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V. I. Shadrin

At the time the Russians came, the Yukaghir inhabited a huge territory from the Lena River to the Sea of Okhotsk and the Anadyr River. By the Russian colonization beginning the Yukaghir tribal groups occupied a territory from the Lena River to the Anadyr River mouth. They fell into 12 generic groups. Thus, the Yandagirs, the Omoloys, the Khromovs inhabited the Lena and the Yana valleys; the Olyubens, the Yagins, the Omoks, the Kogims, the Lavrens – the Indigirka catchment area; the Chuvans, the Anaouls, the Khodynts – the Anadyr catchment area.

In ancient times they settled much wider. The majority of scientists consider that 2-2,5 thousand years ago the Yukaghir inhabited areas from the Yenisei River to Chukotka and represented the Ymyyakhtakh archeological culture. Moreover, some assume that at the same time they occupied the Alaska territory (the Norton and the Ipiutak cultures) but then inexplicably disappeared from there.


A.P. Okladnikov came to a conclusion that the Yukaghir ancestors belonged to the neolitic culture of Yakutia. Such well-known Soviet researches as M.G. Levin, I.S. Gurvich, Y.B. Simchenko also held this point of view. A.V. Chernetsov founded an interesting theory of the common ethnic substrate in various cultures of the circumpolar zone. This substrate, Ural by the origin, was connected with the Yukaghir on the east and with the Lopars (Saami) on the west. Therefore, the most eastern branch of the Uralic languages ethnoses, disengaged from its core in ancient times, is the Yukaghir. This idea was supported by the works of linguists Y.A. Kreynovich, A.B. Dolgopolsky and others.

In the Neolithic age the settlement of the Eastern Siberian polar regions was more intensive and by the early 2nd millennium BC there emerged, like through all the circumpolar zone of Eurasia, characteristic features of the wide reindeer hunters culture that determined the development of the economy of all tundra peoples up to reindeer herding rise. Composition of the ancient Uralic languages stem of the Yukaghir is closely related to the circumpolar culture formation. The northern branch of the Yakutia’s Ymyyakhtakhs played a crucial part in the development of the 2nd-early 1st millennium BC cultures to Taymyr on the west and to Chukotka on the east. In these cultures the Yukaghirization of the ancient Uralic languages substrate began, accelerated by the influx of the Ust-Mil (the Bronze Era in Yakutia) pre-Yukaghir tribes in the 1st millenium BC.

Numerosity of the Yukaghir is mentioned in the Yakut legends in which the north light was believed to be the gleam of the firelights of the multitudinous Yukaghir nomads camps and therefore called ‘diukeebil uottara’ – transformed ‘Yukaghir lights’. According to the Yakuts belief, some of the birds became black because they flew over the Yukaghir fireplaces and were smoked. Modern researchers agree that there were 5-6 thousand Yukaghir in the middle 17th century.

Wild reindeer hunting was the Yukaghir traditional economy. In winter they ran the reindeer on a sledge, in autumn they hunted with decoy animals. Trained dogs were used in reindeer hunting. Having found the wild reindeer herd the hunters drove them to lake with the help of dogs. When the herd tried to cross it some more dogs were unleashed on the far bank to put the reindeers off getting to the land. The hunters on the boats started to slaughter animals with the spears. Moreover, migrant wild reindeer hunting at river crossing was of main importance. Additionally the Yukaghir fished in the lower reaches of northern rivers. The sledge dogs were the only domestic animals for a long time. Since about the 16th century reindeer herding became common among the tundra Yukaghir.

The Yukaghir had such weapons as bows with arrows, spears, stone-axes were. There were few iron items. For fishing they used fish weirs, wicker traps, seines, osier-bed nets, rods. Ice fishing was not known. The primordial dwellings were of seasonal character – dugouts, half-dugouts, conical huts, tents covered with hides, bark or turf. From the late 18th century timber blocking (so called ‘Yakut house’) was used.


The traditional dwellings of the Yukaghir are urasa, kholomo and chandaly. URASA (odun nume) has a conical shape, it is built of poles joined at the top and covered with larch-bark in summer and deerskin in winter. The typical size of urasa is up to 4 m at the bottom and 2,5 m in height; but it is known that in 17-18th centuries there were large urasas holding 100 people. KHOLOMO (khandele nume) was a winter dwelling and had a pyramidical shape. CHANDALY is not extant. Already at the end of the 18th century G.A. Sarychev explored destroyed chandaly on the Arctic Ocean shore and left a description. It was dwellings of the half-dugout type 40-70 sq. km in area. A base was made of 4-6 inclined poles joined at the top with a frame making a flat roof. The walls and the roof were made of logs covered with moss or turf. The foundation was rounded or rounded-quadrangular. In fact, chandaly diggings laid the foundation of arctic archeology.

Since the 17th c. the Yukaghir began to wear clothes of the Tungus model more generally: buckskin caftan, fur breast-cloth, leather trousers, long leather stockings, and hat. Young reindeer skin neckpiece was an original item of the Yukaghir suit. Summer shoes were sewn of buckskin, winter ones – of reindeer leg skin. The clothes were decorated with reindeer hair embroidery and later with beads, reindeer leg skin application, fur welt. It was colored with smoke, alder and clay. The prevailing tones were black, red and white. There were festivities, games, dancing and various sports competitions on the seasonal meetings that usually lasted for a month.

Fowling played a prominent part. During the autumn molting period the tundra Yukaghir practiced duck and goose hunting on the lake shores. The participants of a hunt were divided into two groups. The first one enclosed a lake by fishing nets, and the other one sat in the boats and drove unable to fly birds into nets. As noted above, fishing was very important. White salmon, omul, whitefish were generally caught. Summer catch fish was sun-cured. In winter the Yukaghir ate sliced frozen fish. The meat was preserved through sun-drying on racks and freezing. Berries and various roots were used for additional seasonal nutrition. Toadstools were used as a narcotic.

Triangular form float was the ancient means of transportation on the river. Dugouts made of poplar trunk were also used. In winter the Yukaghir went hunting on skis. Upper Kolyma Yukaghir had skis of the Tungus type. The size of such skis allowed using it as a sledge.

Pottery is mentioned in the Yukaghir legends, although wooden and birchbark utensils long ago replaced earthenware crockery. There were wooden dishes, quadrangular and round birchbark vessels of various sizes, bags made of reindeer and fish leather, staghorn spoons and rock hammer for bones breaking and fat milling. Hot meals cooking and also fish oil rendering were carried out in a trough-shaped wood vessels using stones. ETHNOGRAPHIC NOTE: As well as all the Northern peoples, the Yukaghir lived mostly on meat and fish. In addition they ate wild berries, edible grasses and, unlike the Yakuts, some mushroom species. Meat and fish were cooked, fried on a pole, baked, dried, jerked, smoked and frozen.

Such specialty fish as sturgeon, sterlet, omul, broad whitefish, whitefish, sheefish, peled and herring lived in the Kolyma and the Indigirka in abundance. Sheefish was very tasty in frozen slices. Sterlet caviar was especially valuable and its meat was preferred to sturgeon meat. Broad whitefish, white salmon, omul and other ‘white’ fish were eaten fresh, for example, frozen sliced or sun-cured. And ‘black’ lake fish were always eaten cooked, fried or baked.

Reindeer and elk meat was cooked, but sometimes the Yukaghir made frozen slices of meat and reduced dried meat to powder – meat-meal (‘barcha’). Fowl was eaten only cooked. For long winter fish was sun-dried. In summer women picked berries and roots of edible grasses that they dried. Also they dried mushrooms and used it as soup dressing. The Yukaghir especially provided themselves with dried pounded roots - ‘pulkha’. This extremely valuable product often saved people from hunger. Meal was made of cleaned, dried roots in a wood mortar. Not only the Yukaghir, but also Russian old residents baked ‘kavardak’ (dish made of various comestibles). Dried pounded roots were added to tea, fish pies. Small-sized fish were baked on osier-bed sticks near a bonfire. Fish giblets and caviar were fried. Oily fish bellies and also burbot liver were eaten raw. The Yukaghir baked cakes of caviar and pounded fish.

Metal working had more primitive character. Iron forging was borrowed from the Yakuts in the 17th century, and metal adornments casting – from the Evens. Silver or bronze disk attached to the clothes on a chest, so called ‘chest sun’, was valuable and respected hereditary item.

The clothes of an ancient Yukaghir warrior consisted of a battle helmet and an armor made of horny plates fastened with elk tendon fibers.

The annexation of the Siberian north-east to the Russian state drastically changed the march of history on the Yukaghir lands.

We can find the first reliable information about the Yukaghir in the buck slips of the Cossack pathfinders in 1633-34, and in the 1638 message there is the mention of a concrete Yukaghir – headman Uyandi. The annexation of the ‘Yukaghir land’ was not easy and bloodless. We know about the conflict with the Yukaghir already from the first Cossacks buck slips. The report of S. Deznyov says about the scope of these conflicts, during the expedition his 50 people detachment was attacked by the several hundreds of Yukaghir. He could hardly save himself in one of the burgs having been injured in a head by an arrow.


The Yukaghir folklore preserved a story about the first meeting of the Yukaghir with the Russians. Legend has it that the Russians came from the river upper reaches side going down on the boats. It happened in summer, ‘when rowan leaves came out, field grasses grew up and forest birds were singing… One evening somebody noticed that a man was boating to them from above, a man with hair on his face, with a nose huge like a birch cone in which two black holes were like ermine burrows. And this man tall as a tree saw the girls dancing on the bank, reached the land, came to him and having grasped one of them dragged her to the woods. Having seen it the men came with spears and arrows and killed him, threw in the river and said: “From where you (the river) led, to there lead away”.

The annexation of the Yukaghir lands to the Russian state already in the 17th century led to the significant changes in their economy, displacement and number. There was no elementary law and order in these outlying areas of the Lena voivodship, and the first troubles after the penetration of the military and industrial people had an adverse effect on the existence of many Yukaghir groups. Dismounted settled Yukaghir that were attached to the river lower reaches by their household especially suffered from the arbitrariness of the Cossack commanders, predatory aspirations of the penetrating into the North adventurers, conflicts with the yasak collectors.


The Yukaghir called the Russian ‘nokhshotcho’. ‘Nokhsho’ in Yukaghir means ‘sable’, i.e. ‘nokhshotcho’ is translated literally as ‘sable hunter’. The other name which is more common in our days is ‘luusii’ – the phonetic transformation of the word ‘russian’, likewise, in the Yakut language it is ‘nuutcha’.

The capture of the most eminent Yukaghir as amanats – hostages (up to 6-10% of the total Yukaghir population), whereat they mostly died, theft of the girls and women (10-15%) disturbed the traditional economic set-up of the Yukaghir. Yasak exaction, oppression by the Cossack heads brought about the moving of Yukaghir clans. In the second half of the 17th century the penetration of the neighbors to the Yukaghir lands increased. That Yakuts and Evens (Lamuts) avoided yasak payment. Under these circumstances armed conflicts with them became more frequent.


Legends preserved only some excerpts about the encounters with the Yakuts. One of them tells about the meeting of the Yukaghir with “something unknown and inexplicable: they saw white and black deers without antlers and with round hooves, with hairy tails to the ground”. And people rode on that ‘deers’, large as elks, people armed with iron spears and swords, which were much more deadly than spears of the Odul or their arrows with heads of bone and stone. They defeated everyone they saw. These creatures – six-legged, two-headed, four-eyed, with a long tail were nonetheless mortal. They also had blood, bones and flesh. And the brave defenders of the native land, the best and the most fearless warriors, killed at first only these never-before-seen deers, i.e. the Yakut horses, considering it as the main evil, and didn’t pay attention to the riders. That was the reason of the Yukaghir fall”.

From the late 17th-early 18th century the relations with the eastern neighbors – the Koryaks and the Chukchee – began to worsen, the Chukchee took revenge on the Yukaghir for they didn’t agree to be the attendants of the military people trying to penetrate into their possessions. It led to the war to the death.

The diseases brought by the Russians and unknown to the Yukaghir became the real disaster as the organism was defenseless to it. From the 17th century smallpox, ‘the big disease’, was the main invisible enemy of the Yukaghir. “It horrifies the natives, - A. Argentov wrote about smallpox. – The most fierce (famous) shamans quail at smallpox and don’t venture to begin with a stricken sufferer… Panic aggravates the epidemic.” According to Argentov, the epidemics repeated every 70-80 years in the 17th-18th and in the first half of the 19th century. The first known to us smallpox epidemic began in 1663.


According to legends, the Russians caused the first epidemic to crush the opposition of the Yukaghir. The Odul pictured this disease as a woman with light-brown hair that caught and ate the Yukaghir shadows, i.e. souls. “She wandered bare-footed around the nomads camps but couldn’t find a way to it, because alma (shaman) concealed all the paths. She roamed the world hungry and cold… And one day she found a jaw set for a fox. Without hesitation, in the agony of starvation, she rushed to the bait – the dry wing of a bird… The lid of the jaw shut and she found herself in a trap” And there, pressed by the trap lid loaded by a log, she died. The old Yukaghir on skis going around his traps found out just the bones: instead of the eyes – dark hollows, instead of the beautiful ruby lips – shining set of the naked sharp teeth… The old man went away. She followed him to the first inhabitants; then, having refreshed herself with hot human blood, ran farther. So she went around all the settlements and rivers and, at last, having devastated the land disappeared tracklessly”.

The epidemics came one after another stopping only for a short time. The next smallpox epidemics were in 1669 and in 1691-1694 and inflected an irreparable blow to the people. Thus, smallpox epidemic of the 1690s killed almost half of the Alazeya Yukaghir, all the Yukaghir paying yasak in the Omolon wintering died. As the result during the 17th-18th centuries not only the number, but also the area of the Yukaghir tribes displacement decreased dramatically. Low social status, population increase and change in the population structure on the Yukaghir lands, intensification of the yasak pressure led to the growth of assimilation – dilution of the Yukaghir.

In the late 18th-early 19th century there were climatic changes that aggravated the situation. The migration routes of the wild reindeers changed, the number of elks drastically decreased. It led to the frequent famines that became a real scourge for the nation.

One of the first famines took place in 1810. There was preserved an address of the Upper Kolyma Yukaghir headmen Nikolay Trifonov (the Narty clan) and Mikhail Nikiforov (the Ushkan clan) in which they ask for help on the occasion of the famine that began after “the emergency flood on the Kolyma and its influents, and also on the occasion of poverty and lack of necessary seines and nets for fishing”.

The consequences of the famines turned out to be so harmful that the Tsarist government in the early 19th century began to open bread and fish stores in different areas of Siberia to provide help at a critical juncture. The Yukaghir clans accumulated huge arrears in connection with frequent famines. The famine caused new significant moving of the Yukaghir. Because of the moving the part of the Yukaghir became Russified – learnt the Russian language and became closer to the Russian old-timers.


The analysis of some Yukaghir words shows the influence of the Russian language, the words underwent such phonetic changes that it is hard to retrace. For example, ‘terike’ – old woman, ‘touke’ – dog, ‘parnaa’ – crow etc. It is easily traced in the folklore: there are Christ, Kashchey, the Straw and the Bubble among the characters. The transformation of the Bible story about the Flood is also interesting: when Noah gathered animals to a raft, a mammoth also tried to get on. But he could turn over the raft, so Noah didn’t take him. The result is ‘sorrowful’ – the mammoths died out.

Nomadic Upper and Lower Kolyma Yukaghir got closer to the Evens. At the turn of the 19th-20th centuries the Upper Kolyma Yukaghir and Evens were almost the same in the way of living, appearance and clothes. But the Evens kept domestic reindeers. The majority of the Yukaghir spoke Lamut fluently, and the most Lamut knew the Yukaghir language. The both cultures and languages seemed to be in a dynamic balance: they were interpenetrating, the part of the Yukaghir became lamutized and, vice versa, the 2nd Delyan Lamut clan was yukaghirized.

The 1897 census showed there were 544 Yukaghir (without the groups fused with the Russians, the Chukchee, the Koryaks and the Evens). Therefore, by the early 20th century the Yukaghir were on the verge of total extinction. The analysis of the census materials shows that in the late 19th century the Yukaghir were represented as a number of groups interspersed with the Yakut, Russian and Even population.

In the Soviet times the Yukaghir from the distant Kolyma tributaries were resettled to the large settlements – Tustakh-Sen, Nelemnoye, Balygychan, Andryushkino, Olenegorsk, Yukaghir. There were organized multinational kolkhozes (collective farms) ‘Chaylarul Vadul’ (Reindeer Herder), ‘Sutanya-Uderan’, ‘Pochorkhodol Modol’ (The Bright Life), ‘Pioner’, n.a. Stalin and others. Later on the kolkhozes were reformed into the sovkhozes (state farms). However these measures, having generally positive social effect, worsened the ethnic position of the people – assimilation increased, the youth alienated from the traditional way of life, the Yukaghir language was no longer used in the everyday life, the elements of culture were almost completely lost, and the world-view changed. The conducted policy of paternalism led to the loss of feeling of mastering and responsibility for your fate, the inculcation of dependency and consumerism psychology.

At the present time there are three Yukaghir nomadic clans in Yakutia: ‘Chayla’ – in Nizhnekolymsky (Lower Kolyma) Ulus, ‘Teki Odulok’ – in Verkhnekolymsky (Upper Kolyma) Ulus, and ‘Yanugayl’ – in Ust-Yansky Ulus. 115 people are occupied in the production sphere of ‘Chayla’, 57 in ‘Teki Odulok’ and 7 in ‘Yanugayl’. The total number is 179.

‘Chayla’ is the largest clan of the Yukaghir. The Evens and the Yakuts work there along with the Yukaghir. The household is engaged in reindeer breeding, fishing, and wild reindeer hunting. The members of the ‘Teki Odulok’ clan situated in Nelemnoye deal with elk hunting, sable fur-trade, fishing. The ‘Yanugayl’ clan is occupied with wild reindeer harvesting and fishing.

The general crisis of the state economy affected the socio-economic situation severely: it led to the falling-off in production – the rate of the farming industry products delivery to the state decreased; the rate of the adult stock preservation and actual accretion of reindeer fawns, foals and calves dropped; arctic fox harvest was closed; industrial fishing and wood harvesting stopped. Labor discipline and the responsibility of workers decreased, work stimulating was cut off, personnel problem became one of the main problems, as there are no competent leaders and specialists in agriculture. Enormous transportation costs resulted in that produced agricultural products (venison, fish, etc.) stale in warehouses and, therefore, have no turnover and go off. Eventually, many fields are maintained only for communal feeding.

The resource base in hunting and fishing is poor, insufficient supplying with technical transportation means, tractors, cross-country and snow-going vehicles, outboard engines, fuels and lubricants, nets, firearms, cartridges, various spare parts causes heavy harm not only to the field men but also affects unfavorably on the revenues of the agricultural organizations. People leave habitable, hunting and trade areas because of the remoteness, small prestige of hunting, low purchase price and lack of sales.

Some hunting areas became useless because of the ecological standards violation by the state organizations. Sovkhozes could not control the ecological cleanness of the leased territories so that it became polluted with fuel and lubrication materials, cooperages and frozen down nets that remained in lakes with fish. Furthermore, strip fishing results in the imbalance of fishery resources.

As a result, social status of the residents declines. Arrears of payment for public services, electric power and telephone communication grow; many families were 2-3 years in arrears. Only wages of social sphere workers, benefits and pensions bring an income. Unemployment, first and foremost among youth, lack of prospects, unprofitability and production inefficiency lead to drunkenness, rampancy of crime and suicide incidents.

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