Social-Ecological Transformations: HUMan-ANimal Relations Under Climate Change in NORthern Eurasia (HUMANOR)

Social-Ecological Transformations: HUMan-ANimal Relations Under Climate Change in NORthern Eurasia (HUMANOR)

Prof. David Anderson (Anthropology), Dr. Karen Milek (Archaeology), Dr. Loic Harrault  (Archaeology), Prof. Lorna Dawson (James Hutton Institute), Dr. Ilse Kamerling (Geography and Environment), Ms. Julia Kremkova, Ms. Gabriella Domene-Lopez (Archaeology).


HUMANOR is a transdisciplinary, international project investigating climatic and non-climatic drivers affecting human-animal relations in northern indigenous social-ecological systems over timescales of tens and hundreds of years. With field projects in Fennoscandia, the Yamal peninsula (northwestern Siberia) and Mongolia, the goal of the project is to better understand contemporary nomadic pastoralist livelihoods and their potential resilience or vulnerability to future climate change by detailing their historical trajectories in a range of different socio-economic and ecological contexts.

While some indigenous social-ecological systems in the Arctic have proven resilient in space and time, most are considered at risk due to climate warming and increasingly unpredictable and extreme weather conditions. There is therefore an urgent need to increase our understanding of their response capacities today and in the future by understanding how the nexus of feedbacks between humans, animals and the environment operated in the past.

The research for the HUMANOR Project is being conducted by a network of anthropologists, archaeologists, and environmental scientists from Finland, Sweden, Norway, the Russian Federation, and Scotland (see Project Partners for details). The research focusses on indigenous Sámi, Nenets, Evenki and Mongolian nomadic pastoralists at two timescales – the late Holocene (c. last 2000 years), and post-WWII – both of which have seen significant climatic changes as well as societal changes in terms of the transition from hunting to herding reindeer, changes in herding strategies, and the change from a collectivized to a post-collectivized society. The project aims to:

  • Place past and ongoing transformations in Arctic indigenous social-ecological systems, including medieval or earlier hunting/herding transitions, in the context of climate stability/change.
  • Contextualize human/animal/climate relationships in Fennoscandia, Siberia, and Mongolia using a comparative approach.
  • Develop new methodologies and spearhead a novel interdisciplinary approach capable of improving our knowledge about variability, change, and continuity in land use and human-animal relations among indigenous reindeer hunters/herders (e.g. participatory GIS (PGIS), geoarchaeology, lipid biomarkers, palynology).

By improving our knowledge of climatic and non-climatic drivers affecting human-animal relations in northern indigenous social-ecological systems in the long- and short-term, we hope to understand the extent to which contemporary institutions governing indigenous land use in the study areas are facilitating or hindering long-term adaptation and resilience of indigenous reindeer herders.

Image: A Nenets summer camp, Yamal peninsula, northwest Siberia (© Karen Milek)

Our Research

At the University of Aberdeen our role on the HUMANOR Project is to develop a detailed ethno-historical reconstruction of landscape use by Arctic pastoralists in northern Fennoscandia and northwestern Siberia from 2000 years ago to the present. Our research is pioneering a trans-disciplinary method that integrates:

  • Oral histories about herding practices, migration routes, landscape and vegetation characteristics, and weather patterns based on participatory research and directed interviews in local languages
  • Historical accounts of the above, taken from archives and local libraries
  • Topographical maps and satellite remote sensing imagery that details vegetation and erosion patterns in order to locate current and historical activity areas created by the actions of domestic reindeer herds
  • Pollen, fungal spore and micro-charcoal analysis of peat deposits adjacent to selected archaeological sites in order to chart local vegetation change, climate change and landscape use through time
  • Soil mapping, magnetic susceptibility survey, microrefuse analysis of soil samples and electrical conductivity and phosphate field tests at selected archaeological sites to identify nomadic pastoralist activity areas such as camp fires, smudge fires, and animal congregating areas
  • Micromorphological analysis, loss-on-ignition and lab-based phosphate analysis of soils and sediments collected from selected archaeological sites in order to enhance the understanding of soil and sediment formation and the interpretation of activity areas
  • Spatial analysis of soil survey and laboratory results using ArcGIS
  • Lipid biomarker analysis of soils sampled from potential animal congregating areas at selected archaeological sites, as well as locally-collected reference samples of animal faeces and vegetation, in order to identify the presence of species-specific faeces
  • Radiocarbon dating of charcoal and bone samples from selected archaeological sites, soils, sediments, and peat deposits, coupled with Bayesian modelling where possible, in order to understand the chronology of human activities and landscape change.

The lipid biomarker analysis in particular involves substantial methodological development, and will further enhance the potential of geoarchaeology to contribute to activity area analyses.   

Images: (above, left) Geoarchaeology laboratory assistant Gabriella Domene-Lopez processing soil samples from Suollakavalda, northern Sweden. (above, right) Lipid biomarker analysis underway at the James Hutton Institute. (© Loïc Harrault)

Case Studies

So far we have conducted archaeological field work, collected soil and peat samples and reference samples of dung and plants at the following sites:

Yarte 6, Yamal Peninsula, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Russian Federation

In the summer of 2015 we joined the Russian excavation team led by fellow HUMANOR member Dr. Andrei Plekhanov at Yarte 6, an 11th-12th century AD site situated in the middle of the Yamal peninsula, on a dry terrace above the floodplain of the Yuribei River. The site had previously been excavated (and nearby peat deposits sampled) in 2013 and in the 1990s, when it was made famous by its deep stratigraphy, excellent organic preservation (in permafrost), thousands of reindeer bones, and many hundreds of bone and wood artefacts.

While Andrei and his team excavated pit houses, fire features, c. 3000 more reindeer bones and artefacts that pointed towards reindeer processing and contact with more southern cultures, the Aberdeen team (Karen, David, Loïc, and Julia) conducted a magnetic susceptibility survey around the site to locate nearby campfires and extensively mapped and sampled the soils. These contained up to four buried soil horizons separated by aeolian sands and silts, making it possible to analyse four slices of time in the site’s history. Ongoing phosphate and lipid analysis is helping us reconstruct the site structure in its different phases of use, and to verify the presence of congregating reindeer herds – crucial to the interpretation that the site belonged to early reindeer herders.

Image: Yarte 6 pit house under excavation in 2015 (© Karen Milek)

To place Yarte 6 in its wider landscape context we collected charcoal and pottery from two previously unidentified/unrecorded nearby sites, and visited the erosion scars that mark the other Yarte sites in the vicinity, collecting pottery and charcoal to help date them. We also visited current and recent Nenets campsites in the area and collected reference samples of reindeer faeces and tundra vegetation.

Image: Loïc Harrault collecting reindeer faeces and plant and lichen reference samples from a recently abandoned Nenets campsite. (© Julia Kremkova)

Suollagavallda, Norrbotten, northern Sweden

In the summer of 2016 we joined fellow HUMANOR member Kjell-Åke Aronsson and his colleague Jarl Henriksson, from Ájtte Swedish Mountain and Sámi Museum in Jokkmokk, at Suollagavallda (Suollakavalta in Swedish), a Sámi site high in the mountains of northwest Sweden, not far from the Norwegian border. The site consists of ten separate clusters of stone-lined hearths and ‘stalo’ (pit house) features, many of which had previously been studied by Inga-Maria Mulk in the 1980s and 90s, and dated to the 11th century AD. Peat sampling for pollen analysis by Kjell-Åke and HUMANOR palynologists Ilse Kamerling and Mari Kuoppama in 2013 had already shown at least two periods of occupation at Suollagavallda, one in the 11th century and one in the 14th century. However, there are numerous competing hypotheses about who used the site and how, and the degree to which this changed over time. Was it a Sámi hunting station, a milking site used by mountain Sámi reindeer herders, a trading station between the Norse on the Norwegian coast and mountain Sámi, or a shieling site where mountain Sámi tended sheep and goats during the summer on behalf of coastal Sámi?

In order to answer these questions, the Aberdeen team (David, Loïc, and Gabriella) visited six of the stalo clusters and investigated one of them in detail (G). A magnetic susceptibility survey was used to locate additional hearths, and the soils around the stalo buildings and heaths were extensively mapped and analysed in the field for their phosphate content in order to locate animal congregating areas. Ongoing loss-on-ignition, lipid biomarker analysis, and soil micromorphological analysis are helping us identify activity areas on the site, most importantly where animals were corralled/tied, and which species were present – crucial information for understanding human-animal relations and land-use during different periods of climatic stability and change.

Images: (above, left) David Anderson undertaking a magnetic susceptibility field survey to locate new hearths. (above, right) Gabriella Domene-Lopez taking micromorphology samples from a thin cultural layer adjacent to a hearth feature. (©Loïc Harrault)

Project Partners & Funding

HUMANOR is one of nine projects funded for four years by the Joint Program Initiative (JPI) Climate scheme under the theme “Societal Transformation in the Face of Climate Change”. The University of Aberdeen, as the UK partner, is funded by a £398,472 grant from the ESRC.

Project Team

United Kingdom

University of Aberdeen

  • Prof. David Anderson, UK PI, Deptartment of Anthropology
  • Dr. Karen Milek, UK Co-Investigator, Department of Archaeology
  • Dr. Loïc Harrault, PDRF in Geoarchaeology, Department of Archaeology
  • Dr. Ilse Kamerling, PDRF in Palynology, Department of Geography and Environment
  • Ms. Julia Kremkova, Field and Laboratory, Department of Archaeology
  • Ms. Gabriella Domene-Lopez, Field and Laboratory, Department of Archaeology

James Hutton Institute, Aberdeen

  • Prof. Lorna Dawson, sub-contractor


Arctic Centre, University of Lapland

  • Prof. Bruce Forbes, Lead PI
  • Dr. Mari Kuoppamaa, PDRF (palynology)
  • Åsa Larsson Blind, PhD Student


Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Management, Oslo

  • Dr. Stine Barlindhaug, NO PI
  • Zoia Vylka Ravna, PhD Student
  • Dr. Andrei Marin, NO Co-Investigator

Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Ås


Russian Federation

The Centre for Arctic Research of the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous, Okrug

  • Dr. Natalia Viktorovna Fedorova, RU PI

A.P. Vinogradov Institute of Geochemistry SB RAS, Irkutsk

  • Dr. Elena Bezrukova, Laboratory Chief

Scientific Research Centre of the Arctic, Salekhard

  • Olga Sharova, Russian PhD student
  • Dr. Andrei Plekhanov


Ájtte Swedish Mountain and Sámi Museum, Jokkmokk

  • Dr. Kjell-Åke Aronsson, SE PI,
  • Kajsa Kuoljok, SE PhD Student

University of Uppsala

  • Prof. Hugh Beach, SE PI, Department of Cultural Anthropology

Related Projects

Image: The international HUMANOR Project team at the Arctic Centre in Rovaniemi, Finland, in November 2015. (© Arctic Centre, University of Lapland).

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