History Files
 

Far East Kingdoms

Siberia

 

Tungusic Peoples (Siberia)
Incorporating the Buryats, Evens, Evenks, Hezhen, Jurchen, Kamas, Kets, Khakas, Khantys, Mansi, Nanai, Negidal, Oroks, Ostyaks, Tuvans, Udegey, Ulchi, & Voguls

The Tungus people settled in the vast territory between Trans-Baikal and the Upper Amur region, covering the tundra between the Yenisei and Lena rivers (the former leading due north from directly above the western half of Mongolia's border). Some groups inhabited territory in western Siberia: notably the Vasyugan basin (the left-hand tributary of the River Ob in its middle stream), on the left of the tributaries of the Yenisei. Climate characteristics, along with contacts with peoples who spoke other languages and cultures, led to the formation of the cultural characteristics of various of the Tungusic groups.

Tungusic relations and history are still very poorly understood, but an original homeland is generally accepted to have been located along the banks of the River Amur, the modern border between China and Russia's Far East territory south-west of the Sea of Okhotsk. Such a cultural formation and habitation zone fall well outside any borders of ancient kingdoms and empires, even those of the Ancient Chinese. They would not have been too far removed from the cultural formation zone of the Koreans, however.

In 1845, Matthias Alexander Castrén (1813-1852) took part in a grand expedition to Siberia, known as the 'Second Kamchatka Expedition'. This was a highly valuable exercise in terms of exploring Siberia, so much so that it became known as the Great Northern Expedition. Its main task was the discovery of a sea route to the Americas and an estimation of its relations with Asia, but Castrén was there to provide linguistic and ethnographic expertise. He wanted to determine which of the indigenous peoples of Siberia were related to the Finns. He visited the Ostyaks (Khantys) and the Voguls (Mansi), plus the the Nenets, Nganasans, and Enets (all three being Northern Samoyed Uralic-speakers who fulfilled Castrén's objective), and the Selkups (Southern Samoyed Uralic-speakers), along with the Kets, the Evenks (Evenkis, who are closely related to the Evens) the Khakas, the Tuvans, the Kamas, and the Buryats in order to gather material. He travelled across almost the whole of Siberia, except for the Russian Far East. As a result, he developed grammar and dictionaries for thirteen languages of the indigenous peoples of the region.

Significant differences exist in terms of language and culture between the northern and southern Khantys (on the lower reaches of the Irtysh and Konda rivers, and on the River Salym). The Kets and the Samoyed Enets inhabit the northern part of the Krasnoyarsk Krai, and are amongst the smallest groups in Siberia (numerically speaking). The main body of the equally-Samoyed Selkups had long lived in north-western Siberia (in the modern Tomsk and Tyumen regions). The Turkic Yakuts settled all over eastern Siberia, and as a whole the Tungus people influenced the culture of the other northern nations.

The Evenks and Evens are linguistically related to the sedentary Udegey (also known as Udihe or Udeghe) and the Ulchi on the south of the lower River Amur, and the similar Negidal of the same region. The Nanai (or Hezhen to the people themselves) are also largely Amur-dwellers, descendants of the Jurchen who later formed the Manchu, while the Oroks (Ulta or Ulcha, and sometimes the Uilta - closely related to the Ulchi) now dwell in the Sakhalin Oblast on the Russian side of the border.

Fishing played a significant role in the economic activities of indigenous Siberian peoples, including the more southerly of the Tungusics (or Machu-Tungus people, reflecting links for some groups with the Manchus). Unlike other forager activities, it provided the population with a sustainable food source. The Tungusic name itself is not native. It was a Russian invention to classify the Tungusic group of languages. The earliest origins of 'tungus' are obscure, but the majority of scholars prefer linking it to the East Turkic 'tunguz', meaning 'wild pig', most likely coined during the Göktürk empire period.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by E G Fedorova, from M A Castrén's collections at the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera) of the Russian Academy of Sciences (MAE), from On the Edge of the World, Nikolaĭ Semenovich Leskov, from Demographic and Genetic Portraits of the Ulchi Population, E V Balanovska et al (Russian Journal of Genetics No 54 (10), 2018), and from External Links: Shamanism in Siberia: Excerpts from Aboriginal Siberia, M A Czaplicka (1914), and Investigating the Prehistory of Tungusic Peoples of Siberia and the Amur-Ussuri Region, Ana T Duggan, Mark Whitten, Victor Wiebe, Michael Crawford, Anne Butthof, Victor Spitsyn, Sergey Makarov, Innokentiy Novgorodov, Vladimir Osakovsky, & Brigitte Pakendorf (PLOS, 12 December 2013, and Native View of the 1908 Tunguska Meteorite Explosion, Joachim Otto Habeck, and Fragments of meteorite from the Tunguska Event (The Siberian Times).)

c.5000 BC?

The proto-Uralic language (or group of languages) shows a division which later emerges as proto-Samoyedic and proto-Finno-Ugric. General opinion has the proto-Samoyedic-speakers dividing first, and later Samoyedic languages do not contain the proto-Indo-European loan words which Uralic languages contain. So it seems the proto-Samoyedics soon begin a migration northwards and eastwards, into Siberia, leaving the remaining proto-Uralics where they are. Today the Samoyedics are scattered between populations of Tungusic peoples.

Map of East Asia and Siberia around 3500 BC
Tungusic migration from around the River Amur towards Lake Baikal and Siberia seems to have begun around 3500 BC, perhaps tentatively at first, and continuing over at least the next two or three millennia (click or tap on map to view full sized)

c.3500 BC?

 

Evidence collected from the Ulchi suggests an initial expansion outwards from the River Amur region by this time, and possibly predating it by a century or two. The Tungusic language can be grouped together with the origins of Turkic and Mongolian under the Altaic banner, although significant differences are introduced along the way.

Over the next millennia Tungusic-speakers gradually expand towards the west and north-west of the River Amur. Tribes eventually reach Lake Baikal and follow its river system to the River Yenisei which exits into the Kara Sea. In doing so they largely displace or absorb the languages of the earliest Siberians, the Palaeo-Siberians, as part of an East Asian Neo-Siberian migratory movement into the region. Many tribes do not migrate at all, however, remaining close to the Amur. The ancestors of the Udegey, the Ulchi, the Negidal, and the Nanai or Hezhen certainly number amongst these.

c.1500 BC

This is one proposed date for the division between the migratory North Tungusic Evenks and Evens on the one hand and the Amur Tungusic peoples who remain behind on the other (G M Vasilevič, 1969, via Investigating the Prehistory of Tungusic Peoples of Siberia). Other researchers place this event much later, around AD 1200, although it is entirely possible that some links remain for a period following any physical division.

A Nanai family
This Nanai family was photographed early in the twentieth century in a formal studio setting, something which would have felt relatively alien to them

The Evenks and Evens today are spread across a wide area of northern Asia, from the River Yenissey in the west to the Chukotka and Kamchatka peninsulas in the east, and from the Taimyr peninsula in the north to northern China in the south. They are linguistically and culturally closely related to a traditional lifestyle of highly nomadic hunting and gathering and reindeer herding.

Other Tungusic-speaking groups are settled to the south-east of the Evenks and Evens, along the lower Amur and Ussuri rivers, as well as on Sakhalin island. These include the linguistically closely-related Negidal, whose North Tungusic language shows similarities both to Evenki and Even, as well as populations which speak languages that have been classified as South Tungusic, such as the Udegey and Ulchi.

In contrast to the Evens and Evenks, these Tungusic peoples of the Amur-Ussuri region - who can also be referred to as Amur Tungusic - are by tradition sedentary fishermen and hunters rather than nomadic reindeer herders. Unlike the Evenks and Evens, the Udegey exhibit DNA influences which suggest that their male ancestors integrate at some point after this date into a female population of a different origin, probably by displacing the existing (weaker) male population).

c.200 BC - AD 9

Han Chinese expansion sees them reach what is now Manchuria and North Korea, dominating the flourishing Manchuria-based early Korean kingdoms for a time. This is probably also when they begin seriously influencing the Tungusic-speakers of the River Amur with Chinese culture. The Nanai, Udegey, and Ulchi at least begin using traditional Chinese emblems, clothing, and religion.

Map of Xin China c.AD 9-23
The map of China remained largely the same as it had been at the end of the Early Han period, with their conquests in northern Vietnam enduring and control of the north-western corridor towards Gaochang being expanded only a little (click or tap on map to view full sized)

c.AD 400

The Korean kingdom of Koguryo controls, protects, and utilises the services of several border tribal groups in this period, many of which are still semi-nomadic in nature or temperament, if perhaps not so much in recent fact. The Mohe people of Manchuria are one such group. Descended from a Tungusic group, they will later evolve into the Jurchen people who form the Tartar dynasty of Kin, before renaming themselves as the Manchu.

c.500

Vasilevič proposes this period as a likely point at which the Evenks and Evens divide into two individually-distinguishable groups, with North Tungusic groups migrating northwards from an area to the south of Lake Baikal. (Others place this event much later, around 1600-1800.)

552 - c.560

The Göktürks expand their territory quite rapidly, sweeping across the steppe to the immediate south of Tungusic lands. This sudden expansion may be responsible for pushing the proto-Bulgars to settle in the Caucuses, and the Avars after them.

Map of Central Asia AD 550-600
As was often the case with Central Asian states that had been created by horse-borne warriors on the sweeping steppelands, the Göktürk khaganate swiftly incorporated a vast stretch of territory in its westwards expansion, whilst being hemmed in by the powerful Chinese dynasties to the south-east and Siberia's uninviting tundra to the north (click or tap on map to view full sized)

The Göktürks soon follow then to establish their domination over the nomadic tribes of the Pontic-Caspian steppe. The Tungusic peoples themselves more than likely have some interaction with the Göktürks. The East Turkic 'tunguz', meaning 'wild pig', is most likely coined during this period and is used to name these Siberian folk.

c.1600 - 1800

The Yakuts, Turkic-speaking cattle and horse pastoralists, expand outwards to occupy their present expanse of territory. In the process they displace the Tungusic reindeer herders, with the Evenks moving west and north-westwards, and the Evens heading towards the east and north-east. This separation has been proposed as the final split between the two groups which Vasilevič places at or after AD 500.

It is assumed that Yukaghir groups are assimilated by Evenks and, especially, Evens, a process which continues until quite recently. Today's settlement pattern of these North Tungusic populations is highly fragmented, with small communities being interspersed with other peoples. The Kets and Samoyedic groups are located in the west, the Buryats in the south-west, Yakuts and Yukaghirs in the central regions, and Chukchi and Koryaks in the east.

Map of Central Asia AD 550-600
Turkic origins are hard to pin down precisely, but the region around the Altai Mountains to the immediate west of the Tungusic homeland would seem to have served as a general incubator during their development (click or tap on map to view full sized)

This fragmentation leads to a large degree of dialectal diversification for the Evenks and Evens, possibly due to contact with their neighbours. The South Tungusic populations on the other hand live in the vicinity of the Nivkh and, formerly, the Ainu (better known as the native inhabitants of Japan's Hokkaido island, but also present in eastern areas of Siberia). The Nivkh predate the arrival of the Tungusic peoples, perhaps being the closest Asian relatives of the early native Americans.

1644

Pei-ching (Beijing) is occupied by rebels, and Emperor Szu Tsung of the Ming commits suicide. The rebels, though, are thrown out by Tungusic Manchu people, who swiftly occupy all of northern China to begin the Manchu Qin dynasty of China.

1689

The Treaty of Nerchinsk is signed, the first treaty between Russia and Qin China. It delineates the border between their respective empires, largely placing the hunter-gatherer Tungusic peoples on the Russian side while China dominates the sedentary groups around the River Amur.

1908

The Tunguska event of 30 June 1908, which is largely (although not universally) ascribed to an airburst meteorite explosion above the Podkamennaya Tunguska river, affects Tungusic tribes of the Evenks. A long-running tribal feud between a group of Tungus clans in the basin of the Stony Tunguska and clans which live along the right-hand tributaries of the Lower Tunguska boils over. A shaman calls upon the 'Agdy', a form of thunder god, to strike down his tribe's enemies. Coincidentally (probably!) the meteorite explodes soon afterwards, causing casualties amongst the Shanyagir clan of Evenks.

The Tunguska event aftermath, photographed in 1928
The Tunguska event or explosion of 1908 is generally ascribed to a meteorite which exploded in the air, some kilometres above the surface, flattening thousands of trees in a circle around it and injuring several people of the Shanyagir clan of Evenks

2010

The South Tungusic Oroks of the Sakhalin Oblast in Russia's Far East territories are rapidly dwindling in number. According to the 2010 census they amount to 295 individuals, down from the 346 of the 2002 census.