Reindeer Domestication:

A Short History



About think Differently About Sheep

Sentient Sheep

Sheep in religion and mythology

Sheep in Art

Sheep Breeds

Help Our Sheep


Animal Rights

Factory Farming

Animal Rights and Why they Matter

Sentience in Farm Animals

Farm Animal Facts

Why Animals matter:
A Religious and Philosophical perspective

Vegan Rambles

Photograph Gallery


Animals in art

Art Gallery

Clip art


Graphic Quotations

Portrait Gallery: Animals do Not all Look the Same


Useful Links: Action You Can Take


A Memorial to Sooty

A Memorial to Joey

A Memorial To Patch


This page is, part of a section concerning Reindeer.

Important please note: The following section of articles concerning reindeer is for interest only. I do not condone the domestication of reindeer under any circumstances, particularly the slaughter of reindeer for meat. References to reindeer husbandry, the traditional reindeer herding and their use as meat, clothing transport and similar issues are of course included here as part of the information concerning reindeer. I and many others of a similar persuasion would like to see the exploitation of reindeer for meat, skins, entertainment and as other resources and uses consigned to history forever with a future where reindeer and other domesticated animals are left to live out the course of their lives unmolested. In short this website supports the abolition of the exploitation of all animals in all circumstances. Please see: Animal Rights

Click the links below to access pages on the following topics

Reindeer: General Information  Reindeer:Migration  
Reindeer: Myth, religion and Tradition  Reindeer in Art  
Reindeer:Domestication a Short History    
Reindeer the Unlikely Farm Animal: Reindeer Domestication in Recent Times and the issue of Animal Rights.
Reindeer: Emblems on Coins and Stamps
Reindeer:Random facts
For ease of reading all quotations appear in a purple font.    

Domestication : A History

Most people think of reindeer as a completely wild animal so It may come as a surprise to know that many reindeer are domesticated.

The Reindeer is in fact the only domesticated deer in the world and was the last animal to be domesticated, though it may be more accurate to consider reindeer as semi domesticated for many reindeer remain entirely wild, such as the large herds of caribou which continue to freely roam parts of Alaska.

Although there is archaeological evidence from cave sites such as Combe Grenal and Vergisson, France that reindeer were hunted at least 45,000 years ago it is unlikely that this animal was in anyway domesticated until about 3,000 years ago, although some estimates indicate domestication took place in Eurasia 7,000 years ago. However the exact time, and by whom is of course not known and domestication may have begun at different times and places.

The problem with exact dating is a result of the lack of archaeological evidence that could pinpoint a more definite time. The shorter period can only be corroborated by ethnographic observation, such as the development about 3,000 years ago of certain implements used by the nomadic pastoral people, for example the Sayan, Sami and Tungus of the Eurasian arctic and subarctic, such as saddles and sleds. In addition evidence concerning the dating of domestication may also be ascertained  by  anthropological studies and drawings in caves and upon rocks depicting domestication. Caves near the river Lena in Russia contain paintings believed to be about 3,000 years old depicting humans walking beside reindeer without weapons, which suggests the early beginnings of domestication. Large groups of reindeer in enclosures have been found on drawings and engravings on Rocks in the Alta Fjord in Norway. Concerning the people of the Sayan Mountains', a mountain range in southern Siberia in Russia, herding traditions are believed to be ancient and it is considered by some experts that the domestication of reindeer may have begun in this region.

The oldest written recorded reference to reindeer domestication was recorded by a Chinese monk in 449 AD*1In fact it was the Chinese who wrote the earliest accounts concerning  Reindeer domestication. Other references include that of Yao Silian, a Chinese official of the Sui and Tang Dynasties. In his Chronicles of the Liang Dynasty, written between 629 to 636, he wrote about tame reindeer kept by people living in the northern forests who exploited reindeer like cattle, and used them to pull carriages. Carriages meant sleds, at the time the Chinese had no word for sledges. Also a tribe called the Ju who lived North of lake Bialkel are mentioned in the  New Book of Tang Dynasty written by  Ouyang Xiu and Song Qi between 1044 and 1060 wherein they are described as “not having sheep nor horses, but deer,” and using the deer to pull a carriage.

Reindeer domestication however may not have occurred at the one time of course. It is thought that the Sami people may have domesticated reindeer independently from the other indigenous cultures 2*)

Other historical reference to the domestication of reindeer include that of the Roman Historian Tacitus who in 98 AD,  wrote about a people in Thule who hunted reindeer and wore fur as clothing  and travelled on the snow with skis. Norwegian chief Ottar visited King Alfred and the English court in the 9th century and gave account to the King about the Sami, who domesticated reindeer, managing them in herds.

At the present time there is so little tangible data, with the result that the domestication of reindeer is a complex issue.

Although the precise time and origin of domestication cannot be established we know that the Arctic and subarctic people, including the Sami, along with other indigenous people, the Nenets, Sayan and Tungus,  have for generations exploited, and continue to exploit, reindeer for their meat, milk, hides, and antlers, to provide clothing, shelter, thread or rope, tools, weapons, ornaments and also as a means of transport. The few reindeer used for this last purpose were not initially used as meat and in the beginning of domestication wild reindeer continued to be exploited for their meet and hides. As a means of transport the domestication of this marvellously adapted animal opened vast tracts of hostile terrain which otherwise would not be accessible to man. Reindeer were so important to nomadic peoples such as the Sami that in their language there are many words that describe reindeer, words that described the variation of colours, sizes, textures of fur, antler spreads, the efficiency of ability to pull a sledge and the degree of tameness. There are even words to describe a bull reindeer in each year of his life.

Reindeer were the last animal to be domesticated. To begin with reindeer were domesticated to a lesser extent than that which we normally consider as domestication of an animal because reindeer in the main freely roamed on pasture lands.

Originally reindeer were herded and the annual migration was closely followed by nomadic herders who tended the herd. Furthermore with some small differences domesticated reindeer, unlike other domesticated animals such as sheep, pigs and cattle, retain their intrinsic similarity to their wild counterparts. Minor differences between domestic and wild may include a slightly smaller body and stature with a shorter muzzle in the domesticated animals. The fur colouring of domesticated reindeer however compared with wild reindeer has a substantial amount of variation in colour which is most obvious in newly born calves whose fur may vary in range from jet black to pure white. Because reindeer are so well adapted to their environment little selective breeding has taken place and domesticated reindeer can breed successfully with their wild counterparts and would soon return to their original natural state.

Reindeer it seems were easy to domesticate, being docile with a trusting disposition they seemed to like people allowing themselves to be groomed, petted, milked, dehorned, even castrated! and keen to work pulling sleds cooperating willingly with experienced drivers. Considering the fact that humans have hunted reindeer for 40,000 years, reindeer compared with other domesticate animals were domesticated quite late: sheep, the earliest domesticated animal, between 9-11000 BC, cattle 8000 BC, pigs 9000 BC, and Chickens 6000 BC. Some experts speculate that this delay in domestication may be due to the docility of reindeer who formed a symbiotic relationship with humans remaining close to human settlements and allowing  themselves to be used in the ways previously mentioned but retaining a good deal of independence.

Reindeer were and are an important part of the life of arctic nomadic peoples, such as the Sami who will be the main focus with regard to the issue of the domestication of reindeer. The role of reindeer however in the lives of the Sami people has changed as they, the Sami have been forced to adapt to a modern way of life.

So what has changed? 

The Sami people who were originally nomads, are people without a nation and are the indigenous people occupying areas which are now included in the nations of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola peninsula of Russia. The Sami adopted a nomadic lifestyle  during the 16th century when they became reindeer herders.

Nowadays traditional Reindeer herding is only practiced by about 10 percent of Sami who have gone from hunting only wild reindeer for subsistence to herding their animals with snowmobiles and helicopters for considerable profit! This has been a progressive process involving three stages of development. The first of these is the hunter gather phase when the Sami subsisted by living on nuts and berries and hunting animals,  such as fish, beers, moose, elk and of course reindeer by setting traps. A small number of Reindeer were tamed and sometimes used as draft animals and as decoys to trap others. With this system reindeer and man lived in a state of equilibrium. The second stage was one of pastoralism mostly referred to as  reindeer herding or intensive herding. Reindeer herding involved a nomadic life style following the the reindeer as they made their annual migration. A symbiotic relationship was developed as the nomads protected the reindeer herds from predators and in return subsisted on reindeer for the provision of meat, milk, clothing and shelter, the herd was maximised by the control of reproductive increase.

The third and final phase of sami reindeer domestication is extensive reindeer herding. Extensive reindeer herding in contrast to intensive reindeer herding differs in the following ways. In intensive herding wealth was considered by the number of reindeer in a herder's possession which were mostly utilized at subsistence levels, for the requirements of the herder, although shared with others who had not produced sufficient meat and other requirements for their needs.  While extensive reindeer herding is more akin to capitalism and is characterised by the maximization of profits which are produced from selling bull reindeer for slaughter. Intensive herding was the beginnings of the transition from hunter gathers to the more modern capitalist extensive herding which today is overwhelming prevalent. Extensive herding however is of considerable detriment to reindeer who have become nothing more than commodities, rather in the same way as more familiar domesticated animals such as pigs, cows, and sheep.

Reindeer intensive herding had its beings in central Norway during the 11th century when the Sámi abandoned subsistence hunting of reindeer and began to domesticate them gathering them into herds. By the 15th century large scale reindeer herding was in progress when nearly all taxed Sami possessed reindeer.  Nomadic reindeer intensive herding spread to Finland from Sweden and Norway.

As time went on though the combination of an increase in Sami population and incoming settlers who wished to trade goods for reindeer proved to be an economic pressure hitherto not experienced which was to have disastrous consequences. Also the pressure of taxation played a role in the transition from intensive to extensive reindeer herding. With the expansion of territory by the aforementioned nations who vied for land occupied by the Sami there were times the Sami paid taxes to more than one country. This had an effect upon the Sami transition to extensive reindeer herding. Unlike the homeostasis of the hunter gather phase intensive and extensive herding created an ecological imbalance exerting pressure on pastoral resources within the space of only a few generations. This lead to the intervention of the Finnish government with the consequence that the use of land became regulated, resources conserved and limits on the size of herds. Similar interventions in both Norway and Sweden resulted in drastic changes in the more traditional intensive reindeer herding with detrimental impacts on both the Sami and the reindeer.

As a consequence of the above extensive reindeer herding has gradually evolved from intensive herding beginning in the 16th and 17th centuries reaching its peak in the 1960s when the introduction of snowmobiles and the use of helicopters were introduced as a means of controlling herds in Finland. This came about as a result of the deterioration of pasture lands, it radically altered herding techniques with advantages for man, at least those who could afford the expense of such an innovation, as a  herd could be driven by one person on a snow mobile,  but disadvantages for the gentle timid reindeer. Now reindeer could be herded to more distant pasture or provided with hay to supplement shortages as a result of the increase in the herds to meet growing demand for reindeer products. For smaller less well off herders this change resulted in them either being forced out of business and becoming unemployed or having to join a conglomerate. Now instead of reindeer being slaughtered to provide meat for subsistence, reindeer are farmed to provide meat in a more commercial way as demand for reindeer meat and other reindeer products increased.

In Norway the government constructed fences and corrals to control reindeer herds, the fences confining them to designated pasture areas with the result of overgrazing as the limited confines restricted the reindeers' natural movement. Also all herds were required to pass through corrals to allow checks on numbers for taxation purposes, a process which is traumatic for the nervous reindeer. In Norway as in Finland innovations were introduced such as snow mobiles, which replaced skies and sleds and the number of people required; transport vehicles; boats to take reindeer to summer pastures on islands and helicopters, the last of which are used to steer the herds during migration. The resulting impact on reindeer is as follows: Handling and confinement make the corrals traumatic for reindeer; the noise of snow mobiles likewise resulted in increased stress and these machines also impacted the snow making it difficult for reindeer to dig for food; transport vehicles which assist in moving the speed of migration tear up the ground and are detriment to grazing. In additon to effecting the Sami's more traditional relationship with reindeer the above methods of herding result in the destruction of the natural environment through over grazing and noise pollution.

Now reindeer for the most part are nothing more than a commodity having gone from providing a subsistence resource to monadic people to becoming stock animals for sale and export with the result that the Sami are now a part of the modern cash economy with the result of a change in life style and an abandonment of much of their traditional way of life. Reindeer herding is now more an industry than a way of life.

The history of reindeer herding concerning the Sami is a complex subject more in-depth information concerning the history of the reindeer people in Finland, Norway and Sweden can be found by visiting the website below from which some of the above information was gleaned.

Below are short comments with links concerning some of the other indigenous people who were and in some cases continue to herd reindeer.

The Nenets

The Nenets are indigenous reindeer herders who live and herd reindeer in Yamal Peninsula region of Arctic Russia. Here more than 10,000 Nomads herd 300,00 reindeer.

Rather like other reindeer herders the Nenets subsisted on hunting and herding reindeer and using them as draft animals. In the 18th century large scale herding of reindeer emerged. During the era of the Soviet Union their reindeer herding activities were regulated in 1961 when the Soviets collectivised reindeer herds on several large state farms where the tundra became an open air meat factory and the nomads became workers with wages and contracts.

For more information on the history and present day reindeer herding among the Nenets:

More information

The Dukha

The Dukha, also called the Tsaatan,  are a small culture of reindeer herders living in northern Khövsgöl Aimag of Mongolia. Totally they numbering only 200 to 400 hundred people the Dukha ride, breed, milk, and make their living from  reindeer. However since the 1970s the reindeer population has declined in numbers from an estimated 2000 to only 600. Much of the Dukhas income today comes from people who buy crafts and pay to ride domesticated Reindeer.

More information:

The Khanty People

Khanty are an indigenous people calling themselves Khanti, Khande, Kantek (Khanty), living in Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug, a region historically known as "Yugra" in Russia, together with the Mansi another group of indigenous people.

More information:

Their traditional economy was based on reindeer herding, hunting, fishing and trapping.


Numbering about 7,000 the Dolgans live on the Taymyr Peninsula in the central Siberian Arctic. In addition to reindeer herding the Dolgans continue to hunt wild reindeer along with trapping and fishing. These nomads follow the reindeer north in spring and south in the winter during their annual migrations


The Evenks  are believed to be descendents of the ancient Tungus people, considered by some to be the original domesticators of reindeer. In Russia, the Evenks are recognized as one of the largest Indigenous peoples of the Russian North, with a population of 35,527. In China, the Evenki form one of the 56 ethnic groups officially recognized by the People's Republic of China, with a population of 30,505, as per 2000 Census. There is also a small Evenki group of Manchu-Tungus originating  in Mongolia, referred to as Khamnigan.

Unlike other nomadic people the Evenks did not slaughter their domestic reindeer relying on their herds of reindeer for a supply of milk and as a means of transport.

More Information


The Yukaghir, or Yukagirs are a people in East Siberia, living in the basin of the Kolyma River. Once divided into thirteen tribes of which only three remain, the Vadul
Odul Chuvan,  the Yukaghirs number only 1,509 people. The Vadul are mainly invovled in reindeer herding.

More Information:


The Chukchi, or Chukchee  are an indigenous people numbering about 15,000 who inhabit the Chukchi Peninsula and the shores of the Chukchi Sea and the Bering Sea region of the Arctic Ocean within the Russian Federation. Like other indigenous people of the arctic regions the Chukchi were nomadic hunter gathers and there continue to be some facets of subsistence hunting of reindeer and other animals in the present day. Similar to other indigenous peoples living within the remit of the Soviets union the Chukchi were organised into state run enterprises. These enterprises included reindeer herding. Today however only a small number are reindeer herders and continue their nomadic life style

More information


Koryaks (or Koriak) are an indigenous people of Kamchatka Krai in the Russian Far East, who inhabit the coastlands of the Bering Sea to the south of the Anadyr basin and the country to the immediate north of the Kamchatka Peninsula, the southernmost limit of their range being Tigilsk.

Of the two divisions of Koryaks, the coastal people are called the Nemelan and the inland Koryaks called the Chauchen, the Chauchen are nomadic reindeer herders, the name Chauchen means "rich in reindeer". As with similar nomadic reindeer herders their lives centred around reindeer as a subsistence source of food, clothing, and shelter - reindeer hides were used to cover their conical tents called a chum. Reindeer were used for transport and to pull sleds. Their herds sometimes numbered thousands of reindeer. the traditional cloths of the Koryaks included a hood made of wolf fur, which may have served for keeping the herds of reindeer together. Today the diet of the Koryaks includes processed food such as bread and they cloth themselves in cloth and sell some of their reindeer.

More information:

More information about the domestication of reindeer may be found in the section: Reindeer the Unlikely Farm Animal: Reindeer Domestication in Recent Times and the issue of Animal Rights.


1) Reindeer Husbandry

2) Reindeer Domestication

In addition to the above references other information was sourced from The Real Rudolph: A Natural History of the Reindeer by Tilly Smith


Banner Photograph

Snow background

  Important please note:

I am not an animal expert of any kind just your average person who loves animals, all animals, and feels deeply about the plight of many of our fellow creatures. Neither am I a writer, or any other expert. Therefore please keep in mind that the information included in this website has been researched to the best of my ability and any misinformation is quite by accident but of course possible.

Copyright, accreditations and other matters, please read