Reindeer feeding began 800 years ago

Press release from the University of Oulu

Ihminen ruokki poroja jo 800 vuotta sitten, uutinen

University of Oulu researchers found out together with their Nordic colleagues that reindeer supplementary feeding began in some areas already 800 years ago. Previously it has been unclear when supplementary feeding of the reindeer began.

The study analyzed stable isotope composition of archaeological reindeer bones. Diet is reflected on the chemical composition of bone tissue, for instance in nitrogen stable isotope composition. The archaeological bone finds studied originated from sites in Northern Finland and Northern Sweden and dated to from the 13th century to the 17th century.

This period is especially interesting in the history of reindeer herding, because during this period, reindeer herding became the major source of livelihood and the basis of social organization for many indigenous Sámi communities. Reindeer herding practices during this period have remained largely unknown.

Nowadays reindeer supplementary feeding is common, because climate change, the sizes of reindeer herds and other land use affect the quality and quantity of winter pastures. In traditional, early 20th century reindeer herding, reindeer were given supplementary winter food such as hay, lichen and dried tree branches in especially difficult winters.

“We noticed that some of the archaeological reindeer bone samples had different nitrogen stable isotope values than reindeer naturally have. The nitrogen stable isotope composition of hay and deciduous tree leaves differs from that of lichen, the preferred winter food of the reindeer. Stable isotope analysis shows that lichen was partially replaced by hay or dried tree branches in the winter diet of the reindeer”, say Associate Professor Anna-Kaisa Salmi and Postdoctoral researcher Tiina Äikäs from the University of Oulu.

Some of the samples belonging to fed reindeer dated to the 13th century. Such bones were found from sites in Finland and Sweden.

“It seems that reindeer were fed locally already in the 13th century. All the reindeer did not receive supplementary feed though. Feeding seems to have been a temporary and local practice. The reindeer may also have been fed when they were tamed to be trained as draught reindeer.”

University of Oulu researchers studied past reindeer feeding practices together with researchers from Stockholm University and University of Tromsø.

Paper Zooarchaeological and stable isotope evidence of Sámi reindeer offerings was published in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Photo: Archaeological research shows reindeer received supplementary feed already 800 years ago. Reindeer feeding at the Palosaari reindeer farm in Kuusamo, Finland. Photo: Anna-Kaisa Salmi.

Date of publication: 9 Jan 2020

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