Ancient DNA shows how reindeer pastoralism spread 500 years ago

Archaeologists and geneticists of the University of Oulu found out that domesticated reindeer replaced wild reindeer at the Sámi offering places in Northern Finland in the 15th to 17th centuries. The research group analyzed archaeological reindeer bone finds from four Sámi offering places. The analyzed samples dated from the late 12th century to the 17th century.
Reindeer looking at the camera in snowy winter environment.

“We noticed that the oldest bone samples belonged to genetic lineages related to the modern wild forest reindeer. Genetic lineages typical to modern domestic reindeer first appeared around 1400–1600 ADThese lineages have subsequently replaced the lineages related to forest reindeer from Northern Finland”, says doctoral student Matti Heino.

Ancient DNA is isolated from bone findings under highly protected conditions in the laboratory. Ancient DNA is identified as ancient by the brevity of the snatches, as it has been cleaved over time.

The same replacement of wild genetic lineages by domestic ones has been observed in archaeological reindeer bone material from northern Norway. Small-scale reindeer pastoralism was probably practiced from ca. 800–900 AD onwards. Genetic analyses suggest that reindeer pastoralism grew in scale and spread in the 15th to 17th centuries.

Animal offerings at Sámi offering places began ca. 500–700 AD. Reindeer were first offered at the end of the 12th century. Offerings were given to ensure success in hunting, fishing and reindeer herding. It has previously not been known if people offered wild or domesticate reindeer, or both, at these places.

“It is especially intriguing that domesticated reindeer replaced wild reindeer at the offering places located in Finland. We know that reindeer herds were small here still in the 17th century and that people mostly practiced hunting and fishing. Historical sources indicate that wild reindeer were still hunted. The fact that domesticated reindeer were offered here suggest that there were shared religious practices across the Sámi area and that domesticated reindeer had ritual significance already in the early phases of reindeer herding”, says associate professor Anna-Kaisa Salmi.

The research group analyzed mitochondrial DNA that is inherited from the mother to the offspring. In studies focusing on old, often times badly preserved bones, mitochondrial DNA is especially suitable as it commonly occurs in multiple copies per cell.

It is currently not known where Sámi reindeer pastoralism originated. Based on historical sources it has been suggested that it first began in the mountains of Sweden and Norway. On the other hand, genetic evidence has implied that the first reindeer of the modern domesticated reindeer genetic lineages came from Siberia. The current study shows that reindeer pastoralism did not originate from maternal lineages that were common in Finland.

The research group consisted of researchers from the Universities of Oulu, Helsinki and Stockholm and the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The study was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Last updated: 28.1.2021