype shift was identified in the late medieval period, ca. 1500-1800 C.E., which is interpreted as evidence of a shift to reindeer pastoralism.

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.

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 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.