Extant caribou (Rangifer tarandus) to reconstruct Paleo mobility during the Magdalenian in Southwestern France

Lay summary written by Ana Galán López. Read the full paper here: http://doi.org/10.5334/oq.106

The importance of the reindeer (known as caribou in America) as a resource through the ages is indubitable. It was the primary prey for many prehistoric human groups, and still is today for groups that inhabit northern Canada, Alaska or Eastern Siberia. Since the 1950s, the extent of reindeer migration has been a recurring issue in prehistoric archaeology. During the Ice Ages, reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) was one of the key and emblematic species of the European Palaeolithic and especially the Magdalenian which corresponds to the last Palaeolithic culture. The high frequency of reindeer remains in French archaeological sites (our area of study) during that time (with local and seasonal variations), suggests that hunter-gatherers were highly dependent upon reindeer.

The degree of reindeer mobility therefore appears to be a key question in order to be able to understand the adaptive choices of the Palaeolithic human groups in relation to environmental constraints and the availability of other potential prey. Despite different attempts to reconstruct the migratory behaviour of Palaeolithic reindeer, there was no consensus on the extent of their movements in the south of France. Thus, our study, using an actualistic approach, carried out on metapodial bones and phalanges of caribou from extant caribou populations with distinct migratory behaviours, successfully identified two major types of migration: the first corresponds to mobile reindeer, which cover distances greater than 200 km and the second to weakly migratory reindeer that move for distances of less than 200 km. Our results are from the combination of traditional linear measurements and machine learning algorithms, whose recent application to archaeological field is turning out to be a very effective tool for classification. Thus, the consideration of extant reindeer and the implementation of new tools in order to create a
referential framework can bring decisive advances on this issue.

Example of linear measurements taken on caribou metapodial bones for this study. Picture credit: A. Galán López.

Finally, let me use this opportunity to make a point about the caribou’s situation in North America (place of origin of our reference sample). Nowadays, some reindeer subspecies are endangered, and the species as a whole is itself threatened by global warming which modifies its migratory behaviour, makes it more vulnerable to zoocenoses and decreases the number of individuals within populations. Some of them, especially Woodland Caribou populations, have experienced severe declines primarily due to human habitat disturbance. In some places, the problem has become so critical that several herds are in danger of extinction, such as those from the Gaspésie, Pipmuacan, Val-d´Or and Charlevoix in Québec, Canada (the latter two have 7 and 17 individuals, respectively). Our role as archaeologists who work with actualistic approaches gives us the opportunity to not just study the past, but also to learn about the current status of species. Then, we can raise awareness about the endangered situation that many of them find themselves in, and we can promote their conservation, avoiding their extinction in the near future.

Full paper: Galán López, A., Costamagno, S. and Burke, A., 2022. Osteometric Study of Metapodial Bones and Phalanges as Indicators of the Behavioural Ecology of Modern Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) and Implications for Reconstruction of Paleo Mobility. Open Quaternary, 8(1), p.8. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/oq.106

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