Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere

Caribou and Reindeer

Rangifer tarandus

By Jeremy Trombley

Caribou is the name given to the wild variety of the Rangifer tarandus species which is known as the Reindeer in its domesticated form. There is little difference between reindeer and caribou, except that the reindeer may be slightly smaller, plumper and more tame. In fact, one of the greatest threats to reindeer herders is the passage of wild caribou nearby, as the domesticated reindeer can easily leave their herd and join the caribou. However, for simplicity's sake I will refer to the species primarily as Caribou.

Caribou live all over the arctic region including Scandinavia, Siberia, North America and Greenland. Several subspecies have been identified, and are largely differentiated by the particular area in which they are found. They subsist on a variety of food source, but are primarily dependent on lichens in the winter, a food for which they are well adapted to exploit. Because of the fragility of the organisms upon which they depend, caribou require vast ranges and must travel over extremely long distances to avoid despoiling their territory. Some caribou herds will travel for hundreds of miles to procure food.

Caribou Hunting

Caribou have been hunted for many thousands of years, and their remains are associated with Homo Erectus, archaic Homo Sapiens and Neanderthal sites. During the last Ice Age, caribou would have provided a valuable food and material source for hunting groups living throughout the arctic, and in many remote regions of Asia and North America, their importance continues to this day.

Patterns of exploitation differ by culture as well as by climate. Groups who live in more diverse environments are able to exploit caribou herds as they pass through and rely on other resources when the herd is gone. These groups are also more likely to harvest caribou individually, on the basis of random encounters. On the other hand, groups who live in more desolate regions of the arctic where alternative resources are scarce frequently follow the herds as they migrate and use mass killing techniques to harvest the caribou.

Reindeer Herding

The initial domestication of reindeer is thought to have occurred as a result of declining populations of wild caribou due largely to over-hunting. True domestication is usually dated to about 500 years ago, although human manipulation of caribou herds has been going on for thousands of years. Traditionally, reindeer herding has not been a common practice in North America or Greenland, and is mainly restricted to Old World cultures such as those of Siberia and Scandinavia. However, over the course of the twentieth century, reindeer herding became an important economic activity in North America. The instance of reindeer herding in North America was the introduction of reindeer to Alaska by the Protestant minister Sheldon Jackson. In the 1920s he encouraged members of the Bering Strait Inupiat to take up reindeer herding in order to supplement their diet and provide a stable food source. He even brought Saami herders from northern Scandinavia (Lappland) to help instruct the Alaskan natives on herding reindeer. This practice has continues among this group, but failed to spread to other native groups in North America. However, more recently, large scale reindeer herding has taken hold across northern North America in order to supply the demand for reindeer meat and antlers.


Caribou and reindeer are rarely the exclusive food resource for arctic peoples. Although they are useful, nutritious and easy to exploit, reindeer meat is relatively low in fat, which provides the high caloric diet necessary for survival in the harsh arctic climate. Most caribou hunting and reindeer herding groups, must therefore supplement their diet with other animal meats, usually marine mammals. However, caribou and reindeer still provide a significant source of food and other materials to arctic dwelling peoples.

Various organs, such as the kidneys, and certain cuts of meat, such as the back strap, are more considered to be more valuable due to their high fat content. Bones also provide an added source of food in the form of marrow, which is high in fat and protein. Marrow is the primary ingredient in akutuk or “Eskimo Ice Cream,” which is made by mixing the caribou tallow with berries and snow. Bones are also boiled to produce “bone grease,” another good source of fat and protein. Additionally, the stomach contents of the caribou, which consists of fermented lichens, and grasses which are not otherwise digestible by humans, provide important vitamins and minerals that are difficult to obtain in the arctic. Few groups utilize reindeer milk, but it is the primary ingredient in a special cheese produced in northern Scandinavia.

Aside from food, caribou provide a wide array of necessary materials. Caribou hides are used for clothing, cordage and to construct shelters. Depending on the time of year in which the caribou was harvested and the type of caribou (cow, calf, bull), the hide may be applied to different purposes. For example, those harvested during the late summer or fall are often best suited for clothing manufacture, and cows and calves were the preferred source of hides. Bones and antlers are important for the construction of tools and weapons. Today, the largest commercial outlet for reindeer herds is the sale of antlers in East Asia, where they are ground up and sold as a stimulant and aphrodisiac.


Circum-Arctic Rangifer Monitoring and Assessment network (CARMA)

Project Caribou

Yesner, David R. “Caribou and Reindeer.” The Cambridge World History of Food. Ed. Kenneth F. Kiple & Kriemhild Coneè Ornelas. Cambridge University Press, 2000. 480-489.