Caribou and Reindeer

David R Yesner. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

The terms “caribou” and “reindeer” refer to a species of cervid, Rangifer tarandus, which has Holarctic distribution. “Reindeer,” however, is somewhat ambiguous, as it is used to refer to both the wild and domesticated forms of this species, whereas “caribou” always designates the wild form. Yet “reindeer” is generally preferred in the Old World for both. (The term “wild reindeer” is also sometimes used as a synonym for “caribou,” to differentiate from the domesticated animal.) In addition, a separate species of Paleoarctic (Old World) reindeer, Rangifer arcticus, was once recognized, but the fact that caribou and reindeer interbreed successfully and produce fertile offspring, particularly in Alaskan herds, led to general unification of the taxon (Banfield 1961).

At least six major modern subspecies of caribou are recognized. Two of these are Paleoarctic in distribution: Rangifer tarandus tarandus, the European tundra reindeer, and Rangifer tarandus fennicus, the Eurasian forest reindeer. Three are Neoarctic in distribution: Rangifer tarandus grant of Arctic Alaska and westernmost Canada, Rangifer tarandus pearyi (the “Peary caribou”) of eastern Arctic Canada, and Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus of Greenland and Baffin Island (Meldgaard 1986). One subspecies, Rangifer tarandus caribou, is endemic to the subarctic boreal forest, originally ranging from Alaska to eastern Canada and the northernmost United States but now more limited in distribution. Other varieties are more restricted geographically: Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus lives only on Spitzbergen, and Rangifer tarandus dawsoni is confined to the Queen Charlotte Islands.

Prehistory of Caribou/Wild Reindeer Utilization

The genus Rangifer exists in the paleontological record throughout the middle to late Pleistocene or Ice Age period and has a probable antiquity of at least 400,000 years. The relative prevalence of caribou remains in paleontological and archaeological sites from this period serves as a sensitive indicator of climatic and vegetational change (Parker 1971; Messier et al. 1988). This is because caribou are tied to arctic tundra or subarctic taiga (open coniferous forest) habitats, which provide their chief foods: lichens, particularly of the genera Cladonia and Alectoria, and a wide variety of low browse or groundcover plants, including forbs, fungi, willow and birch shoots, and grass and sedge shoots (Kelsall 1968). Thus, the presence of caribou during glacial periods (and their absence during interglacial periods) in central Europe and other parts of northern Eurasia is linked to the expansion and regression of the Scandinavian ice sheet to which these arctic and subarctic environments were tied (Bouchud 1966).

Remains of R. tarandus are initially associated with late Homo erectus or archaic Homo sapiens sites in Europe and, more frequently, with Neanderthal sites. Rangifer tarandus existed as a recognizable taxon throughout the Upper Paleolithic period from 40,000 to 10,000 years ago (Banfield 1961). It is a conservative taxon, with little change occurring in caribou throughout the late Ice Age and postglacial periods. During the Upper Paleolithic period, many northern Eurasian hunting populations became specialized in hunting wild reindeer (Sturdy 1975; Mellars 1996; Burke and Pike-Tay 1997). The caribou was probably the most important game animal in western Europe during the Upper Paleolithic, and European cave deposits contain large amounts of caribou bones (Delpech and Heintz 1976; Delpech 1983; Boyle 1990, 1993; Straus 1997; Thacker 1997). Caribou also figure prominently in Ice Age art, as at Lascaux Cave, and some depictions (as at Trois Frères) suggest that they played an important role in ritual and perhaps shamanistic activities. In the New World, caribou were important to Paleo-Indian hunters throughout North America (Cleland 1965; Funk, Fisher, and Reilly 1970; Spiess, Curran, and Grimes 1985; Peers 1986; Jackson 1988).

After the end of the Ice Age, caribou populations retreated northward to areas offering suitable habitat, such as northern Germany and southern Scandinavia, and many parts of Russia, Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. They were an important focus of Epipaleolithic or Mesolithic hunters throughout this region; their bones are found in archaeological sites, and they were depicted in rock art in each of these areas. With evolving post-Pleistocene climates, caribou became restricted to areas of northern Scandinavia, Siberia, parts of the Russian Far East, and the more northerly areas of Canada and Alaska (Yesner 1995). They have continued to be hunted by various aboriginal populations in all of these regions until the present time (e.g., Birket-Smith 1929; Lips 1947; Chard 1963; Gubser 1965; Nelleman 1970; Simchenko 1976; Irimoto 1981; Hall 1989; Krupnik 1993).

Methods of Caribou/Wild Reindeer Exploitation

Since Upper Paleolithic times, caribou have been a historically important food resource for northern Eurasian hunting peoples for three reasons: the dense aggregation of the animals in bands and herds, their ease of capture, and their nutritional value. Modern caribou tend to congregate in large numbers ranging from dozens (bands) to thousands (herds). Their migratory habits minimize their impact on the relatively delicate plant communities upon which they depend. These migrations may shift groups between forested and open (tundra) environments on a seasonal basis. They frequently involve movement between seasonally important hunting grounds and spring “calving grounds,” where females give birth. Contemporary migration distances range from relatively short (for example, on Spitzbergen and islands of the Canadian High Arctic) to very long (in western Canada and Alaska). Factors involved in the distance and location of migration include available forage, protection against predators, and insect infestations (Pruitt 1960; Skoog 1968; Heard 1997).

The nature of caribou migration patterns of the past is unclear. Zooarchaeological data from late Ice Age sites in southwestern France suggest that year-round occupation of some areas was possible by specialized caribou hunters, which may be related to shorter-distance migrations by the animals, as well as to the fact that they existed in significant numbers (Gordon 1988; David and Enloe 1992; Enloe and David 1997; Spiess in press). In comparison with their Arctic habitats of today, southwestern France would have provided a smaller physical area but much greater environmental (particularly altitudinal) diversity, thereby helping to support larger groups of animals. In addition, beginning around 20,000 years ago, caribou were hunted with efficient tools such as spears and atlatls (Bouchud 1966; Delpech 1983; Pike-Tay and Bricker 1993).

In places where they were less available, such as in open forest areas, caribou were a seasonally important resource; their dietary significance seems to have varied in relation to the specificity of the habitat for caribou and the length of local caribou migration routes. Among historically known caribou hunting groups, some maintained a herd-following strategy, whereas others remained in specific areas, usually near annual migration routes, exploiting other resources until the caribou showed up.

The former pattern seems to have been more typical of places where few alternative resources existed, such as the Canadian High Arctic (Gordon 1975), and may also have been true of Scandinavia before the domestication of reindeer (Blehr 1990). The second pattern was more typical of places where alternative resources existed, where annual migration routes were fairly precise, and where caribou could be taken in sufficiently large numbers that their meat could be stored for a considerable time period; such a location was the Brooks Range of northern Alaska (Burch 1972). Situations in which caribou composed the predominant element in the diet yet failed to materialize along a particular migration route in a given year have been well documented; the result was usually starvation for the hunters (Mowat 1952).

Human groups hunting caribou have employed a wide variety of techniques, which Arthur Spiess (1979), Otto Blehr (1990), and Bryan Gordon (1990) have discussed in detail. There are basically two approaches: One involved “mass killing” techniques, in which large numbers of animals were taken from a band or herd at one time, whereas the other saw individual caribou or small numbers of individuals killed. The former tended to be used for hunting large bands or herds (as during seasonal aggregations) when large numbers of humans were available to hunt and where caribou meat was particularly important in the diet. Mass killing techniques involved logistic planning, whereas individual hunting techniques were largely based on opportunistic encounters.

Mass killing techniques were historically used by many groups, including coastal and interior Eskimos, various Athapaskan peoples of interior Alaska and western Canada, some Algonquian groups in the eastern Canadian Subarctic, the Saami peoples of northern Scandinavia, some Siberian groups, and a few of the Rocky Mountain groups of western Canada. Algonquians of northern New England and peoples of the Russian Far East seem to have used individualistic hunting techniques almost entirely. Mass killing techniques were of two types. On land, they involved drives into traps, snares, fences, corrals, or human “surrounds”; in general, this type included any technique in which the caribou were lured into a small area to be killed and butchered (Anell 1969; Morrison 1982). The caribou were also driven into water, with the use of boats, in areas where rivers or lakes lay near migration routes (Arima 1975; Greenman and Stanley 1977; Yesner 1980). Male and female humans of all ages participated in these activities, with which forms of sociopolitical leadership were often associated. These may have ranged from simple task leadership to the involvement of more general leaders or village head-men (for example, the umialik or whaling boat captains in North Alaskan villages).

By contrast, individualistic hunting was usually done by men using singly set snares, stalking, and “running down” of game. Killing was done with atlatls, spears, bows and arrows, and the rifles introduced into many indigenous caribou hunting groups during the nineteenth century. For both mass and individualistic hunting various aids were employed, such as decoys (antlers, reindeer skins, calls) and mock caribou made of wood or stone. Some of these approaches may be reflected in the archaeological record; examples might include the caribou head-dress from Trois Frères or certain depictions in Scandinavian rock art. Mass killing efforts tended to yield nonselective age and sex groups of caribou, whereas individual hunting techniques were more effective at different times of year to take particular ages or sexes of the animals. The archaeological record indicates that bulls were generally preferred for meat, and today they are larger and have more fat, particularly during the autumn (Yesner 1980). Calves were also sought for their high fat content, and female adults became the preferred prey in early winter, when the bulls were in rut.

Individualistic hunting techniques were also used to take animals at specific times of the year for non-food purposes, such as in late summer and fall, when the quality of reindeer fur was particularly suitable for clothing manufacture. Cows and calves were often sought for their skins. Animals of varying ages and sexes were targeted for the manufacture of specific items of clothing: skin bags, rawhide or “babiche” for snowshoe lacings, as well as covers for dwellings, caches, and sleds (Smith 1978). In addition, antlers were an important resource for tool manufacture. If already shed, antlers could be scavenged, but they could also be taken from animals, particularly males, and generally from adults over 4 years of age, as they produce significantly larger antlers.

Dietary Importance of Caribou/Wild Reindeer

The fact that specialized caribou hunting has been possible among some groups for 40,000 years indicates that the animal is capable of satisfying human subsistence requirements (Burch 1972). However, rarely did historically known groups subsist solely on a caribou meat diet. Past caribou-hunting specialists of the arctic region, such as the Arctic Small Tool peoples (also known as the Denbigh peoples in Alaska and the Dorset peoples in Canada), were historically replaced by more efficient coastal hunters, such as the Thule peoples (ancestral to modern Arctic Eskimos), who combined caribou and sea-mammal hunting. There is also historical and archaeological evidence suggesting that contemporary groups – such as the Nunamiut Eskimos of Alaska, the Caribou Eskimos of Canada, and even the so-called Reindeer Lapps of northern Scandinavia – have developed their specialized life-ways only in the past few hundred years, and that until recently, they migrated between coastal and interior regions, combining caribou hunting with fishing and sea-mammal hunting.

The Caribou Eskimos, living to the west of Hudson Bay in an area where whaling or walrus hunting is less possible today than in other areas (and where shore-fast ice requires individual stalking of seals in winter), have been particularly dependent on caribou. They are, however, a group with smaller human populations, simpler technologies, and less complex political structures than other Eskimo peoples. Similarly, among Alaskan Athapaskan groups, those involved primarily with caribou hunting (for example, the Gwich’in) have been more mobile, with a simpler technology, and have been fewer in numbers than other groups that were also involved with salmon fishing and/or seal hunting. Such caribou-dependent groups tends to be very mobile, occupying in the course of a year several different base camps, where they have utilized relatively unsophisticated dwellings such as caribou-hide tents (or even brush lean-tos).

Widespread concern over the availability of caribou was especially characteristic of groups occupying boreal forest regions, where the animals were often scarce (cf. Smith 1978). Such concern took the form of specialized ritual and may have stimulated the development of divination as a technique in caribou hunting. The effect of divination was to randomize the impact of such hunting and therefore minimize the likelihood of overexploitation (Moore 1969). Some authors have even linked the so-called Windigo Psychosis of subarctic Cree peoples to concerns over starvation in the boreal forest.

That caribou-hunting groups occasionally met with starvation is well documented in the ethnographic record. In part, this was a result of the naturally cyclical patterns of caribou abundance in arctic regions. Although it is difficult to establish the antiquity of these patterns, there is some suggestion that they go back hundreds of years in interior Alaska (Yesner 1980), Labrador (Fitzhugh 1972), and Greenland (Gronnow, Meldgaard, and Nielsen 1983; Meldgaard 1983), and they may even have occurred during the Upper Paleolithic in France (David 1973). During caribou population highs, such as in late-nineteenth-century Alaska, intensification of hunting, including widespread construction of “caribou fences,” seems to have taken place. At times of population lows, caribou-hunting groups apparently shifted to a more diverse diet that included small game and birds (Yesner 1989). Within the last 150 years, habitat disturbance has led to population expansion of other cervids such as the moose, which subsequently filled the dietary niche formerly occupied by caribou in some parts of interior Alaska.

Because higher metabolic rates are required for human survival under cold conditions, dietary requirements of high-caloric foods are significantly greater in the Arctic region (Draper 1974). Calories are usually provided by fats, which have twice the caloric density of protein or carbohydrates (about 9 calories per gram). However, except for deposits around viscera, under the skin, and in bone marrow, caribou are generally lean, yielding fat at only 10 percent of body weight (Hall 1971). Between 40 and 55 percent of a caribou carcass is meat (White 1953; Hill 1967; Binford 1978). Caribou weights vary from about 35 kilograms (kg) for a juvenile to 150 kg for a large adult male (Kelsall 1968). Such a range provides from 20 to 80 kg of meat but only 3 to 10 kg of fat.

There is some physical evidence that nutritional deprivation was occasionally associated with those groups that were more caribou-dependent. In the Canadian High Arctic, for example, a greater dependence on caribou may be linked to relatively shorter statures in that region (Laughlin 1966). Although there is evidence for episodic nutritional stress in human skeletons from throughout the Arctic and Sub-arctic (Yesner 1994), the Caribou Eskimos have shown some of the strongest patterns of development of growth arrest lines, indicative of starvation, of any Eskimo peoples (Buikstra 1976). In addition, studies by the Alaska Dietary Survey (Mann et al. 1962) and by Edward Foulks (1972) have suggested that a caribou diet may be deficient in thiamine and other vitamins.

Caribou/Reindeer Butchery and Consumption

Caribou butchery practices have varied widely among groups. However, common variables in the butchery process have involved transportation requirements and whether immediate or short-term consumption or storage of meat was anticipated. The size of the packages of meat produced would often be related to whether humans, dogs, or sleds (or, today, snowmobiles) were used for transportation. If carcasses were to be used for long-term caching (storage in an underground or rock-lined chamber), they would only be beheaded, eviscerated, and quartered, with further butchery taking place before consumption at a later time. Butchery procedures may also have been affected by whether the animal was being used for purposes other than human consumption (such as clothing manufacture, dog food, or bait for traps).

Arctic peoples compensated for the relative leanness of caribou meat by the way in which the animal was butchered, cooked, and prepared. The final preparation of food sections was strongly related to preference for body parts. These were (and are) fairly constant cross-culturally and were based on the amounts of meat in different parts of the carcass, particularly on fat concentrations and the reliability of those concentrations. In general, because of higher fat content, portions nearer the axial skeleton (ribs and vertebrae), including rib steaks and roasts, were highly desired. Also high on the preference list was the back-strap (backbone musculature), followed by front (brisket, short ribs) and back (pelvis) portions. Rear haunches were generally preferred to front shanks for the same reasons. Kidneys were also prized above other viscera because of higher fat content, followed by the heart and lungs. The most desirable smaller parts included those of the head, particularly the brain, the tongue, and the fat behind the eyes. Intestinal fat was also consumed (Spiess 1979).

If alternative resources were few, a variety of techniques were employed to maximize the nutritional yield from caribou carcasses. One was the smashing or cracking of the articular ends of long bones to obtain marrow, a high-fat, high-protein substance enjoyed by hunting peoples. Afterward, the marrow and bone fragments were sometimes boiled to produce “bone juice.” Data from Eskimo informants suggest that marrow was cherished as a source of fat because of high concentrations of low-melting-point fats, particularly oleic acid (Binford 1978). Bones chosen first for marrow extraction were the tibia, the “cannon bones” (metacarpals and metatarsals), the radiocubitis, the femur, and the humerus (Binford 1978: 42). Less desirable as sources of marrow were the pelvis, phalanges, mandible, scapula, and ribs. Thin animals (including nursing females or rut-depleted males) were often avoided because starvation removes fat reserves from the bone marrow.

Both marrow and caribou back-fat have been key ingredients in the traditional dish akutuk, an excellent source of vitamins as well as protein and fat. This dish, colloquially known as “Eskimo ice cream,” was prepared in the past by mixing caribou tallow with berries of various types and snow. Depending on the availability of other fats, fish, or sea mammals, oils might also have been added. Today, sugar has become another ingredient in the mix.

A second major nutritional resource obtained by carcass reduction was caribou “bone grease,” that is, fats obtained from bone tissue itself (Leechman 1951). These were rendered by first smashing bones into small fragments, then simmering them in a pot of water and skimming off the fat. If not consumed immediately, the fat was generally stored in a cleaned caribou stomach. The best bone grease, referred to as “white” bone grease by Eskimo informants (Binford 1978), was rendered from long bones, whereas the axial skeleton, mandible, sternum, and pelvis were used to produce a less desired “yellow grease.” Obtaining both marrow and bone grease could also have been part of the same procedure that employed long bones for tool manufacture (Yesner and Bonnichsen 1979). Carcass reduction for marrow and bone grease most likely took place at times of the year when caribou were scarce and/or stored resources were depleted, particularly in the late winter and early spring.

A final resource that could sometimes be obtained from caribou or reindeer were the stomach contents, that is, fermented plants of various sorts, including lichens. Although these plants cannot be readily digested by humans because of their high cellulose content, they are edible if fermented in the caribou rumen. As such, they can be an excellent source of ascorbic acid (vitamin C), otherwise obtainable only from berries (fresh, frozen, or preserved in fish or sea-mammal oils) or raw meat.

Food Storage and “Social Storage”

Many groups stored their caribou meat. Variables affecting storage included the quantity of meat to be butchered or transported and the ambient temperature at the time of the kill and afterward. There were two basic practices: the caching of unbutchered or roughly butchered meat sections and storage following butchering of the animals. Caching was likely to occur when large numbers of caribou were killed at one time and the carcasses could not be consumed or transported immediately. This generally took place in late fall or winter, and landmarks were left behind so that the meat could be recovered even if the caches were covered by snow. Meat sections were recovered when the area was revisited during an annual round, whereupon secondary butchering would take place. Unbutchered, cached meat sections were sometimes fed to the dogs, particularly during the winter.

In situations where butchering preceded storage, the hunters employed drying and also (when possible) freezing. Specific butchery methods depended on storage techniques. Drying methods utilized drying racks, whereas frozen storage required deep ice cellars, often delved out of the permafrost, that could only be used during winter or spring.

Widespread food sharing was also a technique that helped to maximize both the nutrition obtained from the caribou and the survivability of the caribou-hunting group. In groups using mass killing techniques, the individuals in charge of the hunt often acted as decision makers regarding the division of the meat. Sharing beyond the nuclear family was less likely during periods of relative abundance, but at other times of year (when individual hunting took place) food sharing was ubiquitous. It was widely recognized by various caribou-hunting groups that men differed significantly in their hunting abilities (or luck), and kills were shared with all other members of the group. In such cases, the successful hunter was often in charge of meat distribution.

Finally, trade was a mechanism by which caribou hunters obtained other foods. Among the Nunamiut of northern Alaska and the Tareumiut peoples on the North Alaskan coast, for example, long-distance trading partnerships were developed. During annual sessions, frequently held during summer months, caribou hides were traded for dried fish, seal meat, and fish and sea-mammal oils. Similar patterns evolved in Scandinavia and Russia.

The Domestication of Reindeer

The domestication of reindeer marked a considerable departure from previous dependence on wild reindeer (caribou). Although human manipulation of caribou populations is thousands of years old, true domestication of reindeer began no more than 400 to 500 years ago in northern Scandinavia and Siberia (Anderson 1958; Vorren and Manker 1962; Levin and Potapov 1964). O. Magnus (1555) is probably the earliest historical source referring to reindeer domestication by Saami (Lapps). However, there is some archaeological evidence from medieval Scandinavia to suggest that this transition may have taken place as early as the beginning of the fifteenth century (Simonsen 1972; Hambleton and Rowly-Conwy 1997). Historical sources suggest that reindeer domestication began with the expansion of peoples from the south into the territory of these northern peoples, including Norse populations in Scandinavia and Evenks (Tungus) in Siberia. These expansions were probably coincident with a climatic optimum in the sixteenth century. The result was removal of reindeer habitat, increased density of northern peoples, and overhunting of reindeer populations, in part resulting from the introduction of firearms. Domestication apparently occurred in order to provide northern groups with a reliable source of food in the face of the decline of reindeer populations. Unlike other northern groups, the Saami regularly milked their reindeer, producing a kind of cheese (Magnus 1555; Utsi 1948). By the seventeenth century, Saami peoples were regularly trading reindeer hides for grain, salt, metal objects, cloth, and alcohol (Schefferus 1674). In part, this trading was to pay for the taxation of reindeer herds imposed by Norse authorities.

Historical sources also indicate that initially the domestication of reindeer (and their herding and use as draft animals) was undertaken as an aid to hunting before it became a sustainable livelihood. Also, in some areas, such as parts of northern Siberia, reindeer herding remained a hunting aid and/or source of reserve food into the twentieth century. Later, more closely supervised and intensive herding took place, beginning no more than 200 years ago. Such herding involved draft reindeer for carrying loads and for riding. As with wild reindeer hunting, domesticated reindeer herding has involved the use of a wide variety of techniques for corralling and killing animals, including, as already mentioned, the use of rifles since the late nineteenth century. At the same time, like cattle herding, it has also involved the use of a wide variety of techniques for breaking animals and for indicating ownership (for example, ear notching).

The necessity for continuous human contact in herding, caring for, and driving reindeer populations created an ever increasing dependence of humans on the animals. This, in turn, necessitated greater reindeer-herding specialization, a more sedentary lifestyle, and, in some cases, a discontinuance of customary transhumant movements into coastal or riverine zones for fishing and/or sea-mammal hunting. The result was the differentiation in Scandinavia between the so-called Mountain Lapps or Reindeer Lapps (focused on reindeer herding), the Forest Lapps, and the Coast Lapps or Fisher Lapps. In Siberia, a similar process can be seen in the evolution of the “Reindeer Chukchi.” Development of discrete groups of herders also took place, with differences in reindeer paraphernalia identifying such groups. Problems have also developed in mating or interaction between domesticated reindeer herds and wild reindeer populations, necessitating special efforts to separate these groups.

Reindeer Husbandry in the Twentieth Century

In northwestern Alaska, reindeer herding began in the 1920s with the noted Protestant minister Sheldon Jackson, who introduced the animals into the area (Scheffer 1951; Stern et al. 1980). Jackson believed that reindeer would help to augment the diet of the Bering Strait Inupiat (Northern Eskimo) people, some of whose other resources, especially large baleen whales, had been depleted by the ingress of other populations since the mid-nineteenth century. Jackson brought in Saami (Lapp) herders to help the Alaskan natives learn about reindeer (Vorren 1994). Although the herds depleted some habitats and caused disruption of traditional settlement patterns and lifestyles, reindeer herding continues today in that part of Alaska, where it is a successful enterprise managed by the Northwest Alaska Native Association (NANA).

In the former Soviet Union, large cooperatives, equivalent to communal farms, were established for the marketing and distribution of reindeer meat. Thus, much of the meat was not consumed by local peoples but by others in the region. Payments for reindeer meat were handled by local officials, assisted by Communist Party advisory groups. Such practices have been terminated with the fall of the Soviet Union.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, more extensive and larger-scale reindeer husbandry or ranching has been developed in a number of places, including Alaska, northwestern Canada, western Greenland, and Siberia (Strickon 1965; Sturdy 1972; Ingold 1980). This development has everywhere required the use of modern mechanized equipment, including trucks, airplanes, and particularly snowmobiles (Pelto 1973; Beach 1981; Paine 1994). There have been problems in adapting mechanized systems to reindeer herding because of the traditional skittishness of the animals. Such systems have also continued to transform traditional settlement patterns and lifestyles. The marketing and sale of meat has been initiated in a number of locales, particularly in Scandinavia, Greenland, and Russia. The sale of reindeer meat is more restricted in Canada and Alaska; in the latter region, however, it is a key ingredient in “reindeer sausage,” which is widely marketed. The meat is frequently leaner and milder in flavor than that of wild caribou and is preferred by many non-native consumers for that reason. A key reason for the present-day maintenance of reindeer herds in a number of places, including Alaska and Russia, is the strong demand for – and purchase of – reindeer antlers in East Asia. There, the antlers, alleged to possess the properties of a stimulant and an aphrodisiac, are ground to a pharmaceutical powder and retailed to the public.

Survival of a Subsistence Based on Caribou/Reindeer

Both herding and hunting of reindeer have continued to provide meat for indigenous peoples throughout the northern circumpolar region and have proven to be important local sources of human nutrition. To a lesser extent, caribou or wild reindeer are also an important resource for non-native peoples who hunt them and consume their meat. Thus, in Alaska, special permits are required for non-native caribou hunting, and preference is given to those who can demonstrate past reliance on this meat to feed their families. The use of caribou and reindeer is governed by local and national laws. In addition, international treaties, such as that between the United States and Canada, govern the management and exploitation of caribou herds that cross national boundaries. In Scandinavia, such treaties have ensured the movement of traditional Saami herds and herders across the northern part of the region.

Unfortunately, there are a number of threats to the continued use and consumption of caribou and reindeer meat by northern peoples. Habitat disruption has probably had the greatest effect on both wild and domestic reindeer. For example, even in those areas where traditional caribou hunting persists, there is a significant difference between the hunting patterns of the past and those of today. Illustrative is Alaskan archaeological data, which demonstrates that traditional peoples hunted caribou as much as 15 or more years old, but animals of this age are rarely seen in wild populations today (Yesner 1980).

Significant alterations of caribou and reindeer habitats are the result of a number of factors: the increased movement of non-native peoples into arctic regions; the development of oil, mining, and other industries in the Arctic (particularly in Alaska and Russia); and the construction of large hydro-electric projects (particularly in Canada and Scandinavia).

The latter has had a particularly strong impact by flooding large areas of the traditional caribou range. In addition, air pollution, particularly that resulting from the Chernobyl reactor accident in the former Soviet Union, has affected the caribou. It is too early to determine the long-term consequences for the subsistence of northern peoples, particularly in Scandinavia and Russia, but reindeer meat will probably continue to be important in these regions for some time. In Alaska and Canada, although some herds have been reduced, others still number in the hundreds of thousands. It is to be hoped that reindeer and caribou will continue to be significant dietary resources well into the twenty-first century.