The reindeer hunters

When the ice had reached its widest span about 18,000 years ago, it gradually started to melt and even though the glaciers repeatedly formed again, the ice was on retreat. The exposed surface of the earth quickly became colonised by tough tundra plants like dryas, polar willow, and mountain sorrel. Closely following these nutrient-rich plants were the reindeers. In the summer half they wandered to the edge of the ice cap in the Northern Scania. The humans were following the reindeers.

Like the reindeer, humans were only here on summer-visit because the climate was still too cold. It was still ice age. Ice age people – both the neanderthals and our own ancestors – used the big animals like reindeer and mammoths. They ate the meat and used fat, fur, bones, and the mammoth’s impressive tusks to all sorts of purposes.

The first reindeer hunters were tough. There were not a lot and they mainly consisted of very small families that were brave enough to travel into the unknown, namely the “new country” Denmark. At this time it was still so inhospitable that the reindeer hunter never really gained a foothold but only came by on summer hunts. When the population of reindeer later fell due to new climate changes, the Hamburg culture’s reindeer hunters completely disappeared from the map. Without reindeer they could simply not thrive in the arctic climate.

Later other people immigrated to Denmark, but that is a different story.

Who were they?

The first reindeer hunters in Denmark have only left few traces. It is believed that they were all related. A Danish archaeologist, Felix Riede, who has excavated a settlement from the Hamburg Culture, can based on the findings of flint tools see that they all looks to have been made by the same people like a father, son or uncle. Just like when a specialist today can see, who made a knife, a violin, or a shoe based on the craftmanship.

The reindeer hunters were not much shorter than us, since their diet – berries, seeds, roots, and especially meat – was rich in energy and vitamins. They had a bit rougher skeleton than ours and they were very fit. In the Neolithic Age, when we started eating a more starch-based diet; the diet became nutritionally worse, which influenced the growth.

The first Danes were indisputably darker skinned than today – kind of like people in the Middle East today. Thus, DNA-analyses have been made on 7000 years old human skeletons from Spain. The analyses show that they were dark-skinned – and with blue eyes. It was not until later that the Europeans got their fair-complexion. It probably happened, when man became Stone Age farmers and the explanation is D-vitamin. When the diet gets short on meat, fish, and eggs, we have to produce the missing D-vitamin with aid of sunlight. On our sun-poor latitude it happens a lot easier in fair skin than in darker skin.

It is not known how old the reindeer hunters got but if they survived the childhood and did not experience any larger accidents during the hunt, the toughest could probably get as old as us. As far as we know there were quite few virus diseases, as the hunters lived isolated and thus contagion between the tribes rarely happened. Furthermore, they did not have domesticated animals yet (pigs, cattle, and poultry), which today spread many virusses to people.

Skilled crafters

The hunters of the Hamburg Culture were skilled at working with flint. The reindeer hunters’ weapon and tools were often made of flint. As opposed to organic material, flint lasts unchanged through millennia, and when we find flint tools today, they often look like they did, when they were crafted. Since the different hunter communities each had their own way of processing the flint, we can – when we make new prehistoric findings – relatively easy determine which period and culture the findings originate from.

The zinken tool is a very characteristic tool from the reindeer hunters of the Hamburg Culture. The zinken tool can be found with different designs. It was probably used as a multi-tool for the hunter – like our present-day “Leatherman multi-tools” or a Swiss army knife. The hunters also used the zink tool to cut shreds from the reindeer antlers and to drill, cut, and scrape in e.g. wood or pelt.

Another tool is the shouldered points that have been useful to scrape and smooth out hard surfaces like bone or reindeer antlers. They also had a scraper, it was good for cleaning animal pelt but also to remove bulges on bone, antlers or wood. They also made a havelte-type point, which is an arrowhead from the youngest period of the Hamburg culture. It has been used for hunting. The hunter probably had their bows and arrows with them from Germany.

Read more about the reindeer hunters.

The clothes

The reindeer hunters undoubtedly had good and warm clothes that were made of fur from the animals they hunted. They certainly did not look like the “cave men with a big clubs” that we often see on funny drawings. Sadly, we do not know what their clothes looked like but it was probably sown together from several types of fur. Maybe it was even made with pretty patterns and design, e.g. with a white collar made of the fur from an arctic fox.

Their favourite food

On top of the menu card were the reindeer, which were plentiful, tasty, and with antlers for tools and hides for clothes. The reindeer hunters also hunted mountain hare, arctic fox, and rock ptarmigan, they collected berries and roots, and by the coast they undoubtedly caught fish and seals

The fire

Even though there are no findings of campfire sites from the Hamburg Culture there is no doubt that the fire was essential for the reindeer hunters. It kept the hunters warm, it was used to cook the food, and it protected from the dark and potential predators. It must have been a big challenge to find enough fuel, since no trees were growing on our latitude at the time. There would only have been smaller plants like dryas, dwarf willow, and artemisia, which could be used for kindling.

Traces of man

In Denmark we do not have many traces of the Hamburg culture. Though, within the last decades there are found and excavated settlements near Jels and Sloteng in Southern Jutland and by Sølbjerg and Krogsbølle on Lolland. Near Jelling an arrowhead was found and by Køge bay a processed reindeer antler. Therefore, we keep learning more about who these people were.

The oldest traces of reindeer hunter in Denmark are from Southern Jutland and they are approximately 14,200 years old. The traces are made up of reindeer bones and antlers that have clear marks of humans’ processing. They are interpreted as a group of hunters, who after ending the hunt in the early spring went south again with the spoil and left the leftovers.