Scientific Research

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Ethnographic Research

The first one who studied Yukaghirs life was political exile Vladimir I. Johelson. He visited forest (Verhnekolymsk) Yukaghir-Oduls as a member of several academic expeditions to North Eastern Asia in the end of 19th - beginning of the 20th centuries.

His notes about the Yukaghirs were full of love and compassion. His study was based on comparison between neighboring nations: the Yakuts, the Chukhis, the Tungus and the Koryaks. The researcher often neglected Koryaks statures.

Johelson’s book was titled “Yukaghirs and yukaghir-like Tungus” (Leiden, New York, 1926). It was first published in Russian in 2005 (translated by V.K. Ivanova and Z.I. Ivanova-Unarova). This book represents kind of “ethnic dossier” of the Oduls.

V.I. Johelson with his wife


“If we consider all the history of the Yukaghirs we can see how yasak (tribute pay off in furs) affected nation’s extinction. In order to count up the number of people capable of paying yasak, census of men was carried out regularly. The first ones that were taken into account were men from 18 to 50 years, as they were the main yasak payers. If some men died in the period between two censuses and no adult men were to replace them, this clan had to pay yasak instead of the deceased until the next census.

One of the Kolymsk region clans-Second Omoksk-once had to pay yasak for 14 men. Actually they had no adult men capable of paying, because the only man counted in census in 1897 was older than 50 years and could not be considered as payer by law. The local authorities made this man a clan elder so he could look for an extra-work to pay yasak. This situation could only contribute to clan extinction. Men had to hunt as much animals as possible to pay yasak instead of taking care of their families.


Korcodon Yukaghir summer encampment

Korcodon Yukaghir summer encampment

…At first sight Yukaghirs may look like a degenerative nation. Their couples are often infertile. Children are born week and diseased. Especially it is noticeable in comparison with Yakuts’ healthy children. Yukaghir children are slow in their physical development. A twenty year-old man can look like a child, though his face is already deformed with gerontic obesity. I was shocked by young men’s feminine constitution. They were of low-height and had slim figure with narrow waist. On the contrary, women had wide waist and short awkward body.

Childhood mortality is very high. Percentage of fertile marriages is also very low. Number of children for one woman averages at 2.5. The most fertile woman had six children. The high percentage of old single people shows us nation’s reproduction problems. It is a common case in civilized society and is a very rare case for primitive tribes due to certain economic features. Though we observe degenerative processes, we can see many old people in clans.

Average height was 1560 mm for men and 1470 mm for women. Accordingly, Yukaghirs are now the most undersized nation in North-eastern Siberia. There is no obesity among Yukaghirs, unlike the Yakuts. Face width averages 145 mm for men and 138 for women. It is much smaller that typical Mongolian type is supposed to have. There are two types of faces. One is oval flat type with low forehead. The other one is gnarly squared type with protruding lower jawbone. The second one is typical for Tungus peoples. Nose is usually short with low nose-bridge. It is quite protruding though. Hair is usually dark-brown, straight and thick. I haven’t ever met a woman with hard hair, but about 71% of men had thin hair.

Korcodon Yakaghir girl
Korcodon Yakaghir young man

Yukaghir eye-color is usually dark-hazel. The eye-shape is not actually typical for Mongolian peoples. Most of the Yukaghirs have wide-opened eyes. Mongolian fold is not developed or absent. External angle of an eye is usually high-set. There are four major skin tones. The basis of two of them is brown colourant (Chukchi, Koryaks) and the other ones are yellow Tungus colourant. We suppose that yellow pigmentation is a result of mixing with Tungus in case it is prevalent.

Yukaghirs are very neat compared with their neighbors. It may result from contacts with Russian colonists who were like a role model to locals. They never take bath and wash their hair, but they like combing. Though Yukaghirs are infected with lice, it is assumed that lice are necessary for human and show health status. Old men are less neat than youth.

Kolyma Yukaghir movement on dog-sledges

The Yukaghirs are more exceptive in food than the Yakuts and Koryaks. They don’t like gamy fish and meat and detest food they have never eaten before. The abovementioned facts concern only those Yukaghirs that inhabited Yasachnaya and Korcodon river valleys, but not the tundra Yukaghirs and those who began adopting Russian culture. That doesn’t refer to the Yukaghirs that live with Yakuts and have accustomed to any type of food.

… The most common disease is rheumatism. Eye diseases are less common compared to neighboring nations. Yukaghirs are thinly cladded in winter and often catch cold. Emaciation and scurvy result from cold winters and poor nutrition. Digestive disorders are not common in Yukaghir clans compared to Yakuts; Yukaghirs are not as gluttonous as Yakuts and detest rotten food. Yukaghirs think that liver is responsible for sleeping: a man with big liver is sleepy. Heart commands the body: a man with big heart is lazy; small heart is a sign of an active person.

Diseases of the nervous system are quite common: Upper Kolyma Yukaghirs are extremely vulnerable to Arctic hysteria. Acute condition occurs in the period of famine.

…It is difficult to define Yukaghir habits before their contacts with the Russians. Undoubtedly, violence and suppression affected them greatly. Yukaghirs are the most timid nation in Siberia except the Kamchadals. They are obedient to the orders not only from officials and Cossacks, but from Russian merchants. It may be both fear of Russians that were rude to them in past and inherited features as hospitality, kindness and sociability. It does not contradict the folklore telling us that Yukaghirs were brave and fearless warriors in numerous wars with Tungus people. Yukaghirs are very vindictive, but are always willing to share meal with anyone who enters their house.

The Yukaghirs is an entertainment-loving nation.

Summer encampment near Yasachnaya River

They are very honest, trustful and reliable. They do not divide guests into honorable and non-honorable, as the Yakuts do; Yukaghir hospitality and treat are available to everyone.

In spite of the fact that the Russians have an ascendant position, Yukaghirs do not loose self-esteem when communicating them. They do not demean or cadge like Yakuts. A hungry Yukaghir will never beg for food unless it is proposed to him. They are susceptible. They don’t like quarrels and afraid of being hit, considering that as a great offence. They are very tactful towards a stranger. Yukaghirs respect Russian law and try to observe it, especially when they face family quarrels. Yukaghirs are used to the fact that Russians use their hospitability for free and every gift is considered to be a bribe for a service. Yukaghirs never ask for something as they regard a refusal as an offence.

If we study close relationships between Yukaghirs we see that they actually do have moral standards typical for every civilized society: modesty, virtue, love and devotion. These principles are not held in everyday life the Yukaghirs usually practice debauchery. The period of debauchery may be considered as test period for every young man and woman before beginning stable relationships.

…Field hunter must ski and run fast. Yukaghirs are famous for their bravery and speed. The clan hunters hunt only to fulfill their duty towards clan members and can not claim the take. Hunter can only claim the animal head. His dwelling is the first in encampment and hid wife takes part in meat distribution. The main principle of meat distribution is principle of equal division without concerning man’s tribute.

A woman, especially a pregnant woman, must be active and alert. She must do everything as quick as she can, otherwise a baby will not have enough energy to survive and childbirth will be hard. She must get up earlier and go to bed later than men. She must not be idle. A pregnant woman’s footstep must be light and quiet. Yukaghirs love their children dearly. It is partially explained by the fact their women are often infertile. Love for children might be a measure against nation extinction, though there are examples of such attitude even in local mythology.

Yukaghir children

Yukaghir children are well-bred and obedient. This obedience results not only from fear or discipline, but from trust and affection. The adults do not abuse children’s obedience and do not make them do difficult work. There are capricious children, but nobody pays attention to the misbehavior and does not punish them. It is assumed that “children souls” misbehave. Yukaghirs think that before birth a child body becomes inhabited by a soul of a deceased ancestor.

Johelson wrote this phrase as an epitaph for Yukaghirs: It is a dying nation. Yukaghir language may disappear in few decades, and the people itself will partly extinct and partly assimilate.

“Materials on Yukaghir language and folklore collected in Kolymsk region”,

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