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Hunting and Gathering by the Sami

By Jonsa (Jonathan Snatic)


Long before man domesticated plants and animals for consumption, he lived what is called a “hunter-gatherer” lifestyle. This means his method of subsistence consisted of hunting, fishing and trapping wild animals and gathering edible wild plant species. The Sami people, natives of the Scandinavian Arctic and sub-Arctic, survived for over 10,000 years as hunter-gatherers in a harsh environment. Like other hunter-gatherer societies of the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of the world, this was only possible by having an intimate knowledge of the unique environment in which they lived.



The majority of modern peoples sustain their nutritional needs by consuming foods produced by domesticated plants and animals. The domestication of plants and animals for human use took place in several areas of the world in the recent past. Among the first plant and animal species to be domesticated (10,500 years ago in Southwest Asia) were wheat, peas and sheep. Corn, beans and the turkey were domesticated in Mesoamerica as recently as 3,500 B.C. (Diamond, 1999). However, for the majority of modern man’s existence, he has lived by what is referred to as “hunting and gathering.” Hunter-gatherers differ from agriculturists in that they hunt, trap, fish and/or gather edible wild animals and plants for food and other useful materials. Hunting and gathering are believed to be the two oldest organized occupations in the world (American Academic Encyclopedia, 1997).

Besides having different methods of food acquisition, hunter-gatherer peoples differed from modern agricultural societies in several cultural respects. Because of the limited distribution of wild resources, the number of peoples that could survive on a given area of land was limited by the land’s capability of producing a sustainable food supply. Therefore, hunter-gatherers typically lived in “band”-level social units, consisting of one to several families. These bands were typically egalitarian, shared resources and hunted and gathered cooperatively. These groups could split up or join with other bands in order to best exploit resources (Academic American Encyclopedia, 1997). Also, because hunting and gathering depends on the health and vitality of the natural environment, these peoples tended to live a sustainable lifestyle by limiting their impact on nature.

Hunter-gatherers of the Arctic and sub-Arctic:

Hunter-gatherer peoples have inhabited the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of the planet since the end of the last ice-age over 10,000 years ago. This area is composed of the Arctic Ocean, the Northern most regions of the Europe, Asia and North America, and numerous islands and archipelagoes, which lie off the coasts of these continents. The landmasses in this region are characterized by either “tundra” or “taiga” biomes.

The term “arctic” refers to the region of the Northern Hemisphere which lies above 66º 33’ north latitude. This is the northernmost latitude at which the sun is seen during the winter solstice and the southern limit of the midnight sun (24 hour summer day). The sub-Arctic region lies directly south of the Arctic.

Tundra predominates in the Arctic and is characterized by topsoil which undergoes seasonal freeze/thaw cycles and which is underlain by permanently frozen ground known as permafrost. Winter temperatures in the tundra can fall as low as -60ºF and average from 32-50ºF in the summer. The tundra is home to life forms, which are specially adapted to cold-weather. Plant life includes lichens, moss, grasses and low-lying shrubs.

The taiga biome is characterized by slightly warmer temperatures than the tundra, with average temperatures remaining below freezing for six months out of the year. The taiga biome contains coniferous trees such as pine, fir and spruce.

Many land animals that live in the Arctic and sub-Arctic live in both the tundra and taiga, depending on the seasons. Because the taiga is slightly warmer and more protected from winds, animals such as the reindeer, brown bear and moose will winter there. These animals will then move onto the tundra in the summer where edible vegetation is more abundant. Salmon also migrate from the ocean into inland rivers in the summer to spawn.

Because of few edible plant species and the mobility of most available animals, hunter-gatherer peoples of the Arctic and sub-Arctic live a slightly different life style than most other hunter-gatherer groups in the world.  These peoples rely more on hunting, fishing and trapping than most hunter-gatherers, who rely heavily on the gathering of plants.

Examples of arctic and sub-arctic hunter-gatherer cultures include the Eskimo of the Arctic regions of Greenland, North America and Northeastern Asia, the Cree of Sub-Arctic Canada, the Nenets of northwestern Siberia and the Sami of the Scandinavian Arctic and sub-Arctic. 


Sapmi is the homeland of the Sami peoples. Sapmi covers a large area (approximately 388,500 km2) of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. This region is bordered on the west by the Norwegian Sea, on the north by the Barents Sea and the east by the White Sea. Sapmi lies mostly North of the Arctic Circle, which means it has both Arctic and Sub-arctic environmental conditions. Eastern Sapmi is a treeless tundra plateau with numerous glacial lakes and bogs. To the west, lower elevations give way to taiga, or coniferous forests, consisting of pine, fir, birch alder and spruce. Sapmi’s irregular coast line is a result of many fiords carved by ice age glaciers. 

The land now known as Sapmi is believed to have first been settled at the end of the last ice age, roughly 11,000 years ago. Archeological discoveries in northern Norway, some dating back over 10,000 years, show evidence of the continual habitation of Sapmi since that time. (Fact Sheet Sweden, 1999). While the exact origins of the Sami are uncertain, it is believed that they are the descendants of the original postglacial inhabitants. The first mention of the Sami in historical writings was by the Roman Historian Tacitus in AD 98, who referred to them as “Fenni” and described them as being poor with no weapons, horses or houses (Alexander, 1996). Like all circumpolar peoples of this time, the Sami survived by hunting and gathering.

The Sami as hunter-gatherers

Sami culture was a direct result of the environmental conditions, which the Sami faced. Resourceavailability – mainlyfood – limits the size of the hunter gather group. The basic Sami social system was the siida, which was a single or multi-family group. These groups utilized certain territories depending on their needs and the availability of resources. At times when food sources were concentrated in areas within the territory, hunting and gathering was undertaken as a group and resources were shared. At other times the territory was further divided between families (Mulk, 1993). Communal hunting and gathering was practiced with men and women participating in both.

Some cultural differences existed among Sami peoples due to geographical variations and resulting differences in local ecosystems in which the groups resided. A good example of this in the common distinction between Sami living near and on the coast of Sapmi, known as “Coastal” or “Sea Sami,” as opposed to Sami who lived in the interior of Sapmi, who are called “Forest Sami” or “Mountain Sami.” Both groups relied heavily on reindeer and fish, although to varying degrees.

Regardless of where in Sapmi one lived, seasonality played a role in determining what resources were available for hunting and gathering. With such drastic seasonal changes, the availability of food sources depended on growing seasons and migration patterns of animals. The Sami lived a semi-nomadic way of life in order to be in the right place at the right time to exploit resources, just like the animals they pursued. Semi-nomadism is described as the migration of a group of peoples between several stationary living areas (Ingold, 1980). Sami semi-nomadism was largely due to the seasonal migrations of reindeer.


The reindeer was by far the most important resource to Sami life. Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), also known as caribou, are gregarious, migratory, cold weather tolerant ungulates, which live in the Arctic tundra and Sub-arctic taiga in North America and Eurasia. It is believed that reindeer migrate according to the changing of seasons for a number of reasons including food supply, shelter, protection from insects, mating and calving.

Because these migrations take place in regular, predictable patterns, the Sami were able to take advantage of areas along the migration routes where they were able to hunt and trap the reindeer in various ways.

One of the most widespread and successful methods of trapping reindeer was using systems of pitfalls or stone or wooden corrals. These traps were situated in strategic locations where reindeer were likely to travel. The Sami would construct fence lines and use natural obstacles such as rock ledges or water bodies to help funnel the reindeer into these traps.

Snares were also used to catch reindeer. Much like the pitfall method, fences were constructed with periodic gaps in them in which snares were strung across. Reindeer passing trough were caught around the neck or antlers. Snares were also placed along trails in forested areas where reindeer would travel.

Reindeer, which were domesticated by the Sami as decoy animals and beasts of burden, were also used for hunting. Tame female reindeer were used during mating season to lure bulls into range of bow and arrow or spear. Also, snares were sometimes placed in the antlers of tame bull reindeers during the rut. Wild reindeer that attempted to fight the decoy would become entangled in the snare and then be slaughtered by hunters.

Domesticated dogs, now known as the lapphund, were also used by the Sami to hunt reindeer. The dogs could either be used for tracking of could participate in herding reindeer into snares or corrals.

Another method of hunting reindeer was to chase them down in deep snow while on skis, and then killing them with bow and arrow or spear.

While reindeer were by far the most important resource for the Sami, other food sources were exploited when and where available.

Sami who lived in the inland forests hunted and trapped reindeer mostly in the fall when on their migrations. Later, during the winter, the Sami concentrated on trapping fur-bearing animals such as beaver and fox. This is because their pelts were of the highest quality during the cold winters. In the summer, the Sami would turn to fishing in rivers and lakes. Salmon, which migrate in large numbers from the Atlantic into rivers to spawn every summer, were a major food source to the Sami (Vorren, 1962).

Sami who lived in coastal areas also migrated to take advantage of seasonal resource fluctuation.  In the fall and winter, Sami living along the inland ends of fjords hunted and trapped reindeer much as inland Sami.  However, these coastal Sami relied more upon fishing and coastal resources than inland Sami. Therefore they would move to the seaward end of the fjords in the spring where they would spend the summer fishing. Marine mammals were also hunted at this time. The fjord seal and the walrus were the most commonly hunted marine mammals. While whales were not actively hunted, the Sami would occasionally kill whales that would wander into shallow water (Vorren, 1962).

Bear hunting also played an important function in Sami culture and religion. The European brown bear, known as “him with a pelt” was hunted according to a specific ritual. Bears found hibernating during the winter were awaken by hunters. Then, as the bear exited its den and reared up on its hind legs, a hunter would place a spear under its chest and brace it against the ground. The bear would then be impaled on the spear as it lunged toward the hunter. Although the bear was eaten, a ceremony was performed to appease its spirit. The bones were then placed in correct anatomical position and were burried in a grave (Vorren, 1962 and Mulk, 1993).

Moose, which can weigh up to 2,000 lbs., were another major food source for the

Sami, as were smaller animals such as hares and ptarmigan.

The Sami also made use of non-edible animal parts. For example, reindeer hides were used for making clothing and shelter, while antlers and bone were used for tool production.


The Sami also made use of the limited edible plants available in Sapmi. Perhaps the most popular plant utilized was the cloudberry (Mulk, 1993). Cloudberries are relatives of raspberries and blackberries, and grow in moist tundra and bog environments. Cloudberries ripen in the late summer and can be found in great quantities. Cloudberries provided the Sami with many essential vitamins, which were not supplied by such a meat-rich diet, especially vitamin C (, 2000). 

Mountain sorrel (Rumex acetosa) and angelica (Angelica archangelica) were also eaten. Sami also reportedly ate the partially digested stomach contents of reindeer, which they had killed.

End of hunter-gatherer cultures:

Eventually, the Sami would give up hunting and gathering in favor of reindeer pastoralism. This was mainly due to influence from neighboring peoples. As agricultural peoples slowly invaded their land from the south, the Sami retreated further north.  As forests were cleared for agriculture, reindeer populations suffered. Beginning in the 15th century, Scandinavian nation-states began taxing the Sami in reindeer pelts, and meat as well as fish. Some times they were taxed by more than one nation at the same time. By the 17th century, in order to meet the increasing demand for reindeer, many of the Sami had taken up full time reindeer pastoralism (Swedish Institute, 1997). Other Sami would take up farming and the raising of other domesticated animals. Although hunting and gathering would continue by the Sami, hunting and gathering as a sole means of existence was over.


The Sami were able to survive off the land for over 10,000 years before pressures from outside sources forced them to give up their way of life. Had conditions of 2000 years ago never changed, the Sami would most likely have been able to survive, as they had, indefinitely. This was possible because of their intimate knowledge of the environment in which they lived and their willingness to live by its rules. Perhaps modern society can learn from them in our quest for sustainability here on Earth


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