The Role of Reindeer

Evenk hunter with a spear, early 1900s. No. 5659-30.

Wild reindeer have been important to the human populations of Siberia since ancient times. Hunting provided food and raw materials. There were several ways and techniques of hunting: individual hunting, collective hunting, and procuring with various hunting devices. The collective hunt (by surrounding an animal, driving it, and killing it) was done by the indigenous people during the autumn when large numbers of reindeer congregated at river and lake crossings. Spears and bows and arrows were the major hunting tools in ancient times. Firearms became the major hunting tool beginning in the seventeenth century. Reindeer were impaled with spears from the bank or from a boat. In hunting places, loop-traps and corrals were established that prevented reindeer from running to the side. A special device, a makhavka (flapper or waver), was used in place of fences. The device consisted of a rod with goose, duck, or partridge wings tied to its upper part by small straps. In strong winds, makhavkas made a sharp sound that frightened the reindeer and resulted in successful procurement of the animals.

From Popov, A. A. Nganasans. In Works of the Ethnographic Institute, New Series Vol. III, p. 33.
Three techniques for hunting wild reindeer,
late nineteenth through middle twentieth centuries.

A: Makhavka (flapper)
Hunters with bows
Hunters with makhavkas
Hunters driving reindeer

B: Hunters with boats and spears

C: Hunters with boats and spears
Hunters with bows
Hunters with makhavkas
Sticks in ground

Nenets preparing to spear reindeer as they cross a river, early 1900s. No. 15.

Reindeer hunting provided the population with plentiful meat along with material for clothes and dwellings. The hunting techniques described above were retained by the Chukchis and Yukaghirs until the middle of the nineteenth century, by the Dolgans and Nenets until the beginning of the twentieth century, and by the Nganasans until the 1950s. Terrestrial methods of hunting, procuring by different devices, and by individual hunts, were practiced in forest and forest-tundra zones, the mass wintering places of reindeer. Hunters watched for reindeer along paths through permanent passages, erected barricades of felled trees and fences with catching pits, used lassos of straps or tendons, established traps, and used crossbows.

The individual way of hunting wild reindeer was based upon the principle of disguise--using concealment and an inconspicuous approach to the prey. With the first snowfall in late autumn as well as in winter, hunters used a trained, decoy wild reindeer. A female reindeer was usually used for this purpose. A special lasso was made from a strap or tendon with a long leash for the hunter to grasp. The antlers of the prey animal would become tangled in the loop on the antlers of the decoy reindeer. The hunter then approached the entangled animal using a disguise, a shield attached to skis and a special white cloth. A less common method of individual hunting was to drive a reindeer on loose snow.

Nenet herdsman, 1981. No. 10340-1.

Domestication of wild reindeer in the Far North of Siberia proceeded gradually. Following migrating herds of reindeer, human populations observed the reindeer's behavior, developed connections with them, and tamed them in small groups for use in transportation. Breeding reindeer for transportation is still practiced by the Evenks and occasionally by the Evens living in the taiga and forest tundra. During the eighteenth century, large-herd reindeer breeding became established in tundra and forest-tundra regions. No artificial conditions for keeping domestic reindeer were created due to the scanty vegetation and the biological needs of the animal relative to feeding. Pasturage remained the major food resource of domestic reindeer. Seasonal pasturing of reindeer was retained. During summer, herds of domestic reindeer were driven to Arctic tundra, ridges, and to the coasts of seas and oceans; in autumn, to the forest-tundra region. Topographic relief of the locality determined how herds were pastured. On flat, extensive tundra and forest-tundra spaces of Western Siberia, reindeer harnesses and dogs were used for guarding reindeer throughout the year. Tending reindeer on foot spread throughout Northeast Siberia, where there were many gently sloping hills and mountains. During winter, reindeer herders wore snowshoes for walking in deep snow. Since the 1950s northeastern Siberians have been using reindeer-driving dogs for pasturing reindeer.

Pasturing reindeer on the tundra, Chukchi, 1970.

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