Home Society Siberian people: history, culture, language and traditions

Siberian people: history, culture, language and traditions

They live in one of the most inhospitable parts of the planet, in central Russia, Siberia. Get to know the history and orgins of the native Siberian people.

Siberian People
Siberian People

Who are the Siberian people? With an area larger than Brazil, Siberia is considered one of the most inhospitable and extreme places on Earth. Not surprisingly, this region of Russia can, in the harshest of winters, record temperatures below -50 ° C. Being sent there was considered the worst punishment in the 19th century, the time of the Russian tsars, and in the 20th century during the Soviet Union, since its geographical isolation prevented any escape plan. However, this region known as “prison without walls” is not only about its penitentiary function: it also has human cultures that have been millenarian, who have adapted to the hostile climatic conditions and who keep alive the traditions of their ancestors.

Ulchi People
Ulchi People

Some of these people are nomadic reindeer, living in the tundra (Arctic plain), others living in tundra or taiga (coniferous forest), rely on a mixture of reindeer breeding, hunting and gathering, and often live in settlements. Today 10% of the indigenous peoples of Siberia live a nomadic or semi-nomadic life, compared to 70% only 30 years ago. The languages ​​spoken by the different tribes are from a variety of linguistic families: some have no resemblance to any other language, and none have any relation to Russian. More numerous indigenous peoples, such as the Sakha (formerly called Yakuts) and Komi, have their own republics within the Russian state.


What are the problems they face?

Under Soviet rule, indigenous peoples lost their land to state-owned industries. With industrialization, the region was taken over by outsiders, and the authorities made great efforts to suppress the indigenous languages, culture and ways of life. Today its biggest problems are the environmental degradation caused by the oil, gas and timber industry in the region, and the lack of clarity on land rights.


List of tribes of Siberian people

A) Uralic group

A1) Khanty and Mansi People

Khanty and Mansi, Khanty formerly called Ostyak, Mansi formerly called Vogul, western Siberian peoples, living mainly in the Ob River basin of central Russia. They each speak an Ob-Ugric language of the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic languages. Together they numbered some 30,000 in the late 20th century. They are descended from people from the south Ural steppe who moved into this region about the middle of the 1st millennium AD.

Khanty People
Khanty People

Their present-day territory lies to the east of the Urals along the Ob River and its tributaries, from the Urals and a narrow belt of foothills to a vast central lowland that slopes gently to the Gulf of Ob. Some of the territory, both highlands and lowlands, is covered by vast swamps grown over with moss, peat, sedge, and small marsh pine. The climate is severe: winter lasts for six months, producing snow accumulations of 6.5 feet (2 m); there is flooding in summer as the rivers—the Ob, the Irtysh, and their tributaries—form a vast expanse of water.

Mansi people
Mansi people

The Khanty and the Mansi have many similar features, including habitat, economy, organization, and a number of traditions. Their principal sources of subsistence are hunting (traditionally with bows and arrows and spears, later with guns), trapping, and fishing (with nets, weirs, seines, and traps); reindeer herding (mostly by the Khanty) was usually a subsidiary occupation and was probably a result of contact with the neighbouring Nenets in the 15th century. The Ob-Ugrians traditionally either were nomadic or had settled dwellings according to their subsistence pattern. At summer hunting sites they generally lived in tents; their permanent winter homes were wooden huts. Boats, skis, and some horse- or reindeer-drawn sleds provided transportation.


A2) Samoyedic peoples

The Samoyedic people (also Samodeic people) are the people that speak Samoyedic languages, which are part of the Uralic family. They are a linguistic, ethnic and cultural grouping. The name derives from the obsolete term Samoyed used in Russia for some indigenous people of Siberia. Samoyedic peoples include: Northern Samoyedic peoples (Nenets, Enets and Nganasan) and the Southern Samoyedic peoples (Selkup, Kamasins or Kamas, Mator or Motor and Koibal). Extinct peoples: Yurats (Northern Samoyeds), Kamasins or Kamas (Southern or Sayan Mountains Samoyeds) and the Mators or Motors (Southern or Sayan Mountains Samoyeds).

Nenet people
Nenet people

The largest of the Samoyedic people are the Nenets, who mainly live in two autonomous districts of Russia: Yamalo-Nenetsia and Nenetsia. Part of the Nenets and most of the Enets and Nganasans used to live in Taymyria autonomous district (formerly known as Dolgano-Nenetsia), but today this area is a territory with special status within Krasnoyarsk Krai. Most of the Selkups live in Yamalo-Nenetsia, but there is also significant population in Tomsk Oblast.


B) Yukaghir group

Yukaghir, also spelled Yukagir or Jukagir, self-name Odul, remnant of an ancient human population of the tundra and taiga zones of Arctic Siberia east of the Lena River in Russia, an area with one of the most severe climates in the inhabited world. Brought close to extinction by privation, encroachment, and diseases introduced by other groups, they numbered some 1,100 in the late 20th century. Although they still generally inhabit the upper valley of the Kolyma River, the once-nomadic people are for the most part engaged in hunting, fishing, and reindeer herding. The domestication of reindeer probably started in the mid-17th century, just before Russian conquest.

Yukaghir People
Yukaghir People

The Yukaghir can be classified into two divisions—the Northern, or Tundra, and the Southern, or Kolyma, Yukaghir. Their dialects are not mutually intelligible, and (until the late 20th century) multilingualism in several combinations of Russian, Chukchi, Even, and Sakha (Yakut) was common. Few of the younger Yukaghir speak their mother tongue, and because of assimilation they are generally monolingual or bilingual in Sakha or Russian.

Yukaghir People
Yukaghir People

The Yukaghir economy once depended heavily on seasonal migrations of elk and wild reindeer; these were killed in large numbers from canoes at water crossings or tracked by ancient methods. Fishing, next in importance, was based on biannual runs in major rivers. Molting waterfowl also were taken in quantity. The meat supply was supplemented by the gathering of berries, nuts, and other products of trees and shrubs. The groups’ activities involved cooperative methods and seasonal movements. Permanent homes were occupied only in winter; skin or bark shelters were used in warmer weather. Metal was rare, and most implements were of bone or antler.

Yukaghir People
Yukaghir People

The Northern Yukaghir were patrilocal (centred on the male’s family) while the Southern Yukaghir were matrilocal. Inheritance in both groups was patrilineal. Small family groups were generally organized into clans. Each clan was guided in matters of food provision and clan defense by an able adult male. Although the Yukaghir were Christianized in the 18th century, they retained many traditional beliefs, including the practice of shamanism.


C) Mongolic group

The Buryats number approximately 436,000, which makes them the largest ethnic minority group in Siberia. They are mainly concentrated in their homeland, the Buryat Republic, a federal subject of Russia. They are the northernmost major Mongol group.

Buryat people
Buryat people

Buryats share many customs with their Mongolian cousins, including nomadic herding and erecting huts for shelter. Today, the majority of Buryats live in and around Ulan Ude, the capital of the republic, although many live more traditionally in the countryside. Their language is called Buryat.


D) Turkic group

Turkic peoples, any of various peoples whose members speak languages belonging to the Turkic subfamily of the Altaic family of languages. They are historically and linguistically connected with the Tujue, the name given by the Chinese to the nomadic people who in the 6th century CE founded an empire stretching from what is now Mongolia and the northern frontier of China to the Black Sea.

Dolgan People
Dolgan People

With some exceptions, notably in the European part of Turkey and in the Volga region, the Turkic peoples live in Asia. Their most important cultural link, aside from history and language, is with Islam, for, with the exception of the Sakha (Yakut) of eastern Siberia and the Chuvash of the Volga region of Russia, the vast majority of Turkic peoples are Muslim. In addition to those groups already mentioned, contemporary peoples who are classified as Turkic include the Altai, Azerbaijanis, Balkar, Bashkir, Dolgan, Karachay, Karakalpaks, Kazakhs, Khakass, Kipchak, Kumyk, Kyrgyz, Nogay, Shor, Tatars, Tofalar, Turkmen, Turks, Tyvans (Tuvans), Uighurs, and Uzbeks.


E) Tungusic group

Tungusic peoples are the peoples who speak Tungusic languages. They inhabit Eastern Siberia and are recognized as distinct from Mongols and Turkic peoples. During the 17th century, the Tsardom of Russia was expanding east across Siberia, and into Tungusic-speaking lands, ending with the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk.

Nanai People
Nanai People

The first published description of a Tungusic people to reach beyond Russia into the rest of Europe was by the Dutch traveler Isaac Massa in 1612, who passed along information from Russian reports after his stay in Moscow. The Evenks live in the Evenk Autonomous Okrug of Russia. The Udege, Ulchs, Evens, and Nanai (also known as Hezhen) are also indigenous peoples of Siberia, and are known to share genetic affinity to Indigenous Peoples of the Americas.


F) Paleosiberian group

Four small language families and isolates, not known to have any linguistic relationship to each other, compose the Paleo-Siberian languages:

  1.  The Chukotko-Kamchatkan family, sometimes known as Luoravetlan, includes Chukchi and its close relatives, Koryak, Alutor and Kerek. Itelmen, also known as Kamchadal, is also distantly related. Chukchi, Koryak and Alutor are spoken in easternmost Siberia by communities numbering in the dozens (Alutor) to thousands (Chukchi). Kerek is now extinct, and Itelmen is now spoken by fewer than 10 people, mostly elderly, on the west coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula.
  2. Yukaghir is spoken in two mutually unintelligible varieties in the lower Kolyma and Indigirka valleys. Other languages, including Chuvantsy, spoken further inland and further east, are now extinct. Yukaghir is held by some to be related to the Uralic languages.
  3. Ket is the last survivor of a small language family on the middle Yenisei and its tributaries. It has recently been claimed to be related to the Na-Dene languages of North America, though this hypothesis has met with mixed reviews among historical linguists. In the past, attempts have been made to relate it to Sino-Tibetan, North Caucasian, and Burushaski.
  4. Nivkh is spoken in the lower Amur basin and on the northern half of Sakhalin island. It has a recent modern literature and the Nivkhs have experienced a turbulent history in the last century.


Languages of the Siberian people

Classifying the diverse population by language, it includes speakers of the following language families (number of speakers reflect the 2002 Russian census):

  • Permic (about 1 million speakers)
  • Samoyedic (some 70,000 speakers)
  • Ugric (some 15,000 speakers)
  • Yukaghir (nearly extinct)
  • Yakuts (456,288 speakers)
  • Dolgans (population: 7,261; speakers: 4,865)
  • Tuvans (population: 243,442; speakers: 242,754)
  • Tofa (population: 837; speakers: 378)
  • Khakas (population: 75,622; speakers: 52,217)
  • Shors (population: 13,975; speakers: 6,210)
  • Siberian Tatars (populations: 6,779)
  • Chulyms (population: 656; speakers: 270)
  • Altay (some 70,000 speakers)
  • Mongolic (some 400,000 speakers)
  • Tungusic (some 80,000 speakers)
  • Ket (population: 1600; some 210 speakers)
  • Chukotko-Kamchatkan (some 25,000 speakers)
  • Nivkh (some 200 speakers)
  • Eskimo–Aleut (some 2,000 speakers)

Simplified, the indigenous peoples of Siberia listed above can be put into four groups:

  • Uralic
  • Altaic
  • Yeniseian branch of the Dené–Yeniseian languages
  • Paleosiberian (“other”)

Altaic has not been proven to be a language family, a phylogenetic unit. It may be a Sprachbund. Paleosiberian is simply a geographic term of convenience. Here, these two terms are listed just to serve as portal-like starting points – without suggesting genetic considerations.


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