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?

Anthropology Friday: Yakuts part 2

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday: Travels in Siberia by Adolf Erman. Today we’re continuing with Erman’s observations of the Yakut people of northeast Russia.

Note: While we Americans tend to think of all of Russia east of Moscow as “Siberia,” apparently Siberia is also specific province in Russia as well as a general geographic region. The Yakuts live in a province known as Yakutia or Sakha, which is still in “Siberia the really cold part of the world” but directly to the east of “The Siberian Federal District of Russia.” I don’t know if this is a distinction people actually care about.

Back to Erman:

Church in Yakutsk

“April 8 to 22. — On the plain, north of the Lena, a churchyard marked the commencement of the town [Yakutsk]…The streets succeeding are the most singular that I have ever seen in Siberia, for between structures of European aspect stand the winter yurts of the northern nomades, with their walls of cow-dung, earthen roofs, doors covered with hairy hides, and windows of ice; and among these yurts again, are the frames of the conical summer tents. The bright snow only is spread uniformly over all this, and after a little time there is perceived one pervading design among the heterogeneous elements. The Russian houses are placed forwards to the street, often at considerable distances asunder, but connected in that case by boarded fences, which surround their yards. These extend back to a good distance from the street, and it is in them that the yurts of the Yakuts are seen intermingled with modern buildings, like remains of the original vegetation allowed to stand in cultivated grounds. …

“I was here assured on all sides that frozen earth is found near the surface at every season of the year, and that the same condition of the ground continues to the greatest depth hitherto reached. There was now before my eyes an experiment on a large scale, and quite conclusive, in confirmation of this statement. [An account follows of an attempted well dug into the permafrost]”

EvX: So the Yakut people live in the province of Yakutia whose capital is Yakutsk. According to Wikipedia:

“Its average winter temperature is −34 °C (−30 °F), which makes Yakutsk the coldest city of its size or greater in the world.[12]  … Yakutsk is the biggest city built on continuous permafrost, and most houses there are built on concrete piles. …

summers are warm (though rather short), with daily maximum temperatures occasionally exceeding +30 °C (86 °F),[7] making the seasonal temperature differences for the region the greatest in the world. The lowest temperature recorded in Yakutsk was −64.4 °C (−83.9 °F) on 5 February 1891 and the highest temperatures +38.4 °C (101.1 °F) on 17 July 2011 and +38.3 °C (100.9 °F) on 15 July 1943. The hottest month in records going back to 1834 has been July 1894 with a mean of +23.2 °C (73.8 °F)[14] and the coldest January 1900 which averaged −51.2 °C (−60.2 °F).[15]

Yakutsk is responsible for a fifth of the world’s production of diamonds,[7]

Modern Yakut people

“the Yakuts settled in the town are of essential importance to the general welfare. They receive from the merchants, on whose ground they erect their yurts and summer tents, flour, bread, and several other articles of Russian produce, and pay in return either by a certain stipulated service, or else they bind themselves to a kind of vassalage for a longer time. They are the merchants’ herdsmen and grooms, and are particularly expert in many little arts connected with the (here all-important) business of travelling. To effect the carriage of goods, or forward mercantile despatches, contracts are always made with some of the Yakuts of the town. These furnish the requisite number of horses and oxen from their own droves and herds, or with the help of their countrymen whom they meet on the way. They then go forth as carriers and servants; sometimes along with the traders who load the caravans, sometimes beforehand and alone, to the place of its destination. Russians are never sent from Yakutsk to the east or north. In the neighbourhood of the town, all loads are borne by Yakutian oxen, for greater distances by Yakutian horses; in certain quarters and seasons, reindeer also are employed to hear loads, and dogs to draw the nart.”


Distribution of Chukotko-Kamchatkan languages in the 17th century (hatching,) and today (solid).

“The Yukagirs and Chukchi bring also to these markets the skins of the, wild reindeer, which they kill in summer. Great herds of these shy animals break forth every year, about the breeding time, out of the forests in the south, and migrate, with unrestrainable haste, in a straight line to the naked plains near the sea. …

“Many of the Chückchi, at the fair of Nijnei Eoluimsk, relate that they, with others of their tribe, have crossed from East Cape to America, by the Gvösdev rocks in Behring’s Straits, and have brought back furs with them from thence. They tell the names of many places on the shores of the other continent, and their intercourse with the Americans is the more credible, as the language of the Chückchi at East Cape is found to be connected with that of the Aleutes at Eadjak. The merchants of Yakutsk believe such expeditions across the Northern Sea to be quite easy, and customary, for they themselves personally undertake, or cause to be executed, every year numerous journeys of the same kind, and of much greater extent than a trip across Behring’s Straits.”

EvX: The Chukchi people live way out on the far tip of Russia and the Kamchatka Peninsula.  an According to Wikipedia:

In prehistoric times, the Chukchi engaged in nomadic hunter gatherer modes of existence. In current times, there continue to be some elements of subsistence hunting, including that of polar bears,[7] marine mammals and reindeer. Beginning in the 1920s, the Soviets organized the economic activities of both coastal and inland Chukchi and eventually established 28 collectively run, state-owned enterprises in Chukotka. All of these were based on reindeer herding, with the addition of sea mammal hunting and walrus ivory carving in the coastal areas. Chukchi were educated in Soviet schools and today are almost 100% literate and fluent in the Russian language. Only a portion of them today work directly in reindeer herding or sea mammal hunting, and continue to live a nomadic lifestyle in yaranga tents.[8]

Their language belongs to a very small family with few remaining speakers that is obviously speculated to be related to nearby Aleut and Eskimo (Inuit) languages, but nothing has been proven conclusively. There are several other speculated language groups, of which the strangest (and thus most interesting) is Indo-European:

In a 2015 paper, Gerhard Jäger reported “intriguing” and “controversial” findings regarding Chukotko-Kamchatkan. Using a variant of mass lexical comparison, augmented by computational linguistic techniques, such as large-scale statistical analysis, to investigate “deep genetic relations between languages”, Jäger found evidence that Chukotko-Kamchatkan and the Indo-European languages had statistically-significant similarities with each other. On the whole, the similarities between the two families were greater than either shared with any other language family. This was the case even though Jäger factored in the possibility of language contact. The results were unaffected by the removal of similarities in phonology that were likely random coincidences – such as a “surprisingly high number” of resemblances in vocabulary between Chukotko-Kamchatkan and two Goidelic languages (namely Scottish Gaelic and Manx): according to Jäger, the confidence value of a notional “Indo-European/Chukotko-Kamchatkan clade”, when these “rogue taxa” were removed, fell only slightly, from 0.969 to a still statistically-significant 0.964.[5]

I’m not in the position to judge the validity of this. Back to Erman:

“It cannot escape notice that, as we go nearer to the coast, the deposits of wood below the earth, and also the deposit of bones which accompanies the wood, increase in extent and frequency. Here, beneath the soil of Yakutsk, the trunks of birch trees lie scattered only singly; but, on the other hand, they form such great and well-stored strata, under the tundras between the Yana and the Indigirka, that the Yukagirs there never think of using any other fuel than fossil wood. They obtain it on the shores of lakes, which are continually throwing up trunks of trees from the bottom. In the same proportion the search for ivory grows continually more certain and productive, from the banks of the lakes in the interior to the hills along the coast of the Icy Sea. …

“The main object of the expedition was to make a new assessment of the yasak or fur tribute for the several families and tribes of the indigenous population; and we were told that they were instructed by the government to deal with the people in the mildest possible manner. Yet they had been able to increase the yasak every where throughout the tracts occupied by the Yakuts and Tunguzes along the Upper Lena, as the number of inhabitants had increased there considerably during the last fifty years. It is said that the same result is obtained for all Siberia taken together, and that exceptions are to be found only in localities where endemic diseases prevail, as in the case of the Verkhovian Ostyaks.

“I heard on this occasion of a particular kind of numerical notation, invented during the present intercourse with the aboriginal tribes, and in which the new assessments were expressed and enjoined to the several communities, and the old accounts settled. It consisted of only six different figures, which represented furs to the value of 5 and 10 kopeks, and of 1, 10, 100, and 1000 roobles respectively. When the amount of the assessment was agreed on, it was written in these runes on paper, and then cut on wooden staves as permanent memorials, as the Ostyaks and Votyaks are accustomed to do in their private transactions. To the inhabitants of remote and secluded yurts this was obviously an event of great importance, and worthy to form an epoch in their history. The Yakuts celebrated it in extemporaneous songs, of which a Russian interpreter preserved this fragment: “The commission erected its throne with us for the good of all; receive it well, ye other tribes, that ye also may be dealt with wisely,” …

“No less peculiar is the food of these people; they all prefer horse flesh to beef, but are so careful of their cattle that none but the richest slaughter any regularly, the rest only on festivals and special occasions. At wedding feasts all the guests are treated with beef, and the bride serves up to her future lord a boiled horse’s head, garnished with a kind of sausage made of horse flesh. Far more important to the majority of the Yakuts is the milk of their cows and mares. In summer they have the greatest abundance of it, and then they use it unmixed in making many dishes. For winter they keep a stock of milk in vessels of birch bark, and with a certain quantity of it, thinned with water, and some vegetable substances, they make their daily porridge. It is only in the neighbourhood of the Russians that they can procure flour for this purpose; in the remoter yurts, the under bark of the fir and larch supplies the ordinary material of bread. This is pounded in a mortar, made, like the walls of the yurts themselves, of cow-dung laid on basket work, and frozen hard.

“In June and July, when the mares foal, the Yakuts show themselves as skilful as the Bashkirs, Buraets, and other Siberian tribes, in the art of setting mare’s milk into the vinous fermentation. They then celebrate a religious thanksgiving and festival, at which the men empty off, at a single draught, immense wooden goblets of these intoxicating drinks. The women are, on these occasions, obliged to content themselves with the intoxication of tobacco fumes. There are some, also, who distil the sour milk, as is done by the Buraets, in an iron kettle; which, in order to collect the vapours driven off, is covered with a board, and provided with a wooden tube passing under water. The Yakutian name, aruiguiy designates both this national spirit and Russian brandy.”

EvX: The only problem with a diet based largely on mare’s milk is that Siberians aren’t particularly lactose tolerant, and mare’s milk has 40% more lactose than cow’s milk. (Ancient Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro recommended using mare’s milk as a laxative.) The obvious solution is fermentation, which removes the offending sugars and makes the milk mildly alcoholic. The resulting beverage is called kumis, and popular throughout the nomadic Asian world.

The website Discover Tuva: Traditional Cuisine provides an interesting description of kumis’s distillation into a stronger liquor:

Araka (araga) is a milk vodka. One of the national drinks which is worth trying at least once in lifetime. To make araka a hooch still is used – a unique invention of Tuvan mind, so called shuuruun: it is a poplar stem with removed pith, fixed with stones right in a vessel, on the top – a jar with cold water which condensates alcohol, tube cracks are wrapped around with felt. During boiling the drink called “shimi aragazy” comes out of the shuuruun by a special gutter. There is not a lot of alcohol there – about 20%. To get stronger vodka it is distilled second time until 70-80 degrees. Such vodka is called “dan” (“dawn”).

Back to Erman:

“Although the Yakuts are considerably inferior in civilization to the Buddhistic Buraets, yet they possess, in many respects, extraordinary cleverness and knowledge. They have the appearance, rather, of a people who have grown wild, than of a thoroughly and originally rude race. Their skilful management of the deer-skin, and their expertness in ornamental sewing, are conspicuous in every article of their clothing, and in many details of Yakutian house-keeping, to be mentioned hereafter. …  Some productions of Yakutian industry are purchased by the Russians, and sent into Europe, particularly floor-cloths of white and coloured felts, which are cut into narrow pieces, and then tastefully and symmetrically sewed together, like mosaic. It is a still weightier circumstance that these people have been able, from the earliest times, to procure themselves certain metals, and have known how to work them. …

“The Yakutian steel is easily distinguished from the Russian, by its being somewhat flexible; and yet blades made of it will cut copper and pewter as easily as the best European blades. The wooden handle of the knife is always ornamented, after the original fashion, with tin work; from which it is evident that they procured the materials from Nerchinsk, before the Russians knew any thing of the metals in that quarter. They cut figures in the wood, and cast the tin into the hollow; a large knob of the metal left at the top of the knife-handle, is then shaped with the chisel. The sheaths of these Yakutian daggers are made of birch bark, and covered with black leather, on which, again, are metal mountings, with straight-lined patterns engraved on them. …

“Their yellow complexion, the sharp lines of their faces, which express indolent and amiable gentleness rather than vigour and passion, their pitch-black hair, also, which the men wear cut close, all reminded me of the Tatars of Western Siberia. The Yakutian women look much more lively and cheerful than the men; they are often very beautifully formed, have regular features and sparkling black eyes…

“The teachers in the schools in Yakutsk, informed me that in their Yakutian scholars was to be remarked a singular aptitude for mechanical arts; but that, on the other hand, it was vain to think of teaching them arithmetic, or any such logical acquirements. Other Russians, who were as well acquainted with the language of the Yakuts as with their own, told me that the songs of those people often contain very remarkable passages of a character which we should call romantic. Thus, they assume that ”the trees of the forest hold discourse with one another; and other inanimate things with men.” These poetic fantasies pass away, for the most part, just as they arise, for whether on a journey, or in cheerful humour at home, every one sings the new impressions made on him at the moment, by the objects around him. They have for that purpose a kind of song consisting of only two notes; these are repeated frequently in such a way that the higher note follows the lower till towards the end of each part or verse, when their order is reversed. The whole air sounds so melancholy, that I often thought that I heard some one in the town wailing aloud, when, in fact, it was only the extemporaneous song of tbe Yakuts. It is not unlikely that my occupations have lived for the moment in Yakutian verses.

“The men inhabiting the yurts near our residence, used to come every night to the yard, to observe the use made of the transit instrument, [an astronomical measuring device] … They were of opinion that I was reckoning the stars, and wrote down each of them in the account; that, in fact, a star had been lost in St. Petersburg, and I had been sent to try whether it could be found again in any part of the earth. This story spread through the town, in the first instance, so generally, that even Russians asked me whether it was well founded; it then made its way over the country, even as far as the Tunguzes.”


“In the neighbourhood of the Russians, the original good nature of the Yakuts has been adulterated with a great deal of vanity, and some covetousness. Crimes, though still rare among them, are no longer quite unheard of. When I was staying in the town, a man was murdered in the street, while returning to a yurt in the neighbourhood. Another Yakut came forward to say that he had found the dead body, but the day after he confessed that he was the murderer, and that his sole object was to get the dead man’s money. …

Yakut summer house

“There, in a cleared spot of the wood, stand four winter yurts; close by are some paddocks fenced in, to keep the cattle together in summer, and a frame of a tent, which is likewise used only in the warm season. It is formed of a number of poles, about twenty feet
long, which are united at the top into a roomy cone. … Here the people were, in fact, repairing a roof of this kind. It was made of quadrangular pieces of bright yellow and perfectly flexible bark, which was not merely joined together, but was very handsomely worked along the seam with horsehair thread.

“From Talbuiyakhtatsk, we again went on through a hilly
country, covered with a thick forest of larch. … In hollows of this kind, lie the yurts of Tegulinsk and of Chasnigyisk, the former of
which we reached about seven in the evening, and the latter at midnight. Here, too, the winter habitations have ice windows, the log walls are caulked, as it were, with cow-dung, and flanked with walls of earth to the height of the windows. The flat roof is covered over with earth, and on the east side prolonged with boards over the door. …

“The winter cow-house is under the same roof with the yurt. It is always larger than this, but has much thinner walls. The life led in these yurts is very comfortable, although a stranger in them would suppose, from the smell, that he was in a cowhouse. There is at all times a blazing fire in the hearth, which is made of beaten earth, and upright logs of larch wood throw out, with a peculiar crackling, showers of sparks to the roof. There were always some calves in the yurt, tied to the posts near the fire, while the cows cast a contented look through the open cow-house door, at the back of the fire-place. There, too, are the sleeping-places of the people, which, in the poorer yurts, are made only by a continuation of the straw from the cowhouse. During the evening, all the inmates of the yurt, men and women, sit round the fire on low stools, and smoke, with their little pipes, a mixture of wood shavings and tobacco. …

“In the woods between these places, I remarked for the first time, a singular custom of the nomadic Yakuts. At different points on the road the trees were to be seen hung thick with horse-hair, and my driver assured me that every horseman who passed by was sure to add more or less to this strange store. … Our Yakut attendant said further, in reply to our inquiries—and, indeed, all his answers in similar matters were much to the same effect — that it was done in compliance with ancient custom, and that he knew no other reason for it. Yet the religious bearing of this custom appears at once from its name, which signifies a propitiation for the JAeshi or Spirit of the
Woods, as the Eosaks explain it. …

“One of the elder [Yakut] children, which was running about with the others, was afflicted with a remarkable and formidable-looking eruption. The left side of its body exhibited a wound about an inch wide, which had extended, herpetically, from the head perpendicularly down to the middle of the body. On the parts affected, the upper skin seemed totally destroyed, and instead of it there was only to be seen the blood-red flesh. The parents, when I asked them about this malady, seemed to lode upon it as a usual and ordinary matter; and in truth I subsequently saw many cases of it among the Yakuts, but chiefly in children.”

EvX: I’m glad I live in the age of modern medicine.  Our author also makes an account of goiters, which afflicted the Russians in the area around Lake Baikal rather severely:


“In the villages of Rijnaya and Turutskaya, (sixty and ninety- four versts, respectively from Sokninsk,) goitres were still more frequent than hitherto. I saw them today on several men also; in the valley higher up, the disease seemed to be confined almost exclusively to women. The sufferers here had also a bluish complexion, with projecting eyes, and a staring, imbecile look. In Turutsk I asked an exile, who was the only healthy-looking inhabitant of the place, how he had protected himself from goitre; and received for answer, that adults arriving from Europe were never attacked by the disease; that “the goitre was born with the children of the natives, and grew up with the man.” …

“When we find in the valley of the Lena, from Petrovsk to Dnbrova, goitres so far advanced that cretinism, in conformity with Fodera’s experience, must speedily ensue, — though inter-marriage with ‘newly-arrived convicts, or with the Tunguzes, may help to check the development of the disease… ”

That’s all for today; see you next Friday.


Anthropology Friday: Old Believers, Buryats, and the Russian Far East

Georg Adolf Erman

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we are continuing with Adolf Erman’s Travels in Siberia (vol. 2.,) published in 1848 (though the journey itself took place around 1829.) For the past few chapters he has been traveling through the more Russian part of the region, which is of course of considerably less interest from the anthropological point of view, but the following bit attracted my attention.

First, a little necessary background: Erman is a German scientist who, along with several others, has been hired by the Norwegian government to measure the magnitude of magnetic lines across Russia. Doubtless he also has the support of the Russian government, but I don’t really know the details because that was covered back in Volume 1, which I haven’t read. Erman and his crew travel from yurt to yurt or town to town, staying with the locals and hiring new animals as needed. When in town, the local authorities assigned some villager to house him for the night, the occasion which begins our vignette:

“The house assigned to us was upon this height, and, though of an antiquated character, was still in a better style than any we had yet seen in Siberia. It consisted of two stories, the upper of which was reached by a broad, ill-lighted staircase, with many turnings, and within the house. …

“The knowledge of the fact of our being lodged with a family of bigoted schismatics, was forced upon me in a manner not the most agreeable, by their refusing to supply us with any other than broken and unserviceable utensils for our table or cooking. They had been persuaded that we were foreign infidels, with whom all intercourse was forbidden to the faithful. I was consequently obliged to open negotiations with the roaster of the house, a man advanced in years, and, though subdued by excessive mortification, of unusually large and powerful frame. He assured me that, not only the Mohammedan Tatars, but even the Jews, were considered more of a Christian people than the Germans; for the former would, both of them, observe a fast or abstain from particular meats, whereas the latter indulged in any abomination at any season. He likewise expressed the annoyance he felt at my keeping such an unclean and accursed animal as a dog in my chamber.”

EvX: I assume the Schismatic here is an Old Believer:

In Russian Orthodox church history, the Old Believers, more accurately Old Ritualists … separated after 1666 from the official Russian Orthodox Church as a protest against church reforms introduced by Patriarch Nikon of Moscow between 1652 and 1666. Old Believers continue liturgical practices that the Russian Orthodox Church had maintained before the implementation of these reforms.

Russian speakers refer to the schism itself as raskol (Russian: раскол), etymologically indicating a “cleaving-apart.”

The proposed changes were, by modern standards, quite slight, but the Old Believers were having none of it.

Opponents of the ecclesiastical reforms of Nikon emerged among all strata of the people and in relatively large numbers (see Raskol). … The Old Believers fiercely rejected all innovations, and the most radical amongst them maintained that the official Church had fallen into the hands of the Antichrist. Under the guidance of Archpriest Avvakum Petrov (1620 or 1621 to 1682), who had become the leader of the Old Believers’ movement, the Old Believers publicly denounced and rejected all ecclesiastical reforms. The State church anathematized both the old rites and books and those who wished to stay loyal to them at the synod of 1666. From that moment, the Old Believers officially lacked all civil rights. The State had the most active Old Believers arrested, and executed several of them (including Archpriest Avvakum) some years later in 1682. …

After 1685, a period of persecutions began, including both torture and executions. Many Old Believers fled Russia altogether, particularly for the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, where the community exists to this day. Old Believers became the dominant denomination in many regions, including the Pomors of the Russian Far North, in the Kursk region, in the Ural Mountains, in Siberia and in the Russian Far East. The 40,000-strong community of Lipovans still lives in neighboring Kiliya Raion (Vylkove) of Ukraine and Tulcea County of Romania in the Danube Delta. By the 1910s, in the last Imperial Russian census just before the October Revolution, approximately ten percent of the population of the Russian Empire said that they belonged to one of the Old Believer branches (census data).[citation needed]

In 1905, Tsar Nicholas II signed an act of religious freedom that ended the persecution of all religious minorities in Russia. The Old Believers gained the right to build churches, to ring church bells, to hold processions and to organize themselves. … People often refer to the period from 1905 until 1917 as “the Golden Age of the Old Faith”.

Small hidden communities have been found in the Russian Far North (specifically remote areas of Arkhangelsk Oblast and the Komi Republic) and various regions of Siberia, especially concentrated in the areas between the Altai Mountains and Tuva Republic. Perhaps the highest concentration of older established Old Believer communities, with foundations dating back hundreds of years, can be found concentrated in Eastern Siberia, specifically the Transbaikal region in desolate areas of Buryatia and Zabaykalsky Krai. Others, like the Lykov family, fled later into the wild to avoid Communist persecution.

The Lykov Family is interesting in its own right:

The Lykov family (Russian: Лыков) was a Russian family of Old Believers.[1] The family of six is known for spending 42 years in complete isolation from human society in an otherwise uninhabited upland of Abakan Range, in Tashtypsky District of Khakassia (southern Siberia). Since 1988, only one daughter, Agafia, survives.

Back to Erman and the Tunguzes (AKA Tunguses):

“The marriage tie is considered indissoluble by the northern Tunguzes, and, though they allow a plurality of wives, these are generally treated with kindness and affection; though it is usual to resign one of them to the Russian adventurers who visit the tundras in the summer, from whom they expect a share of the proceeds of their hunting excursions in return. …

“In addition to the fragments of weapons, mining-tools and trinkets already described by Spaskyi and others, we were
here shown a number of circular metallic discs, of four or six inches diameter, one surface of which was polished for a mirror, while the opposite side was uniformly furnished with a sort of button, having a hole drilled through it, and which was evidently intended for a handle. The exterior rim surrounding this button was ornamented with elegant figures in relief, which, as well as on the other articles, were almost always representations of animals. I was much surprised at never seeing among these the argali, or wild sheep, which is so constantly found upon the monumental relics of the Nomadic Siberian tribes; whereas the ass, which is in such universal request in the southern adjacent
countries, occurred in almost every compartment. The most important consideration, however, is, that these mirrors are found in graves which, as the present Tatar inhabitants of the circle maintain, belong to a race now extinct, and totally different from theirs. Now, we know that mirrors, precisely similar to these, are still in use among the Buraets in their religious ceremonies, and that they are peculiar to the ritual of the Buddhists ; and they thereby furnish another argument for the antiquity and extended influence of this remarkable creed.”

EvX: A quick search for “Russian burial mound mirror” returned this beauty:

Silver mirror with gilded and embossed decoration. Image: Leonid Yablonsky

According to the article, “Extraordinary kurgan burial shines new light on Sarmatian life“:

A Sarmatian burial mound excavated this summer in Russia’s Southern Ural steppes has yielded a magnificent but unusual treasure.

The artefacts contained within the mound are helping to shed light on a little-known period of the nomadic culture that flourished on the Eurasian steppe in the 1st millennium BC. …

The kurgans which are scattered across the steppes contain many Scythian and Sarmatian relics and while the nomads successfully interacted with the Persian Achaemenid and Greek civilizations, they still preserved a unique culture of their own. …

An underground passage near the entrance was the first area of exploration this season. A massive cast bronze cauldron with a diameter of 102 cm was discovered there. Its handles were fashioned in the traditions of the Scythian-Siberian animal style with an image of two griffins, beak to beak. …

A small wicker chest that is thought to be a vanity case was found near the skull. It was filled to the brim with items including a cast silver container with a lid, a gold pectoral, a wooden box, cages, glass, silver and earthenware bathroom flasks, leather pouches, and horse teeth that contained red pigments.

Nearby lay a large silver mirror with gilded stylized animals on the handle and embossed decoration on the back with the image of an eagle in the centre, surrounded by a procession of six winged bulls.

Recall our conversation last week on the subject of griffins. [Spelling note: A griffon is a type of dog.] Also, the Wikipedia page on Sarmatians, an historical confederation of Iranian peoples.

Moving on, the tale of a banished soldier from Napoleon’s Army:

“[We] drove on to the village of Torgashino, on the right bank of the Yenisei, to visit some springs there also. Our postillion’s inquiry, whether we wished to stop at the porcelain manufactory, was a suggestion so unexpected, that my curiosity was excited to enter a small wooden house, the master of which addressed me in a foreign accent. I soon learned that he was an Italian, named Antonio Fornarini, a native of Ancona, who had followed the colours of Napoleon into Russia. He had settled at first, along with other prisoners of war, in Little Russia, but having engaged in some revolutionary attempts there, had been banished first to the government of Kasan, and subsequently to Krasnoyarsk. Here his thoughts were directed, by the mountainous character of the neighbourhood, to seek for the available productions of his native land; and thus he discovered, after a tedious search, a variety of clay, near Yeniseisk, applicable to the manufacture of china and earthenware. Many specimens of his skill were afterwards shown me in the city…

“I may here add, that I encountered a Frenchman the next day, in Krasnoyarsk, who had belonged to the old guard, and who was now steward of the household to the governor. He, too, had married a Siberian wife, and assured me that he had no desire to return to his native country, where he had been nearly forgotten, he supposed.”

On the Warmth of Ostyak Clothing:

“Professor Hansteen, whom I overtook here, had passed through Nijnei Udinsk the day before, and from him I first learned that the cold of the preceding night had been more severe than any we had previously experienced in Siberia. Some quicksilver, which he had used in making an observation with his sextant, had frozen in a shallow saucer just under his window, and was found so in the morning. I had been so completely protected by my Ostyak dress, and a piece of voilok which I had thrown over the open part of my sledge, that I had never felt this excessive cold. …

The Selengyin Buryats, (c. 1900)

In Irkutsk (Buryats):

“Our vicinity to the Celestial Empire could hardly be forgotten in presence of the Buraets, who are closely allied to the natives of the northern provinces of China in language and customs, and by whose victorious ancestors many usages were imposed upon their southern neighbours, which are now supposed exclusively characteristic of the Chinese. Numbers of them came down to the city every day from the mountains. Their winter traffic is in hay, or peltry obtained with the bow. They brought the hay in wagons drawn by oxen, which I had never seen in Siberia before. Many came on horseback. They wear their hair in a long tuft, partly covered with a hat made of black sheep-skin running- into a cone above the head, and having long flaps of the same material, which they can draw over the sides and back of the head. The mantle of the poorer sort is also of skins, with the hair inwards; but the richer and more respectable class always wear it of cloth, but similar in fashion. It is a sort of cloak with sleeves, the two front parts of which wrap one over the other on the breast, so that the upper flap lies on the left shoulder. The edges of this wrapper, as well as the shoulders and back, are always faced with fur or stripes of red cloth, which gives an appearance of civilization and even elegance to the poorest. Every one carries his smoking apparatus at his girdle, and his tea-cup projecting under the breast of his jerkin.”

Buryat Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1989

EvX: According to Wikipedia:

The Buryats… numbering approximately 500,000, are the largest indigenous group in Siberia, mainly concentrated in their homeland, the Buryat Republic, a federal subject of Russia. They are the major northern subgroup of the Mongols.[4]

Buryats share many customs with other Mongols, including nomadic herding, and erecting gers for shelter. Today, the majority of Buryats live in and around Ulan-Ude, the capital of the republic, although many live more traditionally in the countryside. …

The Buryat people are descended from various Siberian and Mongol peoples that inhabited the Lake Baikal Region including Kurykans, who are also the ancestors of the Siberian Turkic Yakuts. Then in the 13th century the Mongolians came up and subjugated the various Buryat tribes (Bulgachin, Kheremchin) around Lake Baikal. The name “Buriyad” is mentioned as one of the forest people for the first time in The Secret History of the Mongols (possibly 1240).[6] It says Jochi, the eldest son of Genghis Khan, marched north to subjugate the Buryats in 1207.[7] The Buryats lived along the Angara River and its tributaries at this time. …

The historical roots of the Buryat culture are related to the Mongolic peoples. After Buryatia was incorporated into Russia, it was exposed to two traditions – Buddhist and Christian. Buryats west of Lake Baikal and Olkhon (Irkut Buryats), are more “russified”, and they soon abandoned nomadism for agriculture, whereas the eastern (Transbaikal) Buryats are closer to the Khalkha, may live in yurts and are mostly Buddhists. In 1741, the Tibetan branch of Buddhism was recognized as one of the official religions in Russia, and the first Buryat datsan (Buddhist monastery) was built.

Traditional wooden Buryat hut/yurt

“In spite of the climate, the flora of Irkutsk is richer than that of Berlin, exhibiting the plants of warmer countries intermixed with those of the arctic regions. … The same holds good with regard to the fauna of the Transbaikalian districts. We see the Tunguze, mounted on his reindeer, passing the Buraet with his camel, and discover the tigers of China in the forests where the bear is taking its winter sleep. …

“Just at the outskirts of the town we fell in with the encampment of a Buraet family, where we had our first opportunity of gathering some particulars of the mode of life and habits of this remarkable race. Their dwelling consisted of two conical tents upon a level plot of ground, and en-
closed with a wooden paling, to prevent the horses from straying. The rest of their cattle were, as usual, left to pasture upon the neighbouring steppe : there the cows, sheep, horses, and camels, which compose the possession of the Buraets of Seknginsk, find a certain, though scanty, subsistence through the winter. Their tents, like those of the Sämoyedes, were constructed with poles meeting together at top, and encompassing a circular space below. Their felt tent-clothes, which supplied the place of the Obdorsk deer-skins, were, like them, doubled, but the Suraets arrange their tent-poles at a much greater angle above than the Samoyedes. …

“The Buraets, in this quarter, have lived in fixed habitations … from time immemorial. They possess large herds of cattle; but for their food they use mare’s milk. They make hay in the valleys, and hunt the fur animals for their own use, and for trade also; for we met them frequently on the road, with sledges drawn by oxen, on which they were carrying their hay to Irkutsk. The men carried bows, which were much smaller than those of the Ostyaks, yet may possibly be quite as effective ; for instead of the hard wood in the middle, the bows here were lined with handsomely polished plates of cow’s horn. …

source: Guide to Buryatia, Russia

“The men had their hair, which they let grow upon the crown of the head, plaited into a long queue that hung quite down their backs. The rest of the head was cut close, but not shaved, as among the Tatars. The complete removal of the hair is distinctive of the priesthood. The head-dress of the women was extravagantly rich. They wore their hair in two thick braids, which fell from the temples below the shoulders; besides which they bind a fillet round their foreheads studded with beads of mother of pearl or Uraliaa malachite, and enriched with roundish pieces of polished coral. The unmarried girls interweave their braids with strings of the same costly materials. The beauty of the females is well deserving of such ornaments. Their eyes are lively and impressive, and their cheeks, notwithstanding the darkness of their skin, are tinged with a ruddy hue. A dress, fitting closely to the person, displays the symmetry of their delicate figures, and most of those whom we encountered seemed to be above the middle size.

Pandito Hambo-Lama Damba Ajushchev, the Buddhist fellow on the left, is the head of Russia’s Buddhists and lives in Buryatia. He is standing with Muhammad Rachimov, Talgat Tadschuddin, Cyril I, Berel Lazar – together with Vladimir Putin on the Day of Unity (2012) in front of the Minin and Poscharski monument in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral on the Red Square in Moscow. (Note this was partly translated via Google so I apologize if part of it is garbled.)

“The inside of their houses displays a whimsical association of civilization and rudeness. The fire-place is nothing more than a hole dug in the middle of the apartment, with the felt-mats and cushions on which they sleep ranged round it. We had already seen some specimens of their metal ornaments in Irkutsk. Their implements for striking fire are deservedly preferred to the European, and bear a high price among the Russians. … We often remarked the steel work of their riding gear and other articles of furniture, so beautifully engraved, and so firmly, and cleverly inlaid with plates of copper and silver, as to rival the execution of the artists of Tula, I may here mention, among other samples of their workmanship, a pipe, which had been executed in the steppe, and which could hardly be turned out more elegantly finished from any workshop in Europe. It was only about a foot long, which is the usual size here, and had an exceedingly small bowl; which, as well as the stem itself, was wholly of silver. Both of those portions were adorned with reliefs, and inlaid with red coral, while the stem was in two parts closing so neatly with a sort of hinge, that the junction along the bore was sufficiently air-tight. The only Chinese articles we saw with them were tea-cups and bowls of varnished wood, which are capable of resisting the action of boiling water.

“An object which from religious associations seemed more deserving our attention, was a sort of altar which stood against the wall of the tent opposite the door. It was a kind of double chest, carefully finished, the lower portion of which was about four feet long, … The hinder sides of both were precisely in a line, so that the greater breadth of the lower chest left it to project beyond the other, and form a sort of table in front. Several drawers were contained in the lower chest, in which all the requisites for the performance of religious worship were deposited during journeys.
A highly coloured painting hung down upon the front of the upper compartment and concealed it entirely. It was a representation of Chigemune, the principal burkhan or saint of the Mongols, sitting as if engaged in prayer with his legs drawn under him. Upon the table before this figure, six round bronze cups of about an inch in diameter were ranged at equal distances; they were filled with water, and a mirror, also round, and of the same metal, lay among them. This apparatus is used by the lamas or priests for a purpose which is compared by the Russians to the consecration of water according to the Greek rite, but it is more probably a symbol of the transmission of spiritual endowments. The figure of the burkhan is held opposite to the mirror, a stream of water being at the same time poured over it into the little dishes, which in this manner receive the image of the divinity along with the water. The discovery of similar mirrors in the Kurgans or strangers’ graves, in the circle of Minusink, has been already noticed.”

That’s all for today; see you next week!

Anthropologyish Friday: Griffins and Tatars

Vase featuring a battle between a griffon and warrior in Scythian clothes, from the Louve

Hello and welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we’re featuring a short, speculative segment from Adolf Erman’s Travels In Siberia (vol. 2) on possible connections with Greek history and some customs of the Tatar people.

Some interesting observations on local caves:

“The metal utensils and the fire-places in these caves leave no doubt that they were inhabited in ancient times by itinerant metal finders, of whom similar traces are found farther south, also in the Ural, in the country of the Voguls ; and who at one time spread themselves over all parts of northern Asia with the same object, just as the famed Yenitian adventurers went through the German mountains.

“But it is manifest, also, that the Greek information respecting the gold-seeking Arimaspis, whom the ancients unanimously assigned to the northern branches of the Ural, referred in reality to some of these temporary dwellers in the western part of the country of the Samoyedes ; and well might they credit Aristeas of Proconesus, when he related that, on a journey in the northeast of Europe, he collected those accounts from the farthest of the hunting tribes which he had reached. The obscurest portion of his narrative, in which he tells us that the Arimaspis seeking metals in the extreme north of Europe, “drew forth the gold from under the Grifons,” will be found to be, at this moment, literally true in one sense, if we only bear in mind the zoologically erroneous language used by all the inhabitants of the Siberian tundras.”

EvX: According to Herodotus:

This Aristeas, possessed by Phoibos, visited the Issedones; beyond these (he said) live the one-eyed Arimaspoi, beyond whom are the Grypes that guard gold, and beyond these again the Hyperboreoi, whose territory reaches to the sea. Except for the Hyperboreoi, all these nations (and first the Arimaspoi) are always at war with their neighbors.[2]

Woolly Rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis,) Yamalo-Nenetsky region, Siberia, Russia Museum of Toulouse

“By comparing numbers of the bones of antediluvian pachyderms, which are thrown up in such quantities on the shores of the polar sea, all these people have got so distinct a notion of a colossal bird, that the compressed and sword-shaped horns, for example, of the Rhinoceros … are never called, even among the Russian … merchants, by any other name than that of ” birds’ claws.” The indigenous tribes, however, and the Yukagirs in particular, go much farther, for they conceive that they find the head of this mysterious bird in the peculiarly vaulted cranium of the same rhinoceros; its quills in the leg bones of other pachyderms, of which they usually make their quivers; but as to the bird itself, they plainly state that their forefathers saw it and fought wondrous battles with it: just as the mountain Samoyedes preserve to this day the tradition, that the mammoth still haunts the sea-shore, dwelling in the recesses of the mountain and feeding on the dead.”


Siberian Tatars during a festival

“On the morning of the 27th we were again surprised at seeing, beyond these Russian villages, in the vicinity of Tobolsk, and close to the steep bank of the Irtuish, sooty and squalid yurts. We entered them, and immediately knew the occupants to be Tatars, as well from the shaven crowns of the men, as from the handsome brunette visages of both sexes. This was the place called Phildtefsk, which we saw at our departure, only in the evening and from a distance. The Ostyak mode of living cannot be confounded with that of these people, yet the yurts of both are shaped alike; but those of the Tatars have always the advantage in cleanliness, and, besides the chubal of beaten clay, there is also the well-set boiler: in the recesses, too, instead of skins there lies usually some woven fabric, sometimes cushions of Russian cloth, sometimes Bucharian carpets, and, with the poorest, at least coverlets of hairy felt. The men and women were now sitting, with their legs crossed under them, squeezed together round a tall vessel in which the brick tea was prepared; there was at the same time a strong odour of fat from the horse-flesh in the great pot.

“It is only on the wildest spots of the thickly wooded banks of the river that these descendants of the former rulers of the country are still to be seen…”

EvX: According to Wikipedia:

The Tatars are a Turkic people[1] living in Asia and Europe who were one of the five major tribal confederations (khanlig) in the Mongolian plateau in the 12th century CE. The name “Tatar” first appears in written form on the Kul Tigin monuments as (TaTaR). Historically, the term “Tatars” was applied to a variety of Turco-Mongol semi-nomadic empires who controlled the vast region known as Tartary. More recently, however, the term refers more narrowly to people who speak one of the Turkic[1] languages.

The Mongol Empire, established under Genghis Khan in 1206, subjugated the Tatars. Under the leadership of Genghis Khan’s grandson Batu Khan (c. 1207–1255), the Mongols moved westwards, driving with them many of the Mongol tribes toward the plains of Russia. The “Tatar” clan still exists among the Mongols and Hazaras.

The largest group by far that the Russians have called “Tatars” are the Volga Tatars, native to the Volga region (Tatarstan and Bashkortostan), who for this reason are often also simply known as “Tatars”, with their language known as the Tatar language. As of 2002 they had an estimated population close to 6 million.

There are many branches of the Tatar family, including the Siberian Tatars:

Siberian Tatars (Siberian Tatar: Сыбырлар) refers to the indigenous Siberian population of the forests and steppes of South Siberia stretching from somewhat east of the Ural Mountains to the Yenisey river in Russia. The Siberian Tatars call themselves Yerle Qalyq, or “older inhabitants,” to distinguish themselves from more recent Volga Tatar immigrants to the region.[3]

The word “Tatar” or “Tadar” is also used as a self-designation by some closely related Siberian ethnic groups; namely the Chulym, Shor, Teleut and Khakas peoples.

According to the 2002 census, there are 500,000 Tatars in Siberia, but only 9,611 of them are indigenous Siberian Tatars. At least 400,000 are ethnic Volga Tatars, who settled in Siberia during periods of colonization.[4] The Volga Tatars are an ethnic group who are native to the Volga-Ural region.

Crimean Tatars dancing

Here are some Crimean Tatars. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine, the Soviet Union sent a great many Crimean Tatars to Siberia:

In 1928–9, 35,000 to 40,000 Crimean Tatar kulaks were arrested and deported to Siberia and Soviet Central Asia. As in Ukraine, Tatar peasants opposed collectivization, and many of them perished in the Famine-Genocide of 1932–3. … Between 1917 and 1933 approximately 150,000 Crimean Tatars—half of their population—had been killed, imprisoned, deported to Soviet Asia, or forced to emigrate.

(perhaps the same thing happened to the Volga Tatars, resulting in the Siberian Tatars being a minority among Tatars in Siberia. )

I believe this is the last we will hear of the Tatars, for after this the author spent some time in Russian towns further south before rounding lake Baikal and visiting a town in what is now Mongolia. That’s all for today, but we’ll continue with our adventure next Friday!



Anthropology Friday: Travels in Siberia: Samoyeds (Nenets) and Ostyak Religion

Welcome back to Erman’s Travels in Siberia (Volume 2.) Let’s jump right in:

“As soon as the bays along the shore and the mouths of the rivers are frozen over, the Ostyak and Samoyed inhabitants of the West quit their tents on the sea-side, and withdraw with their reindeer to the mossy tundras of the interior. On the island of Vaigatz indeed, which is known to the Samoyedes only by the name of Khäyodeyä, and is celebrated as their chief place of sacrifice, many owners of reindeer remain the whole year round; other natives, and Russians also, go over to it in summer both to fish and hunt.”

EvX: According to Wikipedia:

The name of the island translates from the Nenets as “alluvial shore”. Until the 19th century, the island was an important shrine of the Nenets people. There were polycephalic wooden idols painted with blood of holy animals, primarily reindeer. Some of their sacrificial piles, consisting of drift-wood, deer’s horns and the skulls of bears and deer, have been observed by travellers. In spite of their conversion to Christianity, the Nenets still regard these piles with superstition.

The website Arctic Russia Travel has some more information on Vaygach Island, and would like to sell you a tour.


“The Samoyedes, on the other hand, are praised by all their neighbours around for the great Variety of produce which they bring back from their hunting excursions. They take the fur animals, not only by the ordinary artifices of traps and weapons adapted to every circumstance, but also by putting themselves as much as possible on an equality with the animals pursued, going on all fours and imitating the brutes in voice and clothing* They contribute by far the largest portion of the skins of the Polar bear brought to the fair of Obdorsk; and in consequence of their more intimate acquaintance with these animals, they do not regard them with the same dread as Europeans.”

*googles Samoyeds* Well this is going to be fun

EvX: The modern Samoyed people are more commonly known as Nenets, while “Samoyed” is reserved for the fluffy dogs. They speak a language related to Estonian, Sami (Lapp) and Hungarian. Erman opines that the current fad for seeking the origins of the Hungarians in Tibet is obviously flawed, as they obviously share a common linguistic origin with these wanderers of the north.

Of course two groups (say, African Americans and Maori of New Zealand,) may speak the same language with out being closely related at all, but the linguistic evidence here is not entirely without weight, whereas there’s no particular reason to seek Hungarian origins in Tibet besides the nation having been faddishly popular. But see this post if you want a more complete run-down of the Finno-Ugric language group.


“About eight o’clock in the evening, the dogs, of which about four hundred are kept here by sixty inhabitants, commenced a loud and mingled howling. It is hunger which daily calls forth, at the same hour, these passionate outbreaks, and then the dogs are sure to chime in together, as soon as one has begun the howl; otherwise they are quite silent, and never bark nor cry, unless at starting on their course when yoked in the sledge, or on coming across a reindeer sledge in their journey. Even during the severest cold, the dogs require no protection from the weather.
They sleep outside round the houses to which they respectively belong, in holes which they have thawed in the snow by their own warmth. The Ostyaks look upon it as a sign of bad weather when the dogs lie very quiet in their icy grottoes; and, indeed, the truth of this prognostication seemed to be confirmed today. Here, as everywhere else along the Obi, they are fed with nothing but fish, which, for this purpose as well as for human food, is first dried in the sun, and then being pounded, bones and all, it is stored up under the name of porsa.”

On the economic logic of keeping different domestic animals:

“It is easy to understand why the dogs kept in Obdorsk should be much more numerous than those in Yeresov ; for in the latter place it is still possible, and usual, to keep horses, but in Obdorsk reindeer take the place of horses, and their increase is incompatible with a settled town life; for although reindeer are to be found at some fixed habitations higher up the river than Obdorsk, where they find suitable and sufficient pasture in the neighbourhood of the yurts, yet in these instances the herds are small, as their owners are few in number. Moreover, every yurt has its dogs, as well as its reindeer, and this is the case, without exception, wherever fishing forms a regular occupation of the people. A fishery, indeed, is an indispensable condition for the keepings of dogs; and hence it is, that the Samoyedes, whose chief business
is the chase, and who obtain their store of fish only by bartering with their neighbours, keep only reindeer. As to the dogs here, it is estimated that they can draw five poods (200 pounds) each, in the loaded nart; but the Ostyak mode of yoking them hardly admits of the employment of more than two at a time, and in this respect it differs essentially from the Tungusian …

“Madness [rabies] among the dogs would be, in this country, a most formidable scourge, and would infallibly cause the destruction of whole races of men; but every one here assured us that the disease is wholly unknown to them. Steiler has stated the same thing respecting the dogs of Kamchatka; so that hydrophobia would seem to be one of the European results of living in towns.”

Nenets Child

Music, art, and religion:

Music, poetry, and a very well-developed kind of pantomimic art, are here inseparably united, but as to the constant
connection of all three with the popular religion, it can be affirmed only so far as every feeling partakes more or less of the religious character. …

In general, the traditional- preservation of a poem seems to be rare among the Ostyaks, and their songs are for the most part improvisations, which they produce at the spur of the occasion, and always accompany with pantomimic action. It sometimes happens, that the same incident continues to be the favourite theme for years together, being treated, however, in various ways according to the individual taste of the singer. Thus, a bear having once dug up from the grave and devoured the body of a child, the Ostyaks, it is said, used for many years to describe in their songs this shocking occurrence, imitating with the greatest fidelity the growling of the bear, with its gestures and looks towards its pursuers, who were endeavouring to drive it from the corpse.

“The wolf and the bear, being looked upon as powerful and highly gifted beings, figure quite as much as men in the Ostyak songs and pantomimic shows, and, like the latter, are sometimes the subject of tragic representation, but much more frequently of droll caricature. And with respect to the rank which these two beasts of prey bold in the estimation of the Ostyaks, it may be observed, that the homage rendered to them is not merely poetic, but assumes at times a decidedly religious character. When one of them has been killed, its skin is stuffed with hay, and the people gather round their fallen enemy to celebrate the triumph with songs of mockery and insult. They spit upon it and kick it, and that ceremony performed, they set it upright on its hind legs in a corner of the yurt, and then, for a considerable time, they bestow on it all the veneration due to a guardian god. …

“The outward forms of religion, which are thus handed down among the Ostyaks from father to son, appear to be in themselves worthy of attention; for it is only by the attentive examination of them that we can hope to arrive at a probable explanation of the doctrines on which they were originally founded ; but, independent of this consideration, I feel myself bound to produce all that I know upon this subject, in consequence of my having discovered, the following year, on the north-west coast of America, and having thoroughly learned, by repeated observation, a system of religious observances identical with this in every particular. In reference, therefore, to the most important of the Ostyak solemnities, for the performance of which they purchase arms, as already stated (p. 33,) I here give the literal translation of a statement made to me in writing by a Russian who witnessed them, and can most conscientiously assert that there is not in this statement the slightest trace of supplementary addition, or of any thing more than the representation of the fact; for this is attested by the complete agreement between the usages prevailing at Obdorsk and those which I subsequently witnessed … among the Kolyuses at Sitka:

The Ostyak Shamans, like the taduibui, or priests of the Samoyedes, bedeck their fur clothing with metal figures of birds, fish, and wild beasts, with the teeth and hones of sea-animals, and with whatever, in short, seems calculated to give them a terrific appearance. Their ceremonies of divination are performed before a fire, round which they go, crying as loudly as possible, and writhing as if possessed. They beat at the same time a kind of drum, and rattle their metal ornaments, while the bystanders also add their lusty shouts, and contribute to the clatter, by beating pots, or other such utensils with their weapons. After the din has lasted some time, the Shaman falls to the ground, whereupon the bystanders throw a cord round his neck, and cover him with skins, by which they would have it understood that he is in communion with the spirits. Two men then take the ends of the cord, and pull it with all their might, while the Shaman, under the skins, slips his hands to his neck to prevent his being strangled. When at last he has had enough of the struggle, he makes a sign that the spirits have left him, and communicates forthwith to the company the required predictions.

In 1805, it happened that a Shaman was in fact strangled in this way, and the affair was brought before the provincial tribunals. He was obviously too slow in placing his hands between his neck and the noose.

On the 27th December 1821, (old style,) the Ostyaks kept a solemn festival in the yurts of Pashirtzof, five versts from Obdorsk, in honour of their god Yelan, and I obtained permission to be present at the ceremonies… The ceremonies began about eight o’clock in the evenings and lasted till two in the morning. At first, children ran round to each yurt, to call the Ostyaks to the divine rites. In so doing, they screamed in all manner of wild notes, and seemed as if quite beside themselves: this went on while the people were assembling in the yurt selected for the proceedings. On entering this, each of the Ostyaks turned round three times before the idols, and then took his place on the right side of the room, in the recesses, or on the floor. They talked to one another, or otherwise employed themselves as they pleased.

The recesses on the left side were concealed by a curtain, behind which went certain persons, who on entering the yurt, turned round, like the rest, three times in front of the idols. At length, when all were assembled, the Shaman began rattling with the sabres and iron-headed lances, which had been previously heaped together before the images. He then gave each person present, (excepting the women, who were also behind a curtain,) a sword or a lance, while he took himself a sword in each hand, and placed himself with his back to the idols. The Ostyaks stood in rows lengthwise in the yurt, or packed in the recesses. They then all turned round three times, holding their swords stretched out before them. The Shaman struck his two swords together, and so they all began to scream out Heigh! in different tones, as led by him, at the same time bending their bodies from side to side. This cry was sometimes repeated at wide intervals, some-
times in rapid succession; and with every repetition of the height came the bowing movements, to the right and left; the swords and lances, in the mean time, were sometimes sunk to the ground, sometimes stretched upwards. This … lasted for an hour, by which time the men became excited to such a degree, that I could not look without terror even in those faces which had at first appeared to me to be engaging.

“After they had screamed their fill, they became silent all at once, and ceased too from their oscillations; then turning round before the images, as at the commencement, they gave back the swords and lances to the Shaman, who restored them to their original position. The Ostyaks having settled themselves, some in the recesses, others on the floor, the curtain rose which had concealed the women, and now both sexes joined in dancing to the music of the dombra. The dance … it was often very indecent also, and continued a long time. Next came forward some buffoons and posture makers, in various droll attire, and repeated the chief movements of the dance. At length the Shaman distributed again the swords and lances; the Ostyaks again reeled from side to side and cried Heigh, then turning round three times at the conclusion, and striking three times on the ground with the swords and lances, they gave the arms back to the Shaman, and went off to their homes.

“I shall refrain from any further observation on these Ostyak usages till I come to relate the surprising rediscovery of them in America, where many details of the rites, as I witnessed them myself, — the remarkable dress, for instance, of the Shamans, — appeared in a more characteristically defined and significant light.”

EvX: I assume this further exploration is in Volume 3, though I am having trouble tracking it down (perhaps it has a different title than the others?)

“It may be remarked, however, that an inquiry into the origin of the armed dance, which is usual in some parts of Hungary, seems very desirable … By means of it, and through the intermediation of the Ostyaks, we might be able to arrive at a remarkable and characteristic point of contact between the Hungarians and the American Kolyuzes, and be led even to reflect on the relationship pointed out by Beregszaszi, between the language of the Hungarians and that of the Algonquins.”

Map of Athabaskan Language Distribution

EvX: Personal anecdote: A Hungarian-American acquaintance told me the kids at school used to call him a Navajo.

But who are the Kolyuzes? A Google search returns only two hits, both of them this book. However, after a bit more research, I think the Koyukon of Alaska are probably the same people. The Koyukon speak an Athabaskan language.

To sum: The Ostyaks are now the Ket and the Khanty; the Samoyeds are the Nenets. Khanty and Nenets speak a language related to Finnish, Sami, and Hungarian. The Ket effectively speak a language isolate that is speculated to be related to the Athabaskan (aka Dene) language family. Erman describes religious similarities between Ostyaks and the Kolyuzes, who appear to be the Koyukon, an Athabaskan-langauge speaking people.

(This is why I complain about ethnonymic creep.)

Obviously people see patterns and relationships where they want to, and not necessarily where they actually are, but we have a pretty good idea that Native Americans actually did cross into the Americas from northern Russia, so a connection of some sort is totally reasonable. I would not expect much of a genetic connection (Hungarians are more closely related to their neighbors than their co-linguists, due to the conquering by the Magyars not having resulted in much population replacement, just language adoption. The same may be true for the other groups in question (eg, the the Ket and Khanty, for example, are probably more closely related genetically than linguistically; the Navajo likely absorbed other peoples during their migration from Canada to New Mexico.) But a cultural connection seems entirely possible.

The popular view of the scientific consensus on the peopling of the Americas, which perhaps does not reflect the actual current state of the field, is that sometime around 12-40,000 years ago, a single pulse of people crossed a temporary landbridge across the Bering Strait, moved into the Americas, sat down and never moved again. Today we know that the picture is more complicated than this–the Inuit (Eskimo) at least arrived far more recently, and definitely without the aid of a land-bridge. The Aleuts (denizens of the Aleutian Islands) also managed to get here without a land-bridge. I suspect that whenever we get a full picture of the history, we’ll find not just several major pulses of people, perhaps via multiple different routes, but also a low level of continuous trade and contact with north Asian peoples over centuries.

Nenets people in summer

Anyway, back to Erman:

“About 5 o’clock in the afternoon, when there was a very faint twilight, we saw, on the western sky, (N. 56^ W.,) a very bright ball of fire fall downwards, with a greenish light. …

I had already had occasion to remark, at different yurts, the remarkable longing which reindeer have for man’s urine, but I had never seen it exhibited so distinctly and decidedly as to-day; for just to gratify this desire, some of these shy animals had spontaneously come close to the tent, and, as soon as any one went out to make water, they ran up in full trot to catch the stream in the air, with their under lip protruded; and if the first were driven hack, then others hastened forwards and kept licking with avidity the wetted snow. It is manifest, therefore, that it is not the warmth of the fluid, but its saltiness which awakens this desire, as we sometimes observe it in our he-goats; but in so extraordinary a degree, that the taming of the reindeer, or the power of habituating them to their masters, seems to depend essentially or perhaps wholly upon it. In no other case do they lay aside their natural shyness or their apparent aversion to man; for they will not eat from the hand, however good the fodder, and if fresh moss be plucked and thrown to them on the snow, they only smell it and turn away. …

“It is remarkable that the very composed and grave manner of the inhabitants of this part of the world [Samoyeds] never deserts them, either in familiar intercourse, or in the midst of their enjoyments; for, although we admit that, in general, men who are not far removed from a state of nature laugh less than Europeans, yet, even in this respect there is a wide difference between the seriousness of the people here and the lively gaiety of the Tunguzes, or the ever-cheerful and very refined irony of the Kamchadales. …

“These tent-Samoyedes employ reindeer alone for draught, and a number of little dogs which I saw with them here were not intended for harness, but only for the women, who kill them for the sake of the skin. They were all still young, and though from this circumstance it was impossible to form a judgment as to the regular, full-grown size of the variety, yet it was obvious that they belonged to a breed totally different from that of the Ostyak dogs. They had all long hair, of a fox-red colour, which I had never seen among the dogs of the Obi. They differed from the latter in their behaviour also, for they flew at strangers and kept yelping at them in shrill tones. It can hardly be doubted that this breed is derived from foxes,’ and not, like that of the Ostyaks, from wolves. …

“On my arrival, too, I was asked for my stock of tea, and other articles of food, which were laid by in the general depository till wanted for use.

“The reindeer calf which we had got on the way was killed and cut up in front of the tent, a few minutes after our arrival.
The men now brought the bleeding and reeking flesh into the tent, and began devouring it immediately, quite raw, with the heartiest appetite. The old man was satisfied with sucking the brain from the head, while each of our younger comrades gnawed away a limb of the animal, even to the bone. They laughed at the amazement which my good-humoured Estonian attendant expressed at their blood-stained faces; and when he gave them to understand, through the interpreter, that they were no better than wolves, they seemed quite unprepared for such a reproof; and replied, gravely, that they were at the same time no worse than the wolves, since they shared honestly with them, and left the bones and some scraps of fish merely for their sakes. …

“The Samoyedes whom we had met with in the course of our journey, had all come from the coasts of the Polar Sea; and among the articles in their possession were to be seen many of the productions of that region. The traces of their reindeer, and many other of their leathern moveables, were made of dolphin skin or furred seal-skin; and the mammoth-teeth, with which when carved they ornament their sledges and drinking vessels, are looked upon by all the indigenous tribes here as products of the sea coast, for they are more frequently thrown up by the waves wherever the sea breaks on slopes of alluvial land, and are consequently sought for by the Samoyedes chiefly in those situations.”

EvX: That’s all for today. See you next Friday!

Travels in Siberia, by Adolf Erman: Ostyaks (Khanty and Ket)

Georg Adolf Erman

Today we’re starting Adolf Erman’s Travels in Siberia, Volume 2, originally published as Reise um die Erde durch Nord-Asien und die beiden Oceane in den Jahren in 1848. The exact reasons and funding sources for Erman’s trip are doubtless covered in Volume 1 (I believe he was hired by the Norwegian government to take magnetic and other scientific observations across Siberia and possibly all the way around the Polar Circle,) but along the way he stayed with and wrote about the customs of the nomads of the far north, Ostyaks, Samoyeds, Yakuts, Tunguses, etc.; Russian and Cossak settlers; the Buryat, Manchu and Chinese denizens of Mongolia; and the odd exiled soldier from Napoleon’s army met along the way.

Along the way he recounts in copious detail the natural wonders of the land, the weather, (cold,) and observations on subjects like mammoth bones, Greek myths, the incidence of goiters, the proper way to ride a reindeer, the practice of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia, and the use of tea bricks as currency.

There’s no particular plot to Erman’s account, and I did find it a bit dull toward the middle, but the parts I disliked were easily skimmed in favor of the ones I enjoyed, and from those it has proven quite difficult to decide which I should excerpt and share. Since one of my commentators has requested an Anthropology Friday focusing on the Yakuts, I will do my best to cover them in some depth, but we will be leaving out almost entirely his trip to Mongolia simply because there isn’t time to cover everything. It was really quite interesting, though, so I recommend you read it anyway.

Note: I am working off a scan of a PDF, so occasionally words are rendered incorrectly; I have done my best to correct these errors, but if they occur in a proper name I might not notice. Likewise, many of the names of people and places may have changed since Erman’s time; for example, the Tunguzes are now known as the Tunguses. Temperatures in Erman’s account are given in degrees R, which I believe is the Reaumur Scale, which was still used in Russia until the early 20th century, but I’ll be converting his measurements into degrees F/C.  As usual, I will be using “” instead of block quotes for readability.

“December 3–The temperature of the air to-day, with a west wind and clear sky, was -26 degrees C/-15 degrees F. …

“From Ustsosvinsk, and still further down towards Obdorsk, we travelled constantly on the left half of the stream, or what is called the little Obi; for it is only on the western bank, which is invariably covered with wood, that the possessors of reindeer remain in winter. In summer a few of them go with the herds of deer further up the country, to the mossy mountain tracts, while the rest of the population betake themselves, for the sake of fishing, to the fixed yurts on the right bank of the great Obi. In these places dwell also the crews of Russian merchants from Tobolsk, partly with the view of earning money as boatmen, and partly for the purpose of fishing in places where, as they pretend, they have bought the right from the Ostyaks.”

EvX: I think the Obi is now the Ob river; Obdorsk is called Salekhard; the Ostyaks are divided into the Khanty and Ket peoples; and I can’t figure out where Ustsosvinsk was. At least Tobolsk is still Tobolsk. (This is why I complain about ethnonymic creep.) So let’s just say he’s in Siberia, heading north, and it’s really cold.

Khanty family at River Ob in the village of Tegi

“About midnight we arrived at the winter yurts of Taginsk, which, like those of Sosvinsk, are situate in the middle of the wood. Here we were to get the first reindeer. Some of the men were sitting before the bright, sparkling fire, with the upper part of their bodies bare, that they might warm themselves thoroughly previous to their night’s rest ; the others got up, naked in like manner, from the berths where they had already lain down under reindeer skins. They instantly dressed themselves, and went out to catch the reindeer, of which it was said, that they had gone far off to-day, because, “on account of the thinness of the snow (beyond the surrounding wood,) moss was to be found.’* We staid in the yurts with the women, who hospitably spread fresh and clean reindeer skins for us to lie down. These yurts seemed constructed only for temporary occupation, for the outer walls were not built with logs or stems of trees, but only of strong planks, such as are generally employed for partitions. Yet these habitations were far more agreeable and more ornamented than any fisherman’s abode which I saw above Beresov. It is possible that the novelty of the fresh reindeer skins, which have a very pleasing smell, may have helped to strengthen this impression.”

Kyrgyz yurt

EvX: Throughout Erman’s account, he describes the abodes of the natives of the Russian north and east as yurts (aka gers.) According to Wikipedia:

A traditional yurt (from the Turkic languages) or ger (Mongolian) is a portable, round tent covered with skins or felt and used as a dwelling by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia. The structure comprises an angled assembly or latticework of pieces of wood or bamboo for walls, a door frame, ribs (poles, rafters), and a wheel (crown, compression ring) possibly steam-bent. The roof structure is often self-supporting, but large yurts may have interior posts supporting the crown. The top of the wall of self-supporting yurts is prevented from spreading by means of a tension band which opposes the force of the roof ribs. Modern yurts may be permanently built on a wooden platform; they may use modern materials such as steam-bent wooden framing or metal framing, canvas or tarpaulin, Plexiglas dome, wire rope, or radiant insulation. …

Yurts have been a distinctive feature of life in Central Asia for at least three thousand years. The first written description of a yurt used as a dwelling was recorded by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus. He described yurt-like tents as the dwelling place of the Scythians, a horse riding-nomadic nation who lived in the northern Black Sea and Central Asian region from around 600 BC to AD 300.[3]

Fun fact: Scythians also show up in the Bible, at Genesis 10 and again in Jeremiah 51, though their name has been here modified to Ashkenaz. Once the Scythians disappeared, geographers found themselves at a loss to locate the homeland of this mysterious group and so stuck it in the general vincintity of modern Germany, based on the name’s similarity to “Scandza,” itself probably related to Scandinavia. Since different Jewish groups became known by the name of the country or region they moved to (Yemeni Jews, Ethiopian Jews, Cochin Jews, etc.,) the Jews of Germany became the Ashkenazi Jews.

Anyway, I’d wager that yurts come in different degrees of portability and weather-resistance. Back to our narrative:

Khanty children with their reindeer, by Irina Kazanskaya

“An hour probably elapsed before the cry of the  drivers was heard at a distance through the wood. It was a  hollow-sounding hoo! hoo! proceeding from many voices and  growing louder as it approached. Soon after we could distinguish the peculiar clapping of the feet of the running herd.  Going now in front of the yurt, we saw the timid animals in full gallop, coming together from different quarters. When the drivers’ cry ceased, they stood quiet near the house, still seeking their food under the snow. The men then uncoiled a long cord of leather, and held it from hand to hand, about three feet above the ground, forming a circle round the herd, which they gradually contracted, until all the animals were at last clustered close together. Then a few men went inside the ring, and catching by the antlers the deer destined for the yoke, they tied them to the cord, until a considerable number had been thus selected. A few only had a log fastened to their necks, until the sledge was got ready. This mode of proceeding would have been utterly impossible, if the half-tamed animals did not evince an instinctive tendency to subjection. A well-aimed blow with antlers four feet long would certainly be fatal; but neither when they were first caught, nor afterwards when I examined their mouths, as is done with horses, and lifted up their fore-legs, did they offer the least resistance. Neither did any of them attempt to leap over the cord surrounding them, which would have been easy, but they rather fled from the men towards the middle of the ring. …

“About three o’clock in the morning we were again ready for travelling, and continuing till noon…”


“we went over eighty versts, from the huts of Taginsk to another hamlet occupied also by owners of reindeer, and called Kachegatsk. We went first through thick woods of well-grown trees, and in which the larch predominated, though the common and the Siberian pine (P. cembra) were also to be seen. … We then travelled continually on the ice of the western arm of the Obi, close to the thickly-wooded left bank. At times we halted on the river, to let the deer take breath after a hard run. On these occasions they immediately lay down before the sledge, tossed the snow with their snouts, and took it into their mouths to cool themselves.”

EvX: Here’s a short film on the Khanty people shot in the 1980s, with scenes of reindeer pulling sleds:

“The Ostyak men at the same time betook themselves eagerly to the enjoyment of snuff, which they always carry with them in the breastfold or pocket of the malitza, in a receptacle exactly like the European powder-horn. They shake the precious dust through the narrow opening of the horn, on the nail of the right thumb, and in so doing they conform precisely to the Chinese fashion. That their custom of taking snuff was derived from that quarter, is proved by the Mongolian word shär, which here, as well as among the tribes of Eastern Siberia, signifies tobacco. Smoking is little in vogue among the Ostyaks hitherto seen; yet there were shown to us in Beresov some tobacco-pipes, very prettily carved, of mammoth-bone, which are said to be used by the inhabitants of the coast: the Mongolian name Khdnsa, given to this article, also points out the Chinese origin of the custom.

“A substitute of home production, which the Ostyaks here sometimes mix with their snuff, was shown to us for the first
time in the yurts of Kachegatsk, which we had now reached. This was a brown fungous excrescence, about the size of the hand, which they take from the stem of the birch, and, drying it for a long time near the fire, reduce it to powder.”

EvX: It’s funny just how far some trade goods travel. I don’t know the exact distribution of tobacco production in the 1800s, but I do know it wasn’t grown anywhere near Siberia. Tobacco isn’t even food, like butter, nor does it enhance something people already consume, like tea, and yet here it was, ubiquitous among nomadic reindeer herders of the Russian polar north, perhaps brought from China via Mongolia. Continuing:

“It was curious to observe here, as well as in the dwellings subsequently entered, how cleverly larch-wood was made in many cases to serve the ends of European cloths; for, instead of our napkins, towels, and handkerchiefs, and in cleaning the cooking vessels, the Ostyak women used very thin, long shavings of this wood, which being tied together at one end, formed a soft wisp. The women of the house generally carried a wisp of this kind fastened to their girdles, and when more of them were wanted to clean out the eating trough that we might be treated to some fish, they were made in an instant by the men. …

Modern Khanty family in front of their chum, near lake Numto (source) Does anyone else want a map of the global distribution of tipis?

“We were now but a moderate day’s journey, eighty-four miles, distant from the polar circle, and yet larch, pine, and birch still grew abundantly, and, indeed, they were nowise inferior in appearance to the trees of the same kind in the vicinity of Tobolsk. …

“there were here only two conical tents, wherein our new hosts had just established themselves in the middle of the forest. Portable nomadic dwellings of this kind are here called Chömui, (singular Chum.) Long poles, in an inclined position, were fastened together at the upper end, while their lower ends, about a foot asunder, stood on the ground so as to form a ring. This frame-work was covered with rein-deer skins, an opening being left only at the point of the cone, and at one place the poles stood more widely apart, so as to allow one, lifting the corner of the skin, to creep into the tent.”

“In the middle of the tent was a blazing fire. All the men were sitting on skins with the upper part of their bodies bare, and their backs against the hair of the tent-covering. A little boy of four years old had nothing on but drawers, and a little child lay in a canoe-shaped cradle made of reindeer skin. Two women of middle age were also sitting on the ground, with all their usual clothing, and they were wrapped up even below the shoulders with the veiling head-dress, which was here made of Russian woollen stuff. With great coyness they refused to show us their faces, and when I pulled up playfully the veil of one, she replaced it at once and cried out lustily; yet the men who were present and witnessed what was going on took so little notice of it, and seemed so indifferent, that it can hardly be supposed that jealousy of strangers has here given rise to the fashion of veiling.”

EvX: Note the reluctance of the women in the documentary above to have their faces filmed, though there might be practical reasons for this.


“By means of three cross sticks, tied in a horizontal direction to the tent-poles, the pot was hung over the fire to melt some snow that we might dress our fish, and it was singular to see the women still veiled during this operation, for they scarcely ever raised up the head-cloth, or opened it a little on the side towards their work. Here both men and women were large and well formed, with pleasing countenances and perfectly healthy appearance. * Eruption on the head and inflammation of the eyes had been seen less and less frequently since we left Beresov, that is to say, since we had advanced further into the country possessed by owners of reindeer; and here, where purely nomadic habits prevailed, there were not even the slightest traces of disease. It is not unlikely, then, that the Yerkhovian Ostyaks are the chief sufferers from the miasmata introduced unconsciously by the Russians. It was only among those of the natives who, by partially adopting Russian customs, spoiled the completeness of their domestic economy in respect to food and clothing, that the seeds of disease seemed to have fallen on a susceptible soil. …

Khanty Family, Ob River

“The chase of fur animals is during the winter the chief enjoyment of the reindeer Ostyaks taken collectively. They are engaged in it daily, and hence we observed that the men in the tents here, like some of our drivers, constantly wore an apparatus which is indispensable for their archery. This is a strong and bent plate of horn, worn under the usual clothing, and covering the inside of the lower arm, from the wrist up, for about two inches, being tied on with thongs. Without such a protection it would be impossible to endure the blow which the string gives the wrist. This productive chase, with the free wandering over an extensive tract, which seems absolutely necessary for those who would keep large herds of reindeer, had made our host of to-day an opulent man. In this place they kill foxes and squirrels; but in summer they go westwards, towards the mountains, which are rarely visited by Christians.

“There they feed their herds, and live upon them, at the same time collecting for trade as many skins and as much venison as possible beyond their own wants. They mix with Samoyedes and Yoguls on the common pastures, but in winter they visit their friends settled on the Obi, in order to procure a stock of dried fish. Whatever Russian goods they want, they obtain partly by means of the Samoyedes and Yoguls from the government of Archangel, partly they procure them themselves at Obdorsk, where the quantity of skins and furs which they collect during their long absence secure for them a preference in trade above the Ostyaks settled in the place.”

EvX: Let’s have a quick rundown of nomadic Russians:

The Ostyaks are now known as the Ket and the Khanty.

Today there are 12,000 Khanty-language speaking people in Russia. The language itself is a branch of the Uralic aka Finno-Ugric family, which also includes Hungarian, Estonian, Finnish (obviously,) Mansi, Mari, Mordvinic, Permic, Sami (Lapp), and Samoyedic.

The Ket languate, by contrast, is spoken by only 100-200 people and is the only living language in the Yeniseian family. Linguists have speculated a number of potential connections between Yeniseian and other language families, including Dene, (a language of the Americas including the Navajo,) Burushaski, and Sino-Tibetan. I favor the Dene-Yeniseian family because it would be the most interesting, but of course that doesn’t actually make it more likely.


December 6. — We waited in the tent till one o’clock in the morning for the reindeer. … From the tents of Keegat, we proceeded twenty-five versts, partly on the little Obi, partly on the left bank, and about five o’clocK in the morning we arrived at a group of wooden cabins, which they called Müshi.  Here, we were told, no one had been yet travelling this winter; the reindeer, therefore, had not been seen for a long time, and no one knew where they were. The cleverness which the Ostyaks evince in cases of this kind cannot be sufficiently admired. It was ten o’clock, however, before the shouting drivers were heard from a distance, on their return with the herds; but it is so much the more surprising, that going forth in the darkness of night they should still feel sure of finding them. …

“The day lasted three hours at Mäshi: the sun at noon attained an elevation of 1° 40* above the horizon, but was never visible, as the sky was clouded. We travelled from eleven in the forenoon till nine at night, on the ice of the little Obi, as far as the winter yurts of Shurushkar. About half-way we saw some fishing-baskets suspended from the ice, and found some Ostyak men, who were busy with them. They had travelled to this place with reindeer, and two narts with deer were standing on the ice, already laden with fish. …

“As usual, also, the people here seemed to be all members of the same family. I never found among the Ostyaks any trace of hired service, or of any connexion between labour and station.  …

“We now turned aside from the river, almost due east, and till nine at night travelled over a hilly country a distance of fifty versts. During the night I had recourse to the covered nart, but found that, though preferable in a snow-storm, it is not so agreeable, when the air is calm and at the temperature of —31 degrees C/-24 degrees F, as staying in the open air; for the moisture from the breath congealing formed a frosty mist much more distressing to the sensations than dry cold in the open air. And on the felt lining of the nart was deposited a thick rime, which being shaken off from time to time fell in flakes like snow.”

I’m getting tired, so let’s stop here and continue next week.

Anthropology Friday: Indian Warriors and their Weapons, (4/4) the Blackfeet, Apache, and Navajo

Map of Algonquian Language Family distribution

Hey everyone, today we’re wrapping up our look at om Hofsinde Gray-Wolf’s account of Native American cultures in Indian Warriors and their Weapons, with a look at the Blackfeet, Apache, and Navajo.

The Blackfeet live primarily in Canada and partly in northern America, and speak an Algonquin language–Algonquin languages are (were) otherwise dominant primarily in eastern Canada and the US. The Apache and Navajo are related peoples from the American southwest who speak an Athabaskan language. The rest of the Athabaskan speakers, oddly, live primarily in northern Canada and inland Alaska (Inuit/Eskimo/Aleut cultures live on the Alaskan coasts.)

Map of Athabaskan Language Distribution

According to Wikipedia:

Historically, the member peoples of the [Blackfeet] Confederacy were nomadic bison hunters and trout fishermen, who ranged across large areas of the northern Great Plains of Western North America, specifically the semi-arid shortgrass prairie ecological region. They followed the bison herds as they migrated between what are now the United States and Canada, as far north as the Bow River. In the first half of the 18th century, they acquired horses and firearms from white traders and their Cree and Assiniboine go-betweens. The Blackfoot used these to expand their territory at the expense of neighboring tribes. Now riding horses, the Blackfoot and other Plains tribes could also extend the range of their buffalo hunts.

The systematic commercial bison hunting by white hunters in the 19th century nearly ended the bison herds and permanently changed Native American life on the Great Plains, since their primary food source was no longer abundant. Periods of starvation and deprivation followed, and the Blackfoot tribe was forced to adopt ranching and farming, settling in permanent reservations. In the 1870s, they signed treaties with both the United States and Canada, ceding most of their lands in exchange for annuities of food and medical aid, as well as help in learning to farm. Nevertheless, the Blackfoot have worked to maintain their traditional language and culture in the face of assimilationist policies of both the U.S. and Canada.

“Historically” as Wikipedia uses it here merely refers to “in the 17 and 1800s.” The Blackfeet’s linguistic cousins on the eastern coast of the US, such as Pocahontas of the Tsenacommacah or Squanto of the Patuxet, were settled, agriculturalist people who raised corn, squash, and beans. It seems likely that the Blackfeet were originally similarly agricultural, only moving out into the Great Plains and adopting their nomadic, buffalo-based lifestyle after European colonists introduced horses to the New World. Without horses, following the herds on foot would have been very difficult–though perhaps they managed it.

Alfred Jacob Miller, Hunting Buffalo

According to Hofsinde Gray-Wolf:

“The traditional enemies of the Blackfeet were the Shoshoni, the Assiniboine, the Cree, and especially the Crow. Hostilities between these tribes were kept alive by continued raids upon each other, usually for revenge or to steal horses.

“The Blackfeet gave their highest tribal honor to the brave who captured an enemy’s horse, weapons, or ceremonial gear. … Parents asked him to perform the naming ceremony for their newborn baby boy. He was elected to perform special services at rituals and social affairs. These services added to the man’s wealth.”

EvX: I wonder if anyone has attempted to replicate Napoleon Chagnon’s quantitative work on reproductive success among the Yanomamo with other tribal societies. I’d love to know if warriors were similarly successful among the Blackfeet, for example. Back to Hofsinde Gray-Wolf:

“In the early 1800s the Missouri Fur Company started to construct a post at the mouth of the Bighorn River in Crow country. The Blackfeet thought these white people had allied themselves with the Crow. That alone was enough to set the Blackfeet on the war trail against them. … Time and time again the white men were killed, and their guns, their personal belongings were taking. The Indians traded the furs to the British posts.

“After a few of these raids, most of the trappers gave up and were ready to seek their furs in less dangerous parts of the country. For years thereafter, few white men dared enter the Blackfeet country.”

According to Wikipedia:

Up until around 1730, the Blackfoot traveled by foot and used dogs to carry and pull some of their goods. They had not seen horses in their previous lands, but were introduced to them on the Plains, as other tribes, such as the Shoshone, had already adopted their use.[17]

Horses revolutionised life on the Great Plains and soon came to be regarded as a measure of wealth. Warriors regularly raided other tribes for their best horses. Horses were generally used as universal standards of barter. … An individual’s wealth rose with the number of horses accumulated, but a man did not keep an abundance of them. The individual’s prestige and status was judged by the number of horses that he could give away. …

After having driven the hostile Shoshone and Arapaho from the Northwestern Plains, the Niitsitapi began in 1800 a long phase of keen competition in the fur trade with their former Cree allies, which often escalated militarily. … by mid-century an adequate supply of horses became a question of survival. Horse theft was at this stage not only a proof of courage, but often a desperate contribution to survival, for many ethnic groups competed for hunting in the grasslands.

The Cree and Assiniboine continued horse raiding against the Gros Ventre … They had to withstand attacks of enemies with guns. In retaliation for Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) supplying their enemies with weapons, the Gros Ventre attacked and burned in 1793 South Branch House of the HBC on the South Saskatchewan River near the present village of St. Louis, Saskatchewan.

Meanwhile, further south:

“Long ago the Apache and Navaho tribes of the Southwest were once people. Between the years 1200 and 1400, these Indians came down from the far north of Canada and Alaska, following a route along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. The tribes lived in small family camps instead of permanent villages, and their personal belongings were meager. A little over 400 yeas ago the Navajo separated from their Apache brothers. …

“The Apache were raiders. They raided for food, clothing, horses, guns, and slaves. To them raiding was a business, and a dangerous business, but the Apache raider was a past master at commando tactics, and he did not take risks. … He tried not to kill those he raided. In Apache wars it was considered far better to take the enemy as slaves, and threby enlarge the tribe.”

EvX: It appears that the constant warfare had such a debilitating effect on tribal numbers that many tribes ended up relying on captives to keep their own numbers steady–though we must keep in mind that these tribes had also suffered unimaginable losses due to Western diseases. I have seen estimates that as much as 90% of the Indian population had already died before whites arrived in significant numbers in America, simply because their diseases spread much faster than they did.

Here is Wikipedia’s account of early Navajo history:

The Navajos are speakers of a Na-Dené Southern Athabaskan language … It is closely related to the Apache language, as the Navajos and Apaches are believed to have migrated from northwestern Canada and eastern Alaska, where the majority of Athabaskan speakers reside.[4] Speakers of various other Athabaskan languages located in Canada may still comprehend the Navajo language despite the geographic and linguistic deviation of the languages.[5]

Archaeological and historical evidence suggests the Athabaskan ancestors of the Navajos and Apaches entered the Southwest around 1400 CE.[7][8] The Navajo oral tradition is said to retain references of this migration.[citation needed]

Until contact with Pueblos and the Spanish, the Navajos were largely hunters and gatherers. The tribe adopted crop-farming techniques from the Pueblo peoples, growing mainly corn, beans, and squash. When the Spanish arrived, the Navajos began herding sheep and goats* as a main source of trade and food, with meat becoming an essential component of the Navajo diet. Sheep also became a form of currency and status symbols among the Navajos based on the overall quantity of herds a family maintained.[9][10] In addition, the practice of spinning and weaving wool into blankets and clothing became common and eventually developed into a form of highly valued artistic expression.

*Note that sheep and goats are not native to the Americas.

Geronimo, chief of the Apache

I find this progression of economic systems fascinating. Here we have three groups–first a group of Athabaskan hunter-gatherers decided, for unknown reasons, to leave their frigid, far northern homeland and migrate to the baking heat of the American Southwest. (Perhaps they were driven out of their original homes by the arrival of the Inuit/Eskimo?) Here they encountered already established Pueblo peoples, who IIRC are related to the Aztecs of Mexico, an advanced civilization. The Pueblo people built cities and raised crops, a lifestyle the Athabaskan newcomers started adopting, or at least trading with.

Then the Spaniards arrived, with their domesticated animals. One group of Athabaskans, the Navajo, decided to adopt sheep and goats, becoming pastoralist/agriculturalists. Another group, the Apache, decided to adopt the horse and fully realize their hunter-gatherer potential.

But back to Hofsinde Gray-Wolf:

“Although the Apache method of attack was devious, it was not cowardly. Cochise, with less than two hundred warriors, held off the United States army for more than ten years. He was a great leader and did not risk the life of any of his warriors in attacks on wagon trains or supply trains. He did not even attack small caravan patrols outright; instead he literally wore them down.

“A typical attack followed this pattern: from high on the rocks and cliffs an Apache band followed a group of white travelers, showing themselves from time to time, then silently vanishing again. Ahead and behind them the travelers saw smoke rising from signal fire, never knowing what i might mean. With the Apaches trailing them night and day, the nerves of the white men became frayed. They had little time for rest and even less for sleep. Water holes were few and far between, and when they finally reached one, it was usually occupied by hostile Apache. … When at long last nerves had been strained to the breaking point… it was time to expect a raid. …

“The Apache were excellent horsemen, and small groups of them were able to raid and terrorize large areas. These raids, thefts, and captures lasted for two hundred years. Only after the Americans arrived around 1850 was any attempt made to stop them, and this effort took forty years.

“When the Apache first migrated into the Southwest, one weapon they possessed was the arctic-type bow. It was of Asiatic origin, and far superior to any bow then made in their new homeland. …

“The sign of the cross existed in much of the Apache symbolism, but it held no Christian meaning for them. It represented the four cardinal points and the four winds. Thus a warrior painted a cross on the foot of his moccasins before he went into strange country, in hopes that it would keep him from becoming lost. …

“As early as 1538 a Spanish priest wrote about the Navaho and called them Apache del Navahu. …

“Even Navaho women went to war, and thereby gained high positions within the tribe. War usually meant a raid on one of the peaceful Pueblo tribes or on a Mexican village. …

“Raids on other tribes were conducted primarily to capture slaves. … Unlike the Apache, they did not torture their captives, though at times they did take scalps.”

EvX: This brings us to the end of this series; I hope you have enjoyed it, not just for the glances back at the history of the peoples of America (and Canada,) but also for a look at the sort of books children in the 50s were reading.


Anthropology Friday Hofsinde Gray-Wolf’s Indian Warriors and their Weapons (1/4) Ojibwe

Robert Hofsinde Gray-Wolf

Hello everyone, today we’re continuing with Hofsinde Gray-Wolf’s series of books about Native American culture. Today we are reading Indian Warriors and their Weapons.

I am sure every anthropologist has a cultural first love; for me, it was Indians. (Yes, I know, Indians have many cultures.) Such childish love, of course, must eventually encounter adult realities: Indians no longer live like their romanticized ancestors, just as whites no longer live like characters out of a Little House on the Prairie novel. But it is still good to remember what once was and how people once lived. There has been a great deal of forgetting, lately, and I don’t think that is a good thing at all.

(As usual, I’ll be using “” instead of blockquotes for readability.)

From Indian Warriors:

historical range of Ojibwe-language speakng peoples

“The Indians known today as the Ojibwa, or Chippewa, originally called themselves Anishinabe. …

“The Ojibwa lived in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, and they were the largest tribe in that region. Others were the Fox, Sioux, and the Cheyenne Indians, and the Iroquois invaded the territory from time to time, too. Each of these tribes wanted the best hunting and fishing areas, as well as possession of streams where wild rice grew, and they were willing to fight for these rights They also went on the war trail to get revenge or to gain personal honor …

“After the Ojibwa obtained firearms from the French around 1664, they drove the Cheyenne and the Sioux west across the Mississippi River. They drove the Fox to the south. A battle is recorded in which twenty-seven Ojibwa fought off more than one hundred Sioux.”

EvX: According to Wikipedia:

The first historical mention of the Ojibwe occurs in the French Jesuit Relation of 1640, a report by the missionary priests to their superiors in France. Through their friendship with the French traders (coureurs des bois and voyageurs), the Ojibwe gained guns, began to use European goods, and began to dominate their traditional enemies, the Lakota and Fox to their west and south. They drove the Sioux from the Upper Mississippi region to the area of the present-day Dakotas, and forced the Fox down from northern Wisconsin. The latter allied with the Sauk for protection.

By the end of the 18th century, the Ojibwe controlled nearly all of present-day Michigan, northern Wisconsin, and Minnesota, including most of the Red River area. They also controlled the entire northern shores of lakes Huron and Superior on the Canadian side and extending westward to the Turtle Mountains of North Dakota. In the latter area, the French Canadians called them Ojibwe or Saulteaux.

The Ojibwe (Chippewa) were part of a long-term alliance with the Anishinaabe Ottawa and Potawatomi peoples, called the Council of Three Fires. They fought against the Iroquois Confederacy, based mainly to the southeast of the Great Lakes in present-day New York, and the Sioux to the west. The Ojibwe expanded eastward, taking over the lands along the eastern shores of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay.

“In spring and summer the foliage of trees and bushes helped to shield the warriors as they approached their enemies, so these seasons were the usual ones for making war. An Ojibwa small war party was usually made up of volunteers, who gathered under a good leader…

“The Ojibwa early allied themselves with the French. First they supplied them with furs, and later they fought with them against the English. An Ojibwa could get a good flintlock gun at a French trading post for two beaver pelts. The English, however, were not as generous with their allies, the Iroquois and the Sioux.

“Personal bravery was not lacking among the Ojibwa. In one case, which is recorded, a small group of hunters were attacked by a large number of Sioux. Telling his companions to flee, one of the Ojibwa took a stand behind a fallen tree, and there he held back the Sioux as he sent arrow after arrow in their direction… His friends managed to escape, but at last one of the Sioux warriors’ arrows found its mark, killing the Ojibwa. When the escaping Ojibwa returned to their own village they raised a war party, as was customary, and they avenged the death of the lone Ojibwa soon after. …

Hereby it is manifest that, during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war, and such a war as is of every man against every man. — Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, chapter 13, 1651

Five Ojibwe chiefs photographed in the 19th century.

EvX: 1651 is a long time ago, but note that Europeans had first encountered Native Americans just over 150 years before–plenty of time for accounts of native lifestyles to be widely read in Europe.

“During the spring and summer the Ojibwa held their dances as well as making war…

“At these dances the Ojibwa appeared in their finest costumes. In early days they painted designs on their garments. Later they embroidered them with moose hair, and finally they decorated them with the imported trade beads. By the early 1800s costumes were made of black and dark-blue velvet and broadcloth. On the dark background flower-and-leaf designs, made with beads of light and dark green light blue, shades of red and pink, white, and lavender, and yellow, looked striking and colorful.”

EvX: Before we leave the Ojibwa, here’s a bit more from Wikipedia:

The Ojibwe, Ojibwa, or Chippewa are an Anishinaabeg group of indigenous peoples in North America. … In Canada, they are the second-largest First Nations population, surpassed only by the Cree. In the United States, they have the fourth-largest population among Native American tribes, surpassed only by the Navajo, Cherokee, and Lakota-Dakota-Nakota peoples. …

The majority of the Ojibwe people live in Canada. There are 77,940 mainline Ojibwe; 76,760 Saulteaux and 8,770 Mississaugas, organized in 125 bands, and living from western Quebec to eastern British Columbia. As of 2010, Ojibwe in the US census population is 170,742.[1]

Ojibwe are known for their birch barkcanoes, birch bark scrolls, mining and trade in copper, and cultivation of wild rice. Their Midewiwin Society is well respected as the keeper of detailed and complex scrolls of events, oral history, songs, maps, memories, stories, geometry, and mathematics.[2]

The Ojibwe people set the agenda with European-Canadian leaders by signing detailed treaties before they allowed many European settlers into their western areas. In 1745, they adopted guns from the British to defeat the Dakota people in the Lake Superior area, pushing them to the south and west. …

They developed a form of pictorial writing, used in religious rites of the Midewiwin and recorded on birch bark scrolls and possibly on rock. The many complex pictures on the sacred scrolls communicate much historical, geometrical, and mathematical knowledge. The use of petroforms, petroglyphs, and pictographs was common throughout the Ojibwe traditional territories. Petroforms and medicine wheels were a way to teach the important concepts of four directions and astronomical observations about the seasons, and to use as a memorizing tool for certain stories and beliefs.

example of an Ojibwa / Ojibwe Indian birch bark scroll piece or Wiigwaasabak with drawings

It would be nice if Wikipedia added some dates or sources for this paragraph, but the page on Midewiwin notes:

Early accounts of the Mide from books written in the 1800s describe a group of elders that protected the birch bark scrolls in hidden locations. They recopied the scrolls if any were badly damaged, and they preserved them underground. … The historical areas of the Ojibwe were recorded, and stretched from the east coast all the way to the prairies by way of lake and river routes. Some of the first maps of rivers and lakes were made by the Ojibwe and written on birch bark.

The Teachings of the Midewiwin were scratched on birch bark scrolls and were shown to the young men upon entrance into the society. Although these were crude pictographs representing the ceremonies, they show us that the Ojibwa were advanced in the development of picture ‘writing.’ Some of them were painted on bark. One large birch bark roll was ‘known to have been used in the Midewiwin at Mille Lacs for five generations and perhaps many generations before’,[6] and two others, found in a seemingly deliberate hiding place in the Head-of-the-Lakes region of Ontario,[7] were carbon-dated to about 1560 CE +/-70.[8]

Back in the main Wikipedia article on the Ojibwe, it is claimed:

Often, treaties known as “Peace and Friendship Treaties” were made to establish community bonds between the Ojibwe and the European settlers. These established the groundwork for cooperative resource-sharing between the Ojibwe and the settlers. The United States and Canada viewed later treaties offering land cessions as offering territorial advantages. The Ojibwe did not understand the land cession terms in the same way because of the cultural differences in understanding the uses of land. The governments of the US and Canada considered land a commodity of value that could be freely bought, owned and sold.

The Ojibwe believed it was a fully shared resource, along with air, water and sunlight—despite having an understanding of “territory”. At the time of the treaty councils, they could not conceive of separate land sales or exclusive ownership of land. Consequently, today, in both Canada and the US, legal arguments in treaty-rights and treaty interpretations often bring to light the differences in cultural understanding of treaty terms to come to legal understanding of the treaty obligations.[11]

You hear this notion that “Indians had no concept of land ownership” quite often. But if so, why bother to go to war against the Dakotas, and push them out of their lands? If I maybe a bit cynical, perhaps it’s a matter of “I understand this concept perfectly well when it is beneficial, and am suddenly unable to understand it when it is not.”

To be continued…


Anthropology Friday: Hofsinde Gray-Wolf’s Indian Series: Winter Camping

Robert Hofsinde Gray-Wolf

My apologies for the recent lack of a formal Anthropology Friday–I just haven’t found much worth sharing lately. Luckily my bad luck reversed with the discovery of Hofsinde Gray-Wolf’s series of books about Native American culture.

According to the University of Southern Mississippi’s de Grummond Children’s Literature Project:

Robert Hofsinde was born in Denmark in 1902 and came to the United States twenty years later… On a painting trip in the north woods of Minnesota, Hofsinde came upon a young Ojibwa (Chippewa) Indian boy who had fallen into a pit trap and severely broken his leg. Hofsinde rescued the boy, set his leg, and carried him back to his village on a sled. In gratitude, the boy’s family adopted Hofsinde and gave him the name Gray-Wolf.

Time spent with the Ojibwa Indians changed the direction of Hofsinde’s career. He began to sketch the Indians and became so interested in their culture that for three years he stayed with the Ojibwa people. Over the next decade Hofsinde visited and studied Indian villages throughout the West and Southwest, painting and writing magazine articles about Indian culture. In the 1940s he and his wife Geraldine (whose Indian name was Morning-Star) began performing an Indian lore program for school children around the nation.

In the mid-1940s Hofsinde took his drawings to Morrow Junior Books, hoping to become a book illustrator. An editor suggested he write a book to supplement his own illustrations. The result was the well-received The Indian’s Secret World (1955). Hofsinde followed up with Indian Sign Language, and eventually wrote and illustrated thirteen more books over the next twenty year… Hofsinde died in 1973.

I doubt Hofsinde ever thought of himself as an anthropologist, but this is obviously no strike against him. The 40s and 50s were the golden age of American interest in everything Indian, and Hofsinde’s books are a pleasant example of the genre. I only regret that I only purchased a few of the books from the set in the shop, and now the rest are gone.

These are children’s books, but still informative. Today we’ll be looking at his Indian Fishing and Camping. Amazon provides a useful summary:

Only in our wilderness areas can we still see the country as the Indian saw it. Most of us find romance in this idea, but few of us know how to carry it out. In this book Robert Hofsinde tells us how we can fish and camp as the Indians did and how we can make the gear that they used. The Indians learned to make their fishing equipment from the natural materials they found around them. They obtained cordage from roots, fibers, and the inner bark of trees. Mr. Hofsinde shows how the Pacific Coast Indians fashioned their fish traps out of this cordage and describes the many ways other Indian groups put it to use. He also includes a chapter on Eskimo ice fishing, clear directions for making such equipment as hooks, spears, and spinners, and instructions for cleaning and cooking one’s catch. Exact, lovely illustrations by the author increase the usefulness of this book. It will add to the pleasure and safety of the modern camper and to the knowledge of anyone interested in Indian lore.

As usual, I will be using “” instead of blockquotes for the parts quoted from Hofsinde.

Winter Fishing:

“In the treeless arctic the winters are long and the summers are so short that even the hardiest berries often fail to ripen fully. The rivers and inlets, even large portions of the sea, are frozen over during nine months of the year. Even so, fishing provided much of the Eskimo’s food. He caught trout, whitefish, and salmon through holes cut in the ice and through the natural cracks that formed int he ice close to shore. Such fishing called for a great deal of skill and patience. When the fish ran in plenty, it did not take a man long to catch more than he needed. On day when the fish had taken to deeper waters, the fisherman often tried one hole after another and, at the end of the day, arrived home with only one or two small fish, or even with none at all.”

EvX: I am reminded here of the descriptions in Ingold’s Hunters, Pastoralists, and Ranchers of the variability of reindeer hunting economies–some years the hunters can kill a whole herd of migrating deer and so in one day provide for their needs for for many months, and some years the hunters miss the herd by a few miles, resulting in famine.

“Fishing through the ice also had its elements of danger, especially when it was done far from shore. A sudden change of wind or a sudden rise in temperature might cause large ice floes to break away. If this happened while a fisherman was intent upon his work, it was not uncommon for him to drift out into open water, and no one ever saw him again. …

“To protect himself from [the icy winds] at his fishing hole, the Eskimo at times put up a shelter. Such a shelter was usually nothing more than a large animal hide hung over a tripod made from driftwood. In addition to sheltering him a little, it also gave him a dark interior, which helped him to see deeper into the water. …

Netsilik man fishing with spear in hand

“Sheltered or not, the ice fisherman still has a two-handed job. He must hold his line and lure in one hand and the spear in his other. At the moment the fish comes to the lure, he must strike fast and spear it. This is the thrill of the game.

“The Eskimo used an entirely different type of fishing gear from that of other Indians. …

“The Eskimo usually made his fishing rod from a piece of driftwood fourteen inches long. Whittled into a flat shape, it had a deep notch cut into each end. At one end the fishing line was fastened. When not in use, the line was wound around the rod lengthwise, with the notches holding it in place.

“The fishline was made of whale bone. This type of bone did not come from the skeleton of the whale, but from the flexible, comb-like baleen strip, which is the food strainer found in the mouth of the toothless blue whale and the right whale. The baleen was split into very fine strands, which never kinked. When ice formed on the wet line, a quick shake snapped it off.

“On the free end of the line the Eskimo tied a small jigger, or lure, crafted from a piece of bone or ivory. These pieces usually represented very small fish or, most often, shrimp. …

“The scoop net was very important. With it the Eskimo fisherman scooped loose pieces of ice out of his fishing hole. It was also used to keep the hole open, for in the cold air new ice formed rapidly over the open water. The net, too, was made from baleen strips. The hoop from which the net hung was formed from a sliver of moose antler that had been boiled in water until pliable and then bent into shape. …

“In the winter these scoops were carried everywhere by the villagers, and although they had been designed for one purpose originally, the Eskimo boys invented a new use for them. They became quite expert at picking up a scoopful of snow and throwing it with a great deal of force and accuracy at any a chosen target.

“An equally useful article was the spear… When a fish was attracted to the lure dangling just below the water line, the Eskimo struck down quickly with the poised spear. This quick thrust impaled the fish on the center prong. …

“The Eskimos ice fished with a single baited copper hook or with a four-pronged ivory jigger. These were the earliest, pre-European fishhooks, and they were made without barbs from copper found on the surface of the ground or in veins in the earth. An Eskimo bent up a thin piece of copper to form a hook, which was a little at the bottom than at the top. …

“A barbless hook was necessary in the arctic. In that cold climate a fish froze slid almost the instant it was brought out of the water. When an Eskimo caught a fish on his barbless hook, he could dislodge it with a deft jerk without removing his mittens, so his hands remained perfectly dry.

Here’s a good illustration of the two-handed line-reeling technique

“The Eskimo also never touched his wet fishline, even when he pulled it in. Holding the short fishing rod in one hand and his ice scoop in the other, he lifted part of the line with the scoop, the next part with the rod. He alternated between the scoop and the rod, cisscrossing, until he had wound up the entire line and had pulled the fish out of the hole onto the ice.

“One fish the Eskimos caught in warmer weather was the salmon. During the summer, when the salmon migration was on and they passed through the shallow arctic streams to spawn, the Eskimo fishermen blocked their way with large boulders. As the fish darted about in an effort to reach open water, they walked among them and speared them by the hundreds.”

On the more general subject of camping:

“The Indians were camping long before the Europeans came to America. Some of them had permanent villages. Others, such a the Plains Indians, moved their camps as they followed the buffalo The woodland Indians made their camps throughout the forest, as they gathered berries and maple sap or went fishing. These early camps were not like the vacation camps we know today, but were places where work had to be done constantly. Canoes needed patching, a new paddle was required, buckskin clothing had to be mended, and other seemingly endless tasks had to be performed.

Voyageurs at Dawn, by Frances Anne Hopkins, 1871

“Camping was still hard work when Lewis and Clark and the men of their expedition explored the West from 1804 to 1806. Night after night, wherever the end of of the day found them, they set up camp, checked over their equipment, cooked their rations, and slept–often in a pouring rain. Shelters and sleeping bags were unknown. They had no portable stoves or lanterns. In fact, each man’s gear was held to a minimum.

“The Canadian voyageurs also camped at night along their watery highways. We can be sure that they slept well, for according to some of their old journals, their day started at 2:30 in the morning and ended at 8:00 in the evening, with only a rest now and again for ‘a pipe.'”

EvX: According to Wikipedia:

The voyageurs were French Canadians who engaged in the transporting of furs by canoe during the fur trade years. Voyageur is a French word, meaning “traveler”. The emblematic meaning of the term applies to places (New France, including the Pays d’en Haut and the Pays des Illinois) and times (primarily in the 18th and early 19th centuries) where transportation of materials was mainly over long distances. This major and challenging task of the fur trading business was done by canoe and largely by French Canadians. The term in its fur trade context also applied, at a lesser extent, to other fur trading activities.[1] Being a voyageur also included being a part of a licensed, organized effort, one of the distinctions that set them apart from the coureurs des bois. …

The voyageurs were regarded as legendary, especially in French Canada.[5] They were heroes celebrated in folklore and music. For reasons of promised celebrity status and wealth, this position was very coveted. James H. Baker was once told by an unnamed retired voyageur:

“I could carry, paddle, walk and sing with any man I ever saw. I have been twenty-four years a canoe man, and forty-one years in service; no portage was ever too long for me, fifty songs could I sing. I have saved the lives of ten voyageurs, have had twelve wives and six running dogs. I spent all of my money in pleasure. Were I young again, I would spend my life the same way over. There is no life so happy as a voyageur’s life! [6][7]”

Despite the fame surrounding the voyageur, their life was one of toil and not nearly as glorious as folk tales make it out to be. For example, they had to be able to carry two 90-pound (41 kg) bundles of fur over portage. Some carried up to four or five, and there is a report of a voyageur carrying seven for half of a mile.[8] Hernias were common and frequently caused death.[7] Most voyageurs would start working when they were twenty two and they would continue working until they were in their sixties. They never made enough money to consider an early retirement from what was a physically grueling lifestyle.[9] …

Music was a part of everyday life for the voyageur. Voyageurs sang songs while paddling and working, as well as during other activities and festivities. Many who travelled with the voyageurs recorded their impressions from hearing the voyageurs sing, and that singing was a significant part of their routine. But few wrote down the words or the music. As a result, records of voyageur songs tend to be skewed towards those that were also popular elsewhere in Canada.[7] Examples of Voyageur songs include “À la claire fontaine” (a favorite), “Alouette“, “En roulant ma boule“, “J’ai trop grand peur des loups“, and “Frit à l’huile“. Another such song is titled “C’est l’aviron qui nous mène”. It goes as follows:

M’en revenant de la joli’Rochelle, J’ai rencontré trois jolies demoiselles, C’est l’aviron qui nous mèn’, qui nous mont’

C’est l’aviron qui nous monte en haut.[31]

To this day, school children learn this song as part of French Canadian culture. These songs served a dual purpose for the voyageurs. Not only would they be entertaining during long voyages but their rhythm would help synchronize their paddling.[32] One fur trader, Edward Ermatinger, had the forethought to record some of these songs. This is how eleven voyageurs songs came to be known today. Ermatinger travelled for the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1818 to 1828 as a clerk and learned these songs firsthand. These came to light only in 1943 when the Ermatinger family archives provided them to the Public Archives of Canada so that they may be copied.[33] …

La Chasse-galerie by Henri Julien

La Chasse-galerie, also known as “The Bewitched Canoe” or “The Flying Canoe,” is a popular French-Canadian tale of voyageurs who make a deal with the devil in order to visit their sweethearts during the night, who are located a long distance away. It is a variant of the Wild Hunt. Its most famous version was written by Honoré Beaugrand (1848–1906). It was published in The Century Magazine in August 1892. More recently, the Quebec brewery Unibroue has incorporated a version of the legend into the name and artwork of its highly respected strong ale, Maudite (“Damned”).[34]

EvX: It annoys me when people claim that back in the fifties, books/media about Indians were just a mish-mash of stereotypes without respect for the differences of individual tribes. They talk about fifties books/media as though it were all terrible and insulting, with no regard for the quality works nor the value of popular interest in Indian cultures. Today the whole idea of reading about and being interested in Indians is deprecated. I think this attitude does more harm than good, because people are much more likely to protect and care about people they’re interested in than people they hardly ever hear about.


Anthropology Friday: Hunters, Pastoralists, and Ranchers (part 3/4)

Illustration from Ingold's book
Illustration from Ingold’s book

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Anthropology Friday: Reindeer Economies: Hunters, Pastoralists, and Ranchers [PDF] by Ingold. As usual, I am using “” instead of block quotes and in some cases I have skipped his in-line citations in order to increase readability.

As always, remember that Ingold is one man with his own opinions, trying to construct a broad theory about the development of pastoralism and ranching from hunting societies, across a wide variety of cultures united primarily by their dependence upon reindeer, though he occasionally looks at other pastoralists.

“In Lapland, for example, reindeer hides were traded throughout medieval times, along with the pelts of fur-bearing species, in exchange for commodities such as cloth, grain, salt, metalware and spirits … Hvarfner (1965) has suggested that the massive systems of pitfalls for trapping wild reindeer, which apparently came into use over many parts of Lapland around the eighth century A.D., may have been constructed in order to meet the demands of this trade, and may have contributed to the decimation of the herds even before the earliest firearms were introduced. Their eventual abandonment during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries may be correlated with the decline of the wild population and the expansion of pastoral herds in their place.

“[However] equally elaborate reindeer-hunting systems, involving large inputs of organized labour for their construction, are encountered throughout the circumpolar zone, including arctic North America. Many are of great antiquity, and cannot be correlated with the rise of mercantile trade. Since the caribou populations of North America appear to have withstood millennia of human predation on a scale as massive as in medieval Lapland without suffering appreciable decline…

“We may take as an example the Skolt Lapps, who began to expand their domestic herds to provide a source of slaughter products as a result of the virtual disappearance of the wild woodland reindeer during the nineteenth century. It is estimated that the Skolt herds multiplied by a factor of thirty in the period 1830—1910. Some owners have built up herds of several hundred head, others continue to concentrate on year-round fishing and keep only a few tens of deer as before…

“Where pastoralists operate on the tundra, the edge of the woods tends to constitute a zone of contention over animal resources. In the course of their expansion, the herds of pastoralists penetrate ever further during their winter migrations into the customary hunting grounds of neighbouring peoples inhabiting the forest interior. For these hunters, the herds represent fair game to be pursued as freely as the wild woodland deer which they displace, and certainly in preference to the slaughter of their own domestic animals. The Skolt Lapps, for example, gained a certain notoriety for their raids on the herds of their pastoral neighbours,…

“There is no doubt that the Upper Palaeolithic inhabitants of northern Europe were as much dependent on the reindeer for their livelihood as the Nganasan, Chukchi or Caribou Eskimo
today … According to Polhausen, the reindeer deposits of the classic Hamburgian sites of Meiendorf and Stellmoor uncovered by Rust and dating back to 13,000 B.C. indicate that two-thirds of the animal population was herded. … Inferences that not only was the ratio of males to females in the kill as high as ten to one, but also that the animals were slaughtered with axes,  led him to reject direct analogies with modern reindeer-hunting populations…

“Simonsen has used just such an indicator to date the introduction of domestic reindeer to northernmost Norway. The faunal remains associated with Late Stone Age settlements in this region reveal a semi-nomadic cycle of movement between winter dwellings on the arctic coast, associated with the hunting of sea-mammals, and a series of inland river-fishing and reindeer-hunting sites, occupied during summer and autumn. Around the second century A.D., however, this pattern appears to have been abruptly reversed, to harmonize with the migratory movements of the tundra reindeer. Winter settlements are found inland, whilst coastal sites indicate an emphasis on fishing for salmon during the summer. …

“On the other hand, there is abundant documentary evidence to demonstrate that the transition from hunting to pastoralism took place throughout interior Finnmark during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries… If it is justifiable to correlate the change in seasonal movements with the introduction of domestic reindeer, and the date suggested for the latter is not unreasonable, then we can conclude that it preceded the emergence of pastoralism by some thirteen hundred years. …

“The Basseri of southern Iran keep sizeable herds of sheep and goats which provide them with a supply of milk, meat, wool and hides not only for their own consumption, but also for trade with neighbouring agricultural communities. In return, they receive flour, sugar, tea, dates, fruit and vegetables, which together make up a substantial part of the everyday diet. According to Barth’s estimates, the normal household needs to purchase annually goods to a value equivalent to some forty to fifty sheep, half the number of animals in a flock of average size.

“Great stress is placed on the growth of the herds, apparently in order to increase the rate of profit, and as a hedge against short-term loss. However, when the herd grows too large to remain entirely under the supervision of the owner, or of members of his household, the costs that are inevitably incurred in the employment of hired labour begin to outweigh the profits accruing from further growth. The more successful of the Basseri are therefore induced to invest in land as a form of long-term security, by obtaining plots in the villages bordering their migratory routes. They do not work the land themselves, for the tasks of cultivation are considered demeaning, but rent it out on terms which, given the high density of population and consequent intensivity of agricultural land-use, are highly advantageous.”

EvX: Wikipedia has rather little to say about the Basseri, but it does note:

Basseries are mostly Persians. Their origin is the “Pasargadean” tribe.The Pasargadean tribe was the biggest tribe of Persia and the tribe who helped Cyrus The Great constitute the Achaemenid Empire.They named “Karian” tribe in Sasanian Empire period. They were the relers [sic] of some parts of south Persia and the Karyan city of Persia cause They helped Ardashir I constitute the Sasanian empire.

After Muslim conquest of Persia They were under rule of Arabic Tribes of South Persia, who migrated to Persia after its conquest, till the constitute of Zand Dynasty by Karim Khan. In Pahlavi Dynasty period They were settled by the government in 1930 and again started to decamp in 1941. After the Land Reformations of Iran, they were settled in the cities and the villages of Fars Province; but after some years, They again started decamping. after the Islamic Revolution of Iran because of the problems of being nomad including inaccessibility to modern facilities (hospitals, schools, etc); successive droughts; destruction of the migration path; etc they again went to cities and the villages of the province for living.[2] …

The Basseri seem not to be very familiar with Muslim beliefs, customs, and ceremonies.They do not respect to divisions and events of the Muslim year, Although villagers remind them continually.

Perhaps the editor did not mean this to be funny, but I laughed. (BTW, this Wik page does not strike me as the most reliable, but it’s probably mostly correct about recent history.) has some very interesting thoughts/reflections on the same literature as I believe Ingold is working off of in Ritual and Social Drama in the Qashqai. Alamy has some relevant photos, which suggest that the Basseri could really benefit from some rain. According to Persian Travel:

Aryan tribes migrated into the Iranian plateau in the 2d millennium BC. There are over 1.5 million nomads in Iran today. Many of these tribes such as the Kurds, Bakhtiyaris (Bactrians), Lurs, Guilaks, and the Baluchs are descendants of the original invaders who came from Central Asia to settle in the Iranian Plateau.

Most of the tribes of Central Iran are pure Aryan, while others such as the Arabs of Khuzestan and Khorassan, the Qashqai, the Turkmen (decendants of Mongols), Shahsevan and Afshar tribes of Azarbaijan had ancestors who passed through Iran.

By 1920 nomadic pastoral tribes were over a quarter of Iran’s population. Their number declined sharply as a result forced settlement in the 1920s and 1930s. Continued pressure as well as the lure of the cities and settled life has resulted in a further sharp decline since the 1960s. …

There are over one hundred different nomadic tribes today, each with its own dialect, style of dress and housing, and its own chief or leader.

As always, travel websites should probably be taken with a grain of salt. Back to Ingold:

“Whatever the precise moment at which morphologically wild and domesticated forms began to diverge, it is evident that the displacement of wild game such as onager and gazelle by recognizably domesticated breeds of sheep and goats was taking place on an ever-increasing scale during the seventh and sixth millennia B.C., alongside the development of land-intensive cereal agriculture and a network of trading relations bringing adjacent communities of agriculturalists and herdsmen into close economic interdependence. From these beginnings, under pressure of rapid population growth in the villages, evolved the complex, differentiated economy of today, linking specialized pastoralists such as the Basseri with peasant cultivators, craftsmen and traders, and dominated by urban administrative and market centres. …

“the earliest dry-farmers of the Near East may have incorporated domestic sheep and goats as a means of ‘banking’ agricultural surpluses, in order to even out the effects of erratic rainfall. The rapid rate of increase of ovine and caprine herds would permit their exploitation as a supplementary meat resource, particularly in times of drought, whilst the limited numbers of animals that can be maintained within the framework of an agricultural regime, depending upon the supply of winter fodder, would necessitate periodic culling. Moreover, both sheep and goats furnish raw materials of particular value to people whose subsistence is based on the products of cultivation. …

“Though the origins of cattle domestication remain obscure, there is every reason to believe that the ox was initially tamed and bred by sedentary cultivators. Zeuner includes it in his category of ‘crop-robbers’ — animals which would have first come into close contact with man as invaders of his fields, attracted by the patches of lush vegetation in an artificially created environment, and displaced from their natural habitat by progressive agricultural clearance …

“Thus, writing of a band of Naskapi caribou hunters, Henriksen notes that ‘the boundaries of their hunting territory are determined by the distance they wish and are able to travel’. Every household is free to move where it pleases, and no family or group can claim prior rights to any part of the territory or its resources.

“Indeed, for any population of hunters dependent for their subsistence on a nomadic species, territorial compartmentalization would be profoundly maladaptive, since it would prevent them from adjusting to local fluctuations in the supply of game whose movements are not constrained in the same way. …

“Nevertheless, it is alleged that amongst many peoples of the taiga zone, in both Old and New Worlds, a division is made into exclusive ‘family hunting territories’ which appear to be subject, as any form of landed property, to rules of partition and inheritance …

“On the other hand, if game resources are available in such concentration and abundance as to permit the establishment of more or less permanent communities, as around the north Pacific coast, political enterprise may take on all the attributes of ‘bigmanship’. Through calculative munificence the bigman not only attracts but compels, so obligating his followers as to be able to exert a deferred claim on their productive effort. Drawing on a fund of credit established over many years, he can amass a surplus of consumables sufficient to challenge rival leaders from neighbouring communities in lavish giveaways. Such was the strategy of the Alaskan Eskimo umealit, literally ‘whaleboat captains’ but more generally ‘men of influence’, the most prominent of whom wielded an almost despotic power. …

From Ingold
From Ingold

“Today, the domestic deer of the Nganasan are indistinguishable from the wild tundra form. Their numbers appear to be growing rather rapidly. In former times, it is said that ten animals per household was the normal limit, a figure that conforms well with those for other hunting peoples employing domestic deer for transport. As on the Plains, people who lacked sufficient animals, and who could not borrow, had to pull their belongings themselves, on hand sledges. Nowadays, Popov recounts, a household with fifty domestic deer would be considered poor; yet the Nganasan remain hunters, and kill their deer for food only in emergencies. One consequence of herd growth has been to increase the quantity of stored food and household effects that may be carried along on migrations, including one or two sledge-loads of dowry goods for every marriageable girl.

“In particular, the availability of draft animals constrains the size of the household’s tent, which has consequently become one of the most conspicuous indicators of wealth and status. Among the tundra Nenets, pastoralists who share with the Nganasan a uniform cultural tradition, a wealthy man might possess three or four tents, to house not only his own family, but also those of his herding assistants. To transport all his belongings, he might require as many as a hundred sledge deer…

“It will be recalled that the Tungus employ small herds of domestic deer principally as beasts of burden, but also as providers of milk. Yet it would appear that these animals are themselves subject to rules of redistribution in times of economic stress: Although the reindeer belong to unit-families, when epidemics rage among them the clan may divide all the reindeer belonging to the members of the given clan among all the unit-families … Owing to this practice, units possessing over sixty animals have not been recorded: it happens too often that reindeer are divided among the poorer members of the clan.

“Why is it that among the Nganasan, or the Blackfeet, a man without domestic animals has to attach himself to a wealthy owner in the hope of obtaining loans for his hunting and transport requirements, whilst among the Tungus such inequalities of wealth are moderated by periodic redistribution?…

Nuer man at the Tuut Gatkuɔth cattle camp, from Pictures of Nuer Culture
Nuer man at the Tuut Gatkuɔth cattle camp, from Pictures of Nuer Culture

“Among the Nuer, ‘cattle are everywhere evenly distributed. Hardly anyone is entirely without them, and no one is very rich. Although cattle are a form of wealth that can be accumulated, a man never possesses many more beasts than his byre will hold’. The Nuer herds, like those of the Tungus, are periodically afflicted by epidemics, which effectively constrain their increase. Moreover, Nuer cattle are the subjects of complex and protracted social transactions, revolving principally around the institution of marriage, as a result of which several people besides the individual in whose byre an animal resides may have claims on it of one kind and another.”

EvX: The Nuer are closely related to the Dinka and among the tallest people in the world; they live in Southern Sudan, which as you probably know has been wracked by all kinds of warfare.

“Unfortunately, Shirokogoroff presents no details as to exactly how the division of reindeer during epidemics is carried out among the Tungus. He does say, however, that it operates through the clan rather than necessarily being confined within it, and that reindeer usually pass as gifts or loans. Moreover, we are told elsewhere that ‘the clan provides its members with wives and husbands, also with dowry and kalym [“brideprice”]’.

“I think it is legitimate to infer that the distribution of reindeer occasioned by epidemic follows the same principles as that occasioned by marriage: in other words, that the clan system constitutes the structural framework within which live animals pass in reciprocal transactions from household to household along particular chains of kinship and affinity. One of the most striking features of these transactions is their long-term character. There is little to distinguish between a loan and a gift when both involve a similar obligation to repay at some unspecified date with some unspecified animal, preferably of greater value than the one received. For all practical purposes, a borrowed animal is incorporated into the recipient’s herd….

“To sum up: through their incorporation into the domestic groups of hunters, live animals can become the objects of reciprocal transactions across household boundaries. However, the nature of these transactions varies significantly from one hunting society to another. In some instances, domestic animals may be used to fund the creation and maintenance of extensive networks of social relationships, as a result of which every herd comes to embody an aggregate of separable but overlapping interests. These interests will be mapped out in the distribution of meat from domestic sacrifice. But in other societies, there is little or no transference of stock from one domestic herd to another. Surplus animals are not given away but accommodated through the employment of herding assistants, and loaned only on a short-term basis to those who would use them for the procurement and transport of hunted produce. Consequently, a fortunate household may be able to accumulate sufficient wealth to be in a position to destroy a part of the incremental increase in the herd for food and raw materials. Moreover, it is not bound to distribute the products so obtained beyond the immediate domestic circle. Such are the social conditions that give rise to carnivorous pastoralism.”

EvX: To be continued (and finished) next week!