Around 17,000 years ago, someone had a creative impulse – or perhaps was commissioned by their clan or maybe someone of influence – to carve a depiction of a bull and cow reindeer. For the people of the Late Upper Palaeolithic reindeer were a vital source of food, clothing and toolmaking materials. Survival depended on in-depth understanding of the herd’s behaviour and movements within the annual round. It’s no surprise then that the creator was sufficiently familiar with seasonal variations in the animal’s coat to painstakingly inscribe highly specific markings indicative of autumn – and therefore the rut. Perhaps then the piece invoked circular time, continuity – and the fertility of both the tribe and the creature it depended on for survival.
We’ll never know if the ‘Swimming Reindeer’ (as it’s labelled in the British Museum) had a societal function or was just an individual’s expression of their universal view – like the beautiful figurines carved much more recently from walrus ivory by Inuit caribou hunters. However, this particular work of art, magicked from a piece of mammoth ivory, was found not in the Arctic Circle but in a rock shelter in the south of France.
Nowadays we think of reindeer (or caribou) as animals of the Arctic – and indeed, like the mammoth, they are supremely evolved for life in a cold climate, with amongst other adaptations a thick coat of hollow hairs, each of which creates a pocket of warm air and fur on the bottom of their splayed hoofed feet to create grip and prevent them from sinking into the snow.
So, 17,000 years ago it must have been much colder in the south of France than it is now. And more recently it must have been a good deal cooler in the Clwydian Range because we have reindeer bones from Lynx Cave which have yielded radiocarbon dates of just over 11,000 Years BP.
As with mountain hare and lemming, the presence – or absence – of reindeer bone contributes to a still-unfurling story of climate change, how species cope with it and their ranges shrink and expand accordingly. In this, the work of researchers such as Danielle Schreve and Angharad Jones is part of a continuum within a global network, which through rigorous peer review asks robust and informed questions of itself.
Through this process – of science – patterns become clear and consensuses are formed. Because all this allows a vision of future trends to be formed, it’s as though the animal bones at the heart of the research become ‘oracles’; devices from the deep past which present a means of peering into the future. There’s a perhaps unlikely but pleasing parallel here in that Arctic hunters past and present use caribou scapulae – shoulder blades – as a means of divining the location of their quarry. Albeit within different cultural ways of thinking, reindeer bones have always helped us to find paths to survival.
They also tell us of the locations of ‘refugia’ past and present; safe havens for creatures with specific adaptations such as the Arctic now is for cold climate species – for a little while longer anyway. Where, one wonders, will our future refugia lie as temperatures soar, the ice melts, seas rise, land masses shrink and Earth’s climate becomes increasingly inhospitable?