The image of reindeer pulling Santa's Christmas sleigh dates to at least 1822, when Clement Clarke Moore wrote his famous "Twas the Night Before Christmas" poem. Go back hundreds of years, and the image is quite different: sizzling reindeer steaks cooking over a caveman's fire.
(Image: Mike Dunn, NC State Museum of Natural Sciences, NOAA Climate Program Office, NABOS 2006 Expedition
Reindeer meat is still consumed today, but it was like Value Meal #1 back in prehistoric times, especially throughout parts of Europe. You can read about how early French and Czech people dined on reindeer in this Discovery News story.
Studies on cavemen who lived at Gough's and Sun Hole Cave in Somerset, England, previously concluded that these Upper Paleolithic people consumed an entirely terrestrial-based diet that included reindeer. Not so, according to a new analysis of human remains at these British sites.
Rhiannon Stevens of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research and colleagues determined that while the early residents of these caves didn't consume fish and other freshwater and marine resources, they also didn't eat reindeer either. Isotopes taken from the human remains, which can be matched to known protein sources, "are consistent with those of red deer and bovines, and, for a
single individual, with that of horse and red deer," according to the researchers.
So Rudolph was spared, but Ed and Silver got the axe. Probably literally, as these early cavemen crafted impressive tool kits.
postulated in the original reconstruction as a potential food source,
but this seems very unlikely based on our isotope reconstruction and
the archaeological remains," the scientists conclude in their January 2010 Journal of Archaeological Science study.
It's ironic that you can buy reindeer stew and pate at some very upscale markets in England now.
The good news is that reindeer still roam wild in Britain at Cairngorms, Scotland. They were reintroduced there back in the 1950's.
You can also visit the beautiful Reindeer Center located in Kent, England. It's more in keeping with the Clarke Moore vision of reindeer and will help to put you in the holiday spirit.