On choice, fate, and more of the same.

One thing that I’ve always found fascinating is religion and how beliefs differ, or don’t, around the world. The Ancient Aliens enthusiast in me wants to see ancient astronauts in the story of Hovki. Could it be that the midsummer flight to the sun is actually referring to an alien spacecraft? After, there’s nothing in that legend that says it wasn’t aliens. Proof positive? I think so. I do wonder how this idea of flying reindeer got so popular, though. Whether it’s on Santa’s sleigh or in the legends of Siberian nomads, reindeer always seem to abandon their hooves for wings, so to speak.

That aside, there was one idea that came up a few times within the reading and I thought it was worth touching on. The Eveny legends tell of a time when animals (Specifically reindeer) were offered domestication as a choice, a gift, in much the same way that humans are offered the gift of knowledge in various myths. Knowing, of course, that these are myths, it still struck me as a very interesting way to look at our history, which has understandably been human-centric. It’s a mythical characteristic normally reserved for humans but given in this case to reindeer; choices are things people make, not animals. Perhaps that is what I found most intriguing about the Eveny peoples; it was the blurring of the line between the human and the animal, between the physical and the spiritual—distinctions that are obvious and well established in our own culture. There is a connectedness about the way they see the world that is, frankly, beautiful. It reminded me very much of the way Native Americans would view nature, almost as this collective entity of which the human is only one part.

But there is something else about the Eveny, something much subtler, that I think plays into that—Even as I write this, I’m not sure how to go about discussing it, but it will bother me for a while if I don’t try. I’ll get to that in a little bit. The Grandmother on page 277 says “There is a God, who ordains our fate.” The hunter, a few pages before, says that on more than one occasion, animals have been sacrificed to save his life where his should have been lost. Different people are certainly different, but cultures generally share similar values. The question I pose to you is this; isn’t there a bit of discord in that? If someone is meant to die, they will die, and if they are meant to live, they will live. This is the rigid definition of fate that many of us are familiar with; one cannot simply appease fate with the sacrifice of another. The way Vitebsky writes about it, it seems as though the Eveny view fate as less of a law and more of a force—in the way that small objects gravitate around large ones. Fate is the earthbound, the terrestrial, and we are drawn, but not tied to it. This is key, it means that we can escape fate: but how? In the case of the hunter, there is a sentience to nature that can even drive away fate. That can save him even when he should die. There is something extremely powerful about that. Fate is a question central to all people, it unifies us in its scope, and that single question of self determination is the wind that fills the sails of so many religions. The uniqueness of the Eveny is simply this: the idea that nature is stronger than fate. It’s the pastoralism of the Eveny shaping their beliefs. I don’t know how to even begin to dissect that.

That was a bit of a rant and I really hope it made sense/was on the mark, but for now I’ll try to circle back into domestication with a relevant question for Tuesday. Vitebsky briefly brings up this idea (pp. 25-26) of Russian scholars who believe that the “domestic” variant of the reindeer is actually descended from a different ancestor than its wild counterparts. The modern wild reindeer, they say, can’t be domesticated. This seems to mirror Jared Diamond’s own views on the subject, namely that there are species that, due to inherent and immutable characteristics, can or cannot be domesticated. This made me think back to last week’s discussion and our dissenting opinions and it made me curious: which view of domestication is more popular? Of course, popularity =/= truthfulness, but still. My personal opinion, as I’ve hinted in the past, is that we have resources and capabilities today (Technology is often penicillin to problems that were once considered unsolvable. Think tuberculosis/consumption, which has been reduced from a death sentence to an inconvenience in the first world) that our ancestors did not, and before we write something off as impossible it’s important to tackle it with everything in our toolbox. Whether it’s worthwhile to do that is another question entirely. I’m not even saying that I disagree with Diamond, I just don’t think enough has been done in the present day to validate this view.

Divination or Déjà vu?

This weeks reading from Vitebsky’s The Reindeer People falls into a slightly different category from the other pieces we have covered so far this semester. It wasn’t a compilation of research and studies that were constructed into a foundation for some overarching idea about the origins and definition of domestication like we saw with Diamond and Bulliet. It was simply a story. Vitebsky discovered a group of extraordinary people who were so unique from the everyday masses, and he set out to tell their tale. He definitely has his own opinions and theories weaved into the web that is the reindeer people’s lifebut for the most part he allows his experiences to speak for themselves. As a result, I found it very easy to just sit back and enjoy myself while I read about the Eveny and their exceptional way of life.

There were a plethora of intriguing ideas throughout the portions of this book that we covered, but, for the sake of a post that is shorter than the work itself, I decided to focus on just one of these topics. I thought it was fascinating how the Eveny people placed so much value and faith in the actions of animals, both wild and domestic. The concept of Bayanay and of the close spiritual connection of the people and the animals and the land and even possessions like knives and guns seemed like such a foreign idea to me at first glance. However, as I continued reading I began to see many parallels between the Eveny’s cultural ideas and our own. This may seem like a strange connection at first but I will do my best to explain myself.

The first interesting overlap that hit me was in connection to our modern cinema. The whole idea of Bayanay and ever-present spirits is very similar to the views of the Na’vi people of Pandora in the movie Avatar. I thought this was a very interesting connection because in the movie the idea of our “connected-ness” to nature was portrayed a strange and foreign, yet the Eveny people are an example of human beings who have extremely similar views on nature. As I compared the movie and the book, I began to see so many similarities between the two that I started to wonder if maybe Vitebsky and James Cameron had gotten together at some point wrote the movie together haha. I won’t go into too much detail about it all because I feel like I am straying off topic, but just to provide some examples; the mining of unobtainium on Pandora vs. the mining of precious metals by Russian miners in the Eveny territories of Siberia, the close ties of people to animals which is taken so far as to be a literal connection between the Na’vi and the species of Pandora when they intertwine their braids with the animals the are riding, and the pressures of invading individuals on maintaining an established culture (communist Russians for the Eveny and humans for the Na’vi).

Another interesting thought I had had to do with the Eveny use of reading into animal symbols to see the future. There were many examples throughout the text of Eveny people  seeing strange behaviors of animals as omens for things to come. For example, Kesha tells a story of a swan landing on a lake in front of him when he was out hunting one day which he later took to symbolize that he would meet his wife Lyuda. At the time, there was no way that Kesha could have known what the strange swan sighting was meant to symbolize, if anything at all, but it so happened that an event in the future (the meeting of his future wife Lyuda) made the symbolism of the swan evident. I couldn’t help but think of a fortune cookie when I read this story. A fortune cookie is a seemingly meaningless phrase at first, but as the future unfolds, an event often occurs that seems to validate the fortune. For example, you might get a fortune that says “A pleasant surprise is in store for you” which makes no sense until your old friend from grade school surprises you with a visit a couple weeks later. This struck me because it shows a sort of similarity between our culture and that of the Eveny people, when on the surface there doesn’t seem to be anything even remotely similar between the two groups lifestyles. I continued to think about this concept and a thought provoking question hit me. Do these animal signs and fortunes that we come across in everyday life cause us to act different subconsciously as a means of fulfilling whatever it is that we think the sign represents? Or to word it another way, do we make different choices than we might normally have because we have a lingering feeling in the back of our heads from the strange swan we saw or open-ended fortune we read last week? In relation to the book, there is a story about a girl, I can’t remember her name at the moment, who finds an Eveny knife and is told by those around her that she has actually found a husband because the knife often symbolizes this. It turns out that she does end up marrying an Eveny man in the future. To tie this into my question, does the fact that she found an Eveny knife make her more likely to give Eveny men more of a chance in the future, while at the same time blocking out attempts by Russian or Sakha men? I suppose this wasn’t really the type of question Vitebsky was trying to get us to ask but I thought it might be an interesting discussion all the same.

The last two parallels that I thought of between us and the Eveny peoples had to do with their ability to see the future in dreams and their lack of telling people about a good omen in a dream for fear that it won’t come true. In relation to the first parallel, I think that the ability to see the future in a very ambiguous form, like in Varya’s story about how she dreamt that she was walking next to a river in a strange place with her sister-in-law making a garland of flowers which ended up coming true when she was brought to see her dead brother, could be described in our society as déjà vu. The idea that you have already experienced the present at some point in the past happens to many people, and this may be what Varya is describing here. Maybe we all have some deep connection with nature and the Eveny people have just realized it to a larger extent than others which has led them to their different way of life. Finally, my second parallel about the fear of spoiling a good omen seems to relate to the idea we have about not “jinxing” things. In a conversation Vitebsky had with one of his many Eveny friends, the idea of keeping a good omen secret until it comes to pass is brought up. Vitebsky is told that telling someone else of a good omen will cause it not to come true. This is similar to when someone today predicts a positive outcome and is told “Don’t jinx it!” No matter whether you live in a cabin in Siberia or an apartment in Blacksburg, there is a natural fear of spoiling a good thing by voicing it too early. Are we all subconsciously worried that we will offend Bayanay if we get too cocky?

Well, I may have gotten a little carried away there and I apologize if I swayed off of the domestication topic, but I think we have all come to realize that nothing is really too far off the mark in this class, haha. To summarize the meanderings above, I just think that maybe at heart, we really aren’t all that different from the Eveny people, we just have a different way of explaining natures phenomena.

On Folktales

Vitebsky described two Eveny folktales in the reading.  Both had to do with how reindeer and humans came to have the relationship that they do.  In one, a woman lures reindeer closer and closer because they like the salt in her urine.  Eventually the woman is able to touch them and milk them, thus beginning centuries of human reindeer relationships.

The second folktale is more interesting to me.  In that one, humans help create reindeer by birthing them from trees.  The reindeer get older and have two calves.  Eventually the reindeer are attacked by wolves and the older reindeer cower in fear and call on the God Hovki for help.  The younger reindeer kill the wolves with their antlers and Hovki asks why the older reindeer could not do it themselves.  Their answer was that they had been born with human help and now needed human help to survive.  Hovki sent the older reindeer to live with humans the younger reindeer into the wild, never to mingle together again, thus explaining the difference between wild reindeer and domestic reindeer.

Folktales and folk practices are important because they serve as a link to a time for which few other records exist.  I’ve taken a class on Russian folktales and practices in general before and the light they can shed on early history and religious beliefs is interesting.  Very little is known about Slavic pagan belief is known, except for information that could be gleaned from folk tales and practices.  For example, a recurring character in Russian folklore in St. Elijah.  St. Elijah is a Christian figure, but the way he behaves has led scholars to believe that St. Elijah is a character from older Slavic myth, Perun the Thunder God, with a veneer of Christianity.  Scholars are able to learn a great deal about Perun and other pre-Christian Slavic beliefs based on folktales.

My point with that bit of unrelated knowledge is that the Eveny folktales might tell us something about how reindeer actually first came to be domesticated.  The two folktales in the introduction have a few elements in common that also line up with arguments that Bulliet made and with a point that we have talked about in class.

In the first folktale, domestication is based on a mutually beneficial relationship between reindeer and humans.  The reindeer wanted the salt the woman could give them and the woman wanted the reindeer milk.  This vision of domestication lines up with Bulliet’s idea that domestication was not a process that early humans discovered and mastered, but instead was more of an accident.  The woman in the folktale didn’t even know that the reindeer was useful until after it was comfortable around her.

The second folktale is similar.  The reindeer want to go with humans because humans can protect them from danger.  The humans can use the reindeer as pack animals and the hundred other things that reindeer are good for.  It is even more interesting because humans don’t really play any part in the domestication aspect of the folktale.  In class we have discussed the idea of animals “choosing” to become domesticated because it is useful for them.  The second folktale is interesting because the reindeer literally chose to go to the humans when Hovki asks them.

I don’t mean to say that these folktales should be taken as literal, just that the ideas presented in them may not be so farfetched.  The first one paints the picture of a mutually beneficial relationship that, I think, we have decided is a good basis for domestication.  The second describes the split between wild and domestic reindeer.  It doesn’t seem impossible to me that older reindeer would have been easier to domesticate, it seems fairly likely.  I think these folktales can give a lot of insight into the early relationship between humans and reindeer.

Feeling the Magic of Reindeer?

Never before had I thought to consider ancient or current civilizations who live(ed) in the quite large geographic regions home to reindeer. Maybe it’s something about the deep cold or seasonal changes seemingly different than my own. Nevertheless, I am astonished by the meanings of their traditions and the pervasiveness of the reindeer in the human cultures which thrived there and around the globe.

The reindeer process of domestication at the beginning seems to be an impossible puzzle. How could no word from the language be able to encompass both domesticated and wild reindeer? How could there be no evidence of successfully domesticating reindeer in the present? The author presents two theories. (1) Domestication may have happened further south in conjunction with other animals or (2) could have occurred with the Tungus people living east of lake Baikal. The only other time I’ve heard of Lake Baikal was watching the movie, “The Way Back” with the characterization of Siberia and the area there as the only true prison. It was reindeer that allowed thousands of miles to be colonized. Does having a partner in nature help humans survive in that nature through unconscious increased trust?

In previous blog posts about milk I have been dismissing the idea that the domestication of animals could have been for other uses than food. What else is a more basic need than a reliable food supply as an argument for domestication emergence? No reindeer were kept on a large scale for eating until after 1600 but were domesticated 3,000 years ago.

The trip the author made to Sebyan pained an interesting picture of a different culture paradigm founded on the surrounding nature. It was not the mileage but the, “capriciousness of these mountains that made Sebyan so inaccessible.” Despite the harsh landscape, the village was made and life within it was rich and complex. By using the materials in the harsh landscape the people respected the harshness and could then happily exist within it. To what degree are our ideas changed when humans completely alter their landscapes to an unrecognizable human utility form? Or is it just a consequence of the landscape being too harsh to completely control? Can it be said that the reindeer is a unique domesticated animal because of its environment?

“The species wavers between timidity and curiosity, poised paradoxically either to flee or explore.”

To think possible that the stay in a remote Russian log-cabin village in the middle of the arctic tundra would feel like a metropolis is to rethink how our relationship with nature may dictate how we live our lives and how we form relationships with the animals in them.

It’s sadly logical to understand why Russian policies would have tried to prevent the perpetual migration of human settlements following reindeer since it was seen as a “backward” idea. Altering this fundamental relationship of responding to the environment though nomadism or migrating together in annual cycles is still a central problem to reindeer herders today.

A beginning section concluded beautifully in the hopes that his children one day may have reindeer of their own. This possibility so remote due to the structure of communist society but, was not too much for Vitebsky to make clear his feeling that human partnership with reindeer should be part of life. It began easier to understand why such culture, tradition and religion surrounded the reindeer.  The more I read the more I believed they were a little bit magical.

This photo I found here with the caption, “No child of the tundra Yukaghirs ever falls out of these saddles. Reindeer are entrusted even with cradles containing young babies.”

I could consider how the domestication of reindeer at first seems to be somewhat different than other animals due to the spiritual connection. Was this made possible by my own cultural heritage of magical reindeer of Christmas? Could it be true that other domesticated animals were understood at this deep spiritual level too? And, perhaps, has that has allowed for their successful domestication? If so, could it explain why we cannot achieve such a result (the domestication process) with a focus on genetic traits and evolutionary science void of human connection to the individual animal itself?

Perhaps we may never know.

For now all I can say is this spiritual connection and trust reminds me of Christmas nights spent as a child in the snowy Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

“If The Reindeer Do Not Come”

Domestication as a mutualism

This week, our readings returned to an idea discussed in week 1‘s readings: that of domestication as a close mutualism. However, the perspective presented in The Reindeer People is a different one than those presented in Energy and Ecosystems and Evolutionary History because, in The Reindeer People, author Piers Vitebsky is describing an actual population, the Eveny people, with whom he has lived and who he has long studied.

The Eveny people, native to Siberia, have lived intimately with domesticated reindeer for 1000s of years. They are semi-nomadic in that they follow the reindeer as they migrate on their natural routes. They rely on the reindeer for transport and food, and in turn, the reindeer rely on them for protection. They Eveny need the reindeer as much as the reindeer need the Eveny. In the concluding chapter, Vitebsky quotes an Eveny song with the line:

“If the reindeer do not come
If the herd turns away
If the reindeer do not come
There will be no more Eveny!”

The Eveny obviously recognize their need for the reindeer and treat the reindeer with according respect. They do not fence the reindeer in and then mass-produce them for food, as we have with cattle and swine in this country. The dual nature of their relationship with the reindeer–both as a food source and as a mount and beast of burden–makes their relationship more complicated still. If you have established a bond with an animal in which you trust it as a mount, you are unlikely to want to eat that animal.

Perhaps the Eveny have a relationship with their reindeer that is similar to the relationship that early humans had with their domestic animals. They respect and even love and worship their animals and then eat them out of necessity.

Selection, domestication, and genetic variability

The domestic reindeer of the Eveny people lives side-by-side with the wild reindeer of siberia. However, the Eveny believe that domestic reindeer are entirely different animals, originating from different stock (according to legend) than wild reindeer and have two distinct words in their native language for wild and domesticated reindeer. Attempts have been made to tame wild reindeer, even calves, without any success.

Vitebsky basically implies that wild and domestic reindeer are two different strains and are genetically distinct. I did a bit of looking around and couldn’t find any population genetics papers to back that up. However, I would be willing to believe that this is simply because no one has done any specific research on reindeer genetics.

Genetic variability is a measure of differences in genotypes of individuals in a population (or, in more simple language, it is an indicator of how similar individuals are, genetically). Genetic variability is what allows us to select for different traits in breeding populations of animals. If we have high genetic variability, we can select for a trait for many generations and make progress (if we are selecting for heavy body weight, for example, the animals will get bigger every generation if genetic variability is high enough). Behavior (including tractability) is a genetic trait, so it follows that populations with higher genetic variability should be more domesticate-able. Domesticate-ability should be a quantitative trait–not just something we speculate about, but something we can actually measure.

I wonder how genetically divergent domestic and wild reindeer are. all we know is that they can interbreed and that domestic reindeer can go wild, but wild reindeer cannot become domestic. I would postulate that they came from a common ancestral population, but diverged long ago. The more tractable reindeer (all of them) could have taken up an intimate mutualism with humans and since have been selected for domestic traits. The wild reindeer, on the other hand, were those selected for their unwillingness to take up  an intimate mutualism with humans and have continued, each year, to be selected for this trait. If the original population, particularly the wild population, didn’t possess that much genetic variability (or if variability has decreased since the original divergence occurred, perhaps because of some sort of population bottleneck), it would be difficult to successfully domesticate the current wild population.

Clearly, regardless of original cause, there are two distinct strains of reindeer. I would be really interested to see a genetic analysis of the two strains, to see genetic differences between and among individuals of the two populations.


To be quite honest, I’m at a bit of a loss here. I am not religious and I have never been religious. I only understand religion in the context of “well, I can tell that it is very important to you.” However, I’ll do my best to understand the religious aspect of the Eveny people’s relationship with the reindeer.

I think that the spiritual connection that the Eveny believe that they share with reindeer stems from the fact that they rely on the reindeer for their livelyhood–they ride reindeer, eat reindeer, and live with reindeer year-round. Thus, because they rely so completely on reindeer, they have formed religious beliefs surrounding them. Of course, if you depend on a herd of animal, it is bad if one dies. It then logically follows, I guess, that this “bad thing,” bodes ill for your future and health–that is, it is a bad omen.


I guess that is has become clear in this blog post where my area of expertise are and where the holes in my expertise are. I really enjoyed the readings for this week and hope to, in my spare time, read the rest of The Reindeer People. I also hope to learn more about how the domestic and wild strains of reindeer came to be and about the genetic differences between the strains. This human/animal relationship, more than any other that we have discussed so far, is a fascinating one, because of the co-dependence between the humans and the reindeer. Reindeer have domesticated the Eveny people as much as the Eveny people have domesticated the reindeer and they are live together in a mutually beneficial way.