International Scientific Conference "Archeology of the Arctic"
November 19-23, 2017

Ancient reindeer harnessing practices in the Yamal region: comparative research.

R. Losey, T. Nomokonova

University of Alberta, Canada

University of British Columbia, Canada


            The long-term history of reindeer domestication remains poorly understood. Some scholars have suggested that domestic reindeer originated in Sayan-Altai and Trans-Baikal regions based on ethnographic and linguistic data [Laufer, 1917; Pomishin, 1990; Vasilevich and Levin, 1951; Vainshtein, 1980]. The primary archaeological data in support of these origin points consists of rock art and statues that appear to show reindeer being ridden or harnessed [Adrianov, 1888, 1904; Kyzlasov, 1952, 1955]. A written Chinese account from AD 499 reports that reindeer were kept alongside horse and oxen, and that the deer were milked and used for pulling carts, but precisely where these observations were made is unknown [Laufer, 1917]. Areas of Arctic Siberia also have been implicated in the domestication of reindeer [Krupnik, 1993; Bogoras, 1933; Fedorova, 2000; Gusev, 2014]. In Northern Europe, scholars have argued for a regional switch to reindeer pastoralism, meaning an increasing reliance on herded reindeer as the primary basis of subsistence, occurring about AD 800 to 1000 [Aronsson, 1991; Storli, 1993, 1996], while other suggest this occurred as recently as AD 1500 to 1600 [Mulk, 1994; Hansen and Olsen, 2004; Sommerseth, 2011]. Evidence in both scenarios primarily involves archaeological evidence of new forms of settlement patterns and site spatial organization [Storli, 1996; Anderson, 2011]. Analysis of mtDNA from archaeological reindeer bone in northern Scandinavia indicates that the haplogroups of modern herded deer appear around AD 1400-1600 [Bjørnstad et al., 2012]. These haplogroups are not present in the region’s wild reindeer and their geographic origin is unclear. The earliest written record of tame or domesticated reindeer in this region dates to AD 890 [Batley and Englert, 2007].

            They Yamal region of Arctic Siberia has multiple archaeological sites from the past ~2000 years with potential evidence for reindeer herding. The most convincing of these objects are L-shaped antler pieces that are similar to parts of headgear used on transport reindeer by modern herders in Yamal. We systematically compared these archaeological objects with ethnographic reindeer bridles in several museum collections. These comparisons revealed that the archaeological pieces are within the size and shape range of parts found on ethnographic bridles. However, many of the archaeological objects have small spurs along the edge that would have rested upon the forehead of reindeer. The archaeological objects are also slightly less robust than the modern bridle parts. We argue that these pieces were employed as parts of reindeer bridles beginning at least 2000 years ago, but the ways in which they were used on these animals differed somewhat from modern practices. 


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