Southern Reindeer Folk

As far from Santa as the old herders go

Paula DePriest was thrilled when she finally got the chance to see the species that she studies as they were being chewed up by the grazer for which they’re named. She didn’t even mind having to go halfway around the world and travel via uncomfortable means to a valley in northern Mongolia. A biologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., DePriest studies lichens, especially the reindeer lichens. When she heard that anthropologist William Fitzhugh, also of the Smithsonian, was leading scientists of various disciplines on an expedition to a region of northern Mongolia that for decades has been off-limits to Western scientists, she rushed to him and said, “I’m going with you.”

HOME ON THE RANGE. In northern Mongolia, movable dwellings enable the Tsaatan people to move their reindeer herd with the seasons. Smithsonian
DEER STONE. Carved designs of animals scroll over monuments thousands of years old that may represent chiefs. Smithsonian
EASY RIDE. Tsaatan children travel on reindeer instead of on bikes. Smithsonian

Until the early 1990s, this place had been behind the Soviet-era Iron Curtain. Now that it wasn’t, she wanted to finally see for herself reindeer eating reindeer lichens. She and the others who would be going on the expedition, however, took as their primary goal to discover what in that distant region might make appealing topics of scientific study.

One of the main research draws of the area is the people who call themselves the Tsaatan, a Mongolian word that translates roughly as people who have reindeer. The Tsaatan tend reindeer in a style much different–and possibly much older–than that practiced in Northern Europe. Before the Mongolian government pushed them northward in the 1980s, these herders, known as the Dukha to Westerners, were the southernmost traditional reindeer herders in the world.

When Fitzhugh led the first Western scientific expedition to the region in 2001, Mongolian scientists joined the U.S. team. Together, they scouted out possible research projects, among them studies of ancient cultures and examinations of the future of the region and its herds in the face of global warming. The expedition members immediately planned a second joint exploratory trip to the valley and other remote sites in Mongolia in 2002.

New contact

The first push for an expedition to Mongolia’s Darkhat Valley came from retired diplomat Ed Nef, who runs the InLingua language schools in the Washington, D.C. area. In the 1990s, he visited a sister language school in Mongolia, and while touring the newly opened country, he became interested in the Tsaatan reindeer herders.

He learned that despite some 70 years of Communist rule, the 30 or so families have preserved many of their traditional ways. They live in movable, teepeelike homes and rely on shamans for medical and spiritual guidance. Their territory lies in a part of northern Mongolia dotted with what anthropologists call deer stones. These slender monuments are carved with designs of flying deer and creatures that have deer bodies and antlers but ducklike bills.

When Nef returned to Washington, he urged the Smithsonian to take advantage of the new opportunity for Westerners to observe a traditional culture.

The 2002 expedition began in June, a time of the year when herders have moved their reindeer to grazing grounds to fatten them up for the coming winter. The researchers flew as far as they could into Mongolia, to the town of Mörön, where they climbed into one old Russian van and three rugged jeep-like vehicles. Outside the towns, roads first turned into graveled tracks, and then vanished altogether. “We were just a string of jeeps screaming across the steppe,” DePriest says.

“We asked our driver, ‘How do you know where we’re going?'” she recalls. “He just sniffed and said, ‘Because I’ve been here before.'”

After DePriest, Fitzhugh, and the other scientists had bounced along for 2 days, Tsaatan guides met the caravan with horses for the trip’s last, day-and-a-half climb.

Finally, the group approached reindeer and reindeer lichen country. “You come up over this pass, and there’s this big bowl that has lots of grass and streams running across the bottom. And then you see on the surrounding hillsides, the yellow-green that are lichens at about 100 percent plant cover,” DePriest recalls.

As they arrived, DePriest’s guide, Sanjin, spotted his daughter and granddaughter riding to meet them. It took DePriest a minute to realize that they weren’t riding on horses but on reindeer.

Reindeer country

The origin of reindeer domestication remains unknown, but one scenario places it in northern Mongolia. Reindeer and caribou belong to the same widespread, high-latitude species, Rangifer tarandus. During its domestication, the reindeer has diverged somewhat from its wild caribou counterparts in both appearance and behavior.

Reindeer tend to be shorter and plumper. They also live with people more readily than caribou do.

Reindeer and caribou stand out among deer species. Females, as well as the males, grow antlers. Also, they’re the only deer species with fully furred noses. What’s more, when they walk, their joints click like a person’s knuckles cracking. “You read about that, but you never quite believe it until you hear it,” says DePriest.

More apropos of DePriest’s interests, however, is a feeding trait that partly explains why these animal survive so well in frigid places: Reindeer voluntarily graze on the carpet of lichens–symbiotic combinations of algae and fungi–that takes over where not even wiry grasses and sedges can survive.

Knowledge of other herding practices gives little insight into reindeer tending. “We have this idea of herding based on cattle, with cowboys galloping around and dogs yapping,” DePriest says. “Reindeer are completely different.”

For one thing, specially selected youngsters are raised much like pets. These animals grow up to form a useful core of people-friendly animals in the herd. Indeed, Tsaatan children and small adults ride reindeer everywhere, much the way U.S. suburban kids grab their bikes. “Sanjin’s 3-year-old granddaughter was getting to ride a reindeer on her own,” says DePriest.

Always in search of salt and other minerals, the animals “come up to you and nuzzle your hands,” she says. A person urinating in the open also attracts salt-craving reindeer. The herders seemed to treat this as just another aspect of tending their animals, but “the American gentlemen found it quite disconcerting,” says DePriest.

After a day of grazing, the reindeer come back to the Tsaatan camps in the evening. The women dole out rock salt to the animals before the herders tether the reindeer, which then settle onto the ground to sleep. “What’s funny about them is how they flop their heads almost completely back on their sides,” says DePriest. The dogs settle down, too, guarding the reindeer from wolves and bears.

The Tsaatan don’t eat their animals, except as a last resort. “It’s like eating your horse,” says DePriest.

It’s like eating your cow, too. The Tsaatan put reindeer milk in their tea and use it to make cheese. Fitzhugh struggles to find familiar terms to describe the cheese’s flavor. “It’s pungent,” he says, finally giving up and saying, “It tastes like reindeer.”

This small-dairy operation may reflect the earliest form of reindeer domestication, says Fitzhugh. In contrast, other reindeer herders in the high latitudes of Europe and other Arctic regions tend several thousand animals on seasonal migrations of 300 to 400 miles. These herders concentrate on meat production.

Research leads

During the expedition, Fitzhugh suspected that he might find Mongolian ties to the Arctic cultures that he has studied for years. Consider Mongolian deer stones, which are 2,000 to 3,000 years old. Fitzhugh says that the carvings on these stones reflect beliefs in animal spirits like those that many Arctic peoples hold. Some motifs of traditional Alaskan and Canadian art also might have roots in Mongolia. “Right now, it’s just a hunch,” Fitzhugh says, “but I actually think Mongolia is crucial.”

Insights about the early history of reindeer herding may emerge from a Neolithic site that Fitzhugh discovered in 2002 at Soya near the herders. “It’s almost impossible for an archaeologist to be poking around in this part of Mongolia and not discover something,” he says. Preliminary digging revealed artifacts 4,000 to 5,000 years old: well-preserved bones, ceramics, and stone leftovers from making blades.

Fitzhugh also returned to an intriguing location he had found in his initial trip in 2001. In a depression in the landscape, he had noticed flints that appeared to be ancient. In the intervening months, Fitzhugh mentioned to his Mongolian colleagues that he hoped to make an exploratory excavation. They warned him that the Tsaatan believed only reindeer can safely perturb the ground under which spirits dwell.

Not entirely discouraged, Fitzhugh in 2002 delicately broached the topic with the herders. They responded with great interest to the idea of identifying some lost part of their ancient tradition, and they gave him permission to excavate. The researchers began by digging with a tine of reindeer horn, but Fitzhugh says the main factor in getting permission was probably taking a courteous approach to this sensitive issue.

The excavation didn’t reveal the source of the flints, though. The depression, it turned out, came not from some ancient dwelling but from a refuse pit dug during the Soviet era.

Another expedition member had better luck. Steve Young, a paleoecologist at the Center for Northern Studies in Wolcott, Vt., has been working for years to understand what happened to the woolly mammoths, bison, and other great beasts that rumbled over western Alaska more than 10,000 years ago. In a scenario that he’s found persuasive, the habitat for great grazing animals shrank as ancient climate changes permitted scrubby tree species to colonize grazing lands.

During years of traveling in Asia, Young has looked for a present-day system that might model a transition zone between ancient grasslands and invading scrub. In and around the Darkhat Valley, he finally found places where arid grassland abuts habitat of several species of scrubby birch trees.

The researchers are concerned, too, about current climate change and its potential effects on the Mongolian landscape, animals, and herders. The team visited an ice-centered mound of earth, a feature that typically lasts hundreds of years. Since the previous summer, this one had melted and slumped into a cracked dimple in the ground.

Lichen calling

For her part, DePriest spent much of her time collecting lichen with Sanjin. Before she came, she had located museum specimens or reports in the scientific literature of only two species in the area. “Oh my gosh, there were so many lichens,” she says.

Although she hasn’t finished analyzing the material that she brought home, she estimates that she collected about 50 species in the Darkhat Valley.

Now, DePriest would like to study how the reindeer influence the lichens. She’s starting a comparison between lichen patches that are visited by reindeer and patches that aren’t.

On one lichen-collecting foray, DePriest filmed Sanjin working his way through a handful of specimens, explaining how herders distinguish and name the different kinds. She found that the Tsaatan herder’s taxonomy matches that of Western scientists.

To DePriest, one of the most memorable aspects of her exploratory trip to the Mongolian highlands was the rare pleasure of discussing lichen classification with another devotee. She recalls asking Sanjin, after one of his disquisitions on lichens, whether he was teaching the children his extraordinary lore. Suddenly, East didn’t seem so far from West. “Pfuh,” he answered. “They never listen to me.”

Reindeer Here

Climate change may challenge herders in Alaska despite modern conveniences

The United States has its own reindeer-herding traditions to worry about as climate change plays out. Reindeer herding didn’t come to Alaska until 1881, when a Presbyterian missionary imported some reindeer from Siberia to try to create new prosperity among native peoples. Reindeer became meat-producing livestock and have since been bred to be “55-gallon drums on legs,” says Greg Finstad, director of the Reindeer Research Program at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

Reindeer also served as pack animals for miners during the Alaska Gold Rush and even for special reindeer mail services. Herders still raise reindeer in Alaska, though now they must get government permits for grazing land, and they patrol their herds, winter and summer, on snowmobiles.

Finstad worries about the hard-to-predict impacts of climate change on the Alaskan herders. “It’s not just: It gets warmer, bad for reindeer; it gets colder, good for reindeer,” he says.

The animals routinely balance near the brink of starvation in winter, and dozens of weather nuances can drive them closer to annihilation or ease the pressure. For example, earlier springs could nudge sedges or grasses to invade the no-plant zone where lichens now rule. If the newly arriving vegetation is a reindeer-friendly sedge, the herds will still have food, says Finstad. However, another species of the same genus of sedge is less nutritious. A triumph of this species as climate changes unfold could bring disaster to the reindeer and their herders.

To study such subtleties, Finstad and his colleagues have set up an array of fenced habitats that will be modified each year to mimic various climate scenarios. The project has yielded data for 3 years, but Finstad says that he needs 10 or 15 years of results before he can make a solid prediction about how the complex ramifications of climate change may affect Alaskan reindeer.


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Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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