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The first settlements

The Northern area has been settled ever since the ice receded, more than 10,000 years ago. Recent archaeological findings and analyses show that the oldest settlements in Norway were in fact found in Finnmark, in Slettnes on the island of Sørøy and Sarnes on Magerøy. This might indicate in-migration from the east that followed the withdrawal of the ice, and the first areas to be free of ice and thus habitable were the islands and coastal areas of the north. Findings indicate that the northern settlements were somewhat unstable. Sites were settled only to be vacated again, and a majority of the population had several dwellings, which they would move between depending on the time of year and the resources available at any given time.

The earliest known written account to describe the Sámi is the story that the chieftain Ottar told Kind Alfred of England during his visit in AD 890. Ottar was, in his own words, the Norwegian who lived furthest north in the country, and he presented himself as a wealthy man. Part of his wealth came from taxation of and trade with the Sámi. He traded in several kinds of pelts, bird feathers, and ropes made of whale and sealskin. The exact location of Ottar’s home is uncertain, but it is believed to have been in southern Troms. Recent archaeological excavations in Slettnes show that the traditional Sámi circular gamme (turf hut) was used from around the beginning of the Christian era, and that this was the most common dwelling in Finnmark throughout the Iron Age.

The Seal Hunting Cultures Project (undertaken in the late 1980’s) “demonstrated the existence of seal hunting villages on the outer coasts of northern Sweden during the Late Iron Age, ca. AD 500 – 1300. Seal hunting had been an integral component of coastal economies from at least 5000 BC, and there is much to suggest the long-term continuity of these sealing societies.”

(Saami prehistory, identity and rights in Sweden, Noel D. Broadbent, p. 3)

In the 15th and 16th centuries, there was large-scale immigration into the costal areas of the whole northern region. Good fishing grounds and high prices for dried fish in Europe served to pull people northward. One consequence of this influx was that the coast-Sámi communities were put under a lot of pressure in the struggle for resources. Moreover, they were already subject to strong religious and cultural influence, which was the result of state policy. It was probably during the same period that the Sámi made the transition from hunting wild reindeer to reindeer husbandry. Several family groups (siidas) would share ownership of a herd of animals. It seems that the mountain Sámi were better able to maintain important elements of their religion, culture and source of livelihood — which might be partly because they were nomads. The way of life in the reindeer siidas also displayed a stronger sense of continuity.