Today I’m giving a talk in the Anthropology series at University of Aberdeen. The project ArcticDomus hosted at the department was interested in my research on muskoxen because of their own explorations of domestication within human and animal relations in the north.
The first part of my talk focuses on the earliest movement of muskoxen to Norway. The first place that muskoxen were let loose was on Svalbard in 1929. This was no random choice. Svalbard, half way between continental Norway and the North Pole, had been an early modern whaling station, but activity really picked up at the beginning of the 20th century when industrial coal mining started. Longyearbyen on the island of Spitsbergen was established in 1906 as a coal company town and became the major settlement of Svalbard. Because of its remote northerly location, there was a constant concern about supplies for the population.
Globally, the early 20th century had been a time of increasing anxiety about meat. In the US, the meat crisis even led to serious consideration of a plan hatched in 1910 to import hippos to Louisiana — read Jon Mooallem’s fascinating book American Hippopotamus for the whole story. The European-based empires had great expanded their dependence on meat imported from colonies and other friendly nations. During the trade disruptions during World War I, meat shortages had been challenging.
Norwegian hunters on East Greenland had long used muskox meat to feed themselves and their dogs during their hunting excursions. When Adolf Hoel, founder of the Norges Svalbard- og Ishavsundersøkelser which became the Norwegian Polar Institute, proposed to bring muskox to Svalbard, he did so for multiple reasons, one of which was meat. He wrote in his article ‘Overføring av moskusokser til Svalbard’:
There is naturally also great importance that such a large meat-producing animal like muskox is found on Svalbard, where it often happens that people are in need and don’t have enough food.
In 1929, 26 muskoxen (mostly calves and young animals) were relocated from eastern Greenland to Svalbard. While eating muskox was the eventual goal, killing the muskoxen introduced in 1929 was strictly prohibited. A sign was set up in the mining company’s shop in Longyearbyen stating: “Muskoxen are protected.” Although six muskoxen were shot in the winter of 1942/3 as food for the military garrison on Svalbard, the muskox remained a protected animal, illegal to hunt. The dream of muskox meat on Svalbard never became reality.
Although polar bear visits to the town were not uncommon, muskoxen visits evoked fear and concern. In winter 1972, an old muskox had decided to take up residence near the town’s kindergarten. To avoid attacks, the children were kept inside during the school day and were taken to and from school with a bus instead of walking there. One woman ended up being chased down the street by the interloper, narrowly escaping through her front door. The local radio was constantly broadcasting the animal’s whereabouts and the police tried to shoo it away. Finally, two industrial trucks owned by the local coal company were used to scare the animal back to the pasture area 3 kilometers from town. Not only did the muskoxen fail to provide the security of a new meat supply, but even offered physical insecurity.
By the mid-1960s, there were probably about 50 muskoxen on the island of Spitsbergen, but in the late 1970s, alarming reports of declining muskox numbers started coming in. In 1977, only 15 animals were reported still alive, one of which was ‘Atle’ who sought shelter in the town of Longyearbean. The winter had alternated between mild periods and hard freezes, forming ice layers over the ground, which made it difficult for the muskoxen to find food. In 1979, only one lone cow was spotted in the normal muskox feeding grounds near Longyearbyen. Sometime in the early 1980s, this lone individual died and the muskox was gone from Svalbard.
The dream had been that East Greenland muskox hunting for meat would be reproduced on Svalbard simply by importing the animals. The reality was that the herd never grew large enough to support hunting for meat, and on top of that, the animals simply turned into a nuisance for the inhabitants of Longyearbyen. The meat question would not be solved by the muskox.