Centre for Advanced Study

at the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters

Arctic Domestication in the era of the Anthropocene


The history of human civilization is often told through a grand narrative about domestication. This grand narrative tells of hierarchy, domination and control as key elements that enabled humans to conquer and exploit their natural environment. Recent research in archeology, anthropology, history and science studies has challenged this model, and describes historical processes that are gradual, reversible, and involve changes in humans as well as in animals and landscapes, in mutual processes of adaptation. Arctic Domestication in the Epoch of the Anthropocene brings together scholars from anthropology, archeology, history and science studies, with a focus on domestication in the Arctic and the sub-Arctic, as well as selected studies of new or less common domestication practices, such as aquaculture, pastoralism and Tropical swidden cultivation. Arctic landscapes are often marginalized in conventional narratives of domestication, as they represent the climatic boundary of the more common forms of agriculture, and rely instead on gathering, hunting and fishing. There is also often significant interaction between wild and domesticated varieties, making it difficult to draw a sharp distinction between wild and domesticated. Through a focus on domestication practices in such marginalized sites, we will contribute to a more nuanced understanding of domestication. This is precarious in light of the challenges now facing the Arctic in relation to resource extraction and industrial expansion, as well as challenges related to the epoch of the Anthropocene. The project will proved other perspectives, other examples and other stories about human-landscape relations that those assumed in the conventional narrative about domestication.

End Report

Our project was broad from the very beginning and our achievements are similarly diverse. The most important collective acheivements can be gleaned from the topics of ongoing collective publications, such as edited books and special issues that are the direct results of CAS workshops and CAS conversations.

What do we learn about human relations to plants and animals when we empirically explore those relations in places where conventional forms of agriculture have not been dominant? One answer is that most stories that link plant and animal domestication to the rise of agriculture have some serious flaws, such as assuming that control is a main paradigm organizing human-animal relations. Ethnographic and archeological studies show that human ways of living with other species are far more diverse than scholars have typically portrayed them. Another answer is that domestication is a multispecies relation, creating unexpected ripple effects so that what appears as domestication of a single species may involve domestication of entire landscapes, far away. Domestication then, is not only about human control over a single species, or about confinement as such, but rather heterogeneous relational practices through which multiple landscape formations are generated. Some of these have become dominant, such as agriculture. The tensions and interrelations of such dominant forms and more subtle interspecies relations that co-exist with these are one of the topics of our edited book, Decentering Domestication, which explores domestication through selected ethnographic case studies.

Decentering domestication has also led us to revisit existing anthropological literature. The recent turn towards more-than-human sociality in anthropology begs the question of how earlier anthropologists paid attention to indigenous ways of knowing animals and plants, and to what extent non-human presences were made part of an analysis. We found that a keen interest in animals and plants is hardly new, but that their presence was rarely incorporated in the analysis beyond ‘utility’ or ‘symbol’. There are, however, notable exceptions, and these are important sources of insight that can be re-analysed, as well as re-interpreted, as part of the history of the foundations of anthropological theory.    

Another finding that emerges from studies of human-animal-plant relations in the Arctic is that vast and intricate knowledge are needed to engage with animals, such as reindeer, that are not confined and controlled like many other husbandry animals. Through our collaboration with Sami researchers, as well as CAS fellows with in-depth knowledge of Northern livelihoods (Siberia, Alaska), we have learned to know Arctic regions as sites of multiple and layered landscapes. These landscapes can be known not only through scientific knowledge, but also through the relational practices of daily life and through specific Sami words and concepts that convey these realities in ways that Norwegian and English do not.

These achievements are, to some extent, expected, given our initial project plan. But in addition, our year at CAS yielded many achievements, insights and publications that were neither planned nor anticipated. They emerged, for a large part, as a result of the way in which working together at CAS encouraged long-term conversations between people who had not worked together before, often from diverse disciplinary backgrounds. Our stay at CAS facilitated a kind of open-ended and slow collaboration, with plenty of time for reflection without a specific and defined outcome. In hindsight, we succeeded in crafting an art of listening that doesn’t just filter everything though our own disciplinary perspectives, but that allowed us to soften disciplinary boundaries in new ways. A result of this is that we cultivated new curiosities and new questions.


  • Fijn, Natasha
    Postdoctoral Fellow Australian National University 2015/2016
  • Gifford-Gonzalez, Diane
    Professor University of California, Santa Cruz 2015/2016
  • Hastrup, Frida
    Associate Professor University of Copenhagen 2015/2016
  • Kramvig, Britt
    Professor UiT The Arctic University of Norway (UiT) 2015/2016
  • Larsen, Kjersti
    Professor Museum of Cultural History 2015/2016
  • Law, John
    Professor Em. the Open University 2015/2016
  • Losey, Rob
    Associate Professor University of Alberta 2015/2016
  • Nustad, Knut G.
    Associate Professor University of Oslo (UiO) 2015/2016
  • Pálsson, Gísli
    Professor University of Iceland 2015/2016
  • Swanson, Heather Anne
    Postdoctoral Fellow Aarhus University 2015/2016
  • Sörlin, Sverker
    Professor Royal Institute of Technology 2015/2016
  • Ween, Gro B.
    Associate Professor Museum of Cultural History 2015/2016

Previous events