Domestication as Enskilment: Harnessing Reindeer in Arctic Siberia

Robert J. Losey*, Tatiana Nomokonova, Dmitry V. Arzyutov, Andrei V. Gusev, Andreĭ V. Plekhanov, Natalia V. Fedorova, David G. Anderson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Citations (Scopus)
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The study of reindeer domestication provides a unique opportunity to examine how domestication involves more than bodily changes in animals produced through selection. Domestication requires enskilment among humans and animals, and this process of pragmatic learning is dependent on specific forms of material culture. Particularly with the domestication of working animals, the use of such material culture may predate phenotypic and genetic changes produced through selective breeding. The Iamal region of Arctic Siberia is generating an increasingly diverse set of archaeological evidence for reindeer domestication that evidences such processes. Three early sites, Ust’-Polui, Tiutei-Sale I, and Iarte VI, contain artifacts proposed to be parts of headgear worn by transport reindeer, the earliest dating to just over 2000 years ago. Contemporary Nenets reindeer herders scrutinized replicas of these archaeological objects, and comparisons with historic reindeer harness parts from Arctic Russia were also made. Nenets consistently interpreted barbed L-shaped antler pieces from Iamal as parts of headgear for training young reindeer in pulling sleds. Some types of swivels were also interpreted as transport reindeer headgear. Based on these consultations with Nenets and observations of their ongoing reindeer domestication practices, we argue that material things such as headgear, harnesses, and sleds are not merely technological means of using or controlling reindeer in transportation but instead were part of the meshwork within which some reindeer became enskilled to being domestic. Domestication of reindeer and other animals involves ongoing efforts, landscapes, and made things, all of which form the environment within which domestic relationships emerge.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)197–231
Number of pages35
JournalJournal of Archaeological Method and Theory
Issue number1
Early online date12 May 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding for this project was provided by the Wenner-Gren Foundation (SFR1725) to R. Losey, the JPI HUMANOR project (ESRC ES/M011054/1) to D. Anderson, ERC
GRETPOL to D. Arzyutov, and the Russian Foundation for Basic Research to N.Fedorova (18-09-40011). The authors wish to express their gratitude to the Nenets families, the Okotettos and Yaungads, who hosted us during our stay in Iamal, which is greatly appreciated. Special thanks are also offered to the staff of Iamal-Nenets Autonomous District, and the staff of the Iamal-Nenets Regional Museum and Exhibition Complex of I.S. Shemanovskii, Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, and British Museum for providing access to their collections.


  • domestication
  • reindeer
  • enskilment
  • Arctic
  • Siberia
  • material culture
  • WILD
  • Enskilment
  • Domestication
  • Material culture
  • Reindeer
  • DOGS


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