Anthropology Friday: Reindeer Economies

1024px-reindeer_pulling_sleigh_russiaHello, and welcome to Anthropology Friday! Today we’re having a look at Tim Ingold’s Hunters, Pastoralists and Ranchers: Reindeer economies and their transformations. (1980)

Ingold’s book is not a colorful, entertaining account of life in a reindeer herding community, but an academic attempt to explain why (and how) some arctic peoples have transitioned to reindeer-based pastoralism and some have continued their hunting lifestyle (not a whole lot of gathering happens in the arctic.)

According to Ingold, the most well-documented (as of 1980) arctic Eurasian pastoralists are the Lapps (aka Sami,) Nenets, Reindeer Chukchi, and Reindeer Koryak. Ingold cites several authors whose works may be useful for further reading on the subject, including Manker’s “People of Eight Seasons,” Bogoras’s “The Chukchi of Northeast Asia,” and Jochelson’s “The Koryak.” (On the Nenets, I substitute Golonev and Osherenko’s “Siberian Survival: The Nenets and their story.”)

Ingold is something of a Marxist (he cites Marx explicitly in the prologue) and sets out to prove that cultures (or at least the cultures he examines) don’t evolve in the Darwinian sense because one cultural approach to economic production doesn’t actually produce more babies than a different approach, and thus there is no biological selective mechanism at work. (Rather, he asserts that there are cultural factors at play.)

“Social Darwinism is wrong” is a pretty typical attitude from a Marxist, so with that caveat, let’s head to the book’s interesting parts (as usual, I’m using “”s instead of blockquotes.) Ingold begins with a question:

“Some years ago, I undertook a spell of anthropological fieldwork among the Skolt Lapps of northeastern Finland. These people were, so I imagined, reindeer pastoralists. Yet when I arrived in the field, the promised herds were nowhere to be seen. On inquiry into their whereabouts, I was assured that they did exist, scattered around in the forest and on the fells, and that before too long, a team of herdsmen would be sent out to search for them. Well then, I asked, should I purchase a few animals myself? Certainly not, came the reply, for the chances of ever getting my hands on them again would be remote. They could, after all, take refuge in every nook and cranny of a range of wilderness extending over several thousand square miles. … What kind of economy was this, in which live animal property roamed wild over the terrain, quite beyond the ken of its possessors, and in which simple common sense appeared to dictate against owning any animals at all? …

“[W]hy, if the herds are wild, do we not find a hunting economy[?] …”

EvX: Ingold then backtracks into some necessary ecological background on reindeer and their hunters:

Odin, king of gods, flanked by his ravens Hugninn and Muninn, and his wolves Geri and Freki
Odin, king of gods, flanked by his ravens Hugninn and Muninn, and his wolves Geri and Freki

“Of particular interest is the close, symbiotic association between the raven and the wolf. Flying above the herd, the raven guides the predator to its prey, in the expectation of receiving a share in the pickings… A similarly close relation exists between human hunters and their domestic or semi-domestic dogs, whose partnership with man in the chase is rewarded with left-overs of meat.”

EvX: Man the hunter follows the wolves, and the wolves follow the ravens, and the ravens track the prey. Give man a horse, and he is formidable indeed.

O’er Mithgarth Hugin and Munin both
Each day set forth to fly;
For Hugin I fear lest he come not home,
But for Munin my care is more.[5]

–Poetic Edda

ravens_and_wolves_see_email_3-28Two ravens flew from Óðinn’s
shoulders; Huginn to the hanged and
Muninn to the slain corpses.[9]

–Third Grammatical Treatise(?)


Moving on, Ingold outline the traits which make the reindeer suitable for domestication. They are, first of all, herd animals, a necessary prerequisite for pastoralism. (Pigs, by contrast, don’t form large herds, preferring to live in groups of <10.) This was not surprisng; the importance of predators in making a species suitable for domestication, however, was:

“The association between a pack of wolves and a reindeer herd on which it preys is a very close one. Packs are known to follow wild herds throughout their nomadic wanderings and seasonal migrations, whilst the deer are so accustomed to the presence of wolves that only those deer in the immediate vicinity of a wolf show any concern for their safety…

“Wolves are able to gorge enormous quantities of meat in a short time, and then to go for two weeks or more without food … This ability overcomes the necessity for meat storage in the face of irregularities in food supply.”

EvX: Ingold notes that wolves generally pose little threat to healthy, full-grown reindeer, but exact significant losses among fawns.

raven-pecks-at-reindeer-carcass-scandinavia-video-id1b08577_0005“Very heavy losses are recorded among reindeer fawns during the first months of life under ‘wild’ conditions. McEwan (1959) estimated that 33.5 per cent of fawns of both sexes died in the first three months among barren-ground caribou, and similar figures (33 to 44 per cent in the first four months) are given by Nowosad (1975) for the introduced reindeer herd of the Mackenzie Delta. Among Labrador caribou, fawn mortality over the first nine months (June to March) was found to be as high as 71 per cent, compared with an annual adult mortality rate of only 6 per cent (Bergerud 1967:635). These figures, although not strictly commensurable, present a striking contrast to the 12 per cent fawn mortality recorded by Skunke (1969) during the first six months under pastoral conditions in Swedish Lapland. It is clear that the surveillance of fawns, to the extent that it confers protection from the principal agents of mortality, represents a critical factor in pastoral herd growth. …

Very young fawns may be taken not only by wolves but also by smaller predators such as fox and wolverine, as well as by birds of prey. They may also succumb to wind chill and other adverse weather conditions encountered whilst on the fawning grounds.”

EvX: Until recently, there was little in animal husbandry which quite compares to agriculture’s direct human involvement in plant reproduction, but both agriculture and pastoralism involve human effort to deter our food’s other natural predators. In agriculture, we protect plants from bunnies, worms, insects, and stampeding herds to increase yields. In pastoralism, we protect animals from death by exposure, starvation, or predation by wolves to increase herds.

(I am reminded here of my grandfather’s dog, a German Shepherd, who killed all of the male coyotes in the area and then mated with the females, resulting in litters of hybrid coydogs.)

Interestingly, Ingold notes that:
“At this stage, losses of male and female fawns are about equal… However, sex ratios in adult herds always favour females by a large margin. The figures tabulated by Kelsall (1968:154) for barren-ground caribou of breeding age show a variation of between thirty-four and sixty-four males per hundred females, despite a roughly equal ratio at birth. …”

EvX: But enough about wolves; what about human hunters? Ingold argues that it would be nigh impossible for even the most nomadic humans to actually keep up, as wolves do, with a herd of reindeer:

caribou_feed_on_lichens_and_moss-_the_bird_is_an_alaskan_raven_-_nara_-_550384“Rather, the strategy is to intercept cohorts of the moving herds at a series of points on their migration orbits. The route connecting these points may cover the same distance as that travelled by the herds, or only a small part of it, but in no case is it identical to the itinerary of any one group of reindeer. Thus, hunters will frequent one location as long as game are present or passing through, building up a store of food if the kill is more than can be immediately consumed, and moving on to another location once supplies are exhausted. The strategy requires that hunters are able to anticipate rather than follow the movements of their prey and that, once located, enough animals can be killed to tide them over until the next encounter. …

“The wolf preying on reindeer has no difficulty in locating its resource, the problem is to isolate vulnerable targets. On the other hand, for human hunters, who are not in continuous
contact with the herd, the problem lies entirely in being in the right place at the right time. Once located, reindeer are remarkably easy to kill, even with primitive equipment … Moreover, the uncertainty of location encourages hunters to kill when they can;…

“In summer and autumn, deer can be hunted with dogs: the dog scents and chases the deer, holding it at bay until the hunter arrives within shooting range. This is perhaps among the most widespread of all human hunting practices, combining the superior strength of dogs as coursers with the ability of men to kill from a distance.”

EvX: The domestication of the dog and its long cooperation with man is a fascinating subject in and of itself. According to Wikipedia:

The closest living relative of the dog is the gray wolf and there is no evidence of any other canine contributing to its genetic lineage.[4][5][33][7] The dog and the extant gray wolf form two sister clades,[7][8][9] with modern wolves not closely related to the wolves that were first domesticated.[8][9] The archaeological record shows the first undisputed dog remains buried beside humans 14,700 years ago,[34] with disputed remains occurring 36,000 years ago.[35] These dates imply that the earliest dogs arose in the time of human hunter-gatherers and not agriculturists.[5][8] The dog was the first domesticated species.[9][10]

Where the genetic divergence of dog and wolf took place remains controversial, with the most plausible proposals spanning Western Europe,[36][5] Central Asia,[36][37] and East Asia.[36][38]


The Newgrange and ancient European dog mDNA sequences could be largely assigned to mDNA haplogroups C and D but modern European dog sequences could be largely assigned to mDNA haplogroups A and B, indicating a turnover of dogs in the past from a place other than Europe. As this split dates older than the Newgrange dog this suggests that the replacement was only partial. The analysis showed that most modern European dogs had undergone a population bottleneck which can be an indicator of travel. The archaeological record shows dog remains dating over 15,000 YBP in Western Eurasia, over 12,500 YBP in Eastern Eurasia, but none older than 8,000 YBP in Central Asia. The study proposed that dogs may have been domesticated separately in both Eastern and Western Eurasia from two genetically distinct and now extinct wolf populations. East Eurasian dogs then made their way with migrating people to Western Europe between 14,000-6,400 YBP where they partially replaced the dogs of Europe.[16]

Indicating that: 1. Humans + their dogs likely wiped out all of the wolves in their area, the same wolves their dogs were descended from, and 2. Modern European dogs are likely descended from dogs who accompanied the original Indo-Europeans, the Yamnaya, when they conquered Europe (also Iran, India, etc.) Continuing:

Ancient DNA supports the hypothesis that dog domestication preceded the emergence of agriculture[2][5] and was initiated close to the Last Glacial Maximum 27,000 YBP when hunter-gatherers preyed on megafauna, and when proto-dogs might have taken advantage of carcasses left on site by early hunters, assisted in the capture of prey, or provided defense from large competing predators at kill-sites.[2] … The earliest sign of domestication in dogs was the neotonization of skull morphology[78][79][80] and the shortening of snout length that results in tooth crowding, reduction in tooth size, and a reduction in the number of teeth,[55][78] which has been attributed to the strong selection for reduced aggression.[78][79]

As the Taimyr wolf had contributed to the genetic makeup of the Arctic breeds, a later study suggested that descendants of the Taimyr wolf survived until dogs were domesticated in Europe and arrived at high latitudes where they mixed with local wolves, and these both contributed to the modern Arctic breeds. Based on the most widely accepted oldest zooarchaeological dog remains, domestic dogs most likely arrived at high latitudes within the last 15,000 years. …

In 2015, a study found that when dogs and their owners interact, extended eye contact (mutual gaze) increases oxytocin levels in both the dog and its owner. As oxytocin is known for its role in maternal bonding, it is considered likely that this effect has supported the coevolution of human-dog bonding.[120]

I recall asking some time ago whether the domestication of animals had influenced the evolution of human empathy. In order to profitably live and work with dogs, did we develop new, inter-species depths to our ability to understand and be moved by the needs of others?

In 2003, a study compared the behavior and ethics of chimpanzees, wolves and humans. Cooperation among humans’ closest genetic relative is limited to occasional hunting episodes or the persecution of a competitor for personal advantage, which had to be tempered if humans were to become domesticated.[75][129] The closest approximation to human morality that can be found in nature is that of the gray wolf, Canis lupus. Wolves are among the most gregarious and cooperative of animals on the planet,[75][76] and their ability to cooperate in well-coordinated drives to hunt prey, carry items too heavy for an individual, provisioning not only their own young but also the other pack members, babysitting etc. are rivaled only by that of human societies.

But what does this tell us about cat people?

Hunting dogs make major contributions to forager societies and the ethnographic record shows them being given proper names, treated as family members, and considered separate to other types of dogs.[135][136] This special treatment includes separate burials with markers and grave-goods,[135][137][138] with those that were exceptional hunters or that were killed on the hunt often venerated.[135][139] A dog’s value as a hunting partner gives them status as a living weapon and the most skilled elevated to taking on a “personhood”, with their social position in life and in death similar to that of the skilled hunters.[135][140]

Intentional dog burials together with ungulate hunting is also found in other early Holocene deciduous forest forager societies in Europe[141] and North America,[142][143] indicating that across the Holarctic temperate zone hunting dogs were a widespread adaptation to forest ungulate hunting.[135]

While browsing Wikipedia pages about dogs, I happened across this strange gem of human behavior:

In ecology, the term pariah dog refers to free-ranging dogs that occupy an ecological niche based on waste from human settlements. … All authentic strains of pariah dogs are at risk of losing their genetic uniqueness by interbreeding with purebred and mixed-breed strays. To prevent this from happening, some strains of pariah dogs are becoming formally recognized, registered, and pedigreed as breeds in order to preserve the pure type.

Eskimo (Inuit) girl with her dog --
Eskimo (Inuit) girl with her dog

Sure, they’re feral dogs who eat trash, but their bloodlines mustn’t be sullied by mixing with common strays!

Throughout the world, wherever there are men there are dogs: the Arctic-dwelling Eskimo have dogs; Native Americans have dogs; Aborigines have dogs (even though the dogs arrived in Australia after the Aborigines;) the Basenji hails from the Congo rainforest; etc. The only major group I know of that isn’t keen on dogs is Muslims. (Though Muslims probably have mixed attitudes on the matter. After all, Verse 5:4 of the Quran says “Lawful for you are all good things, and [the prey] that trained [hunting] dogs and falcons catch for you.”)

But enough about dogs. Let’s get back to Ingold:

“Upper Palaeolithic men, exploiting herds of gregarious big game principally by battue methods, had little use for hunting dogs, whilst packs of wild dogs could scavenge the waste discarded on the sites of human kills without having to enter occupied camps. … In Europe, on the other hand, the advantages for both species of close partnership gave rise to a process of unconscious selection on the part of man in favour of those qualities enhancing the efficiency of dogs as hunting aids. This contrast could account for the fact that in the tundra and taiga regions of the Old World, hunting dogs are found only in Europe and Siberia west of the Yenisey—Khatanga divide. However, as Meggitt (1965) has shown in the case of the relation between Australian aborigines and dingoes, co-hunting does not necessarily give rise to domestication in the sense of either taming or breeding. Human hunters may equally well follow behind wild packs on their predatory forays; and dogs, as habitual scavengers, derive a concomitant return through their interaction with man.”

EvX: As a bit of an aside, Ingold notes the effects of modern technology on ancient ways:

“The introduction of the gun throughout the circumboreal region has greatly modified the balance of traditional hunting practices by encouraging solitary stalking and coursing techniques at the expense of trapping and collective ambush drives. Possession of a rifle so increases the penetrating power of the individual hunter as to enable him to obtain all the meat he needs without recourse to co-operation beyond the dyadic partnership. Moreover, the consequent dependence on external traders for firearms and ammunition tends to disrupt traditional sharing relations, so that hunting on one’s own is made not only possible but desirable.”

EvX: But back to the Deer. Ingold enumerates the variety of uses circumpolar people have fo reindeer and the difficulties with obtain sufficient fat (humans can’t eat more than about 40 or 50% of their diets as protein without going into starvation mode, and dead deer can only be preserved effectively in the winter months, so lean deer killed in the summer are not consumed very efficiently.) He then compares the nature of hunting in different climes:

“In a number of respects, hunters of the arctic and subarctic are in a very different position from their counterparts in warmer climatic zones. It is now recognized that most so-called hunting peoples derive the bulk of their subsistence from gathering, horticulture or fishing, whereas game provides only a protein supplement to the diet (Lee 1968). Consequently, hunting activity tends to be sporadic, undertaken in response more to whim than to pressing need. Once a hunter has decided to embark in search of game, he may take the first animal of whatever favoured species that comes his way (e.g. Woodburn 1968:53). No attempt is made to kill more animals than can immediately be shared and consumed in camp; meat is wasted only if the victim is too large to be consumed at once. …

“Starvation appears to be all but unknown to such people, whilst the birth-spacing requirement imposed on women by the burdens of gathering and the necessarily long period of lactation renders the growth of population almost imperceptible … Taking into account the great diversity of prey species available to human hunters in tropical biotic communities, as well as the variety of non-human predators competing for the same resources, it follows that the impact of human predation on any one species of prey must be extremely small, and that it could not possibly operate in a density-dependent way. …

1024px-archangel_reindeer3“Consider now the reindeer hunter. He is primarily dependent on a single game species: hunting is for survival. It provides not a supplement but a mainstay to his diet, as well as materials for his clothing and shelter. For this reason, as we have seen, he must slaughter more animals than he can possibly consume in their entirety. Storage over the winter months is not only possible but vitally necessary. Food may be there in nature, but certainly not spread all around. On the contrary, it is both concentrated and highly mobile; whilst abundant in one locale, it may be completely absent from another. …

“The Nganasan, for example, obtain virtually a whole year’s supplies from only four months of hunting…

“If the herds change their accustomed routes, as they frequently do, and if the hunters
fail to locate them, people may starve. …

“It follows that even if we assume a constant human population, the size of the kill will fluctuate in relation to prey abundance. …

“On the basis of repeated reports of starvation among Eskimo and Naskapi reindeer hunters in the Ungava region of Labrador, Elton inferred that the human and reindeer populations must have been subject to linked oscillations of the Lotka—Volterra type: For hundreds of years the Indian population must have starved at intervals, giving the deer opportunities to increase, then killing deer heavily until another failure to cross their erratic tracks caused more Indians to starve . . . We see here the Indian population suffering a slow cycle, lasting over a generation, in much the same fashion as the shorter cycles of the wolf, lynx, fox and marten. It is to be supposed that such cycles among the caribou hunters had from the earliest times helped the elasticity of the hard-pressed herds.”

reindeer being milked
reindeer being milked

EvX: The differences in tropical vs. arctic hunting may help explain why megafauna such as elephants and giraffes have survived in Africa and virtually nowhere else.

Ingold then goes into detail about different reindeer hunting methods, such as setting up “fences” made of flapping cloth that “funnel” the reindeer into a pen and then killing them. It seems to me only a short step from here to deciding, “wait a minute, we can’t freeze these carcases today because it’s too warm out, but if we just kill a couple of deer now and keep the rest in the pen for a few weeks, it’ll get cold and then we can kill them,” and thence to, “Hey, what if we just keep them in the pen all the time and only kill one when we need to?”


“At first glance, the wolf and the pastoralist might be seen to have much in common (Zeuner 1963:47, 124). Both follow particular bands of reindeer, more or less continuously. Both slaughter for immediate needs, keeping their stores of meat ‘on the hoof. Both are selective in their exploitation of the herds. …

“A herd-following adaptation may be a necessary condition of pastoralism, but it is certainly not a sufficient one. There are three critical differences between the exploitation of herds by wolves and by human pastoralists. Firstly, pastoralists protect their herds against wolves, whereas wolves never offer protection against man. Secondly, pastoralists select intentionally, whereas selection by wolves is unintentional. Thirdly, the impact of pastoral selection on different age and sex classes in the herds is quite different from that of wolf predation. …

“The selection strategy of wolves … tends to maximize the sustained yield of meat from the herd. This is achieved primarily through the slaughter of a large proportion of the annual crop of fawns … Pastoralists, on the other hand, are reluctant to slaughter fawns, though some may have to be killed for their skins. Otherwise, the rule is to castrate males surplus to reproductive requirements, allowing them to survive well into maturity; and not to slaughter females at all unless or until they have become barren. This is a strategy for maximizing not the productivity but the numerical size of a herd, or the ‘standing crop’ of reindeer. It cannot be accounted for on the basis of human demographic pressure, since the yield is no greater than that which would be obtained by a random pattern of exploitation.”

EvX: So here is Ingold’s Marxism bleeding through. He wants to prove that pastoralism supports no more people than hunting, because reindeer function like currency for pastoralists, and so they become obsessive reindeer hoarders, preferring to grow their herds rather than produce more children.

He doesn’t cite any anthroplogical/ethnographic evidence on this count, though, and I am, frankly, skeptical. I recall, for example, a study of a spontaneous economy that sprang up in a POW camp in which inmates used cigarettes as currency which they used to trade for food, and the authors noted in passing that the camp’s smokers were thinner than everyone else because they were trading away their food to get currency just to smoke. Just because something is valuable doesn’t mean you won’t consume it. Ingold wants to prove that the preference for hunting or pastoralism stems from cultural factors–do people want to be pastoralists?–and not from one or the other offering biological, Darwinian advantages in the form of producing more children, as this would support the idea of Social Darwinism, which of course is evil Nazi heresy.

But this theory is dependent on the idea that, in fact, pastoralists and hunters have the exact same number of children–which I am not convinced of.

But let’s let Ingold have the last word (for today):

“To sum up: comparing the ecological relations of hunting and pastoralism, we find the latter to be chronically unstable, and unable to support a human population any higher than the former. Indeed, human population density under pastoralism may be lower than that which could be sustained by a hunting economy. It is for this reason that the pastoral association between men and herds is unique, having no parallels amongst other vertebrates. There is no selective mechanism on the Darwinian model that could account for a predator’s stimulating the increase of its prey at the expense of its own numbers. …

“From this contrast, I deduce the ecological preconditions of pastoralism: the herds must be followed, protected against predators and exploited selectively. Comparing the pastoralist and the wolf as exploiters of reindeer, I conclude that pastoralism cannot be regarded as an ‘intensification’ of hunting, and that the transformation from hunting to pastoralism marks a step towards overall ecological instability whose rationale must be sought on the level of social relations of production.”


8 thoughts on “Anthropology Friday: Reindeer Economies

  1. His Marxist zealotry really impeded his work. Did he offer any data to support the ecological collapse argument?

    Also, the comparison is not only purely quantitative regarding reproduction. My understanding is that most pastoralists get most of their calories from non-meat sources. The Torah prohibition on consuming blood seems to require static herd settlement and meat eating over migratory herd following and bloodletting.

    Hunting requires secondary sources for fat, but herding has milk fat. That seems significant to me.


    • Ingold doesn’t really do much data, but he did do actual fieldwork and is drawing on anthropological works from many different groups, so he may be relying on real reports/real data of herd collapses. Just last week I think I posted a link to an article about reindeer herders having to kill thousands of animals due to an epidemic. So I can believe that there is a real phenomena of herds getting too big and then getting wiped out by an epidemic of some sort. Without data, though, I don’t buy his argument that pastoralism is no better (in its range) than hunter-gathering.

      Ingold separates milk vs meat pastoralism; I had not realized they were distinct varieties, but perhaps the difference are important.


  2. I suspect the continued existence of megafauna in Africa is better explained by a) said megafauna having a longer co-habitation time with humanity’s predecessors, thereby allowing co-evolution, and b) the African (of all stripes) being stupider and less future-oriented than other sorts of humanity, meaning he just didn’t come up with the idea of mass killing grounds.

    But of course I don’t know.


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