Anthropology Friday: Travels in Siberia: Tungus People

Puyi, final Manchu emperor of China

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday, featuring our final excerpts from Adolf Erman’s Travels in Siberia (vol. 2.) According to Wikipedia‘s undeservedly short article:

Georg Adolf Erman (12 May 1806 – 12 July 1877) was a German physicist. … He studied natural science at the universities of Berlin and Königsberg, spent from 1828 to 1830 in a journey round the world, an account of which he published in Reise um die Erde durch Nordasien und die beiden Ozeane (1833-1848). The magnetic observations he made during his travels were utilized by Carl Friedrich Gauss in his theory of terrestrial magnetism. He was appointed professor of physics at Berlin in 1839, and died there in 1877. From 1841 to 1865 he edited the Archiv für wissenschaftliche Kunde von Russland, and in 1874 he published, with H. J. R. Petersen, Die Grundlagen der Gauss’schen Theorie und die Erscheinungen des Erdmagnetismus im Jahre 1829.

Today our author is traveling among the Tungus people of north-east Asia. The most famous Tungusic people are the Manchus, who ruled over the Qing Dynasty of China from 1644 to 1912. The rest of the Tungusic-language speaking people were nomadic reindeer herders. According to Wikipedia:

Some linguists estimate the divergence of the Tungusic languages from a common ancestor spoken somewhere in Manchuria around 500 BC to 500 AD.(Janhunen 2012, Pevnov 2012)[3] Other theories favor a homeland closer to Lake Baikal. (Menges 1968, Khelimskii 1985)[4] While the general form of the protolanguage is clear from the similarities in the daughter languages, there is no consensus on detailed reconstructions. As of 2012, scholars are still trying to establish a shared vocabulary to do such a reconstruction.[3] …

Currently, Manchu proper is a dying language spoken by a dozen or so elderly people in Qiqihar province, China. However, the closely related Xibe language spoken in Xinjiang, which historically was treated as a divergent dialect of Jurchen-Manchu, maintains the literary tradition of the script, and has around 30,000 speakers. As the only language in the Tungustic family with a long written tradition, Jurchen-Manchu is a very important language for the reconstruction of Proto-Tungusic.

Tungus (Evenki) on reindeer crossing river, Nayachan, Siberia, 1901

Erman tries to ride a deer:

“[The reindeer] were feeding in the neighbourhood of the yurt, and their owner allowed me here to try to ride one of them. Of this experiment it is enough to state, that I was unable, without assistance, to mount on the back of a very patient animal, and then I fell, even at the first step, from the saddle down on the frozen snow. …

“The Tunguzes, in the country round the Lena, however, are under no necessity of procuring food from the Russians; for they eat besides, not only the flesh of the reindeer, but of all the other animals which they kill for the fur trade. I was told, also, that they come to this place mounted on reindeer, a single piece of voilok serving them for a saddle; and also that they hunt with gunpowder and rifles, which they procure for furs in summer, from the merchants going down the Lena. …

“The Russians at this place gave me to understand, that, for permission to hunt, they pay a tribute to the Shulengin or petty chief of the Tunguzes, whose district they visit: for the Tunguzes, as they added by way of explanation, are men of sense and enlightenment ; they stand firmly on their rights, and accost Russian hunters in their forests, with ” Who has invited you here?”

EvX: Our author also notes that the locals enjoy playing cards and chess:

“The Tunguzes, in the circle of Koluimsk, are passionately fond of chess. They carve the chessmen very elaborately out of mammoth’s teeth. These northern nomades probably received their acquaintance with this game, and taste for others, from Ohim at a very early period …

Yukaghir children (there are about 1,600 Yukaghir left in the world.)

“For supper I treated the whole company to black biscuit, which
was devoured as the greatest dainty, along with the usual soup
made of smoked rein-deer’s blood, with dried, sliced flesh of quadrupeds and fish. … I then turned the conversation to the account given me in Krasnoyarsk, of a peculiar Tunguzian custom, namely, that of concluding the dance, in which both sexes join, by stripping off the clothes. There can be no doubt that this statement is, in the main, true, for Ffedor, who had previously had intercourse with the Tunguzes of this quarter, but had never any communication with the Russians of Krasnoyarsk, confirmed to me, fully, what I had heard when I first asked him alone about it. My direct inquiries on this subject from the men here, were seized upon as if they suggested a well-known subject of joking; and the old woman heard me, with that awkward-looking merriment which is produced among us by a pleasant anecdote bordering on indecency.”

Actual Rape Culture:

“And here I must mention the remarkable difference which I soon observed, not only in the external appearance, but in behaviour, also, between the two unmarried girls in the yurt. The younger, and still unaffianced girl, was much fairer and slenderer than Daria, evidently because, in the course of their wanderings, she had not yet taken part in the drudgery of the nomadic housewife. … But that which chiefly distinguished her, was an extraordinary shyness or timidity, which I frequently afterwards witnessed in other Tunguzian young women, and sometimes in Kamchatka. If I happened by accident, and without thinking of it, to meet her alone before the yurt, she would scream, and run away in the greatest fright.

“I learned, subsequently, from Russians, of whom made inquiries, that this behaviour is founded on an ancient and general custom of the Tunguzes and Eamchadales. According to their view, a matrimonial engagement is not definitively arranged and concluded until the suitor has got the better of his beloved by force, and has torn her clothes. The maiden, however, must defend her liberty to the utmost, and consequently she dreads, as we had occasion to observe in Garnastakh and elsewhere, attacks of this kind, even where they are not previously threatened. I never saw an instance of such timidity in the interior of the yurts or tents; and it would appear, therefore, as if a law which is held to be one of the most important in the code of the Mongols and Buraets, prevailed also among the Tunguzes. This law allows offensive assaults on women to be avenged by shedding of blood, yet only in case they have been made inside the tent; on the other hand, the assaulted woman bears the whole blame if she ventures indiscreetly to leave her natural place, the sacred and protecting hearth. …

Women of the Even (Tungus) people

“The girls went out at day-break to fetch ice, and then they began to wash and adorn themselves with unusual care, as if it were worth while to be beautiful only in the open air and bright weather. They put on the new head-dress, having, plaited their tresses afresh, and their jet black hair hung somewhat less than usual over the forehead. The ladder to ‘the flat roof of the yurt was also much employed. The old women Sat there from morning till noon, and hummed their songs in the sunshine, as they did yesterday at the fire. …

“I understand thoroughly the curse of the Tunguzes, “Mayest thou be house-tied like the Russians,” and, also, their practical belief that “a dwelling grows rotten,” when people stay too long in one place. They are a lively and light-hearted people, and however the graces of outward appearance may gratify their cheerful humour, still they are not disposed to sacrifice their freedom or convenience for the sake of them. Frequent journeys seem to them, therefore, to be the most natural, and only applicable means of keeping their property in good order. …

“The reindeer were driven before the yurt early in the morning, and, as a good moss-field had been found for them at no great distance, this part of the business was very quickly despatched to-day. The women rendered especial assistance on the occasion, for they went along with the men into the wood, where they cautiously enclosed the herd on one side, and then suddenly, and with a yelling cry, ran after them. The deer immediately fled, always close together, and continued running s0 long as the cry lasted. To catch the deer singly, the people
had recourse to a long strap, as I had already seen practised among the Ostyaks. …

The riding furniture of the Tunguzes is far more simple, for it consists of nothing but a flat cushion, stuffed about two inches thick which is placed like the pack-saddle forwards on the reindeer’s shoulders. In front where the rider sits it is considerably wider than the animal’s back and projects beyond it, therefore, on both sides. … This saddle is fastened by only a single girth, which is not placed over the middle of the saddle… but on the back part of it, and is fastened underneath, just behind the reindeer’s fore-legs. They then gave me a staff about five feet long, and bid me mount by means of it a full-grown male reindeer, the back of which was not less than four feet high… I tried at first to mount by what appeared to be the simplest way, that is, by swinging myself up as …upon
a horse without stirrups; but the Tunguzes were immediately in a fright and cried out, dolefully, “You are breaking our reindeer’s back.” And this apprehension was well founded, for as soon as the animal’s spine is touched, but a few inches behind the saddle, it bends its knees, and sinks as if under an insupportable load; but it is impossible to mount by leaning on the deer’s shoulder, which is alone capable of bearing a weight, because the lateral jerk, which is unavoidable, is sure to displace the saddle.

Evenk (Tungus) people riding reindeer (source)

“There is no mode, therefore, of mounting the reindeer, but that which the Tunguzes have adopted; and however inconvenient this seamed to us at first, the practice of a few days made us sufficiently expert. The rider, holding the bridle, stands at the right side of the animal, and not on the left, as with us, his face turned forwards; he then raises his left foot to the saddle, which he never touches with his hands, and springing with the right leg, and aided also by the pole, which he holds in his right hand, he mounts into his seat. The women and girls are as expert in this jumping as the men, and I recollect to have seen but once a Tunguzian woman receiving assistance as she mounted. …

“We fell from the saddle six times, at least, in the first quarter of an hour, but improved rapidly as soon as we discovered that the rider must not attempt to attach himself to the body of the reindeer. He must, on the contrary, sit, or rather poise himself, in such a manner that his body may continually, and with facility, as required, lend itself to a swinging motion. …

“In the tent at Ancha, there was living at present, among others, the wife of a Tunguzian prince, with her son, a child about eight years of age. She was above the middle size, very slender, and beautifully formed, and, without regard to her rank, took part in all the housewife’s labours. She was at present making boots of the skin of the slaughtered reindeer. The young chief, on the other hand, was treated with particular attention by all. the men of the party. They introduced him immediately to my notice, and some time elapsed before I learned that his mother, also, was in the tent. He wore, like several of the men here, the state costume of the Tunguzes, which is covered with a number of metal ornaments, attached, some of them to the girdle which braces the clothes round the hips, and some by means of thin chains to a crescent-shaped plate, fixed on the breast for that purpose. I remarked among these appendages, besides the fire-steel and numerous pieces intended merely to rattle, little
tweezers, also, with which the Tunguzes are in the habit of plucking out the hairs of the scanty beard which grows on the upper lip. The caps, and many parts of their leathern dress, were adorned with silver plates, which had been beaten and cut out of coins. These must have descended by inheritance through many generations, for the introduction of silver money from Russia into Siberia has been long forbidden, perhaps because it was found that, owing to the love of the indigenous races for these ornaments, the coin was withdrawn from circulation. Between the pieces of silver were beads of different colours sewed on the leather. …

“The family of the kapitan of Ehoinya is one of the richest among the Tunguzes of the Aldan. They possess numerous herds of reindeer, which find good pasture here at all times of the year; there is also plenty of wild reindeer and other game in the forest round about. It is owing, perhaps, to this favourable situation, that the Tunguzes at this place seem more inclined to a settled and sedentary life than the rest of their countrymen, for I was questioned here, for the first time, respecting my home. I was also asked to give an account of my own yurt,
and to state how far it was from theirs.”

Camping in the Snow:

“We halted to-day, again, on the deep snow in an opening of the wood, so that we had the clouds for a roof. It snowed without intermission in the evening and during the night, yet every one felt satisfied and cheerful, owing to the clever management of the Tunguzes. The moment they alight at a halting-place they unload the reindeer, and lay the saddles and luggage together in good order; the bridles, too, are collected, and hung up on the bough of a tree. In a few minutes the hungry herd disappears in the forest, and a feeling of loneliness then takes possession of the traveller! The men who went out with the axe now drag two large stems of larch to the encampment. The small twigs are cut off, and gathered on the snow (which is cleared away roughly from the fire-place alone) to serve for straw. They then cut from the inside of the thick trunk, some resinous and dry chips, and soon light them with their tinder and sulphur. … The kettle is filled with snow, and hung from a strong branch, which, fixed in the ground on the windward side, leans obliquely over the fire. All this is done in a few minutes, for the Tunguzes proceed in exactly the same order every evening, and their habitual activity seems to
be increased on these occasions, and to be guided effectively by some involuntary impulse. …

“Our drivers then made seats and sleeping-places with the collected twigs and the reindeer saddles, and for me, with the Tuphyak, or Tatar curious, which each of us carried rolled up under his luggage. We then set ourselves close to the fire, and took no further notice of the falling snow, for the warm current of air melted it, or carried the flakes away. Thus we took our supper in the best possible humour, and amused ourselves with watching the flames, the gleam of which fell sometimes on gigantic logs, sometimes on dazzling heaps of snow. The Tunguzes showed themselves here, as elsewhere, extremely agreeable by their wit and sprightliness. Unlike the other Siberian races, they are always inclined to laugh, and, on every topic, seize readily the point of view that suits their humour. To-day, they admitted fully the advantages of the art of writing, as I read to them from my journal some Tunguzian words which I had learned on previous occasions.

“But they were particularly taken with a playful turn which accident gave to this occupation; for, as we read the word khodya^, which signifies to dance, it came into my head to connect it with a subject, making with it either a literal or figurative sense. It was remarkable how quickly and keenly the Tunguzes entered into my views. The first who divined my meaning explained it to the others with loud applause. They then amused themselves with giving different turns to the expression, and repeated with comic solemnity, and as if they were the words of a song, the phrases, “The Tunguzes dance, the reindeer dance, the stars, the snow, the fire, the fox, the squirrel, &c., dance!”

“After so auspicious an introduction, I took care to mention the ballad which we had learned in our encampment at Tungor, and it was to be seen immediately that this was known, and was a favourite here also. As I read it over, my hearers repeated each verse with joyful amazement, and it was not till I had finished that one of them said to the Eosak, in Yakutian, that a part of it required some change, and he furnished, at once, the necessary corrections. …

“Unfortunately, I was unable to get a literal translation of this ballad, for our attendant, after explabing the last line, added, “The rest cannot be translated into Yakutian;” which may possibly have been true enough, considering his imperfect acquaintance with this language. I obtained, however, in reply to numerous questions, the following information respecting its origin and general purport. It is now in the mouths of all the women,
but was sung, in the first instance, by a Tunguzian maid, who had fallen in love with a Koniora Kapitän, that is, an officer or clerk in the counting-house of the American Trading Company. He had, at first, responded to her attachment, but afterwards refused to take her with him, and both these circumstances are stated in the song. Probably the Russian who has thus acquired so unexpected and undeserved a celebrity, was the master of a
ship, and the girl one of the coast Tunguzes, for it is said in the song, ” Let me look once more at the compass.” The deserted damsel afterwards lived in the town, as my companions related, and married a gypsy who was banished from Russia to Okhotsk. To my question respecting the time when all this happened, one cried out, ” Very long ago,” while others maintained that the poetess might perhaps still be found in Okhotsk.* …

I ventured, here, to ask some questions respecting the religious opinions of the Tunguzes, but learned little more than that they have always, and, as well as the Russians, believed in it God, whom they name Hanki. Moreover, they have always “prayed in their own manner,” and they denote their prayers by the same term, nungdleriy which they apply to the Russian rite of making the sign of the cross. They were far more communicative, and better pleased, when I asked them to show me the Tunguzian dance, and for this treat I had been taught by my
former attendants to look forward to the yurt of the Yudoma. We went before the door, to a clear spot between the poplars. Then eight men took one another’s hands, made a ring, and kept moving in it, sometimes from left to right, sometimes in the opposite direction. They went, at first, by steps, then jumping, and at last squatting on their heels, and ejaculated, at the same time, very rapidly, and as if out of breath, the following dissyllables, which begin, collectively, with an aspiration: —Khodya, Hurya, Hknga, Honka, Hundi …

“The women’s dance was then exhibited to us by the two ladies of the yurt, and some men, who assumed the place of women; but they took care to inform us that this was never done when the dance was regularly performed. They formed, in like manner, a ring, but so that each laid her hands on the shoulders of her neighbour; they hung down their heads at the same time, and endeavoured to hide them completely in the middle of the ring. They then moved in the same manner as the men, only always by steps, and called out the word nurgen, alternately, with an inarticulate, extremely singular cry, resembling the squeaking of mice, or of a young pig.


“I have not yet mentioned that here, with the Tunguzes of the Aldan mountains, as among the Kamchadales also, the paper money of the Russians is either unknown or quite valueless, instead of it, they demand, in payment of all the services which they rendered us with their, reindeer, sukhari (or biscuit bread,) and butter; and I had only to fear that the diminution of my stock of provisions might oblige me to be very economical in the use of this new kind of coin. …

“They are the last in the direction of Okhotsk who possess an entire herd of reindeer, and, therefore, we needed their assistance to enable us to continue the journey. I remarked on this occasion, as I had previously done in Ketanda, that the fishing Tunguzes, in consequence of the bartering trade, which the nature and position of their summer abodes lead them to engage in, and of their more frequent intercourse with the Russians, are more quick-witted, and, at the same time, less generous than their fellow-countrymen in the mountains. They take more pains, too, than the latter to learn Russian words, and I was able to make myself understood to some of them without an interpreter. …

Chukchi family by Louis Choris (1816)

“The men here, asked, also, much more urgently and eagerly after a number of European productions. … Then they demanded snuff, which, like the Russian Siberians, they call proskki, or dust; and they particularly wished to get hold of my brass pocket compass, which they supposed to be a snuff-box. They could not comprehend how, with such a quantity of things, I should yet be without any of the articles which the Russian merchants bring with them in summer. They asked for needles, for powder and lead, for tobacco, or for a looking-glass, at least. They begged hardest, however, for flints, and this they did even after (yielding to the all-powerful temptation,) they had unscrewed and appropriated, as I subsequently discovered, the three flints which were in my firearms. Although I was obliged to deny all their prayers, and to allege my poverty, we still continued the best friends, and the sprightly humour of the Tunguzes still shone more brilliantly than ever.”

EvX: Well, that’s the end of our adventure across Siberia. I’m thinking of reading something set somewhere warmer next; any recommendations?


2 thoughts on “Anthropology Friday: Travels in Siberia: Tungus People

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