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Forest Yukaghirs (Oduls)

The forest Yukaghirs call themselves унуŋ омни the "river people" and preserve the ancient appropriating hunting and fishing way of life that developed many thousands of years ago. Scientists believe that in the ancient period in northeast Asia, fishing did not play a significant role in the economic life of local tribes.

Archaeologist V.A. Kashin, relying on the findings made in the Middle Kolyma, believed that "fishing, especially at the stages of the early and Middle Neolithic era, did not play a significant role in the economy. In the late Neolithic era, fishing (possibly only seasonal) gets some development, but the methods of fishing do not go beyond the use of very primitive devices. [Fishing] has never turned into an independent branch of the economy, limiting itself only to episodic fishing by the most primitive methods – locking devices and traps on shallow watercourses."

Scientists received additional materials from the Burulgino and Sugunnaakh sites on the Indigirka River. The ancient inhabitants of Indigirka in the late Neolithic era, (the time of the existence of the Ymyyakhtakh (early Yukaghir culture) on the territory of Yakutia) fish production was carried out using composite hooks made of bone. Large fish were caught with bone double-edged spokes 7-17 cm long. This type of trawl line existed for many millennia and was known in the late 19th – early 20th centuries: bone or wooden spokes-hooks were used for catching burbot, baiting them with mice and frogs. Stone sinkers to the nets were found at the Indigir parking lots – these are slightly trimmed river gravels. So it was found that in Neolithic era there were stationary fishing gear on the Indigirka River, possibly similar to the ones found on Srednekolymsk.

In the late 19th – early 20th centuries, V.I. Jochelson, who directly observed the nomadic life of Yukaghirs, came to the following conclusion: "fish is the main food product not only of yukaghirs-dog breeders, but also of reindeer herding yukagirs of the tundra. Most tundra yukaghirs have few deer and are forced to rely more on fish for subsistence" [Jochelson, 2005b]. The Yukaghirs of the upper Kolyma in private farms had a small number of dogs (from 1 to 3), for which food supplies of fish were required in winter.

In the warm season, the river people traditionally used exclusively water transports – rafts, boats of various types and purposes. The fishing season lasted from the spring breakup of ice in the rivers in May to the autumn freezing. One of the oldest and most productive methods was the complete or partial blocking of the river across with a fence of ogo (ого) (Rus. Pound net) with detachable woven willow traps for fish (Rus. Fish trap). Fences with inset traps are indicators of great weaving mastery. The same locking devices were used by riverine residents of the lower Lena, Indigirka and Anadyr rivers in the 19th – early 20th centuries.

The method of ice fishing in late autumn with river blocking is still preserved today, modern technical innovations are used to facilitate labor. Residents of the village of Nelemnoye told that fish fences were set in late October – early November. Then already in the ice 10-15 cm thick, with the help of a chainsaw "Druzhba", cuts were made from one bank to the other so that trees with a diameter of about 10 cm could be placed. Several holes were left in the wall of the stockade and osier-bed traps were installed there. During this time roach comes close to shore and in this way it was caught. Then, as the container was filled, the traps were removed, and a passage for fish appeared.

According to V.I. Jochelson, the ancient Yukaghirs did not practice ice fishing with nets. They borrowed it from neighboring peoples. They had only one fishing season in the warm season. This conclusion may relate to the period in the history of the Yukaghirs when they were not constrained geographically and economically and could make significant reserves from summer and autumn fisheries. Ice fishing with nets in early spring appeared later as a result of depletion of autumn stocks and hunger strikes. Here is the story of the Yukagirs of the Yasachnaya River:

"When temperature rises and it gets warm, (we) begin to wander... If the snow is deep (i.e. it is difficult to walk), we lower the nets in deep places (under the ice). Some folk are fortunate to have two nets, some have only one… If we do not do anything – then we, with our dogs, and with our people, go without any food" [Jochelson, 2005a].

According to scientists, periodic famines, epidemics and other social ailments were the result, among other things, of a strict yasak (tribute paid off in furs) government policy. In the late 19th – early 20th centuries, Yukaghirs used purchased nets and wove them themselves from horsehair purchased from the Yakuts, or imported Russian twine. 

There is a message about another method of ice fishing: in late autumn, "they use wild rosemary. They lower it into the lake, under the ice, it seems, with a stone. This plant intoxicates the fish, which then, stunned, rises from the pits and climbs out of the water."

Thus, traditionally Yukaghir method is river blocking with fish-locks with installed wicker traps. There were many other fishing gear: they extracted fish with fishing rods and spears, oiser-bed trawls (the so-called fish scooping) and nettle nets.

Yukaghir names and their russian equivalents:
Chumuche (чумучэ) – fish hook
Chumusye (чумусьэ) – fishing rod
Yo’or (йоор) – hook for catching large fish
Ogo / Oge (Ого, Өгэ)– pound net
Uuluu (Уулуу) – fish trap
Pagul (паҕул) – trawl (in ancient times woven from oiser-bed branches, later any other trawl); was used when scooping fish.
Youyo (Йоуйо) – nettle net
Shoyledye (шӨйльэдиэ) – stone (small), gravel.
As a sinker, flat river pebbles or small slate tiles braided with oiser-bed were tied.

A fish-lock and a man in a shuttle emptying nets in the middle of the river (1). The river is blocked up to the middle by three rows of nets (2). One shuttle is filled with fish, and a man is sitting on the other and shooting (3). On the right, a man is carrying river piles in a shuttle, to which nets are tied (4), and the other returns home with a fish (5) [Jochelson, 2005b]

The Yukaghirs, like many ancient peoples, believed that after death the human soul would continue to engage in the same types of crafts as in their lifetime. Therefore, by sending aybii (айбии) ‘shadow, soul’ of the deceased to the ancestral land, they supplied it with necessecities. In summer, dried fish "yukola" (йукола) was hung at the head of the aerial burial, performed on a tree in the form of a nest, and birchbark ware were placed next to it. An improvised boat was placed at the feet, a bundle of willow twigs replacing the "trawl", wooden "hooks" and a pebble. In this description, made by the Yukaghir scientist and writer N.I. Spiridonov (Teki Odulok) (Теки Одулок), the same fishing gear named above are listed: "willow rods" for weaving a trawl (pagul (паҕул)), wooden "hooks" (chumuche or yo’or (чумучэ; йоор), a stone sinker (shoyledye (шӨйльэдиэ).

Naturally, fish has always occupied a leading place in the diet of the river people. Fish food is in demand in all seasons of the year. Fishing products have traditionally been used for food in fresh, smoked, boiled, fried, dried, pickled, dried, baked and frozen form.

The production of some types of fish is typical for the spring period, while others are for large-scale fishing in autumn. In accordance with this, the gear used is diverse. Spring ice fishing with nets and fishing rods is considered by many researchers as borrowing from neighboring peoples. However, archaeological, linguistic and folklore materials indicate the existence of nets and fishing hooks in the historical past.

During the spring flood and the beginning of the nomadic season, fishing on boats and rafts was apparently limited. In summer, mobile gear and light fish locks were used. River fishing is most productive in autumn with the construction of stationary fish locks to provide food for the family and dog food in the upcoming winter. River blocking was temporary and resumed with the beginning of a new fishing season.

Winter fishing in the village of Nelemnoye on the Yasachnaya River (2012). Shot by P.V. Sofronov.

At the end of the 20th century. the yukaghirs of the village of Nelemnoye practiced ice fishing in the ice hole with fishing rods and nets in the spring. In everyday life there were purchased fishing tools and means: seine, nets, breds, trawl lines, fishing rods, spinning rods, etc. In the weaving of traditional willow traps, wire and fishing line are used.