The Reindeer Dilemma

As I was doing a bit of research for the site I came across PLOS Journals from that publish several Open Access Online Journals across all areas of science and medicine. Including but not limited to Physics, Engineering, Computational Biology, and Genetics.
If you’re a Power Nerd who’s Jam is raw knowledge I urge you to take it in slowly as the potential to get trapped down the rabbit hole is quite high.

Photo of Reindeer on Snow

Excerpt from PLOS ONE Research Article:
Investigating reindeer pastoralism and exploitation of high mountain zones
in northern Mongolia through ice patch archaeology.
Published: November 20, 2019


In interior Eurasia, high mountain zones are crucial to pastoral subsistence, providing seasonally productive pastures and abundant wild resources. In some areas of northern Mongolia, mountainous tundra zones also support a low-latitude population of domestic reindeer herders–a lifestyle whose origins are poorly characterized in the archaeological record of early Mongolia. Traditionally, reindeer pastoralists make significant seasonal use of munkh mus (eternal ice) for their domestic herds, using these features to cool heat-stressed animals and provide respite from insect harassment. In recent years, many of these features have begun to melt entirely for the first time, producing urgent threats to traditional management techniques, the viability of summer pastures, and reindeer health. The melting ice is also exposing fragile organic archaeological materials that had previously been contained in the patch. We present the results of horseback survey of ice patches in Baruun Taiga special protected area, providing the first archaeological insights from the region. Results reveal new evidence of historic tool production and wild resource use for fishing or other activities, and indicate that ice patches are likely to contain one of the few material records of premodern domestic reindeer use in Mongolia and lower Central Asia. The area’s ancient ice appears to be rapidly melting due to changing climate and warming summer temperatures, putting both cultural heritage and traditional reindeer herding at extreme risk in the years to come.


In the cold, dry, and harsh environs of the Eurasian steppes, mountain regions have played a key role in herding lifeways both now and in the past -while contemporary climate warming threatens both pastoral adaptations and the region’s fragile archaeological record. In contemporary Mongolia, most rural residents make their living through specialized, seasonally-mobile herding of domestic livestock. Across most of the region, the key herding animals are known the tavan hoshuu mal (five snouts)–sheep (Ovis aries), goat (Capra hircus), horse (Equus caballus), cattle (Bos taurus), and camel (Camelus bactrianus). Montane environments in the dry steppe function as important loci of animal and plant biodiversity for hunting, fishing, and gathering, as well as focal points for diverse kinds of pastoral activity. In dryland regions of Central Asia, precipitation is scarce and highly seasonal; orographic precipitation generated by mountain topography is crucial to pasture growth (Frachetti 2008). Improved rain and pasture reliability of montane zones enables herders to practice vertical seasonal movements over short geographic distances into alpine summer pastures, where the well-watered forage can sustain larger populations of heavier, more water dependent livestock, as well as the cold-adapted yak (Bos grunniens) and the reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), which are found only in northern Mongolia. Owing to these unique ecological roles, montane regions in Mongolia appear to have been hotspots for the region’s earliest herding economies during the early Bronze Age (Taylor et al in review).

In recent years, consideration of paleoenvironmental proxies alongside archaeological data has revealed close links between climate processes important pastoral social developments in northeast Asia. For example, changes in temperature and precipitation regimes have been linked to the initial transition to herding from hunting and gathering, the adoption of domestic horses, and the formation of nomadic empires. In the modern era, Mongolia is witnessing climate warming at rates exceeding the global average, with summer temperatures already 1.5°C warmer than 20th century levels as of 2001. As climate changes continues to produce extreme warming across Northeast Asia, characterizing the relationship between climate processes and herding life both now and in antiquity is fundamental to understanding the future of pastoral economies that characterize a wide geographic region.

High altitude tundra zones found in northern Mongolia’s Sayan Mountains are particularly threatened by climate warming. Although the early history and prehistory of pastoralism in this region is poorly understood, several lines of evidence suggest that the area could yield crucial insights into the premodern history of domestic reindeer herding. Along the Russian border in Khuvsgul province, lichen-rich tundra and larch forest mountain zones, historically home to wild reindeer, are interdigitated with areas of pasture that have been home to specialized livestock herders for more than 3000 years. Today, the area is the world’s lowest-latitude location (~51° N) where reindeer pastoralism is practiced. Consequently, some scholars have highlighted the region as a promising location for the animal’s initial domestication. Unfortunately, despite a rich archaeological record in the grasslands of the nearby Darkhad area, years of survey and anthropological fieldwork have yielded almost no artifacts or cultural material from the mountain tundra. This scenario leaves researchers with little basis for understanding the prehistory of reindeer pastoralism northern Mongolia, or its relationship to processes of climate and environmental change.

Perennial deposits of snow and ice, known as ice patches, provide a promising avenue for answering these critical questions. These non-glacial accumulations often occur on north-facing slopes in high latitude and high altitude regions. Ice patches are distinguished by the fact that they do not melt completely during the summer months. Because of their perennial nature, ice patches play a crucial role in summer subsistence for many plant and animal taxa, providing thermal relief for wild reindeer,, reprieve from insects, and a source of reliable freshwater and useful plant species for herder and herded alike. In areas where wild reindeer and caribou are abundant, ice patches have served as predictable reindeer hunting grounds around the world in prehistory, e.g. and historic times. The stable, frozen environment presented by ice patches preserves organic artifacts which enter the ice, offering an opportunity to explore a unique material record of high altitude subsistence activities–particularly those related to reindeer. Archaeological finds from arctic and subarctic regions in globally, such as Alaska and Scandinavia, include ‘scare sticks’ used in reindeer drives, projectiles, skis, baskets used to collect berries or snow, and even culturally modified reindeer hide fragments. In cases where non-glacial, perennial ice has remained stable in areas of cultural activity, ice patches have preserved artifacts dating back more than 10,000 years. For these reasons, ice patches in northern Mongolia are likely to retain a signature of premodern subsistence activities at high altitude which might provide new and unique insights into the history of domestic reindeer in Northeast Asia’s lower latitudes.

Read the full article here.

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