Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Mobility and Technology: Understanding the Vulnerability of Two Groups of Nomadic Pastoralists to Reindeer Losses (1)

Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Mobility and Technology: Understanding the Vulnerability of Two Groups of Nomadic Pastoralists to Reindeer Losses (1)

Article excerpt


Between the nineteenth and early twentieth century reindeer mortality, particularly that caused by outbreaks of Siberian anthrax (sibirka). was proportionately higher among Komi herds than amongst those of the Nenets, despite both groups pasturing animals in close proximity to one another, principally within the Bol'shezemel'skaya tundra. Intriguingly, to escape infected land caused by these outbreaks, the Komi emigrated to new regions whereas the Nenets appeared to be relatively unaffected. However, upon closer examination of historical data, it is apparent that proportionately the Nenets lost track of twice as many reindeer compared to the Komi. Previous studies, despite providing little if any concrete evidence, suggested that characteristics of the Komi reindeer herding system (technology) made their reindeer more susceptible to sickness than those of the Nenets. This study, which involved anthropological field research as well as the use of historical data and literature, focused on analysing the following characteristics of reindeer herding technology between the two groups: (a) veterinary knowledge (b) frequency of herd observation, (c) frequency of movement, (d) pattern of pasturing. It was found that: veterinary knowledge between Komi and Nenets was commensurate and thus cannot be used as an explanatory factor; Komi herds were more frequently observed than those of the Nenets: Komi moved more frequently than the Nenets and spent less time at encampments; and the migration routes of Komi were longer and their pasturing corridors narrower than those of the Nenets. Differences in herd observation explained the differences in lost reindeer between the Komi and Nenets. The Komi were less able to identify and treat sick reindeer due to more frequent movements, larger herd sizes and less frequent corralling of the main productive herd compared to the Nenets. The length of migration routes and narrowness of pasturing corridors reduced the Komis' pasturing flexibility and thus their ability to avoid infected pastures compared to the Nenets. These results are relevant to both historical and contemporary herding practices.

Keywords: reindeer herding, technology, epizootic outbreaks, Siberian anthrax, Komi, Nenets, mortality

Statement of the Problem

There is considerable historical evidence that Komi reindeer herding has been more susceptible to disease (particularly Siberian anthrax) than other nomadic reindeer herding and that the frequency and magnitude of outbreaks of Siberian anthrax were higher in places where Komi reindeer herding was practised (with the exception of the Kola Peninsula where quarantine had been introduced). Hypotheses developed to explain this phenomenon by Islavin (1847), Kercelli (1909a,b), Charnolussky (1930a,b) and Konakov and Kotov (1989, 1991) focused on the following four explanatory themes:

1. the Komis' reluctance to learn veterinary knowledge and skills from the Nenets;

2. the Komis' large herd size being more susceptible to epizootic outbreaks, due to faster spread of disease in large herds and reduced 'reaction' time to deal with an outbreak;

3. the Komi's large herd size and 'intensive' reduction in lichen abundance in pastures leading to the weakening of the animals;

4. the Komis' large herd size increasing competition for resources (i.e. more time competing and less time foraging) and thus weakening the reindeer and making them more susceptible to disease.

Little evidence has been provided to support any of the above hypotheses. This paper focuses on investigating three questions: (1) Why were Komi herds more susceptible to epizootic outbreaks (particularly Siberian anthrax) than those of the Nenets, despite sharing the same tundra? (2) What are the main differences between the Komi and the Nenets systems of reindeer herding? (3) Are there any peculiarities of the Komi system of reindeer herding (technology) that make reindeer more susceptible to disease? …

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