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.