Ethnography of Siberia and the Far East

It seems incredible that just a few centuries ago people in the enlightened Europe knew next to nothing about Siberia and the sweeping expanses of this land stretching east from the Urals. Information about it was scanty and outright fantastic: “an endless snow desert”, “a land of shadows”, inhabited by “two-headed” spectres having neither arms nor legs. The reason was that Siberia’s position was off the major trade routes that in those days connected Europe with the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa.

Medieval Russia was better familiar with Siberia because the enterprising merchants of Novgorod had been going on commercial expeditions to the other side of the Urals since time out of mind. The opening-up of Siberia began in the late sixteenth century, after the famous expedition and conquest by Yermak. After establishing strongholds on the banks of the rivers Ob and Irtysh, the Russian servicemen and some volunteers made way into East Siberia to the River Yenisey, where they came into contact with the Tungus people (as the Evenks used to be called). The Russians’ connection with those nomads of the taiga proved especially steadfast because those indigenous people knew the locality very well and accompanied the Cossack detachments as guides and interpreters. It was from them that the pioneers gained information on those faraway lands, their populations and their ways and customs. In 1630 they founded on the River Lena the Yakutsk stockade fort (today’s city of Yakutsk), which became a base for the Cossack squadrons’ movement to the south-east, east and north-east of the continent. By the end of the seventeenth century the Russians had reached the Pacific Ocean.

The earliest written information on the indigenous peoples of the North is found in the Tale of Unknown People in the Eastern Land and of Different Tongues (firteenth century). According to this curious document, on the very edge of the land, near the Arctic Sea, live strange tribes known as Samoyed people, who “do not live on dry land in summer because in the summer month their skin cracks, so they spend that month lying in water...” Also, allegedly, there are “other Samoyed people, who look like men or women, but have no heads — their mouths are between shoulders and eyes on the breast”. There are still other Samoyed, strange people who die in winter: “...wherever frosty weather finds them, they sit down immediately... and get frozen to the ground... and get revived when the sun turns to summer”. Besides this kind of “ethnographic fantasy”, the document contains a large number of important details concerning the life of the indigenous peoples of the Russian North: “These same people are of short stature, flat-bodied, with small noses; but they are very agile and are good and fast shots. They use reindeer or dogs to pull their sledges; they are dressed in sables and reindeer hides and trade in sables... Their food is reindeer meat and fish.” The Samoyeds generic name covered all the indigenous peoples of the North known to the Russians at that time, primarily the Nentsi.

The annexation of Siberia to the Russian Empire was an important page in the country’s history, which can be deservedly called a Russian chapter in the chronicle of great geographic discoveries. Over a relatively short historical period Russian explorers discovered and opened up an enormous territory with extremely diverse climatic and environmental conditions and ethnically inhomogeneous population. Over thirty indigenous peoples inhabit the region, preserving to this day the traditions of their ancient unique culture. The display that represents the peoples of Siberia and the Far East occupies two rooms — the first accommodating the Arctic sea animal hunting and reindeer-breeding peoples of the tundra (the Asian Eskimo, Koryaks, Chukchi and Nentsi) and the other room representing the cattle-breeders, hunters and fishermen of the taiga and steppe zones of Siberia and of the Southern Far East of Russia (the Khakasses, Yakuts, Buiyats, Evenks and the peoples of the Amur).

The indigenous peoples of this region (whose total number is a little over one million) are distributed over a territory whose size is many times larger than the territory occupied by major European countries. Their traditional trades are hunting (including marine hunting), reindeer breeding and fishing. In the steppe and hilly areas of Eastern and Southern Siberia the breeding of horses, sheep, camels and yaks used to be important; the semi-nomadic livestock rearing here was often combined with agriculture.

The languages of the indigenous peoples of Siberia, the Extreme North and the Far East belong to four language families: the Uralic-Yukaghir family, the Altaic, the Chukchi-Kam-chatkan and the Eskimo-Aleut families.

The Uralic-Yukaghir family falls into three groups: the Finno-Ugric (Khanty, Mansi and Saami), the Samoyed (Nentsi, Ents, Selkups and Ngana-sans) and the Yukaghir (Yukaghirs and Chuvantsi) groups.

The Altaic family consists of three groups: the Turkic (Yakuts, Tuvins, Khakasses, Altaians and others), the Mongolian (the Buryats) and the Tungus-Manchurian (Evenks, Evens and the Amur peoples) groups.

The Chukchi-Kamchatkan language family is made up of Chukchi, Koryaks and Itelmen.

The Nivkhs and Kets speak languages unrelated to any others in the world.