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All About Reindeer

Reindeer are semi-domesticated caribou. Although there are fundamental differences in the behavior of reindeer and their wild caribou cousins, wild caribou and domestic reindeer are considered to be a single species throughout the world.

Caribou are rather large members of the deer family. Their broad, concave hoofs spread to aid walking on soft ground and are good for digging in snow. Both sexes grow antlers that in males serve as sexual ornaments and weapons for fighting rivals during the breeding season. Alaskan caribou are clove-brown with a white neck and rump. Chukotkan reindeer, as a result of domestication, have varied pelt combinations of brown, grey, black and white in the same herd.

Caribou live in tundra and boreal forest regions of both Eurasia and North America, on Greenland and on large northern islands. Within Beringia, they occupy eastern Yakutia, the Anadyr highlands and much of western Alaska, but are absent on most of the Chukotka and Seward peninsulas, where they have been supplanted by reindeer.

In Eurasia people long ago began to tame wild caribou. Some anthropological studies suggest that this occurred in the southern Altai mountain region about 5,000 years ago. All domesticated reindeer may have derived from those stocks, for modern attempts to domesticate animals from wild caribou populations have not succeeded. It is speculated that initially hunters learned that tamed deer on a leash could help them sneak closer to wild herds. Later tame animals were used to pull sleds, and in some cultures they were saddled and ridden. Eventually people kept herds as a dependable source of food, hides and transport.

Today, from the Sami (or "Lapps") in Scandinavia, all across northern Eurasia to the Bering Strait, there are Native peoples who base their economies upon the herding of reindeer. Modern uses include the former ones, plus commercial sales of meat and some hides. Recently, the sale of antlers to the Orient has become important. In the Russian Republic today, reindeer number about 2,250,000.

Different reindeer varieties have been developed in Asia to suit local conditions and human needs, including transportation. Chukchis have a breed that appears to be the product of longer domestication than most. Excellent for meat production, they are not so good for pulling sleds. The Chukchis may have begun keeping larger herds for commercial meat and hide production in response to the 17th century arrival of Russians. Under the Soviet system Chukotkan herders were organized into brigades, each responsible for 500 to 2,000 reindeer. Larger numbers of reindeer were kept on the Chukotsk Peninsula and the long migrations to the west discontinued. There are no forests on the peninsula and winter can be particularly difficult; nearly half the reindeer died in the winter of 1984.

Life in a reindeer camp remains traditional in many ways, based on the mutual dependence of reindeer and people. Reindeer hides supply beautiful, light and warm clothes enabling people to work in the severe cold. Winter hides, one of the best available natural insulators, furnish tents, provide bedding and, sewn together with sinew, become the winter coverings of the large round tents called yarangas.

Despite the long history of cultural contacts and movements across Beringia, reindeer husbandry was evidently not transmitted to North America until Chukchi and Sami herders and Chukotkan reindeer were brought to Alaska in the late 19th century to teach herding to Eskimos. The Seward Peninsula is home to most of Alaska's reindeer, about 17,000 in herds owned by local Eskimos and Native corporations. Herds range throughout the peninsula, including within the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, where the continuance of herding is allowed by law.

Source: U.S. National Park Service