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Research on reindeer at the ZBSA

Reindeer mostly live in the tundra but are also familiar with light forests (photograph: M. Wild).

The prehistoric groups associated with the Hamburgian and Ahrensburgian material culture have been characterised as “reindeer hunters” from the 1930s on. This was due to the predominance of reindeer bone and antler among the Lateglacial faunal remains found in connection with artefacts from both traditions, in particular in palaeolakes and kettle-holes in the Almost completely preserved reindeer skeleton from the Ahrensburg tunnel valley (photograph: SSHLM).Ahrensburg tunnel valley close to Hamburg. Although the notion of specialised reindeer hunters has to be challenged – among others because autumn is the only season attested – reindeer undoubtedly played an important role in these people’s economy. Hamburgian and Ahrensburgian hunter-gatherers did not only consume the meat, fat and bone marrow but also used antler as raw material for tools and hunting weapons. Based on ethnographic parallels, we can assume as well that the skin and tendons served for the fabrication of cloths and tents.
For prehistorians, reindeer equally represents a valuable source, a source of information on the environment, hunting methods, technical systems and economy of prehistoric groups. These aspects are investigated by different projects at the ZBSA and in collaboration with scientists from other institutions in several Reindeer half-mandible sampled for stable isotope analyses on tooth enamel (photograph: SSHLM).countries. One project consisting of different components was initially dedicated to the reconstruction of reindeer migrations during the Lateglacial and their impact on the availability of this resource for their Palaeolithic hunters. Finally, it also yielded a whole set of information on the climate and environment they encountered.
The analysis of stable isotopes (strontium, oxygen, carbon) in tooth enamel from mandibles in the Ahrensburg tunnel valley, dated to the Younger Dryas, was carried out by T. Douglas Price and David Meiggs at the University of Madison. It showed that the reindeer herds migrated within the North European Plain, probably along an east-west-oriented axis. In accordance with the observation of four Ahrensburgian cultural layers in the kettle-hole at Stellmoor, isotope analysis on an intra-individual level also indicated that the sampled individuals must have belonged to herds which had stayed in different climatic regimes before they were hunted in the Ahrensburg tunnel valley. They either had diverging migration routes or occupied the same grounds at different moments during the Younger Dryas. Nevertheless, the passage in the Ahrensburg tunnel valley seems to have been a stable element in their annual migration cycle and, hence, a fix point in the hunter-gatherers’ calendar. Cementochronology, applied by Anne Pike-Tay (Vassar College) to the same teeth, showed that it was situated in autumn.

Dorothée Drucker and John Meadows taking samples for stable isotope analyses on dentine collagen and radiocarbon dating (photograph: SSHLM).

In addition to these studies, Dorothée Drucker (Universität Tübingen) investigated the stable isotope (carbon, nitrogen, sulphur) content of the collagen in the tooth roots and the bone of half of the analysed reindeer mandibles as well as in horse and elk bone from the region. Thus, we gained further insight into the habitat of these animals at different moments of the Lateglacial, in particular on the vegetation cover. Tooth wear analysis is carried out on dental casts (photograph: F. Rivals). A clear increase of lichen consumption by the reindeer herds passing through the Ahrensburg tunnel valley from the early to the late Lateglacial could be observed. This joined the results obtained by Florent Rivals (Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social), who reconstructs the palaeodiet of ungulates and, hence, their habitat by tooth microwear and mesowear analyses. At a difference from the isotope analyses, which provide mean values reflecting time periods from one season to several years, tooth wear analysis provides us with a picture of the last weeks before the death of the animals. Through the study of extant reindeer populations in Canada, the influence of lichen on the micro- and mesowear pattern of reindeer teeth could be established and compared to the observations made on molars from Meiendorf and Stellmoor.

Reindeer bone from Stellmoor with shot-in piece of flint (photograph: SSHLM).