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 known as 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 about 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.

Reindeer Key Takeaways

  • Reindeer were first domesticated in eastern Russia between 3000–1000 years ago
  • There are about 5 million reindeer on our planet, about half are domesticated today
  • Archaeological evidence shows reindeer were first hunted by humans during the Upper Paleolithic of about 45,000 years ago
  • The same species are called caribou in North America

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 ethnic 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 BCE. Evidence for the use of sledges has been identified as long ago 8,000 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. The earliest event was in eastern Russia; evidence for domestication in Fenno-Scandia suggests that domestication may not have occurred there until as late as the Medieval period.

Reindeer / Human History

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 includes amulets, rock art and effigies, reindeer bone and antler, and the remains of mass hunting structures. Reindeer bone and antler and artifacts made from them have been recovered from the French Upper Paleolithic sites of Combe Grenal and Vergisson, suggesting that reindeer were hunted at least as long ago as 45,000 years.

Mass Reindeer Hunting

Alta Fjord Reindeer Petroglyphs
Rock art of Alta (UNESCO World Heritage Site), petroglyphs in the Alta Fjord, Norway.   Manuel ROMARIS / Moment / Getty Images

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. 5000 BCE), and the Alta fjord rock art depictions date to approximately the same time, ~4700–4200 cal BCE.

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 CE; 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 BCE to 1800 CE. A distinct haplotype shift was identified in the late medieval period, ca. 1500–1800 CE, 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, Swedish biologists Anna Skarin and Birgitta Åhman reported 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 why the human–reindeer domestication process is a difficult one.

Recent Sámi Research

Indigenous Sámi people began reindeer husbandry by the Medieval period, when the reindeer were used as a food source, but also for traction and carrying loads. They have been interested and actively involved in several recent research projects. Evidence for physical changes in reindeer bones caused by humans using them for load-pulling, carrying and riding has been investigated recently by archaeologists Anna-Kaisa Salmi and Sirpa Niinimäki. They examined skeletons of four reindeer reported to have been used for traction, and while they did identify some evidence of patterned skeletal wear and tear, it was not consistent enough to be clear evidence without additional support for the reindeer's use as a draft animal. 

Norwegian biologist Knut Røed and colleagues investigated DNA from 193 reindeer samples from Norway, dated between 1000 and 1700 CE. They identified an influx of new haplotypes in reindeer who died in the 16th and 17th centuries. Røed and colleagues believe that likely represents trade in reindeer, as the annual winter Sámi trading markets including traders from the south and east into Russia were instituted by then. 

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