The culture bearer


The culture bearer
Long before our Nordic ‘hunter genes’ parted company with the remaining ‘farmer genes’ in central Europe, reindeer were the most important sustenance for our European forefathers. Wild reindeer have been in Norway since the inland ice retreated approximately 10,000 years ago, since which time reindeer provided the existence basis for hunters following the animals as they migrated between the different seasonal grazing lands.

Trapping and trapping methods
In order to obtain facts and knowledge about the migration of the reindeer in the original wild reindeer mountains, extensive historical information has been acquired about the design, scope and age of old trapping systems. Knowledge of the wild reindeer’s migration habits combined with the use of pits, probably provided the most effective trapping method ever. The oldest traces of wild reindeer being hunted in Norway are roughly 10,000 years old Most of the trapping systems we find traces of today, however, date from the period between 500-1350 AD. Today, these pits and their remains are found spread across the Norwegian mountains and continuous efforts are being made to uncover new trapping systems.
 
A distinction is normally drawn between earthen and stone-lined trapping pits. The earthen pits are dug out of the earth and gravel, and have wooden supports on the inside. These pits are found all over the Northern Cap. The stone-lined pits are generally situated higher up in the terrain and the chamber itself is lined with stone. These pits can be completely buried in the ground, partially or completely lined with stone right up to ground level. Individual pits are found, as well as systems consisting of several hundred pits. This type of system can be seen today in the Dovrefjell mountains, where more than 1,200 pits have been mapped between Dombås and Kongsvold.
 
It has been calculated that a reindeer pit had to be approximately 2 metres deep, 2 metres long and 0.7 metres wide. The location of the pits in the terrain was crucial, and guiding fences were used to lead most of the animals into the trapping area. Reindeer trapping also took place in the areas where the animals crossed rivers and lakes, and ancient settlements have been found near such places (e.g. Sumtangen on the Hardangervidda mountain plateau).
 
In recent decades, extensive mass-trapping systems have been found in Southern Norway, and similar systems have also been found in North America. The main principle involved the use of long guiding fences to lead the animals into an enclosure or trap that they could not get out of.  Nature’s own trapping aids have also been used. We see examples of this where crevices and cliffs make formations that have been used for trapping. In addition to the hunting methods mentioned, several bow rests have been found in the Norwegian mountains. These have been found near trapping pits and systems, and also along wild reindeer migration routes.

In southern France, there are a number of famous caves in which our forefathers painted the fauna around them. The Chauvet Cave, however, has two distinctive features. The first is its age; dating shows that the first paintings were made roughly 30,000 years ago. The other unique feature is the amazing paintings of the animal that was the artists’ main source of food. Inside one of the rooms, among the paintings of long-extinct mammoths, cave bears, wild horses, Irish elk, lions and wild cattle, there are some beautiful realistic paintings of the most Norwegian of all Norwegian animals, namely the reindeer. Several archaeological excavations have shown that the inhabitants of these areas lived on reindeer. Reindeer was for a long time their main form of sustenance, in addition to being one of the most important sources of tools and clothes.
 
When the ice retreated after the last Ice Age, the reindeer followed. From then on, the history of wild reindeer and Norwegians has been closely interwoven. Just as our forefathers in Europe were inspired to hunt and trap this resource 30,000 years ago, so the tradition continued in Norway long after the reindeer migrated north after the last Ice Age.

Mapped pits and other trapping systems in Southern Norway (2009). Possible earlier habitats are indicated in light brown (mountainous areas). Download a larger version. Copyright: Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA)