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.