Some Historical Photos of Negrito People

Young Negrito Girl from the Philippines

There’s this weird divide between physical anthropology (which talks about what people look like,) and cultural anthropology (which talks about what they do.) When I read about what people are doing, I always want to know what they look like, especially if they’re from obscure groups I’ve never met anyone from in real life.

But when talking about people whose lifestyles have changed radically over the past hundred years or so, you run into a sharp divide between historical photos,
(depicting nearly naked hunter-gatherers in a nearly Edenic environment,) and modern photos of young women at the mall. With few exceptions, the folks Anthropologists love to study still exist–they did remain in the 1800s–even if Wikipedia contains no updated information on their modern lives.

So with that caveat, this post is devoted to historical photos of Negritos, with the emphasis on historical. Outside of the Sentinelese, who have remained independent and preserved their historical lifestyle by killing anyone who gets too close to their island, most modern Negritos no longer live like the folks depicted in these photos.

But the past is still fascinating.

The Negrito couple on the left hails from the lovely Andaman Islands (of which North Sentinel Island is part,) off the west coast of Indo-China and today part of India; the remaining Andamanese are designated a Scheduled Tribe[1] under Indian law.

To the right: Two Great Andamanese men, circa. 1875.

The Andamanese are believed to have arrived in the area around 26,000 years ago, about the time of the last glacial maximum, when lower sea levels made getting to such isolated places much easier.

Unfortunately, contact with the outside world has devastated the population, estimated at 7,000 in the late 1700s and only 400-450 today (and the Jangil are completely gone,) despite access to at least some of the modern medicines and technologies that are allowing populations to explode elsewhere.

The following photo is one of my favorites:

Perhaps this Andamanese fellow–a young man or teen, I assume–was showing off for the camera, but that is quite the leap he made in pursuit of the turtle he is spearing.

The boat (as you can see in other pictures) is quite long and can hold several fishermen (or warriors) at once.

I don’t know the purpose of the enclosure in the background; perhaps it also served to catch fish?

This fellow is not carrying about the skull of his defeated enemy, but a memento of a loved relative. According to the Handbook to Ethnographical Collections, “The dead are buried within the encampment in a sitting posture and wrapped up in leaves. The encampment is then deserted forthree months, after which the body is exhumed, and washed in the sea. Necklaces are then made of the bones, which are worn as mementoes by relations and friends, and are thought to cure pain or disease. Thus a man afflicted with toothache ties such a necklace round his face… The skull of the deceased is also worn round the neck as a mark of affection.”

Here is a jawbone worn in similar style, and a necklace made of what look like finger bones.

Their villages looked something like this village from Car Nicobar Island, with a thatched roof raised well above the ground. Here is another village, which shows how the huts could come right over the water, and a view of the inside of a large hut.

Here is a view of the outside of a large hut; this one’s sides go all the way to the ground–perhaps it belonged to a different tribe than the folks with the elevated huts.

The huts of the Jangil Negritos of the Andaman islands were completely different and look more like temporary sun-shelters than houses. (Though I note they are very similar to this double-decker storage and lounging hut.) When the weather is warm all year long, you just don’t need much in the way of house.

This young woman to the right is wearing a “tail skirt,” a piece of traditional finery that Wikimedia speculates may have led to legends of “monkey-tailed people” inhabiting the Andaman Islands.

Here is a photograph of Riala, Age 35, Andamanese-English interpreter from the Aka-Kede tribe, showing a traditional Andaman hairstyle (1890s), and here is a photo showing a traditional Andaman Negrito scarification pattern.

The Negritos of the Philippines, of course, having long inter-married with the other Filipinos, look a great deal like their neighbors.

This illustration of two pre-Hispanic Filipino Negrito warriors comes from the Boxer Codex, created around 1590. The Boxer Codex is filled with lovely illustrations of the various ethnic groups of the Philippines at the time of first contact with the Spanish, including Tagalogs, Visayans, Zambals, Cagayanes or possibly Ibanags, as well as several non-Filipino groups like Chinese and Vietnamese who had also settled there.

The Codex is (probably intentionally) also a guide to relative social class, with wealthier folks wearing far more (and colorfully dyed) clothes than than poor folks like these nearly-naked warriors.


Some 300 years later (1899), the Smithsonian published a near-recreation of the illustration, featuring two Negritos from Luzon, demonstrating their skill with the bow:

Here is another photograph of the same men plus several of their fellow tribesfolk (including three women), showing off their extremely long bows and fine hats.

Sadly, Wikimedia doesn’t seem to have any photos of Malaysian or other mainland Negritos.

For the most part, the Philippine Negritos appear to have tightly curled hair similar to the Andamanese, Papulans, and Melanesians, but some have wavy hair, more similar to the Australian Aborigines (though the effect is probably due entirely to marrying a non-Negrito neighbor.

(I note as well that the lady on the right is a bit taller than her friend on the left, which also suggests intermarriage–leaving us with a different question: Why do Aborigines have wavy hair?)

I have also met Vietnamese women with wavy hair (though perhaps not as wavy as this woman’s.) It contrasts with the extremely straight hair associated with Chinese and Japanese people, and I also wonder where it came from, though perhaps it’s just within the range of totally normal human variation.

The Negritos of Sundaland, Sahul, and the Philippines

Ati (Negrito) woman from the Philippines

The Negritos are a fascinating group of short-statured, dark-skinned, frizzy-haired peoples from southeast Asia–chiefly the Andaman Islands, Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand. (Spelling note: “Negritoes” is also an acceptable plural, and some sources use the Spanish Negrillos.)

Because of their appearance, they have long been associated with African peoples, especially the Pygmies. Pygmies are formally defined as any group where adult men are, on average 4’11” or less and is almost always used specifically to refer to African Pygmies; the term pygmoid is sometimes used for groups whose men average 5’1″ or below, including the Negritos. (Some of the Bushmen tribes, Bolivians, Amazonians, the remote Taron, and a variety of others may also be pygmoid, by this definition.)

However, genetic testing has long indicated that they, along with other Melanesians and Australian Aborigines, are more closely related to other east Asian peoples than any African groups. In other words, they’re part of the greater Asian race, albeit a distant branch of it.

But how distant? And are the various Negrito groups closely related to each other, or do there just happen to be a variety of short groups of people in the area, perhaps due to convergent evolution triggered by insular dwarfism?

From Wikimedia

In Discerning the origins of the Negritos, First Sundaland Peoples: deep divergence and archaic admixture, Jinam et al gathered genetic data from Filipino, Malaysian, and Andamanese Negrito populations, and compared them both to each other and other Asian, African, and European groups. (Be sure to download the supplementary materials to get all of the graphs and maps.)

They found that the Negrito groups they studied “are basal to other East and Southeast Asians,” (basal: forming the bottom layer or base. In this case, it means they split off first,) “and that they diverged from West Eurasians at least 38,000 years ago.” (West Eurasians: Caucasians, consisting of Europeans, Middle Easterners, North Africans, and people from India.) “We also found relatively high traces of Denisovan admixture in the Philippine Negritos, but not in the Malaysian and Andamanese groups.” (Denisovans are a group of extinct humans similar to Neanderthals, but we’ve yet to find many of their bones. Just as Neanderthal DNA shows up in non-Sub-Saharan-Africans, so Denisvoan shows up in Melanesians.)

Figure 1 (A) shows PC analysis of Andamanese, Malaysian, and Philippine Negritos, revealing three distinct clusters:

In the upper right-hand corner, the Aeta, Agta, Batak, and Mamanwa are Philippine Negritos. The Manobo are non-Negrito Filipinos.

In the lower right-hand corner are the Jehai, Kintak and Batek are Malaysian Negritos.

And in the upper left, we have the extremely isolated Andamanese Onge and Jarawa Negritos.

(Phil-NN and Mly-NN I believe are Filipino and Malaysian Non-Negritos.)

You can find the same chart, but flipped upside down, with Papuan and Melanesian DNA in the supplemental materials. Of the three groups, they cluster closest to the Philippine Negritos, along the same line with the Malaysians.

By excluding the Andamanese (and Kintak) Negritos, Figure 1 (B) allows a closer look at the structure of the Philippine Negritos.

The Agta, Aeta, and Batak form a horizontal “comet-like pattern,” which likely indicates admixture with non-Negrito Philipine groups like the Manobo. The Mamanawa, who hail from a different part of the Philippines, also show this comet-like patterns, but along a different axis–likely because they intermixed with the different Filipinos who lived in their area. As you can see, there’s a fair amount of overlap–several of the Manobo individuals clustered with the Mamanwa Negritos, and the Batak cluster near several non-Negrito groups (see supplemental chart S4 B)–suggesting high amounts of mixing between these groups.

ADMIXTURE analysis reveals a similar picture. The non-Negrito Filipino groups show up primarily as Orange. The Aeta, Agta, and Batak form a clear genetic cluster with each other and cline with the Orange Filipinos, with the Aeta the least admixed and Batak the most.

The white are on the chart isn’t a data error, but the unique signature of the geographically separated Mananwa, who are highly mixed with the Manobo–and the Manobo, in turn, are mixed with them.

But this alone doesn’t tell us how ancient these populations are, nor if they’re descended from one ancestral pop. For this, the authors constructed several phylogenetic trees, based on all of the data at hand and assuming from 0 – 5 admixture events. The one on the left assumes 5 events, but for clarity only shows three of them. The Denisovan DNA is fascinating and well-documented elsewhere in Melanesian populatons; that Malaysian and Philippine Negritos mixed with their neighbors is also known, supporting the choice of this tree as the most likely to be accurate.

Regardless of which you pick, all of the trees show very similar results, with the biggest difference being whether the Melanesians/Papuans split before or after the Andamanese/Malaysian Negritos.

In case you are unfamiliar with these trees, I’ll run down a quick explanation: This is a human family tree, with each split showing where one group of humans split off from the others and became an isolated group with its own unique genetic patterns. The orange and red lines mark places where formerly isolated groups met and interbred, producing children that are a mix of both. The first split in the tree, going back million of years, is between all Homo sapiens (our species) and the Denisovans, a sister species related to the Neanderthals.

All humans outside of sub-Saharan Africans have some Neanderthal DNA because their ancestors met and interbred with Neanderthals on their way Out of Africa. Melanesians, Papuans, and some Negritos also have some Denisovan DNA, because their ancestors met and made children with members of this obscure human species, but Denisovan DNA is quite rare outside these groups.

Here is a map of Denisovan DNA levels the authors found, with 4% of Papuan DNA hailing from Denisivan ancestors, and Aeta nearly as high. By contrast, the Andamanese Negritos appear to have zero Denisovan. Either the Andamanese split off before the ancestors of the Philippine Negritos and Papuans met the Denisovans, or all Denisovan DNA has been purged from their bloodlines, perhaps because it just wasn’t helpful for surviving on their islands.

Back to the Tree: The second node is where the Biaka, a group of Pygmies from the Congo Rainforest in central Africa. Pygmy lineages are among the most ancient on earth, potentially going back over 200,000 years, well before any Homo sapiens had left Africa.

The next group that splits off from the rest of humanity are the Yoruba, a single ethnic group chosen to stand in for the entirety of the Bantus. Bantus are the group that you most likely think of when you think of black Africans, because over the past three millennia they have expanded greatly and conquered most of sub-Saharan Africa.

Next we have the Out of Africa event and the split between Caucasians (here represented by the French) and the greater Asian clade, which includes Australian Aborigines, Melanesians, Polynesians, Chinese, Japanese, Siberians, Inuit, and Native Americans.

The first groups to split off from the greater Asian clade (aka race) were the Andamanese and Malaysian Negritos, followed by the Papuans/Melanesians Australian Aborigines are closely related to Papuans, as Australia and Papua New Guinea were connected in a single continent (called Sahul) back during the last Ice Age. Most of Indonesia and parts of the Philippines were also connected into a single landmass, called Sunda. Sensibly, people reached Sunda before Sahul, though (Perhaps at that time the Andaman islands, to the northwest of Sumatra, were also connected or at least closer to the mainland.)

Irrespective of the exact order in which Melanesians and individual Negrito groups split off, they all split well before all of the other Asian groups in the area.

This is supported by legends told by the Filipinos themselves:

Legends, such as those involving the Ten Bornean Datus and the Binirayan Festival, tell tales about how, at the beginning of the 12th century when Indonesia and Philippines were under the rule of Indianized native kingdoms, the ancestors of the Bisaya escaped from Borneo from the persecution of Rajah Makatunaw. Led by Datu Puti and Datu Sumakwel and sailing with boats called balangays, they landed near a river called Suaragan, on the southwest coast of Panay, (the place then known as Aninipay), and bartered the land from an Ati [Negrito] headman named Polpolan and his son Marikudo for the price of a necklace and one golden salakot. The hills were left to the Atis while the plains and rivers to the Malays. This meeting is commemorated through the Ati-atihan festival.[4]

The study’s authors estimate that the Negritos split from Europeans (Caucasians) around 30-38,000 years ago, and that the Malaysian and Philippine Negritos split around
13-15,000 years ago. (This all seems a bit tentative, IMO, especially since we have physical evidence of people in the area going back much further than that, and the authors themselves admit in the discussion that their time estimate may be too short.)

The authors also note:

Both our NJ (fig. 3A) and UPGMA (supplementary fig. S10) trees show that after divergence from Europeans, the ancestral Asians subsequently split into Papuans, Negritos and East Asians, implying a one-wave colonization of Asia. … This is in contrast to the study based on whole genome sequences that suggested Australian Aboriginal/Papuan first split from European/East Asians 60 kya, and later Europeans and East Asians diverged 40 kya (Malaspinas et al. 2016). This implies a two-wave migration into Asia…

The matter is still up for debate/more study.

Negrito couple from the Andaman Islands

In conclusion: All of the Negrito groups are likely descended from a common ancestor, (rather than having evolved from separate groups that happened to develop similar body types due to exposure to similar environments,) and were among the very first inhabitants of their regions. Despite their short stature, they are more closely related to other Asian groups (like the Chinese) than to African Pygmies. Significant mixing with their neighbors, however, is quickly obscuring their ancient lineages.

I wonder if all ancient human groups were originally short, and height a recently evolved trait in some groups?

In closing, I’d like to thank Jinam et al for their hard work in writing this article and making it available to the public, their sponsors, and the unique Negrito peoples themselves for surviving so long.

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: Yakuts!

Yakut Sakha herder

We started this adventure Into Siberia at the request of one of you fine readers for more information on the Yakuts, a Turkic-speaking people who live primarily in Russia. Erman writes:

“In Kantinsk, seventy-seven versts from Peskovsk, and in the following stages, the Russian population is mixed with more than an equal proportion of Yakuts. These are far more successful fishers and hunters than the Russians, and we were always sure of finding in their yurts a good stock of carp and other fish. Many of them have grown rich by barter, while the Russians here, by their own confession, find a miserable subsistence. …

“[The fish] are taken in the lakes belonging to the Yakuts on the northern side of the Lena, and, consequently, the Russians on the river have only as many of these fish, as those original and more practised lords of the soil allow
to escape to them. The latter, however, carry many hundred poods of this fish for sale into the upper part of the valley. …

“Sunduki and Nyuis are likewise Yakutian villages, with a small share of Russian population. The dwellings here are extremely neat, and both the food and clothing of the people bear witness to their comfortable circumstances. The women, generally, wear in the house, a gown of some coloured web; the men wear short over-coats of reindeer skin, with the hair turned in, and the outside leather-coloured … in fact, the envy which the opulence of the Asiatic has usually awakened in the minds of the European invaders, takes here the deceitful appearance of esteem. …

“An old Russian, from the vicinity of Murom, who had been banished to Yerbinsk some fifty years before for homicide, complained to me, with laughable impudence, of the progressive improvement of the Yakuts. Formerly, these people paid for every pound of flour, with the finest furs, but now they hardly paid as much for a pood; and so it sometimes happened that they laid up a stock of flour, and then, in the winter, retailed it to the Russians. Indeed, when he first came here, every Russian passed with the Yakuts for a superior being, — they have even stood to salute him at a respectful distance; but matters were at last nearly come to that pass that he would have to bow to the Yakuts. …

Map of the Yakut Migration from lake Baikal to northern Russia

“We came in the evening to the yurts of Nokhtuisk, fifty-five versts from Kamenovsk, which are inhabited by very thriving and intelligent Yakuts. Several of the men whom we met in the post-hut spoke Russian fluently, and were proud of this advantage. One of them, who had travelled several times to Irkutsk, entered into an argument with Mitltyev respecting the age of Yakutsk and Irkutsk. The Yakut maintained, and with reason, that the former of these capitals was first founded; but it was not till he said to the Eosak, “Siberia was conquered 250 years ago, umler the Tsar, Ivan Yasilevich,” that his learning was formally eulogized with the words, “Now I see that you have read the history of Siberia.”* The same Yakut said, in reply to a question of mine respecting the relationship existing between his nation and the Buraets, that they were both of one descent, and that their languages were still very much alike. In saying this, he referred only to the present inhabitants of the sources of the Lena, whom he had seen himself; and in confirmation of his statement, we find that in the beginning of the seventeenth century, (1630,) when the Yakuts were just beginning
to make the acquaintance of the Russians, they preserved the tradition, that they had dwelt at one time in the upper valley, close to the Buraets and Mongols, and were at length separated, in consequence of a war, from those neighbours and kinsmen, and driven back into their present abodes.

* This man had probably received instruction in the public school of Yakutsk.”

EvX: According to Wikipedia:

The ancestors of Yakuts were Kurykans who migrated from Yenisey river to Baikal Lake.[9][10][11] in the 7th century. The Yakuts originally lived around Olkhon and the region of Lake Baikal. Beginning in the 13th century they migrated to the basins of the Middle Lena, the Aldan and Vilyuy rivers under the pressure of the rising Mongols.

The northern Yakuts were largely hunters, fishermen and reindeer herders, while the southern Yakuts raised cattle and horses.[12][13]

In the 1620s the Tsardom of Muscovy began to move into their territory and annexed or settled down on it, imposed a fur tax and managed to suppress several Yakut rebellions between 1634 and 1642. The tsarist brutality in collection of the pelt tax (yasak) sparked a rebellion and aggression among the Yakuts and also Tungusic-speaking tribes along the River Lena in 1642. … The Yakut population alone is estimated to have fallen by 70 percent between 1642 and 1682 because of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy expeditions.[14]

In the 18th century the Russians reduced the pressure, gave Yakut chiefs some privileges, granted freedom for all habitats, gave them all their lands, sent Orthodox missions, and educated the Yakut people regarding agriculture. The discovery of gold and, later, the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway, brought ever-increasing numbers of Russians into the region.

Martin Lewis writes in GeoCurrents:

As explained in the previous post, the Yakut (Sakha) people have adapted more easily to the demands of the Russian state, and of modernity more generally, than most other indigenous peoples on Siberia. The relative success of the Yakut is best understood historically. Relative newcomers from the south, the Yakut moved into central Siberia with a more advanced technology and a more complex social order than those of the earlier indigenes of the region. …

Yakut legends put their homeland near Lake Baikal in south-central Siberia, an area now occupied by the Mongolian-speaking Buryats. The two people must have interacted extensively, as roughly one-third of the Sakha vocabulary is of Mongolian origin. Relations were not always cordial; the Yakuts tell stories of their ancestors being driven into the northern forests by the Buryats. Scholars have suggested dates for the migration ranging from the early 11th to the 13th centuries. Their exodus was no doubt traumatic; before their displacement, the Yakut raised horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and camels, but only horses and cattle survived the transition. They originally seem to have had knowledge of the Old Turkic script (“Turkic runes”), but literacy was not maintained. Sophisticated metallurgy, however, was, giving the Yakut an advantage over other Siberian peoples (groups such as the Evenks could work iron, but could not smelt it from raw ore). Military knowledge was also retained. The armored Yakut cavalry met by the first Russian interlopers were said by some to resemble the knights of medieval Europe. …

But pines also provided basic sustenance … The crucial pine resource is the inner layer of bark, or phloem. Although many peoples have traditionally eaten phloem, the Yakuts took the resource much farther than most. As Jordan-Bychkov and Bychkova Jordan explain:

In June, the “month of the pine”, women went into the woods and cut down young trees, peeled off the layers of new growth, dried it, and ground the sapwood into  powder. They then mixed it into the milk products as a kind of flour, and the chemical action of the lactic acid broke down the cellulose fibers.  (p. 54).

A variety of wild roots gathered from the alas meadows were another important source of food. They too were often ground and then dissolved in sour milk. Even fish and other animal product—including bones—were sometime dissolved in the mixture. The resulting product, called tar, formed a staple of the traditional Yakut diet. Large blocks of milk tar would be stored as simple frozen slabs immediately outside of the winter dwellings. Russian prisoners exiled to Yakut villages had a difficult time adapting to such fare.

The GeoCurrents article is very interesting and I encourage you to read it all. Continuing with Erman’s account:

“[Yakutian horses] must stand temperatures that can drop far below -60 they have an incredible fur coat and find their own food under the snow”
“At Delgeisky the next stage, an old Yakut told me many particulars respecting the present manners and customs of his people. Here in the neighbourhood of the Russians, every one contents himself with one wife; but, among the families of the northern tracts, polygamy is as prevalent as ever. The old custom is kept up … for which every Yakut buys his wife. This is usually a number of cattle, to the value of 200 or 800 roobles; but as the family of the man are not always in a condition to pay the stipulated amount at once, it is customary to affiance the boys already in their twelfth year. The betrothed girls may be visited in their parents’ yurts by their intended husbands, but cannot be taken home by the latter till the payment of the koluina is completed. The sum thus paid goes wholly to the father of the bride, who carries only a few presents with her to her new home. Match-makers, male and female … are indispensable as witnesses in settling the price of the bride.

“Many of the Yakutian words, written from the lips of this man, showed no essential agreement with the equivalent
terms of the Sabaikalian Buraets … On the other hand, I remarked in the yurts here many remarkable resemblances to the manners of the Ostyaks on the Obi. Thus the fire-place, the most important part of all northern dwellings, is constructed by both tribes after the same idea, for it consists here, as on the Obi, of a wicker frame plastered over with clay. The only difference is in the position of the apparatus … This deviation from the Ostyak mode of construction is evidently advantageous, for here, the moment the fire is kindled, a strong and audible draught is perceptible, with a bright flame; but in the yurts on the Obi there is more frequently pungent smoke with a dull fire. …

Yakut winter house

“The tract of country which follows is well peopled with Yakuts, whose winter dwellings always stand alone, in wide grassy lawns, in the midst of the prevailing pine woods. Here, too, the rectangular wooden huts are flat-roofed and plastered with cow dung; and the doors, for want of planking, are covered over with hairy ox hides. Flakes of ice fill the windows, yet in some of the yurts, bladder is used instead of these. The Yakutian sledges, which we met with continually, were, like those of the Buraets, drawn by oxen, on one of which the driver rode. At the same time horses have been used here for riding from early times, as is proved indeed by the peculiarities of the Yakutiain horse furniture. Their saddles have unusually thick stuffing, on-which the rider sits, squeezed in between two high and perpendicular boards…

“I felt the most violent longings awakened as I listened to the accounts of the practical roads, by which the Tunguzes of the Lena may, in one and the same year, receive information from China, then meet in Turukhansk with Samoyedes who have seen Obdorsk, and there learned from eye witnesses what was going on in Archangel. …

“The Yakuts in Namana, and along the road onward for 110 versts… live still quite in their ancient, original fashion. … The thick flakes of ice, which serve as window panes, were here also held against the wall from the outside, by a slanting pole, the lower end of which was fixed in the ground. In the night, when the fire goes out, this ice is covered, like glass, with an opaque and snow-like hoar-frost, which, in the daytime melts away, as well as a considerable portion of the ice itself, from the heat of the yurt, and the flakes, which are, at first, a foot thick, require to be renewed four or five times in the course of the winter; a provision of suitable ice always lying before the yurt.

“The parts of these dwellings which are directly heated by the fire, attain a temperature of [20 to 25 degrees C or 65 to 77 degrees F] We found the children in them, of both sexes, quite naked ; they were, nevertheless, running about in this state to-day, when the thermometer was as low as [- 13C or -10F], and even in the open air. In the clothing of adults, there is manifested a strong predilection for bright colours, for the women in the house, as among the Buraets, wore clothes of green or other bright Chinese stuffs; while the men had on tight-fitting, short frocks, which closely resembled the esquires’ tabards in the middle ages. They were almost always made of white linen, with blue borders. At the lower end, behind, was a perpendicular slit, to prevent their incommoding on horseback. Even the fur caps of these people were covered with white linen, and adorned with squirrels’ tails, and other black furs.”

EvX: The Exp.No.Where article, Yakut People and their Customs, has several photos of Yakuts in their strikingly white garments during a Summer Solstice celebration.

Adorably furry Yakutian cow

“Here on the lowlands were again seen, in great numbers, the separate yurts of the Yakuts; and seemed to be in great abundance. All the sledges are drawn by oxen, the driver always riding on one of them; but they can dispense with the vehicle, and we now met with many men and women riding on oxen. The trot of these animals was so lively and constant, that one could not help soon forgetting the European prejudice
against the use of horned cattle for such purposes. …

“The Yakuts living in the 62d degree of latitude, have far more trouble in keeping their cattle, than any other people devoted to the same kind of husbandry. They make long journeys to collect hay for the winter, yet they do not always find enough of it, but are often obliged to feed their oxen, from March to May, only on the willow and birch twigs, which they procure on the islands in the Lena. The further we examine into particulars, the greater must be our surprise, when we behold here for the first time, a thriving cattle-husbandry in the midst of deep snow and under terrible frosts ; we involuntarily ask ourselves, how it came to pass that the Yakuts attached their existence to a domestic animal which is found nowhere else in Asia, under the same circumstances of climate. They have themselves a tradition, that they once brought their herds down the Lena, in boats from the sources of the river : but this is assuredly no explanation; it is only a proof that they are themselves sensible of the contrast between the climate they dwell under, and the nature of their domestic animal.

“I might more reasonably hold the cattle here to be a bequest from a preceding period ; that is to say the remnant of a “wild breed, which, in earlier periods of the earth’s history, occupied this region in particular. The skulls of wild
cattle are found very often in the Lena, and the lakes in the neighbourhood. Living and untamed individuals are to be seen beyond Behring Straits, on the coasts of Hudson’s Bay; and  doubtless, those dead cattle, as well as these living remnants, all belong to an age of the world, when the northern parts of the earth had a much milder winter than at present. There remained here, instead of the long-haired American bison, the scattered bones of that original breed, and, thanks to the care of the Yakuts, their degenerated herds.”

EvX: According to Wikipedia:

Yakutian cattle are of a relatively small size. These cows stand between 110 and 112 cm high at the withers and reach a live weight of 350 to 400 kg, bulls reach a height of 115 to 127 cm and weigh 500 to 600 kg. They have short, strong legs and a deep but relatively narrow chest. The dewlap is well-developed.[1][2] …

A number of further traits, such as a thick winter coat, a small, fur-covered udder or scrotum, efficient thermoregulation, and low metabolic rates at low temperatures, lead to the Yakutian cattle’s extreme tolerance towards freezing temperatures.[2][3][4] A compelling example of this is the case of several cows which survived on their own in the taiga forest for three months in late 2011 in deep snows and temperatures reaching as low as –40 °C (–40 °F).[5]..

Yakutian cattle belong to the East Asian Turano-Mongolian group of taurine cattle.[4][7] This group of cattle may represent a fourth Aurochs domestication event (and a third event among Bos taurus–type aurochs) and may have diverged from the Near East group some 35,000 years ago.[8] Yakutian cattle are the last remaining native Turano-Mongolian cattle breed in Siberia,[4] and one of only a few pure Turano-Mongolian breeds remaining worldwide.[7]

… Studies of autosomal DNA markers show a high genetic distinctiveness and point to a long-term genetic isolation from other breeds; geographic isolation beyond the normal northern limit of the species range can be assumed to be the cause.[1][9] …

The Yakutian cattle is descended from the indigenous Siberian cattle breeds. The Sakha (i.e. Yakuts) brought it from the southern Baikal region to the lower reaches of the Lena, the Yana, the Indigirka and the Kolyma rivers when they migrated northward in the 13th century.[4] Together with the Yakutian horse, it was the basis of the Sakha culture of meat and dairy livestock in the harsh conditions of the Russian Far North.

Yakutian cattle were purebred until 1929, but then an extensive crossbreeding with the more productive Simmental cattle and Kholmogory cattle began.[2][4] While many other landraces were lost in this era, the Yakutian cattle was saved by traditional cattle breeders and individual scientists.[1][5] …

Currently there are approximately 1200 purebred Yakutian cattle, all of them in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) of the Russian Federation. The breeding population consists of only 525 breeding cows and 28 breeding bulls, the rest are mostly dairy cows.[1][4] Consequently, the Yakutian cattle are classified as an endangered breed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).[4]

Back to Erman:

In Ulakhansk, sixty-one versts from Toyon aruin, I met in the yard where we alighted a noble chieftain of the Yakuts, who was on his way to a judicial inquiry. … I admired this man’s frock, made of blue cloth with red facings and white metal buttons) it had an old-fashioned European look, and was, doubtless, made in imitation of some suit of honour presented to one of his predecessors by the Tsar. He gave me to understand, however, with national pride, that his genuine Yakutian cap was better worth looking at and more valuable also. It was lined with squirrelskins, and outside was very artificially made up of sable, otter, and black fox furs; it had, moreover, very odd-looking appendages made of the fur of the glutton, which hung down over his back.

“This chief’s feelings respecting the dignity of his nation, and above all, of his own dignity, displayed themselves throughout all his conversation, which he carried on in broken Russian. — Thus, he always named Yakutsk “the city of the Yakuts;” and he congratulated me on my prospect of soon visiting its rich yurts. He told me that the administration of justice, and the general internal management of society among the Yakuts, are still left in their hands. Their immediate chiefs and magistrates are still of their own nation, just as I have already related of the Bashkirs. The whole race has been divided, from time immemorial, into certain tribes; each of which is again distributed into Ulusi, or communes. The heads of the latter are chosen by the Yakuts, from the chief families, for life. They are called Toyoni; which the Russians very properly translate by … prince. But it is extremely unbecoming, on the other hand, to put these nobles and other heads of tribes on an equal footing with the mayor of a Russian village, and so entitle them merely gölova! These principal dignitaries remain in office only three years; the Yakuts always choose them from the number of their acknowledged princes, and they are therefore not inferior, certainly, to a Russian governor; and, particularly, because the charge of public administration among the Yakuts is defrayed by that people themselves.”

EvX: I am growing tired, so we shall quit for today. Please join us next week for more on the Yakuts.

No, Graecopithecus does not prove humans evolved in Europe

Hello! We’re in the midst of a series of posts on recent exciting news in the field of human evolution:

  • Ancient hominins in the US?
  • Homo naledi
  • Homo flores
  • Humans evolved in Europe?
  • In two days, first H Sap was pushed back to 260,000 years,
  • then to 300,000 years!
  • Bell beaker paper

Today we’re discussing the much-publicized claim that scientists have discovered that humans evolved in Europe. (If you haven’t read last week’s post on Homo naledi and flores, I encourage you to do so first.) The way reporters have framed their headlines about the recent Graecopithecus freybergi findings is itself a tale:

The Telegraph proclaimed, “Europe was the birthplace of mankind, not Africa, scientists find,” Newsweek similarly trumpeted, “First Human Ancestor Came from Europe Not Africa,” and CBS News stated, “Controversial study suggests earliest humans lived in Europe – not Africa.”

The Conversation more prudently inquired, “Did humans evolve in Europe rather than Africa? ” and NewScientist and the Washington Post, in a burst of knowing what a “human” is, stated, “Our common ancestor with chimps may be from Europe, not Africa” and “Ape that lived in Europe 7 million years ago could be human ancestor,” respectively.

This all occasioned some very annoying conversations along the lines of “White skin tone couldn’t possibly have evolved within the past 20,000 years because humans evolved in Europe! Don’t you know anything about science?”

Ohkay. Let’s step back a moment and take a look at what Graecopithecus is and what it isn’t.

This is Graecopithecus:

I think there is a second jawbone, but that’s basically it–and that’s not six teeth, that’s three teeth, shown from two different perspectives. There’s no skull, no shoulder blades, no pelvis, no legs.


By contrast, here are Lucy, the famous Australopithecus from Ethiopia, and a sample of the over 1,500 bones and pieces of Homo naledi recently recovered from a cave in South Africa.

Now, given what little scientists had to work with, the fact that they managed to figure out anything about Graecopithecus is quite impressive. The study, reasonably titled “Potential hominin affinities of Graecopithecus from the Late Miocene of Europe,” by
Jochen Fuss, Nikolai Spassov, David R. Begun, and Madelaine Böhm, used μCT and 3D reconstructions of the jawbones and teeth to compare Graecopithecus’s teeth to those of other apes. They decided the teeth were different enough to distinguish Graecopithecus from the nearby but older Ouranopithecus, while looking more like hominin teeth:

G. freybergi uniquely shares p4 partial root fusion and a possible canine root reduction with this tribe and therefore, provides intriguing evidence of what could be the oldest known hominin.

My hat’s off to the authors, but not to all of the reporters who dressed up “teeth look kind of like hominin teeth” as “Humans evolved in Europe!”

First of all, you cannot make that kind of jump based off of two jawbones and a handfull of teeth. Many of the hominin species we have recovered–such as Homo naledi and Homo floresiensis, as you know if you already read the previous post–possessed a mosaic of “ape like” and “human like” traits, ie:

The physical characteristics of H. naledi are described as having traits similar to the genus Australopithecus, mixed with traits more characteristic of the genus Homo, and traits not known in other hominin species. The skeletal anatomy displays plesiomorphic (“ancestral”) features found in the australopithecines and more apomorphic (“derived,” or traits arising separately from the ancestral state) features known from later hominins.[2]

Nebraska Man teeth compared to chimps, Homo erectus, and modern humans

If we only had six Homo naledi bones instead of 1,500 of them, we might be looking only at the part that looks like an Australopithecus instead of the parts that look like H. erectus or totally novel. You simply cannot make that kind of claim off a couple of jawbones. You’re far too likely to be wrong, and then not only will you end up with egg on your face, but you’ll only be giving more fuel to folks who like to proclaim that “Nebraska Man turned out to be a pig!”:

In February 1922, Harold Cook wrote to Dr. Henry Osborn to inform him of the tooth that he had had in his possession for some time. The tooth had been found years prior in the Upper Snake Creek beds of Nebraska along with other fossils typical of North America. … Osborn, along with Dr. William D. Matthew soon came to the conclusion that the tooth had belonged to an anthropoid ape. They then passed the tooth along to William K. Gregory and Dr. Milo Hellman who agreed that the tooth belonged to an anthropoid ape more closely related to humans than to other apes. Only a few months later, an article was published in Science announcing the discovery of a manlike ape in North America.[1] An illustration of H. haroldcookii was done by artist Amédée Forestier, who modeled the drawing on the proportions of “Pithecanthropus” (now Homo erectus), the “Java ape-man,” for the Illustrated London News. …

Examinations of the specimen continued, and the original describers continued to draw comparisons between Hesperopithecus and apes. Further field work on the site in the summers of 1925 and 1926 uncovered other parts of the skeleton. These discoveries revealed that the tooth was incorrectly identified. According to these discovered pieces, the tooth belonged neither to a man nor an ape, but to a fossil of an extinct species of peccary called Prosthennops serus.

That basically sums up everything I learned about human evolution in highschool.


Scientists define “humans” as members of the genus Homo, which emerged around 3 million years ago. These are the guys with funny names like Homo habilis, Homo neanderthalensis, and the embarrassingly named Homo erectus. The genus also includes ourselves, Homo sapiens, who emerged around 200-300,000 years ago.

Homo habilis descended from an Australopithecus, perhaps Lucy herself. Australopithecines are not in the Homo genus; they are not “human,” though they are more like us than modern chimps and bonobos are. They evolved around 4 million years ago.

The Australopithecines evolved, in turn, from even older apes, such as–maybe–Ardipithecus (4-6 million years ago) or Sahelanthropus tchadensis.

Regardless, humans didn’t evolve 7 million years ago. Sahelanthropus and even Lucy do not look like anyone you would call “human.” Humans have only been around for about 3 million years, and our own specific species is only about 300,000 years old. Even if Graecopithecus turns out to be the missing link–the true ancestor of both modern chimps and modern humans–that still does not change where humans evolved, because Graecopithecus narrowly missed being a human by 4 million years.

If you want to challenge the Out of Africa narrative, I think you’d do far better arguing for a multi-regional model of human evolution that includes back-migration of H. erectus into Africa and interbreeding with hominins there as spurring the emergence of H. sapiens than arguing about a 7 million year old jawbone. (I just made that up, by the way. It has no basis in anything I have read. But it at least has the right characters, in the right time frame, in a reasonable situation.)

Sorry this was a bit of a rant; I am just rather passionate about the subject. Next time we’ll examine very exciting news about Bushmen and Pygmy DNA!


Recent Exciting Developments in Human Evolutionary History: Naledi and Flores

A reconstruction of Homo naledi’s head by paleoartist John Gurche, who spent some 700 hours recreating the head from bone scans. Image credit: John Gurche / Mark Thiessen / National Geographic. source:

Continuing with our series on recent exciting discoveries in human genetics/paleo anthropology:

  • Ancient hominins in the US?
  • Homo naledi
  • Homo flores
  • Humans evolved in Europe?
  • In two days, first H Sap was pushed back to 260,000 years,
  • then to 300,000 years!
  • Bell beaker paper

One of the most interesting things about our human family tree (the Homo genus and our near primate relatives, chimps, gorillas, orangs, gibbons, etc.) is that for most of our existence, “we” weren’t the only humans in town. We probably coexisted, mated with, killed, were killed by, and at times perhaps completely ignored 7 other human species–Homo erectus, floresiensis, Neanderthals, Denisovans, heidelbergensis, rhodesiensis, and now Naledi.

That said, these “species” are a bit controversial. Some scientists like to declare practically every jawbone and skull fragment they find a new species (“splitters”,) and some claim that lots of different bones actually just represent natural variation within a species (“lumpers.”)

Take the canine family: dogs and wolves can interbreed, but I doubt great danes and chihuahuas can. For practical purposes, though, the behavior of great danes and chihuahuas is similar enough to each other–and different enough from wolves’–that we class them as one species and wolves as another. Additionally, when we take a look at the complete variety of dogs in existence, it is obvious that there is actually a genetic gradient in size between the largest and smallest breeds, with few sharp breaks (maybe the basenji.) If we had a complete fossil record, and could reliably reconstruct ancient hominin behaviors and cultural patterns, then we could say with far more confidence whether we are looking at something like dogs vs. wolves or great danes vs. chihuahuas. For now, though, paleoanthropology and genetics remain exciting fields with constant new discoveries!

Homo naledi and homo Floresiensis may ultimately be small branches on the human tree, but each provides us with a little more insight into the whole.

Naledi’s story is particularly entertaining. Back in 2013, some spelunkers crawled through a tiny opening in a South African cave and found a chamber full of bones–hominin bones.

Anthropologists often have to content themselves with a handful of bones, sometimes just a fragment of a cranium or part of a jaw. (The recent claim that humans evolved in Europe is based entirely on a jaw fragment plus a few teeth.) But in the Rising Star Cave system, they found an incredible 1,500+ bones or bone fragments, the remains of at least 15 people, and they haven’t even finished excavating.

According to Wikipedia:

The physical characteristics of H. naledi are described as having traits similar to the genus Australopithecus, mixed with traits more characteristic of the genus Homo, and traits not known in other hominin species. The skeletal anatomy displays plesiomorphic (“ancestral”) features found in the australopithecines and more apomorphic (“derived,” or traits arising separately from the ancestral state) features known from later hominins.[2]

Adult males are estimated to have stood around 150 cm (5 ft) tall and weighed around 45 kg (100 lb), while females would likely have been a little shorter and weighed a little less. An analysis of H. naledi‘s skeleton suggests it stood upright and was bipedal.[2][22][23] Its hip mechanics, the flared shape of the pelvis are similar to australopithecines, but its legs, feet and ankles are more similar to the genus Homo.[2][24]

I note that the modern humans in South Africa are also kind of short–According to Time, the Bushmen average about 5 feet tall, (that’s probably supposed to be Bushmen men, not the group average,) and the men of nearby Pygmy peoples of central Africa average 4’11” or less.

The hands of H. naledi appear to have been better suited for object manipulation than those of australopithecines.[2][25] Some of the bones resemble modern human bones, but other bones are more primitive than Australopithecus, an early ancestor of humans. The thumb, wrist, and palm bones are modern-like while the fingers are curved, more australopithecine, and useful for climbing.[3] The shoulders are configured largely like those of australopithecines. The vertebrae are most similar to Pleistocene members of the genus Homo, whereas the ribcage is wide distally as is A. afarensis.[2] The arm has an Australopithecus-similar shoulder and fingers and a Homo-similar wrist and palm.[24] The structure of the upper body seems to have been more primitive than that of other members of the genus Homo, even apelike.[3] In evolutionary biology, such a mixture of features is known as an anatomical mosaic.

Four skulls were discovered in the Dinaledi chamber, thought to be two females and two males, with a cranial volume of 560 cm3 (34 cu in) for the males and 465 cm3 (28.4 cu in) for females, about 40% to 45% the volume of modern human skulls; average Homo erectus skulls are 900 cm3 (55 cu in). A fifth, male skull found in the Lesedi chamber has a larger estimated cranial volume of 610 cm3 (37 cu in) [6]. The H. naledi skulls are closer in cranial volume to australopithecine skulls.[3] Nonetheless, the cranial structure is described as more similar to those found in the genus Homo than to australopithecines, particularly in its slender features, and the presence of temporal and occipitalbossing, and the fact that the skulls do not narrow in behind the eye-sockets.[2] The brains of the species were markedly smaller than modern Homo sapiens, measuring between 450 and 610 cm3 (27–37 cu in). The teeth and mandiblemusculature are much smaller than those of most australopithecines, which suggests a diet that did not require heavy mastication.[2] The teeth are small, similar to modern humans, but the third molar is larger than the other molars, similar to australopithecines.[24] The teeth have both primitive and derived dental development.[26]

The overall anatomical structure of the species has prompted the investigating scientists to classify the species within the genus Homo, rather than within the genus Australopithecus. The H. naledi skeletons indicate that the origins of the genus Homo were complex and may be polyphyletic (hybrid), and that the species may have evolved separately in different parts of Africa.[27][28]

Because caves don’t have regular sediment layers like riverbeds or floodplains, scientists initially had trouble dating the bones. Because of their relative “primitiveness,” that is, their similarity to our older, more ape-like ancestors, they initially thought Homo naledi must have lived a long time ago–around 2 million years ago. But when they finally got the bones dated, they found they were much younger–only around 335,000 and 236,000 years old,[1][4] which means H naledi and Homo sapiens–whose age was also recently adjusted–actually lived at the same time, though not necessarily in the same place.

(On the techniques used for dating the bones:

Francis Thackeray, of the University of the Witwatersrand, suggested that H. naledi lived 2 ± 0.5 million years ago, based on the skulls’ similarities to H. rudolfensis, H. erectus, and H. habilis, species that existed around 1.5, 2.5, and 1.8 million years ago, respectively.[35][36] Early estimates derived from statistical analysis of cranial traits yielded a range of 2 million years to 912,000 years before present.[2][37][38]

Dirks et al. (2017) obtained a much more recent age range of between 335,000 and 236,000 years ago from dating fossil teeth, sediments encasing the fossils and overlying flowstone. They used a variety of dating techniques, including radiocarbon dating of teeth, optically stimulated luminescence of sediment, palaeomagnetic analysis of flowstone, and most conclusively, uranium-thorium dating of cave flowstone and teeth and electron spin resonance dating of teeth.[1][4] The latter two types of measurements of teeth were performed on blind duplicate samples by two different labs.[1])

H naledi is unlikely to be a major branch on the human family tree–much too recent to be one of our ancestors–but it still offers important information on the development of “human” traits and how human and ape-like traits can exist side-by-side in the same individual (a theme we will return to later.) (Perhaps, just as we modern Homo sapiens contain traits derived from ancestors who mated with Neanderthals, Denisovans, and others, H naledi owes some of its traits to hybridization between two very different hominins.) It’s also important because it is one more data point in favor of the recent existence of a great many different human varieties, not just a single group.

Flores Hobbit aka Homo floresiensis source

The Flores hominin, (aka the Hobbit,) tells a similar tale, but much further afield from humanity’s evolutionary cradle.

The island of Flores is part of the Indonesian archipelago, a surprisingly rich source of early hominin fossils. Homo erectus, the famous Java Man, arrived in the area around 1.7 million years ago, but to date no erectus remains have been discovered on the actual island of Flores. During the last Glacial Maximum, ocean levels were lower and most of Indonesia was connected in a single continent, called Sundaland. During one of these glacial periods, H erectus could have easily walked from China to Java, but Flores remained an island, cut off from the mainland by several miles of open ocean.

Stone tools appeared on Flores about 1 million years ago, though we don’t know yet who made them, nor how they developed the technology necessary to make the journey.

The diminutive Hobbits show up later, around 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, though stone tools recovered alongside their remains have been dated from 50,000 to 190,000 years ago. Homo erectus is generally believed to have lived between 2 million and 140,000 years ago, and Homo sapiens arrived in Indonesia around 50,000 years ago. This places Floresiensis neatly between the two–it could have interacted with either species–perhaps descended from erectus and wiped out, in turn, by sapiens. (Or perhaps floresiensis represents an altogether novel line of hominins who left Africa on a completely separate trek from erectus.)

Unlike H naledi, whose diminutive stature is still within the current human range (especially of humans in the area,) floresiensis is exceptionally small for a hominin. According to Wikipedia:

The first set of remains to have been found, LB1, was chosen as the type specimen for the proposed species. LB1 is a fairly complete skeleton, including a nearly complete cranium (skull), determined to be that of a 30-year-old female. LB1 has been nicknamed the Little Lady of Flores or “Flo”.[2]

LB1’s height has been estimated at about 1.06 m (3 ft 6 in). The height of a second skeleton, LB8, has been estimated at 1.09 m (3 ft 7 in) based on measurements of its tibia.[3] These estimates are outside the range of normal modern human height and considerably shorter than the average adult height of even the smallest modern humans, such as the Mbenga and Mbuti (< 1.5 m (4 ft 11 in)),[32] Twa, Semang (1.37 m (4 ft 6 in) for adult women) of the Malay Peninsula,[33] or the Andamanese (1.37 m (4 ft 6 in) for adult women).[34]

By body mass, differences between modern pygmies and Homo floresiensis are even greater. LB1’s body mass has been estimated at 25 kg (55 lb). This is smaller than that of not only modern H. sapiens, but also H. erectus, which Brown and colleagues have suggested is the immediate ancestor of H. floresiensis. LB1 and LB8 are also somewhat smaller than the australopithecines from three million years ago, not previously thought to have expanded beyond Africa. Thus, LB1 and LB8 may be the shortest and smallest members of the extended human family discovered thus far.[citation needed]

Aside from smaller body size, the specimens seem otherwise to resemble H. erectus, a species known to have been living in Southeast Asia at times coincident with earlier finds purported to be of H. floresiensis.[3]

There’s a lot of debate about whether floresiensis is a real species–perhaps affected by insular dwarfism–or just a hominin that had some severe problems. Interestingly, we have a find from about 700,000 years ago on Flores of another hominin, which we think was also a Hobbit, but is even smaller than Flo and her relatives.

Floresiensis, like Naledi, didn’t contribute to modern humans. Rather, it is interesting because it shows the breadth of our genus. We tend to assume that, ever since we split off from the rest of the great apes, some 7 or 8 million years ago, our path has been ever upward, more complex and successful. But these Hobbits, most likely descendants of one of the most successful human species, (Homo erectus, who mastered fire, was the first to leave Africa, spread across Asia and Indonesia, and lasted for over a million and half years, far longer than our puny 300,000 years,) went in the opposite direction from its ancestors. It became much smaller than even the smallest living human groups. Its brain shrank:

In addition to a small body size, H. floresiensis had a remarkably small brain size. The brain of the holotype LB1 is estimated to have had a volume of 380 cm3 (23 cu in), placing it at the range of chimpanzees or the extinct australopithecines.[2][40] LB1’s brain size is half that of its presumed immediate ancestor, H. erectus (980 cm3 (60 cu in)).[40] The brain-to-body mass ratio of LB1 lies between that of H. erectus and the great apes.[41]

Nevertheless, it still made tools, probably controlled fire, and hunted cooperatively.

Whatever it was, it was like us–and very much not like us.


More on Naledi: Another Awesome Twig on our Human Family Tree and Homo Naledi was Chipping its Teeth Amazingly Often.

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.