Photograph by Michael S. Quinton, National Geographic

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A tundra vole munches on berries (file photo).

Photograph by Michael S. Quinton, National Geographic

Siberians Raided Rodent Caches for Food

But plundering people sometimes left gifts of needles or cloth.

To survive brutal winters, inhabitants of Siberia and the Russian Far East as recently as the late 19th century raided food stores—of rodents.

According to a new study, records by 18th-century Russian, Swedish, and German explorers describe people using sticks, hoes, or hooks to dig up caches of food gathered by voles and other small mammals.

At the time, most indigenous groups in the region lived nomadically, getting the bulk of their food from hunting, fishing, or herding sheep and horses. (Related: "Horse Taming, Milking Started in Kazakhstan.")

In the absence of agriculture, people living in the region got all their vegetables from the wild, said study leader Ingvar Svanberg, an ethnobiologist at Uppsala University's Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies in Sweden.

"Instead of gathering themselves, by digging up roots in the fields, [people] let rodents do that for them," Svanberg said.

Rodents Were "Poor Serfs" of Siberia

To locate the underground stores, gatherers looked for entryways to burrows or thumped the ground and listened for hollows. A few groups even trained dogs to sniff out the goods.

The nomads taught the trick to Russians and Europeans migrating into the area.

A single cache of roots, bulbs, seeds, and nuts could weigh nearly 30 pounds (13 kilograms), making the buried store an easily won cornucopia. (Related: "Oldest Rodent Cache Found—Filled With Fossil Nuts.")

One German naturalist dubbed the rodents the people's "poor serfs."

Some groups robbed the stores completely, occasionally killing and eating the rodents. Others spared the animals and even left behind a little food to ensure the animals' survival and continued service—or they left inedible gifts such as dried fish, needles, or textiles.

"It was a symbolic way, at least, to give them something back," Svanberg said.

Some early Europeans and North Americans also traditionally exploited rodent caches, he added, and the practice continues today among indigenous groups such as some living near Mexico's Gulf of California.

In Siberia the practice mostly died out in the late 19th century, when colonizing Russians brought potato and onion farming to the region and forced many nomadic groups to settle.

The rodent-cache raiding study appeared in the fall/winter 2010 issue of the Journal of Ethnobiology.