Anna-Kaisa Salmen ERC-hankkeen tavoitteena on löytää uusia menetelmiä poron domestikaation tutkimukseen. Kuva: Plugi

Reindeer bones give an archaeologist clues to interaction between humans and animals

Humans have always needed the help of animals to survive. A project that recently received a considerable amount of funding looks at the domestication of the reindeer to find out how coexistence between animals and humans evolved.

Author Sanna Häyrynen

An exotic dish, Santa’s cute sleigh-puller, a tourist attraction that can be petted, a precious helpmate or an industry - and a staring pair of eyes in the middle of the road. Ideas of the reindeer vary depending on your viewpoint.

Anna-Kaisa Salmi, an archaeologist and Academy Research Fellow, says that animals today mean food, symbols, stories and companionship for humans. “Animals appeal to human imagination. They are living beings that embody otherness but also have familiar features.”

Salmi has been interested in human-animal interaction throughout her career. Her speciality is animal osteology, or the study of animal bones. Salmi looks at animal bones discovered on archaeological sites to find out what the animal meant to humans.

“Usually, archaeological research regards animals as little more than an industry and a food source. I try and think about what else animals may have meant to humans in the past.”

The project led by Salmi, Domestication in Action – Tracing Archaeological Markers of Human-Animal Interaction, was granted funding amounting to EUR 1.49 million by the European Research Council (ERC) in August, and EUR 400,000 by the Academy of Finland in July.

Supported by this windfall of almost EUR 2 million, the project studies the domestication, or taming, of the reindeer. The established methods of studying domestication are not suitable for the reindeer, as human interference in their evolution has been rather minimal. New methods will thus be needed.

Anna-Kaisa Salmi´s project looks at the domestication of the reindeer to find out how coexistence between animals and humans evolved. Photo: Mikko Törmänen


Traces in the bones

The conventional thinking in domestication studies is that humans control the animals’ life cycle, preventing them from breeding with wild individuals of the species. The new project approaches the domestication of the reindeer from the perspective of interaction rather than control.

The project will begin with methodology development and move on to study archaeological material. Sirpa Niinimäki, a specialist in osteology from the University of Oulu, will join Anna-Kaisa Salmi in studying the bone samples.

“Draft animals develop bone degeneration and changes on the attachment sites of muscles on bone. We collect skeletons of modern draft reindeer. We know what these reindeer have been doing during their lives and can compare their bones to archaeological material”, Salmi explains.

Other participants in the project are Matti Heino from the University of Oulu, who studies ancient DNA, and Markus Fjellström, an isotope researcher from the University of Stockholm. DNA and isotope analyses of bone samples will be carried out in the laboratory. Initial findings indicate that isotope analysis, or the study of the chemical consistency of bone tissue, can provide information on whether or not the reindeer have been fed, as diet affects bone tissue consistency.

The initial findings of a pilot study completed before this projects also show that evidence of feeding can be seen on the sites where the reindeer’s muscles attach to the bone. In wild reindeer, these attachment sites become strong, as the animals have been forced to dig out lichen from underneath the snow. Farmed reindeer fed by humans do not need to dig for their food, and the attachment sites are weaker.

Päivi Soppela and Sanna Kynkäänniemi from the University of Lapland's Arctic Centre will interview today's reindeer herders about their interaction with reindeer.

As the project received more funding than Salmi expected, it is possible that additional employees will be recruited next year to the group that originally consisted of five members.


The reindeer challenges current ideas

DNA studies show that today's tame reindeer is a descendant of the wild mountain reindeer that appeared in the north after the Ice Age.

Current research indicates that the domestication of the reindeer probably began in the late Iron Age towards the end of the 11th century, at which time reindeer were used as draft animals. They were also used as decoys for hunting wild deer. From the 15th and 16th century onwards, reindeer herding became the main industry in the Swedish and Norwegian areas of Lapland.

Anna-Kaisa Salmi and the other researchers involved in the project would like to find out when reindeer herding appears to have begun in different areas, what the interaction between humans and reindeer was like in the early days of reindeer herding, and what impact the taming of the reindeer has had on culture, including animal sacrifices on sacred sites.

Salmi describes domestication as evolution in which humans play either an active or an indirect role.

“Humans select certain types of individuals for their companions, for example animals that are not very aggressive. On the other hand, certain types of animals that are not excessively timid thrive in the presence of humans and benefit from the ecological niches created by them, for example by eating scraps of food.”

Animals that will interact with humans usually are naturally herd-oriented and have a social structure.

Rather than being scripted by humans, domestication is a result of interaction.

According to Salmi, the reindeer challenges our preconceived ideas of the relationship between humans and animals.

“I believe that the domestication of the reindeer has had many elements in common with the early domestication of most animal species. We are using the reindeer to try and model this.”

Salmi explains that the domestication of many species, including the cow, the sheep and the goat, has progressed from a change in hunting strategies to animal husbandry. Before the current domestic animals were reared indoors, people may have tended them in similar ways as today's reindeer herders do.

The concept of domestication has undergone a transition in recent years. Rather than being scripted by humans, domestication is a result of interaction. Animals have also benefited from humans.


Interspecies understanding

Some might find it surprising that researchers of human sciences study animals. Anna-Kaisa Salmi reminds us that human history is also animal history – and that humans are animals.

To Salmi, it is important to find out how the relationship between the reindeer and the humans has evolved.

“We eat animals, we spend time with them and we see pictures of them. Animals are everywhere. In the north, reindeer have been vital for human survival. They have been in people’s thoughts constantly. The history of animal actors must be seen in parallel with human history.”

The post-humanist twist of human sciences has changed our thinking, with humans no longer being seen as the centre of the world. Scientific interest has developed towards a multi-species world.

Humans are no longer being seen as the centre of the world.

The history of reindeer herding also helps us understand the way animals are treated today. Industrialisation and urbanisation have created a great divide between production animals and pets. Production animals are regarded as little more than machines, whereas pets are members of the family.

"Before the 18th century, and even later, the same animal could be both a companion and a food source. I would like this mentality to become more widespread and replace the current practice of intensive farming”, Salmi says.

According to Salmi, the study of the relationship between animals and humans in pre-industrial communities gives us new perspectives on such questions as animal rights issues and political decision-making.

The reindeer is not just a production animal or a pet, so a city slicker who dines on mince and owns a cat may, when travelling in Lapland, be puzzled to encounter a reindeer standing in the middle of the road. Is the animal too stupid to get out of the way? Road rage could be avoided if we could perceive animals and humans as equal companions.

“A reindeer standing on the road may be trying to get away from midgets. Considering its own needs, the reindeer is quite an intelligent and social animal. Many types of relationships can be observed within a herd, and reindeer can form social relationships with humans", Salmi analyses.


Last updated: 6.11.2017