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History of the Yukaghirs

The landscape spaces of Yakutia were mastered by ancient hunters during the Upper Paleolithic period, the earliest site of Pleistocene man dates back about 300 thousand years ago. They were mammoth hunters. In the early Holocene period, with the formation of the modern georelief and a distinct natural and biological niche, the locus of wandering hunters of Northeast Asia acquired local features. Some researchers correlate the early stages of the ethnic history of the Yukaghirs with the Early Holocene Mesolithic Sumnagin archaeological culture (10,000 / 9500 – 6,200±100 years ago). Yu. A. Mochanov connects the origin of the Sumnagin culture of Yakutia with the archaeological complexes of Western Siberia; according to the appearance of stone tools and the technique of making tools on plates and microplates, the Sumnagin and Yenisei cultures are somehow connected to the cultures of the Urals and Eastern Europe. Sumnagins occupied the entire territory of modern Yakutia and parts of adjacent areas, and penetrated into Alaska.

A vast area of northeast Asia is occupied by the basins of the Olenek, Lena, Yana, Indigirka, Kolyma rivers with numerous large and small tributaries, arms, temples, lakes, as well as mountain systems with ridges, peaks, passes and plateaus. They create the relief of the surface of the entire region and participate in the formation of the image of the "feeding" landscape.

The Sumnagin archaeological culture of Yakutia is replaced by the Neolithic era cultures with three chronological periods: early (Syalakh culture) (Сыалахская), middle (Belkachin culture) (белькачинская), late (Ymyyakhtakh culture) (ымыяхтахская). At this time, bows and arrows, specific tools of hunting, war and fishing are spreading. At the same time, several new technologies are acquired, too: grinding, sawing and drilling of stone, composite fish hooks, pottery.

In Neolithic era, migrants from the south, especially from Transbaikal and Southern Siberia, contributed to the mestization of the indigenous Ural-speaking population. Apparently, in Neolithic era, most of the territory of Yakutia and some adjacent areas were inhabited by descendants of the ancient Uralians – nomadic Odul-speaking tribes interspersed with mixed multilingual and multi-ethnic groups.

“In the past, there was a whole family of Odul (Yukaghir) languages, whose speakers formed a family of Odul-speaking tribes (or peoples). It was this family of Odul–speaking peoples – and not one people - that lived in the vast territory of Northeast Asia. At the same time, individual tribes of this family mixed with Chukchi and Eskimos in the east, with Nganasans in the west, with Tungusic–speaking and Turkic–speaking peoples in the south”. 


G. N. Kurilov, Ph. D

Most scholars believe that 2-2.5 thousand years ago, the Yukaghirs inhabitated a wide area from the Yenisei to Chukotka and were carriers of the Ymyyakhtakh archaeological culture. Moreover, some suggest that at the same time they inhabited the territory of Alaska (the Norton and Ipiutak cultures), but later mysteriously disappeared from there.

A.P. Okladnikov came to the conclusion that the Neolithic culture of Yakutia belonged to the ancestors of the Yukagirs. This point of view was shared by such well-known Soviet researchers as M.G. Levin, I.S. Gurvich, Yu.B. Simchenko.

A.V. Chernetsov substantiated an interesting theory about the existence of a single ethnic substrate in various cultures of the circumpolar zone. This substrate, Uralic in origin, he associated in the east with the Yukaghirs, and in the west with the Lapps (Sami). Consequently, Yukaghirs are the easternmost branch of the Iranian-speaking ethnic groups, which broke away from its core in ancient times. This idea was supported by the works of linguists Yu.A. Kreinovich, A.B. Dolgopolsky and others.

In the Neolithic era, the settlement of the Arctic region of Eastern Siberia was more intense and by the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE, there, as throughout the circumpolar zone of Eurasia, those characteristic features of the culture of reindeer hunters were developed, which determined the development of the economy of all tundra peoples, up to the appearance of reindeer herding among them. The formation of the circumpolar culture is closely connected with the formation of the ancient Ural-speaking basis of the Yukaghirs. The northern branch of the Ymyyakhtakh people of Yakutia had a decisive influence on the formation of cultures of the 2nd – early 1st millennium BCE in the west to Taimyr and in the east to Chukotka. In these cultures, the process of yukaghirisation of the ancient Ural-speaking substrate began.

In the late Neolithic – Bronze Age, the influx of ancient tribes caused the process of consolidation of the Proto-yukaghir population. The pioneer of Yukaghir studies V.I. Jochelson, a political exile in the Yakutsk oblast, a participant of several scientific expeditions to the northeast of Asia in the late 19th – early 20th century wrote: "The ancient Yukaghirs, constantly ready to repel an attack, attacking hostile tribes themselves and unsure of the future, wandered from place to place."

During the Early Iron Age (the end of the 1st millennium BCE – the beginning of the 1st millennium CE), the influx of newcomers to the territory of Yakutia increased. The filling of southern and central Yakutia with alien tribes caused resistance of the aboriginal population. The battles of the Omok, the Odul-speaking tribes of southern and central Yakutia, with alien warriors armed with iron weapons, and the subsequent forced departure to the northeast of Asia, are reported by the records of legends.

By the time of the arrival of the Russian explorers, the Yukaghirs lived in the vast northern territory from the Olenek River to the Sea of Okhotsk and Anadyr. They were divided into 12 generic groups. So, in the valleys of Lena and Yana lived yandagirtsy (яндагирцы), omoloevtsy (омолоевцы), khromovtsy (хромовцы); olyubentsy (олюбенцы), yagintsy (ягинцы), omoktsy (омокцы), kogimtsy (когимцы), lavrentsy (лавренцы) all lived in the Indigirka basin; and Chuvans (чуванцы), Anauls (анаулы), Khodyntsy (ходынцы) lived in the Anadyr basin. Alai (Алаи) and kogime (когимэ) lived on Kolyma.

There is no mention of the presence of Yukaghirs in south and central Yakutia in Russian documents of the early 17th century. However, toponyms, hydronyms, rock carvings, archaeological materials of ancient sites and workshops remained monuments of the Yukaghir culture in the southern regions. Yakut legends speak about the abundance of Yukaghirs in those days, who called the northern lights dyukeebil uottara (дьукээбил уоттара), "Yukaghir lights", considering it the reflection of the fires of many Yukaghir camps. Some birds, according to the Yakut sayings, turned black, as they flew over the hearths of Yukaghirs and smoked. Modern researchers agree that there were 5-6 thousand Yukaghirs in the middle of the 17th century.

Due to various reasons (territorial losses, harsh tax duties (paid off in furs), the transition to Tungusic, Yakut, Russian languages) in the 20th century in Yakutia, two compact groups of Yukaghirs appear in Soviet and post-Soviet statistical materials. Both are localized on the Kolyma River.


Geographical outline. The Kolyma River is one of the largest rivers in the north-east Russia, its length is 2129 km, the basin area is 643,000 sq. km. The river is formed from the confluence of the Ayan-Yuryakh and Kulu rivers originating in the Okhotsk-Kolyma Highlands, flows through the Magadan Region and Sakha Republic, in the north flows into the Kolyma Bay of the East Siberian Sea. Major tributaries include Korkodon, Omulevka, Yasachnaya, Rassokha, Berezovaya, Omolon. Along the banks of the Kolyma from the source to the mouth, mountain-taiga, taiga massifs, forest tundra and tundra are successively replaced. There are many lakes, seas and swamps, dominated by larch woodlands. ¾ of the territory of the modern Verkhnekolymsky ulus of Sakha Republic lies south of the Arctic Circle. A large area of the ulus is occupied by the Kolyma lowland, in the east there is an extensive Yukaghir plateau, in the west there are spurs of the Chersky ridge.

Tundra Yukaghirs live in the lower reaches of the rivers, and like neighboring Evens and Chukchi, are reindeer herders. The upper reaches of the Kolyma River are a place of compact settlement of forest yukaghirs, hunters of elk, fur–bearing animals, hog and migratory birds. In summer and autumn, they fish. Their only pet is a dog. The unique ethnic rarity of the descendants of ancient hunters and fishermen was fixed on the territory of the upper Kolyma due to the preservation of a homogeneous "feeding" territory.

Since the 1930s, the organization of collective farms began on Kolyma. Yukaghirs mastered new types of economic activities: animal husbandry, livestock raising, gardening. The forest yukaghirs (Oduls) were united into collective farms "New Way" and "Bright Life". The base of the collective farm "Bright Life" was the village of Nelemnoye in the Verkhnekolymsky ulus (district) of the Yakut Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic.

The village of Nelemnoye is located on the right bank of the Yasachnaya River, a tributary of the Kolyma. Now it is the center of the national (rural) administration and the Yukaghir tribal community "Teki Odulok" («Тэки Одулок»). The "feeding" landscape of Yukaghirs of Yasachnaya river is 1,472,000 hectares. This is the territory of the traditional family and ancestral winter fishing of fur and meat animals. There are household and residential seasonal buildings, places of memory and worship on the ancestral fishing grounds. Oduls are protected from possible territorial claims by official title documents. Fishing sites are in communal use. According to the 2010 census of the Russian Federation, there are 177 Yukaghirs in this multinational village.

Compiled by L.N. Zhukova, Cand. Sc. History. The photos were taken by the compiler in the period 1986-2007.

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