Anthropology Friday: Travels in Siberia: Samoyeds (Nenets) and Ostyak Religion

Welcome back to Erman’s Travels in Siberia (Volume 2.) Let’s jump right in:

“As soon as the bays along the shore and the mouths of the rivers are frozen over, the Ostyak and Samoyed inhabitants of the West quit their tents on the sea-side, and withdraw with their reindeer to the mossy tundras of the interior. On the island of Vaigatz indeed, which is known to the Samoyedes only by the name of Khäyodeyä, and is celebrated as their chief place of sacrifice, many owners of reindeer remain the whole year round; other natives, and Russians also, go over to it in summer both to fish and hunt.”

EvX: According to Wikipedia:

The name of the island translates from the Nenets as “alluvial shore”. Until the 19th century, the island was an important shrine of the Nenets people. There were polycephalic wooden idols painted with blood of holy animals, primarily reindeer. Some of their sacrificial piles, consisting of drift-wood, deer’s horns and the skulls of bears and deer, have been observed by travellers. In spite of their conversion to Christianity, the Nenets still regard these piles with superstition.

The website Arctic Russia Travel has some more information on Vaygach Island, and would like to sell you a tour.


“The Samoyedes, on the other hand, are praised by all their neighbours around for the great Variety of produce which they bring back from their hunting excursions. They take the fur animals, not only by the ordinary artifices of traps and weapons adapted to every circumstance, but also by putting themselves as much as possible on an equality with the animals pursued, going on all fours and imitating the brutes in voice and clothing* They contribute by far the largest portion of the skins of the Polar bear brought to the fair of Obdorsk; and in consequence of their more intimate acquaintance with these animals, they do not regard them with the same dread as Europeans.”

*googles Samoyeds* Well this is going to be fun

EvX: The modern Samoyed people are more commonly known as Nenets, while “Samoyed” is reserved for the fluffy dogs. They speak a language related to Estonian, Sami (Lapp) and Hungarian. Erman opines that the current fad for seeking the origins of the Hungarians in Tibet is obviously flawed, as they obviously share a common linguistic origin with these wanderers of the north.

Of course two groups (say, African Americans and Maori of New Zealand,) may speak the same language with out being closely related at all, but the linguistic evidence here is not entirely without weight, whereas there’s no particular reason to seek Hungarian origins in Tibet besides the nation having been faddishly popular. But see this post if you want a more complete run-down of the Finno-Ugric language group.


“About eight o’clock in the evening, the dogs, of which about four hundred are kept here by sixty inhabitants, commenced a loud and mingled howling. It is hunger which daily calls forth, at the same hour, these passionate outbreaks, and then the dogs are sure to chime in together, as soon as one has begun the howl; otherwise they are quite silent, and never bark nor cry, unless at starting on their course when yoked in the sledge, or on coming across a reindeer sledge in their journey. Even during the severest cold, the dogs require no protection from the weather.
They sleep outside round the houses to which they respectively belong, in holes which they have thawed in the snow by their own warmth. The Ostyaks look upon it as a sign of bad weather when the dogs lie very quiet in their icy grottoes; and, indeed, the truth of this prognostication seemed to be confirmed today. Here, as everywhere else along the Obi, they are fed with nothing but fish, which, for this purpose as well as for human food, is first dried in the sun, and then being pounded, bones and all, it is stored up under the name of porsa.”

On the economic logic of keeping different domestic animals:

“It is easy to understand why the dogs kept in Obdorsk should be much more numerous than those in Yeresov ; for in the latter place it is still possible, and usual, to keep horses, but in Obdorsk reindeer take the place of horses, and their increase is incompatible with a settled town life; for although reindeer are to be found at some fixed habitations higher up the river than Obdorsk, where they find suitable and sufficient pasture in the neighbourhood of the yurts, yet in these instances the herds are small, as their owners are few in number. Moreover, every yurt has its dogs, as well as its reindeer, and this is the case, without exception, wherever fishing forms a regular occupation of the people. A fishery, indeed, is an indispensable condition for the keepings of dogs; and hence it is, that the Samoyedes, whose chief business
is the chase, and who obtain their store of fish only by bartering with their neighbours, keep only reindeer. As to the dogs here, it is estimated that they can draw five poods (200 pounds) each, in the loaded nart; but the Ostyak mode of yoking them hardly admits of the employment of more than two at a time, and in this respect it differs essentially from the Tungusian …

“Madness [rabies] among the dogs would be, in this country, a most formidable scourge, and would infallibly cause the destruction of whole races of men; but every one here assured us that the disease is wholly unknown to them. Steiler has stated the same thing respecting the dogs of Kamchatka; so that hydrophobia would seem to be one of the European results of living in towns.”

Nenets Child

Music, art, and religion:

Music, poetry, and a very well-developed kind of pantomimic art, are here inseparably united, but as to the constant
connection of all three with the popular religion, it can be affirmed only so far as every feeling partakes more or less of the religious character. …

In general, the traditional- preservation of a poem seems to be rare among the Ostyaks, and their songs are for the most part improvisations, which they produce at the spur of the occasion, and always accompany with pantomimic action. It sometimes happens, that the same incident continues to be the favourite theme for years together, being treated, however, in various ways according to the individual taste of the singer. Thus, a bear having once dug up from the grave and devoured the body of a child, the Ostyaks, it is said, used for many years to describe in their songs this shocking occurrence, imitating with the greatest fidelity the growling of the bear, with its gestures and looks towards its pursuers, who were endeavouring to drive it from the corpse.

“The wolf and the bear, being looked upon as powerful and highly gifted beings, figure quite as much as men in the Ostyak songs and pantomimic shows, and, like the latter, are sometimes the subject of tragic representation, but much more frequently of droll caricature. And with respect to the rank which these two beasts of prey bold in the estimation of the Ostyaks, it may be observed, that the homage rendered to them is not merely poetic, but assumes at times a decidedly religious character. When one of them has been killed, its skin is stuffed with hay, and the people gather round their fallen enemy to celebrate the triumph with songs of mockery and insult. They spit upon it and kick it, and that ceremony performed, they set it upright on its hind legs in a corner of the yurt, and then, for a considerable time, they bestow on it all the veneration due to a guardian god. …

“The outward forms of religion, which are thus handed down among the Ostyaks from father to son, appear to be in themselves worthy of attention; for it is only by the attentive examination of them that we can hope to arrive at a probable explanation of the doctrines on which they were originally founded ; but, independent of this consideration, I feel myself bound to produce all that I know upon this subject, in consequence of my having discovered, the following year, on the north-west coast of America, and having thoroughly learned, by repeated observation, a system of religious observances identical with this in every particular. In reference, therefore, to the most important of the Ostyak solemnities, for the performance of which they purchase arms, as already stated (p. 33,) I here give the literal translation of a statement made to me in writing by a Russian who witnessed them, and can most conscientiously assert that there is not in this statement the slightest trace of supplementary addition, or of any thing more than the representation of the fact; for this is attested by the complete agreement between the usages prevailing at Obdorsk and those which I subsequently witnessed … among the Kolyuses at Sitka:

The Ostyak Shamans, like the taduibui, or priests of the Samoyedes, bedeck their fur clothing with metal figures of birds, fish, and wild beasts, with the teeth and hones of sea-animals, and with whatever, in short, seems calculated to give them a terrific appearance. Their ceremonies of divination are performed before a fire, round which they go, crying as loudly as possible, and writhing as if possessed. They beat at the same time a kind of drum, and rattle their metal ornaments, while the bystanders also add their lusty shouts, and contribute to the clatter, by beating pots, or other such utensils with their weapons. After the din has lasted some time, the Shaman falls to the ground, whereupon the bystanders throw a cord round his neck, and cover him with skins, by which they would have it understood that he is in communion with the spirits. Two men then take the ends of the cord, and pull it with all their might, while the Shaman, under the skins, slips his hands to his neck to prevent his being strangled. When at last he has had enough of the struggle, he makes a sign that the spirits have left him, and communicates forthwith to the company the required predictions.

In 1805, it happened that a Shaman was in fact strangled in this way, and the affair was brought before the provincial tribunals. He was obviously too slow in placing his hands between his neck and the noose.

On the 27th December 1821, (old style,) the Ostyaks kept a solemn festival in the yurts of Pashirtzof, five versts from Obdorsk, in honour of their god Yelan, and I obtained permission to be present at the ceremonies… The ceremonies began about eight o’clock in the evenings and lasted till two in the morning. At first, children ran round to each yurt, to call the Ostyaks to the divine rites. In so doing, they screamed in all manner of wild notes, and seemed as if quite beside themselves: this went on while the people were assembling in the yurt selected for the proceedings. On entering this, each of the Ostyaks turned round three times before the idols, and then took his place on the right side of the room, in the recesses, or on the floor. They talked to one another, or otherwise employed themselves as they pleased.

The recesses on the left side were concealed by a curtain, behind which went certain persons, who on entering the yurt, turned round, like the rest, three times in front of the idols. At length, when all were assembled, the Shaman began rattling with the sabres and iron-headed lances, which had been previously heaped together before the images. He then gave each person present, (excepting the women, who were also behind a curtain,) a sword or a lance, while he took himself a sword in each hand, and placed himself with his back to the idols. The Ostyaks stood in rows lengthwise in the yurt, or packed in the recesses. They then all turned round three times, holding their swords stretched out before them. The Shaman struck his two swords together, and so they all began to scream out Heigh! in different tones, as led by him, at the same time bending their bodies from side to side. This cry was sometimes repeated at wide intervals, some-
times in rapid succession; and with every repetition of the height came the bowing movements, to the right and left; the swords and lances, in the mean time, were sometimes sunk to the ground, sometimes stretched upwards. This … lasted for an hour, by which time the men became excited to such a degree, that I could not look without terror even in those faces which had at first appeared to me to be engaging.

“After they had screamed their fill, they became silent all at once, and ceased too from their oscillations; then turning round before the images, as at the commencement, they gave back the swords and lances to the Shaman, who restored them to their original position. The Ostyaks having settled themselves, some in the recesses, others on the floor, the curtain rose which had concealed the women, and now both sexes joined in dancing to the music of the dombra. The dance … it was often very indecent also, and continued a long time. Next came forward some buffoons and posture makers, in various droll attire, and repeated the chief movements of the dance. At length the Shaman distributed again the swords and lances; the Ostyaks again reeled from side to side and cried Heigh, then turning round three times at the conclusion, and striking three times on the ground with the swords and lances, they gave the arms back to the Shaman, and went off to their homes.

“I shall refrain from any further observation on these Ostyak usages till I come to relate the surprising rediscovery of them in America, where many details of the rites, as I witnessed them myself, — the remarkable dress, for instance, of the Shamans, — appeared in a more characteristically defined and significant light.”

EvX: I assume this further exploration is in Volume 3, though I am having trouble tracking it down (perhaps it has a different title than the others?)

“It may be remarked, however, that an inquiry into the origin of the armed dance, which is usual in some parts of Hungary, seems very desirable … By means of it, and through the intermediation of the Ostyaks, we might be able to arrive at a remarkable and characteristic point of contact between the Hungarians and the American Kolyuzes, and be led even to reflect on the relationship pointed out by Beregszaszi, between the language of the Hungarians and that of the Algonquins.”

Map of Athabaskan Language Distribution

EvX: Personal anecdote: A Hungarian-American acquaintance told me the kids at school used to call him a Navajo.

But who are the Kolyuzes? A Google search returns only two hits, both of them this book. However, after a bit more research, I think the Koyukon of Alaska are probably the same people. The Koyukon speak an Athabaskan language.

To sum: The Ostyaks are now the Ket and the Khanty; the Samoyeds are the Nenets. Khanty and Nenets speak a language related to Finnish, Sami, and Hungarian. The Ket effectively speak a language isolate that is speculated to be related to the Athabaskan (aka Dene) language family. Erman describes religious similarities between Ostyaks and the Kolyuzes, who appear to be the Koyukon, an Athabaskan-langauge speaking people.

(This is why I complain about ethnonymic creep.)

Obviously people see patterns and relationships where they want to, and not necessarily where they actually are, but we have a pretty good idea that Native Americans actually did cross into the Americas from northern Russia, so a connection of some sort is totally reasonable. I would not expect much of a genetic connection (Hungarians are more closely related to their neighbors than their co-linguists, due to the conquering by the Magyars not having resulted in much population replacement, just language adoption. The same may be true for the other groups in question (eg, the the Ket and Khanty, for example, are probably more closely related genetically than linguistically; the Navajo likely absorbed other peoples during their migration from Canada to New Mexico.) But a cultural connection seems entirely possible.

The popular view of the scientific consensus on the peopling of the Americas, which perhaps does not reflect the actual current state of the field, is that sometime around 12-40,000 years ago, a single pulse of people crossed a temporary landbridge across the Bering Strait, moved into the Americas, sat down and never moved again. Today we know that the picture is more complicated than this–the Inuit (Eskimo) at least arrived far more recently, and definitely without the aid of a land-bridge. The Aleuts (denizens of the Aleutian Islands) also managed to get here without a land-bridge. I suspect that whenever we get a full picture of the history, we’ll find not just several major pulses of people, perhaps via multiple different routes, but also a low level of continuous trade and contact with north Asian peoples over centuries.

Nenets people in summer

Anyway, back to Erman:

“About 5 o’clock in the afternoon, when there was a very faint twilight, we saw, on the western sky, (N. 56^ W.,) a very bright ball of fire fall downwards, with a greenish light. …

I had already had occasion to remark, at different yurts, the remarkable longing which reindeer have for man’s urine, but I had never seen it exhibited so distinctly and decidedly as to-day; for just to gratify this desire, some of these shy animals had spontaneously come close to the tent, and, as soon as any one went out to make water, they ran up in full trot to catch the stream in the air, with their under lip protruded; and if the first were driven hack, then others hastened forwards and kept licking with avidity the wetted snow. It is manifest, therefore, that it is not the warmth of the fluid, but its saltiness which awakens this desire, as we sometimes observe it in our he-goats; but in so extraordinary a degree, that the taming of the reindeer, or the power of habituating them to their masters, seems to depend essentially or perhaps wholly upon it. In no other case do they lay aside their natural shyness or their apparent aversion to man; for they will not eat from the hand, however good the fodder, and if fresh moss be plucked and thrown to them on the snow, they only smell it and turn away. …

“It is remarkable that the very composed and grave manner of the inhabitants of this part of the world [Samoyeds] never deserts them, either in familiar intercourse, or in the midst of their enjoyments; for, although we admit that, in general, men who are not far removed from a state of nature laugh less than Europeans, yet, even in this respect there is a wide difference between the seriousness of the people here and the lively gaiety of the Tunguzes, or the ever-cheerful and very refined irony of the Kamchadales. …

“These tent-Samoyedes employ reindeer alone for draught, and a number of little dogs which I saw with them here were not intended for harness, but only for the women, who kill them for the sake of the skin. They were all still young, and though from this circumstance it was impossible to form a judgment as to the regular, full-grown size of the variety, yet it was obvious that they belonged to a breed totally different from that of the Ostyak dogs. They had all long hair, of a fox-red colour, which I had never seen among the dogs of the Obi. They differed from the latter in their behaviour also, for they flew at strangers and kept yelping at them in shrill tones. It can hardly be doubted that this breed is derived from foxes,’ and not, like that of the Ostyaks, from wolves. …

“On my arrival, too, I was asked for my stock of tea, and other articles of food, which were laid by in the general depository till wanted for use.

“The reindeer calf which we had got on the way was killed and cut up in front of the tent, a few minutes after our arrival.
The men now brought the bleeding and reeking flesh into the tent, and began devouring it immediately, quite raw, with the heartiest appetite. The old man was satisfied with sucking the brain from the head, while each of our younger comrades gnawed away a limb of the animal, even to the bone. They laughed at the amazement which my good-humoured Estonian attendant expressed at their blood-stained faces; and when he gave them to understand, through the interpreter, that they were no better than wolves, they seemed quite unprepared for such a reproof; and replied, gravely, that they were at the same time no worse than the wolves, since they shared honestly with them, and left the bones and some scraps of fish merely for their sakes. …

“The Samoyedes whom we had met with in the course of our journey, had all come from the coasts of the Polar Sea; and among the articles in their possession were to be seen many of the productions of that region. The traces of their reindeer, and many other of their leathern moveables, were made of dolphin skin or furred seal-skin; and the mammoth-teeth, with which when carved they ornament their sledges and drinking vessels, are looked upon by all the indigenous tribes here as products of the sea coast, for they are more frequently thrown up by the waves wherever the sea breaks on slopes of alluvial land, and are consequently sought for by the Samoyedes chiefly in those situations.”

EvX: That’s all for today. See you next Friday!

Anthropology Friday: Reindeer Economies (pt 2/4


I have been preparing for today’s anthropology Friday by tromping around in a blizzard, seeking insight into our northerly neighbors’ lives.

Apparently circum-polar people live in a state of constant exhilaration, appreciation of the sublime beauty of nature, happiness, exhaustion, and cold toes. I am reminded of de Poncins’s descriptions of the Eskimo he lived with as counter-intuitively far happier than the people he knew from tropical, sun-kissed lands. Alas, I didn’t record that passage, but here is a similar one:

I thought of the months on the trail, of the hardships and even miseries I had endued, and of a sudden I began to miss them with an intensity which amazed me and which, since then, has never left me. … God knows we were poor enough. Our poverty was total. We possessed nothing: not even the snow was our own. … But there was a cheer and a contentment in our existence which I continue to muse upon and cannot altogether explain to myself….

Day after day a wind would raise, a sign of danger would appear in the air, and we would respond together, each forgetting himself and striving in the common cause. Outside, it wanted war and flood to give man this sense of brotherhood: here it was a commonplace of life.

Anyway, back to Ingold and the domestication of the reindeer:

“The second chapter deals directly with the nature and process of animal ‘domestication’. … My central contention is that the source of pastoral property relations lies in the particularistic, social bonds established through the incorporation of animals into a domestic division of labour; and hence that a precondition for the direct transition from hunting to pastoralism is the capacity of animals to function both as labour and as a source of food and raw materials.”

[EvX: You say “Cultural Marxism is just a conspiracy theory.” I say, “What the hell have you been reading?”]

“It may reasonably be assumed that where a pastoral economy has arisen directly out of predatory herd exploitation, the animals’ ‘main importance lay in their meat-producing qualities, as wild animals did not form wool or produce large quantities of milk’… In other words, such an economy would be based on slaughter products rather than those which can be obtained from live animals. It is true that wild herbivores can be milked, if only with difficulty, but the yield barely exceeds the animals’ own calving requirements, and could not form the staple of a pastoral diet.

“Now, it may fairly be objected that most modern forms of pastoralism are based on the production of milk rather than meat, and therefore that a precondition for their emergence must have been the initial taming and breeding of animals as milk-producers in connection with developing agricultural systems. Milch pastoralism is thus a secondary phenomenon … which would have arisen through the migration of men and herds into arid and uncultivable regions where the animals could not survive without human assistance.”

reindeer being milked
reindeer being milked

EvX: Since we don’t know actually how pastoralism arose, I must object that this is speculation. To counter: it is simple to make the yield exceed the animal’s calving requirements by eating the calf and then milking the mother; second, mammals can easily increase milk production in response to increased nursing/milking–domestication not required. Indeed, it is easy to imagine a grieving hunter-gatherer man whose wife has just died, desperately in need of milk for his infant, looking at a nursing doe and having a flash of inspiration.

“Reindeer pastoralism has the double distinction firstly of having emerged in regions far beyond the climatic limits of agriculture, and secondly of having remained confined within the original zone of distribution of the species. It is possible, therefore, that the reindeer is unique in having constituted the object of a direct transition from hunting to pastoralism. This would account for some of its most obvious peculiarities as a pastoral resource: its apparent ‘wildness’, both morphological and behavioural, and its relatively poor milk-yielding potential. It is probably true to say that in historic times the reindeer has been the only animal to form the basis of an exclusively carnivorous pastoralism.”


EvX: Speaking of milk, I’d love to try reindeer milk. Imagine the cheese and butter it would make!

Wikipedia has a short page on reindeer cheese, with this quoted historical description:

Reindeer cheese, of which we present two illustrations taken from a paper by Barthel and Bergman may be called the richest of all whole milk cheeses, as nearly half its weight consists of butter fats. It is, in fact, a rich cream cheese. It is yellow on the outside and white on the interior, except in the neighborhood of the numerous cracks, where it is also yellow. When cut into, the white rapidly changes to a golden yellow. The taste is very mild, very creamy, and the cheese melts very easily in the mouth, with the fine aroma of the reindeer milk; it easily becomes rancid and then acquires a strong odor and a burning taste.

Unfortunately, Wikipedia also notes that reindeer only give 1.5 cups of milk a day. I’m not sure how reindeer calves survive on that.

In Finland, a cheese called Leipajuusto was traditionally made with reindeer milk:

The milk is curdled and set to form a round disk from two to three centimeters thick. After this, leipäjuusto is baked, grilled or flambéed to give it its distinctive brown or charred marks. …

Traditionally, leipäjuusto was dried and could then be stored for up to several years. For eating, the dry, almost rock hard cheese was heated on a fire which softened it and produced an especially appetizing aroma. Even today, the cheese may be dried by keeping it in a well ventilated place for a few days. It has a mild flavour.

Continuing on:

“Whereas for the gatherer a crop unharvested is equivalent to a crop planted, the cultivator must reserve a portion of the harvest for replanting… Consequently, the inception of cultivation entails new social relations of production, which establish control by solitary groups over the fields they have laboured to prepare, and control within each group over the storage and distribution of the crop… It is these social relations, rather than new techniques, which provide the impetus towards population growth and surplus production under cultivation. …

“It is obvious that a discontinuity precisely analogous to that between gathering and cultivation cannot be posited in the case of animal husbandry. A ‘harvested’ animal is a dead one, and dead animals do not reproduce. They cannot therefore be ‘replanted’.”

EvX: This distinction makes no sense. A grain of wheat, once ground up and eaten cannot be planted. A cow, once eaten, cannot reproduce. But the cow’s mother, who birthed it, may continue producing more calves: she is not used up. By contrast, the stalk of wheat is used up at the end of the season; a new one must grow from seed the next year. In both cases, you eat some portion of your resource–seeds or cows–and hold some portion in reserve so it can reproduce. But I am complaining; let’s look for the good parts:

“Both cultivation and milch pastoralism increase the efficiency of the energy conversions yielding calories for human consumption: in the first case through the substitution of slow-growing woody plants by fast-growing weedy plants, in the second case through a shift from meat-production to milk-production. Moreover, the maintenance of tame milch animals requires a relatively intensive labour input, and increasing overall yields permit the support of higher populations. Thus, within limits set by the abundance of pasture, a positive correlation obtains between animal and human population numbers, and the spread of milch pastoralism represents an accommodation to the increase of both.

“The dynamics of carnivorous pastoralism are different in every respect. Its adoption in place of hunting harnesses no new material or energy inputs, nor does it improve the efficiency of ecological production. A wild animal is as good a converter of pasture to meat as a pastoral one.”

EvX: DATA PLEASE. Are raising cattle and hunting bison on America’s Great Plains more, less, or equally efficient? Do the few commercial sellers of buffalo burgers find pasturing and hunting buffalo equally efficient?

Comanche Nationball
Comanche Nationball

I don’t have any data on this (if you do, I’d be happy to see it.) Wikipedia estimates that 30,000 to 40,000 horse-mounted Comanches, living primarily off the Buffalo chase, lived in the southern Plains in the mid-1800s. But the Comanches are only one of many groups; SettlersInTheWest estimates a total of 75,000 Native Americans lived in the Plains in the mid-1800s.

But prior to the introduction of the domesticated horse by the Spaniards, hunting (on foot, assisted by dogs) was much more difficult, and total plains population must have beenlower. According to Wikipedia:

It was the Comanche, coming to the attention of the Spanish in New Mexico in 1706, who first realized the potential of the horse. As pure nomads, hunters, and pastoralists, well supplied with horses, they swept most of the mixed-economy Apaches from the plains and by the 1730s were dominant in the Great Plains south of the Arkansas River.[18] The success of the Comanche encouraged other Indian tribes to adopt a similar lifestyle. …

The farming tribes also hunted buffalo, deer, elk, and other game. Typically, on the southern Plains, they planted crops in the spring, left their permanent villages to hunt buffalo in the summer, returned to harvest crops in the fall, and left again to hunt buffalo in the winter. The farming Indians also traded corn to the nomadic tribes for dried buffalo meat.

With the arrival of the horse, some tribes, such as the Lakota and Cheyenne, gave up agriculture to become full-time, buffalo-hunting nomads. …

1280px-alfred_jacob_miller_-_hunting_buffalo_-_walters_371940190So domestic horses + huge herds of animals definitely tip the initial economic balance away from farming and toward hunting. The problem here is that it is really easy for humans to drive all of the buffalo over a cliff and then run out of buffalo.

(Paleolithic hunters didn’t have horses, but they still might have wiped out most of the ice-age megafauna.)

According to Beef Industry Statistics, there are about 619,000 farms/ranches currently specializing in raising beef cattle, and a further 300,000 presumably in dairy. Assuming that each of these farms supports at least three people (farm couple plus child,) that’s about 2.7 million people directly engaged in pastoralism, though of course not all of these people live in the Great Plains. To this number we should add all of the people who consume beef and milk but aren’t engaged in raising cattle, just as Comanche tribes included women, children, and old people who were not personally involved in hunting but still enjoyed eating the meat hunters brought home–which I suspect is most of America’s other 300 million people plus many folks abroad:

Value of total U.S. beef exports (including variety meat) equaled $6.302 billion down from $7.135 (billion)
Top export markets for 2015 (in order): Japan, Mexico, Canada, South Korea, Hong Kong, Middle East (U.S. Meat Export Federation)

Historic range of the American Bison
Historic range of the American Bison

Pre-1800s, Wikipedia estimates that there were 60 million American bison, who ranged from New York to Florida, into Mexico, up through Canada into Alaska, into the Rockies, northern California, and eastern Oregon. Beef Industry Stats counts 92.0 million US cattle in 2016.

These cases aren’t exactly analogous, especially since today’s people have very different technology than pastoralists in the 1800s or 500s had, but it’s the data I can find, and it suggests that pastoralism is more efficient, long-term, at producing both animals and humans.

But back to Ingold:

“The reindeer, although independent by nature, is amongst the easiest of animals to tame. It is of gentle disposition, of manageable size, and appreciative of the comforts that association with man can provide. Above all, it is ‘a highly social creature, impressing its friendship on man’ … Consider, for example, the domestic reindeer of the northern Tungus, which is kept in small herds for milk, riding and pack transport. It is said to be ‘of a very mild and kind nature . . . attached to man and especially to those who use it kindly, speak to it, caress it, and generally pay attention to it’ … Every deer has a name, which it recognizes, and its particular characteristics are intimately known (p. 35): ‘The intimacy of relations makes the Tungus love the reindeer nearly as human members of the family, and when a Tungus is alone he may talk to the reindeer which, according to the Tungus, can understand’…

Ingold's diagram, from the book
Ingold’s diagram, from the book–human resource-exploitation ranges on the left, reindeer migration paths on the right.

“Moreover, the animals are not herded. ‘The Tungus’, Shirokogoroff tells us, ‘have no shepherds’ (1929:33). Rather like the domestic pigs of the Maring, the Tungus reindeer are allowed to forage freely in the environs of the human camp or settlement, for they generally return of their own accord, even after an absence of several days, and despite ample opportunities to defect to the wild population. Whereas the pig returns for its ‘daily ration of garbage and substandard tubers’ … the reindeer returns for a lick of salt and human urine, for both of which it has a peculiar craving. In summer, when the deer are plagued by swarms of mosquitoes, the Tungus make life more bearable for their animals by lighting smudge fires in camp, or even by admitting them inside their tents, whilst in autumn and winter the camp provides the only refuge against wolves.”

EvX: This is quite similar to the theory that dogs and cats became domesticated because they initially found it convenient to live in close proximity to man, this association selecting without conscious human decision or even desire for “tame” animals who desire to be near humans.

There are other species that have also become somewhat “tame” by virtue of their close association with human settlements, such as rats and pigeons, but these animals have no traits that people find useful and so are seen as pests.

samiball1“… the care of the herds is entrusted almost entirely to women and children, leaving the men free to hunt and trap, or to loaf. At dusk, when the deer return to the tents of their owners, it is the mistress of each household who deals out shares of salt to her particular charges. During the fawning season, she must keep a close watch over the pregnant does to prevent their leaving to give birth in the forest, for the constant attention bestowed on fawns from the moment of birth is crucial to the establishment of enduring bonds of tameness. After fawning, she milks the does regularly, making from the milk a kind of gruel used as children’s food. When the deer come into rut, does and fawns have to be kept alternately within enclosures, in order to bind the does to camp and to prevent their
abduction by lustful bucks, including undesirable intruders from the wild population. …

“Amongst those peoples of the taiga who do not milk or ride their domestic reindeer, the relationship between man and animal is rather less close. The Sel’kups of the Taz region, for example, use their deer only for draft purposes in winter, to transport household effects between successive hunting and trapping sites. … Those with very small herds can keep them in the vicinity of their fishing sites throughout the summer, building substantial stalls of logs and bark to provide the animals with a shelter from the mosquitoes and the heat of the sun.

“… it is usual to allow the animals to go their own ways after fawning, rounding them up again only after the first snows of autumn. Each owner, in effect, must ‘hunt his own herd’, tracking the domestic deer as he would wild animals … a large proportion of each year’s fawns may be sired by wild bucks…

“The hunting peoples of the tundra and tundra—taiga margins differ from their taiga neighbours both in the scale of their migrations, of hundreds rather than tens of miles, and in the extent of their dependence on the wild reindeer as a subsistence resource. Though the possession of draft animals enables a people such as the Nganasan of the Taimyr Peninsula to cover the entire range of migration of the tundra reindeer in their annual cycle, their predatory association with massed herds creates special problems which are not encountered in the taiga, where the wild reindeer is both more dispersed and of relatively minor economic significance compared with other forest game. During the autumn migration, the most critical period of the hunting year, the Nganasan have to drive their own herds away from the path of the travelling column of wild animals to prevent their being carried along in its wake…

“Indeed, the attitude of the Tungus towards their tame reindeer mirrors that of the Nuer towards their cattle. Like the Tungus, the Nuer keep small herds of tame beasts for the products and services they yield during their lifetimes, but whereas the Tungus obtain the bulk of their subsistence from wild game, the Nuer staples are milk and millet. In neither society does the number of domestic animals greatly exceed the size of the human population. Nuer slaughter their cattle only for sacrificial purposes or in times of severe famine, but ‘any animal which dies a natural death is eaten’, evidently with some enthusiasm.”

EvX: I am skeptical of this, simply because a cattle herd only needs 1 male for every 10 or 40 or however many females. The excess males are what we eat. Neither the Nuer nor the Tungus have any practical reason to spend energy raising excess males who will produce nothing but meat except to eat that meat.


“The closest approach to a pure milch pastoralism based on reindeer is found among the Todzha, a people of the Sayan mountains of southern Siberia. They keep small herds of extremely tame animals in much the same manner as the Tungus, but the milk obtained from lactating does provides the staple food for the entire summer, though it is supplemented by wild roots… The exceptional productivity of the Todzha deer is largely due to the luxuriant summer pasture in this region, which is situated so far south as to adjoin the great steppes of Middle Asia. During the remainder of the year, however, Todzha subsistence is based almost entirely on hunting and trapping.

latest-2“…according to Wiklund, ‘the Lapp milking system with its entire nomenclature was borrowed from the Scandinavians in pre-Nordic times’ … The remaining Uralic, Samoyedic and Palaeoasiatic peoples of Siberia have never systematically milked their reindeer…

“Besides the provision of food and raw materials, the uses of domestic reindeer are all concerned with transport, with the exception of their employment as decoys. Hunting with decoys is the most widespread of all techniques involving the use of tame deer, and has been recorded throughout northern Eurasia. …

“The mounted deer of the Tungus is equipped with a saddle derived from Mongol patterns, whilst the Sayan form of reindeer riding shows the clear influence of Turkic cultures native to the Altai steppe. On these grounds, Vasilevich and Levin posit two close but distinct centres of origin for the domestication of the reindeer, one amongst the ancestors of the Tungus around Lake Baykal, the other amongst the original Troto-Samoyed’ inhabitants of the Sayan mountains. Both populations underwent subsequent dispersion, retreating perhaps from military turbulence on the steppes. …

samiball1“In Lapland, where dog traction was lacking, domestic deer were harnessed singly to the small boat-shaped sledge, or pulkka, which had been designed originally to be pulled by hand (figure 15B). Thus the distinctive technique associated with the employment of domestic reindeer in Lapland, including milking and packing as well as the pulkka, may be attributed to local conditions and contacts with horse- and cattle-keeping Scandinavians, and does not discount the hypothesis that the deer themselves were initially obtained from the Samoyed.

“There is an alternative view regarding the origins of reindeer driving, which holds that it arose in imitation of the horse and ox traction of southern Siberian steppe pastoralists. …

The Greenland Norse raised cattle and sheep, but the Greenland Inuit were exclusive hunters
The Greenland Norse raised cattle and sheep, but the Greenland Inuit were exclusive hunters

“Unlike the Samoyed of northwestern Siberia, none of the Palaeoasiatic peoples east of the Yenisey uses dogs for herding. In northeastern Siberia, the mutual antagonism between dog and reindeer is such that the two can be kept together only with the greatest difficulty, for dogs can wreak as much havoc as wolves if let loose on a herd… Consequently, the substitution of reindeer for dogs is, in this region, a more or less irreversible process. However, the reindeer is wholly unsuited to the semi-sedentary maritime adaptation of the north Pacific peoples, for it has to wander in search of food, and pasture does not grow on the ice. On the other hand, the sea yields an abundant supply of storable food for both man and dog … The exclusive reliance on dog traction along the coasts on both sides of the Bering Strait must therefore have acted as a buffer, effectively blocking the diffusion of the domestic deer into North America, until their importation from Siberia at the end of the nineteenth century.

a-i-of-little-understand-it-o-o-nunavutball-with-1314788EvX: This is an interesting theory, but if a dog attacks your chickens or cattle, you remove it from the gene pool and breed dogs who don’t attack your food animals. There’s nothing magical about northeastern Siberia that makes dogs there attack reindeer–though I do note that Siberian Huskies and related Eskimo dog species have been recently back-crossed with wolves (probably to give them traits necessary for survival under extremely cold, harsh conditions,) and I wouldn’t be surprised if this wolf DNA made them more aggressive toward prey animals.

“My contention, then, is that a connection can be traced between the heart of Old World pastoralism in the steppe country of Middle Asia and the emergence of reindeer pastoralism in the Eurasian tundra. Thrusting a vast and impenetrable wedge between these two zones, the great taiga forest presents a formidable barrier rich in game but inimical to any form of extensive herding. In the course of its expansion into the forest, the predominantly milch pastoralism of the steppe becomes progressively attenuated, giving way to hunting as the dominant basis of the economy. Where meat had been a secondary by-product of keeping domestic herds for milk, in the taiga milk production becomes subsidiary to the maintenance of tame animals as means to mobility in the procurement of meat…

Reindeer calf with mother
Reindeer calf with mother

“During the Pleistocene era, steppe and tundra were merged to form a single, homogeneous zone carrying a rich diversity of big game species. The advance of the forest across this zone, following the glacial retreat at the onset of the Holocene, left only a strip of tundra in the far north whose peculiarly arctic conditions hastened the extinction of much of the indigenous fauna that could adapt neither to the forest nor to the hot, southern steppes.”


EvX: I think that’s enough for today; we’ll wrap this up next Friday!