Anthropology Friday Preview: Reindeer Herders

david-gives-praise-to-god-after-killing-a-lion-to-save-a-lambThe Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters. …
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

About a month ago, one of you requested information on pastoralist/herding societies: What’s their deal? How do they fit into the broader picture of human economic strategies?

Map of old-world pastoralists
Map of old-world pastoralists

To be honest, I’ve never read much about pastoralist societies (outside the Bible.) The one thing I know off-hand is that the vegetarian claim that we would all have more food to eat if we stopped raising animals (roughly speaking, it takes about 10 pounds of plants to produce one pound of meat, give or take a few pounds depending on species,) is flawed due to the fact that livestock often eats plant matter that humans can’t digest (eg, cornstalks) or is pastured on marginal land that can’t be efficiently farmed. (Too dry, rocky, or cold.)

According to Wikipedia:

Pastoralists produce food in the world’s harshest environments, and pastoral production supports the livelihoods of rural populations on almost half of the world’s land. Several hundred million people are pastoralists, mostly in Africa and Asia. Pastoralists manage rangelands covering about a third of the Earth’s terrestrial surface and are able to produce food where crop production is not possible.

Most farms that I am familiar with have at least some animals. If raising animals were a net-calorie loss for humans, I’d expect farmers who don’t raise animals to be more successful than those who do, making the existence of cows and chickens difficult to explain.

Young goatherd, Burkina Faso
Young goatherd, Burkina Faso

Pastoralists raise a variety of animals, commonly llamas, goats, sheep, cattle, yaks, reindeer, and camels. Humanity’s oldest domesticated animal is probably the dog, whose ancestors joined us on the hunt about 15,000 years ago (more on this in a bit.) Our second oldest is the goat, which we realized about 12,000 years ago was easier to keep nearby than to hunt one down every time we wanted a meal.

2,000 years after we mastered the art of taming goats, we decided to tackle a much larger beast: the wild auroch, ancestor of the modern cow. And around 7,000 to 5,500 years ago, someone said to themselves, “Hey, what if we sat on these things?” and we got the donkey, camel, and horse. The reindeer joined us around 5,000 years ago, and the llama joined us abound 4,500 years ago. (All of this according to Wikipedia.)

A special BSF Camel contingent, Republic Day Parade in India.
A special BSF Camel contingent, Republic Day Parade in India.

(Humans have domesticated other animals, like pigs and chickens, but these species’ behavior doesn’t lend them to pastoralism.)

Just as agriculture has developed independently in different human societies, pastoralism probably has, too–the reindeer herders of Siberia probably didn’t pick up the idea from Middle Eastern goatherds, after all. From what I’ve read so far, it looks like we can divide pastoralists into four main groups:


Quechua girl with ther llama, Cuzco, Peru
Quechua girl with her llama, Cuzco, Peru

Desert fringe nomads like the Tuareg and Masai, who raise drought-tolerant animals in dry scrublands;

Open steppe nomads like the Mongols or American cowboys, who follow their herds across vast inland oceans of grass;

Arctic circle nomads like the Sami or the Nenets, who depend almost entirely on reindeer for their livelihoods; and

Mountain pastoralists like the Swiss and Quechua of Peru, who raise fluffy, shearable sheep and llamas.

Going back to Wikipedia:

Pastoralists are among the most flexible populations. … The products of the herd animals are the most important resources, although the use of other resources, including domesticated and wild plants, hunted animals, and goods accessible in a market economy are not excluded. …

Longhorn cattle drive, San Antonio, Texas
Longhorn cattle drive, San Antonio, Texas

In East Africa, different animals are taken to specific regions throughout the year that correspond to the seasonal patterns of precipitation.[12] Transhumance is the seasonal migration of livestock and pastoralists between higher and lower pastures.

Some pastoralists are constantly moving, which may put them at odds with sedentary people of towns and cities. The resulting conflicts can result in war for disputed lands. These disputes are recorded in ancient times in the Middle East. Other pastoralists are able to remain in the same location which results in longer-standing housing. …

Somali pastoralists keep their animals in one of the harshest environments but they have evolved of the centuries. Somalis have well developed pastoral culture where complete system of life and governance has been refined. …

reindeer being milked
reindeer being milked

On the assumption that pastoralist societies could work differently depending on the environment and/or animals involved, I have been trying to track down good works on a variety of different groups. (This is tricky, since I don’t already know much about nomadic societies nor what the best anthropology works on the subject are.) So for our first book, I’ll be reviewing Tim Ingold’s Hunters Pastoralists and Ranchers [PDF]: Reindeer Economies and their transformations, published in 1980.

From the blurb:

Throughout the northern circumpolar tundras and forests, and over many millennia, human populations have based their livelihood wholly or in part upon the exploitation of a single animal species–the reindeer. Yet some are hunters, others pastoralists, while today traditional pastoral economies are being replaced by a commercially oriented ranch industry. In this book, drawing on ethnographic material from North America and Eurasia, Tim Ingold explains the causes and mechanisms of transformations between hunting, pastoralism and ranching, each based on the same animal in the same environment, and each viewed in terms of a particular conjunction of social and ecological relations of production. In developing a workable synthesis between ecological and economic approaches in anthropology, Ingold introduces theoretically rigorous concepts for the analysis of specialized animal-based economies, which cast the problem of ‘domestication’ in an entirely new light.

On the subject of domesticated reindeer, Wikipedia notes:

DNA analysis indicates that reindeer were independently domesticated in Fennoscandia and Western Russia (and possibly Eastern Russia).[109] … They are raised for their meat, hides, and antlers and, to a lesser extent, for milk and transportation. Reindeer are not considered fully domesticated, as they generally roam free on pasture grounds. In traditional nomadic herding, reindeer herders migrate with their herds between coast and inland areas according to an annual migration route and herds are keenly tended.

The use of reindeer for transportation is common among the nomadic peoples of northern Russia (but not in Scandinavia). Although a sled drawn by 20 reindeer will cover no more than 20–25 km a day (compared to 7–10 km on foot, 70–80 km by a dog sled loaded with cargo, and 150–180 km by a dog sled without cargo), it has the advantage that the reindeer will discover their own food, while a pack of 5–7 sled dogs requires 10–14 kg of fresh fish a day.[110]

06092f51e84e082856bb25c299918ee2The Dukha people of northern Mongolia/southern Siberia also raise reindeer:

“They’re certainly a dying culture,” says Harvard-trained anthropologist Hamid Sardar-Afkhami.
Sardar, who spent years living with the Dukha and documenting their way of life, believes there were once around 200 families living in this remote part of Mongolia.
Nowadays, he thinks there are probably only 40 families left with about 1,000 reindeer.
“The number of families has fallen because a lot of them have been synthesized with the mainstream community,” he says. “Many of them have moved to the towns and even to the capital cities.”
The biggest threat in Sardar-Afkhami’s view is the defection from the younger Dukha generation, who don’t want to live in the harsh conditions in the taiga (or “snow forest”).
“They want to go down and stay in warm cabins in the winter, maybe buy a car and drive,” he says.

We’ll start with Reindeer Economies this Friday!


4 thoughts on “Anthropology Friday Preview: Reindeer Herders

  1. It seems, on the face of it, that there would be differences between cultures for herd animals that can be used for travel/agriculture versus purely economical animals. My understanding is that oxen are essential to agriculture, so the timing of their domestication seems significant. Horses have been a requirement for most cultures, but the difference between agricultural societies ranching and the Mongols/Souix/etc. Is clearly significant.

    Also, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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