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Social-Ecological Transformations:

HUMan-ANimal Relations Under Climate Change in NORthern Eurasia (HUMANOR)

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.

Funded by: JPI Climate and the ESRC

Project contact at Durham University: Prof. Karen Milek


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 feedback between humans, animals and the environment operated in the past. HUMANOR was a transdisciplinary, international project investigating climatic and non-climatic drivers affecting human-animal relations in northern indigenous socio-ecological systems over timescales of tens and hundreds of years. With field projects focussing on indigenous Sámi, Nenets, Evenki and Mongolian nomadic pastoralists in Fennoscandia, the Yamal peninsula in northwest Siberia, and Mongolia, the project aimed 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. The project focussed on two timescales – the late Holocene (c. last 2000 years), and post-WWII – both of which have seen significant climatic and societal changes, such as the transition from hunting to herding reindeer, changes in herding strategies, and the change from a collectivized to a post-collectivized society.

Nenets Camp including sled and conical tent on the Yamal Peninsula

Nenets camp on the Yamal peninsula.

Durham University’s role in this international project was to place Iron Age, Medieval, and ongoing transformations in indigenous socio-ecological systems in Fennoscandia and northern Siberia, particularly hunting and herding transitions, in the context of climate stability and change. To do this, we had to develop novel interdisciplinary approaches capable of improving our knowledge about variability, change, and continuity in land use and human-animal relations among indigenous reindeer hunters/herders. We focussed on integrating geoarchaeology and lipid biomarker analysis with pollen analysis conducted by colleagues at the University of Lapland and the Ájtte Swedish Mountain and Sámi Museum, Jokkmokk.

Project Results

Durham University researchers collaborated with colleagues from Aberdeen, Russia, Sweden, and Finland to conduct fieldwork at the site of Yarte 6, on the Yamal Peninsula, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Russia, and Suollakavallda, Norrbotten, northern Sweden. We studied and sampled soils and contributed to a detailed reconstruction of landscape use by Arctic pastoralists in northern Fennoscandia and northwest Siberia from 2000 years ago to the present.

A staff member collecting samples from a field

Loïc Harrault sampling reindeer dung and plants near Yarte 6, on the Yamal peninsula, northwest Siberia.


At Yarte 6, while our Russian colleagues were excavating an 11th century settlement site containing pit houses, fire features, and thousands of reindeer bones, we conducted a magnetic susceptibility survey around the site to locate nearby campfires and to map and sample the soils. We were excited to discover that the soils had 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.

Together with David Anderson, we also visited current and recent Nenets campsites in the area and collected reference samples of reindeer faeces and tundra vegetation. In the field lab, we conducted electrical conductivity analysis of soil samples to look for areas where nutrients were concentrated, and then sampled those areas with greater detail. Back in the UK, we conducted additional magnetic susceptibility, phosphate and faecal lipid biomarker analyses to reconstruct the site structure in its different phases of use, and radiocarbon dated reindeer bones and charcoal in the soils.  We found that we were able to trace the development of the site and its vegetation from its initial phase as a wild reindeer hunting site to its final phases as a reindeer herding site.

Diagram showing faecal lipid biomarkers over time for different species and diets

At Suollakavalda, in northern Sweden, we joined David Anderson and Gabriella Domene-Lopez from the University of Aberdeen, and Kjell-Åke Aronsson and Jarl Henriksson from Ájtte Swedish Mountain and Sámi Museum in Jokkmokk, to study and sample soils in and around clusters of ‘stalo’ type dwelling foundations associated with an 11th-14th century Sámi site. These were thought to be associated with a hunting site, milking station, or shieling. Using a magnetic susceptibility survey we locate additional hearths, and the soils around the stalo buildings and heaths were mapped and analysed in the field for their phosphate content in order to locate animal congregating areas. Back in the UK, we conducted organic matter and faecal lipid biomarker analyses to help us identify activity areas on the site where animals were corralled/tied, and confirmed that reindeer had been present. Pollen analysis, micromorphological analysis, and dating of the soils are ongoing.

Staff member doing a soil sample in a field

Gabriella Domene-Lopez test pitting and soil sampling at Suollakavalda.

Published results from the Durham team:

Project Team

Durham University, UK:

  • Durham lead: Prof. Karen Milek, Department of Archaeology
  • Post-doctoral research associate: Dr. Loïc Harrault, Department of Archaeology

University of Aberdeen, UK:

  • UK lead: Prof. David Anderson, Department of Anthropology
  • 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

Arctic Centre, University of Lapland, Finland:

  • Overall project lead/principle investigator: Prof. Bruce Forbes,
  • Dr. Mari Kuoppamaa, PDRF (palynology)
  • Åsa Larsson Blind, PhD Student

Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Management, Oslo, Norway:

  • Norway lead: Dr. Stine Barlindhaug
  • Zoia Vylka Ravna, PhD Student

Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Ås, Norway:

  • Dr. Andrei Marin

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

  • Russia lead: Dr. Natalia Viktorovna Fedorova
  • Dr. Andrei Plekhanov

Ájtte Swedish Mountain and Sámi Museum, Jokkmokk, Sweden:

  • Sweden lead: Dr. Kjell-Åke Aronsson
  • Kajsa Kuoljok, PhD Student

University of Uppsala, Sweden:

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