Native populations of the Arctic have a long history with caribou and reindeer. The Inuit tell of people who occupied arctic territory in Nunavut before their arrival. The older tribe is the Tuniit of Dorest culture. Oral histories tell us that the Tuniit were a large and powerful people although lacking in mental facility. Yet even this paleo-culture left evidence of the importance of Caribou.
As migrating herds, the caribou moved across the Arctic tundra. Archeologists believe early tribes waited for the migrations to pass through their territory. When the migration occurred the tribes would hunt. Some believe that over generations, game became scarce and people began following the herds out of necessity.
There are modern Inuit myths considering special reindeer. No, not reindeer with glowing noses but reindeer with white coats. The white caribou is a special animal, and so spared in a hunt. As legend would have it, the white caribou is a shape-shifter, or enchanted person, and therefore taboo to hunt. Alternatively, the white caribou might be an ancestor, or relative who has come to visit. No one wants to hunt family!
The date of caribou domestication is heavily debated, but suffice it to say, it was a long time ago. Reindeer are domesticated caribou, and they are the only species of domesticated deer in the world. Archeological evidence suggests the first caribou herding took place in North Asia. Some evidence indicates that human populations hunted big game to extinction and did that a portion of those hunters did not want to adopt a nomadic lifestyle. The simple solution to their specific shortage was to keep food-on-the-hoof within tribal territory, and cull the herd for food and health at leisure.
Domestic reindeer require a great deal of grass and so need a large grazing territory, or failing territory, herds need farmed grass or hay provided for them. These demands prevented domestication in some areas of the natural caribou range. Also, as the human population has expanded natural resources have declined, thus further reducing wild populations. At this time reindeer occupy a special place in our winter stories, let us not destroy their habitat so our hearts become the only space they occupy.
For more information:
- Podcast – https://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/legends-of-the-eastern-arctic-1.2920642
- Primary sources – http://www.tradition-orale.ca/default.html
- [photo] https://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/archeo/paleoesq/pega1eng.shtml
- [photo] https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/309658
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