The Coastal Sami of Varanger fjord in north Norway are today largely assimilated into the modern society and economy of Norway. They are farmers, commercial fishermen, and reindeer herders rather than hunters and gatherers. In the past, however, this large, treeless Arctic fjord, with its hinterland of stunted birch forests and mountain tundra, was the site of one of Europe’s last hunter-gatherer societies. Their seasonal pattern of resource use has been reconstructed by the archaeologist Knut Odner (Fig. 3).
Until the 1700s, the main basis for both subsistence and lifestyle was fishing (cod, coalfish, and haddock), hunting wild reindeer, and hunting whales and seals. All of these foods could be plentiful in season, and a range of minor foods such as seabirds and their eggs, grouse, hare, and freshwater salmon
FIGURE 3 Seasonality of the food energy sources available the Varanger Sami before circa 1700, as reconstructed by Knut Odner.
was also available for brief periods. The problem was to devise effective delayed-return strategies to enable the society to cope with fluctuations, particularly the very sparse resources available in the late-winter season, after the end of whaling and sealing in mid – February and before the arrival of shoals of cod at the end of March.
Of all the various resources, sea fishing for resident species was the most dependable year-round source of energy (low productivity but low risk). Migratory shoals also made possible a storable surplus, particularly the spring cod. On average, a fisherman could expect in one day to land about 100 kg of cod, and he could maintain this level of productivity for about 10 weeks. Each family might therefore expect to be able to dry about 7000 kg of fish in the season. Drying racks, women’s labor, and access to boats, fish hooks, and lines were all essential for success. In an environment where fuel energy was scarce, air drying was the main preserving technique in spring, until warmer summer weather caused the fish to become fly-blown.
Until the wild reindeer became extinct, the Varanger Sami employed various techniques for mass harvesting during their fall migration. The most effective were systems of fences and corrals using stones or poles stuck in the ground, and also lines of pitfalls. The remains of about 5000 hunting pits can be seen around Varanger fjord today. Probably all families contributed hunters to the task group, and the carcasses would have been equally divided. The frozen meat and the skins provided a source of food and clothing for the community in the winter months.
By 1700, growing trade and reindeer domestication made possible an increased sedentism, the animals playing a crucial role in transporting meat and fuel energy from the hinterland. A more sedentary lifestyle in turn made it possible for cattle and sheep to be kept on a small scale, despite the high energy costs that foddering and housing them entailed. The animals and their wool, milk, and cheese made a small but critical contribution to the seasonal energy gap that existed in the late winter, especially after the disappearance of wild reindeer as a significant resource. In these ways, the dependence of the Varanger Sami on HG energy sources diminished, as they diversified to become semi-agropastoralists.