An Introduction to Reindeer Domestication

The domesticated reindeer has been a defining feature of life for many groups of people in the far North.  These groups depend on reindeer for food and transportation and reindeer play a prominent role in the spiritual lives of these people.  The reindeer is as central to these peoples’ as they were to cultures in the Altaic mountains 3,000 years ago.

Those Altaic people were the first to domesticate the reindeer, which played a major role in the culture even after reindeer populations migrated north and no longer lived there.  A changing climate forced the reindeer to move north, and some people followed.  These intrepid reindeer followers are the ancestors of today’s reindeer people.  Those intrepid reindeer are the ancestors of the reindeer that currently roam Northern Europe.

In what sense can reindeer truly be said to be domesticated?  There are many definitions for domestication, and reindeer do not fit neatly into any one. One of the core pieces of domestication is the control of the animal population’s movement.  In the case of the reindeer, as the rest of this blog  expands on, the reverse is true.  It is the reindeer who control the movement of the people who have “domesticated” it.  The reindeer is more different from other domesticates than it is similar.  These differences make reindeer an interesting aspect of the study of domestication.  This project will examine these differences and create a picture of reindeer as a domesticate that altered the behavior of the humans who domesticated it at least as much as humans altered reindeer.

A depiction of Milking a reindeer in the 19th Century

A depiction of Milking a reindeer from the 19th Century


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