Acquisition of natural resources at high latitudes

Arctic peoples, who live off the land as opposed to the maritime food chain, have always had to contend with uncertainty in relation to their future food supplies. The unpredictable environmental fluctuations in the Arctic have profound effects on plant and animal populations. Polar animal populations constantly run the gamut from super-abundance to near extinction and back. The human race's intelligent provisioning for future needs is a particular advantage in combating the inherent variation of arctic ecosystems. Man's unique ability to anticipate the future is particularly relevant in the Arctic. The hunter-gatherer cultures of the far north are obliged to store food for the winter and so have had to develop a large number of social attributes, such as a control of property, scheduling, and coordinated labour, to a degree that is not required in tropical or temperate climates (Ingold, 1982).

The acquisition of natural resources in the Arctic has two fundamental aspects that distinguish the exploitation of this habitat from boreal and temperate regions. First is the need for rapid harvesting. For the early hunting peoples, short runs in the annual cycle of available game meant that sometimes a few weeks or even days had to provide hunters, their families and the entire community with their food supplies for possibly a whole year. Secondly, the uncertainty of the arctic environment makes any prediction of when future resources may become available unreliable. Land hunters do not have the certainty that exists with marine sources (such as annual salmon runs) that next year's hunting will be successful. Many traditional arctic hunting techniques were therefore designed to seize an entire herd or stock of animals when it was encountered so as to obtain a maximum catch. Consequently, some means of food storage is essential in these situations (Ingold, 1982; Krupnik, 1993).

For arctic plants there are similar risks that the availability of resources may fail in certain years and a strategy that conserves carbohydrate reserves is essential. Snow cannot be guaranteed to melt every year and there may be many patches where the underlying vegetation will have to endure one or more years of uninterrupted snow cover. In some years, even when the snow does melt, the summer season may lack the warmth that is necessary to provide a positive carbon balance. A notable conservation strategy that is found in arctic flowering plants is a high photosynthetic rate coupled with an ability to store enough carbohydrate in their perennating organs. In established plants this can ensure survival even when there is a total failure to make any carbon gain due to one or more failed growing seasons (see Chapter 3).

Since the demise of the Pleistocene megafauna reindeer have always been the most important animal for the aboriginal peoples of the Arctic, both in the past for hunting communities, and for the present day herders of the far north of Eurasia. The remarkable ability of reindeer to survive on lichens and mosses gives them unsurpassed advantage in the conversion of vegetation into flesh. Just when reindeer hunting gave way to reindeer herding is difficult to date with any precision due to a lack of reliable historical resources. A distinction also has to be made between domestication of the reindeer and the later development of large-scale intensive herding, events which appear to have been separated by several hundred years (Krupnik, 1993).

One clear date is, however, recorded. The Norwegian chieftain Ottar from Halogoland in northern Norway is recorded as having visited the Anglo-Saxon royal court of King Alfred in England in c. AD 890 (Meriot, 1984). During his visit he gave King Alfred an account of life in the north of Norway which provides a remarkable insight into arctic life in the ninth century. Ottar said that he owned a herd of 600 domesticated reindeer. Visible evidence of the wealth of this marginal region of Europe can be seen in the reconstruction of the ancient Longhouse at Borg in the Lofoten islands (part of Halogoland), a chieftain's dwelling dating from c. AD 700 (Fig. 11.10).

It is not until the time of Russian contacts with the northern aboriginal peoples in the 1600s that there is any further written evidence of small-scale reindeer herding being part of a complex system dominated by hunting and fishing, as prevalent among the inhabitants of the Eurasian tundra. Such a way of life was practised by the Sami of the Kola Peninsula in the west, the Nenets of the Taymyr Peninsula, and extended to the nomadic Chukchis at the eastern limits of the Asiatic Arctic. The Chukchi are the largest group of the northeastern Palaeoasiatics and are most probably the descendants of the earliest reindeer breeding nomads to move northward toward the North Pacific coast. Another century was to elapse, however, before there is evidence of extensive reindeer herding. The 1700s saw the beginning of a significant growth in reindeer stocks, with the onset of this change taking place virtually simultaneously in the western and eastern fringes of the Eurasian Arctic (Krupnik, 1993). As these domestic stocks grew the hunting of wild reindeer virtually disappeared.

The eighteenth century was one of the coldest periods of the Little Ice Age. This would have provided a climate in which reindeer might be expected to flourish. Reindeer are poorly adapted to high summer temperatures. If the temperature rises above 10 °C

Fig. 11.10 Reconstruction of the Longhouse at Borg in the Lofoten islands (part of Halogoland), a chieftain's dwelling dating from c. AD 700, showing the exterior and interior.

reindeer are noticeably uncomfortable and when temperatures reach 15 °C the animals suffer various physiological disorders. Under such conditions reindeer fail to thrive in the short summer season and do not make the gain in body weight that is essential for successful overwintering.

Warm dry summers are also disadvantageous for the lichens and mosses that make up a large part of the reindeer diet. The lichens become brittle and in consequence are more easily damaged by reindeer trampling. The danger of fire also increases and many decades are required for recovery. At the height of the Little Ice Age northern summers were marked in many regions by cool moist conditions which would have been ideal for both the reindeer and the growth of their fodder. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that this period saw a sustained increase in the size of domesticated herds (Krupnik, 1993).

The apparent end of the Little Ice Age signals an uncertain future for reindeer herding. In Russia the rain belts are moving north and there is a noticeable tendency for the climate in the western regions of northern Siberia to become more oceanic (see Section 5.2, Fig. 5.6). This will favour the growth of lichens and mosses. Unfortunately, there is also a downside to oceanic conditions in relation to winter conditions. Milder winters can result in periods when warmer weather intrudes for short periods into the Arctic. This can deposit rain on frozen ground which then becomes encased in ice, with the result that the vegetation becomes inaccessible to the reindeer and remains this way until the following spring. Such events are catastrophic for both wild and herded reindeer and bring about dramatic population reductions (Figs. 11.11-11.12).

Herds that are close to the tundra-taiga interface can possibly avoid the worst effects of this catastrophe by migration into the forests and feeding on the lichens hanging from tree branches. In the High Arctic, however, native reindeer do not have this alternative source ofarboreal lichens. During the winter of1993-4 the reindeer population in the Brogger Peninsula (Spitsbergen 78° 55' N) fell from 360 individuals to less than 80. Despite this 77% population reduction the reindeer have shown themselves able to recover gradually from this diminution in their numbers and by 1998 the Brogger Peninsula population had regained approximately half their pre-1994 population (Aanes etal, 2000).

Fig. 11.11 The population development of Svalbard reindeer on Breggerhalveya since their introduction to the peninsula in 1978 to 1998. Numbers are from annual counting of reindeer during April. (Reproduced with permission from Aanes et al, 2000.)

Many high arctic plant populations are highly resistant to ice encasement and the consequent imposition of long periods of oxygen deprivation (anoxia). The ability of even the shoots and leaves to withstand total anoxia is a distinct feature of high arctic populations of some native plant species, and is in contrast to populations of the same species from further south which are not anoxia tolerant (Crawford et al., 1994).

Human occupation of the inland tundra by its aboriginal peoples is therefore inescapably linked with the plant productivity of this region. As already noted (Section 5.1) the tundra-steppe of the late Pleistocene was a more productive environment than the tundra of the late Holocene. It would not have been possible for mammoth to have survived on the lichen-moss communities that support reindeer populations today.

In the Eurasian Arctic the north-south extent of the tundra as measured from the shores of the Arctic Ocean to the northern fringes of the boreal forest varies from west to east. In the western Timan district it has a latitudinal extension of 150-200 km while in the eastern regions from the Bolshaya Zemlya tundra to the northern Trans Urals it can be as much as 450-600 km from north to south. Still further east in the Chukotka Peninsula the tundra zone is only 50 to 100 km deep (see Fig. 5.3). Where the tundra zone is narrow, lengthy east-west migrations are necessary and therefore the

Fig. 11.12 The Spitsbergen reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus) belong to a distinct subspecies that is endemic to Spitsbergen where they are the most northerly cervid population in the world. The animals are small (approximately 150 cm high) and have short legs and a short head. They are more closely related to the Canadian caribou (reindeer) than to the Scandinavian or Siberian reindeer (see Fig. 2.6). When the tundra becomes encased in ice after the re-freezing of melted snow, grazing becomes impossible and many reindeer die (see Fig. 11.11).

Fig. 11.12 The Spitsbergen reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus) belong to a distinct subspecies that is endemic to Spitsbergen where they are the most northerly cervid population in the world. The animals are small (approximately 150 cm high) and have short legs and a short head. They are more closely related to the Canadian caribou (reindeer) than to the Scandinavian or Siberian reindeer (see Fig. 2.6). When the tundra becomes encased in ice after the re-freezing of melted snow, grazing becomes impossible and many reindeer die (see Fig. 11.11).

Chukchi reindeer hunters have a longer annual migration route as they move further into continental Siberia. The length of the Chukchi reindeer herders' annual migration increases from 50 to 100 km in the Chuckchi Peninsula to 200 to 400 km in the narrow tundra belt in the western Chaun tundra (see map Fig. 11.6). As the availability of pasture is reduced so is the population density of the individual herding peoples. Among the European Nenets, population densities, as estimated in the former USSR, varied between 0.025 and 0.038 people per square kilometre, while the eastern Chukchi had a lower density of 0.008 to 0.013 (Krupnik, 1993).

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