Siberia is the continental region of north Asia; located in the Russian Federation, it extends from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Noted for its unforgiving climate and expansive boreal forests, or taiga, Siberia has contributed much to ethnological research, including studies of its indigenous peoples and languages, shamanism, and processes surrounding Russian colonization. Having been inhabited since the Pleistocene, Siberia is important to comparative research in old world prehistory and Paleolithic ecology. Research in Siberia today is integral to the anthropological study of Eurasia as it undergoes political and economic change after socialism.
Research on Siberia significant to anthropology includes a great deal of work on the history and ethnography of its native peoples. The history of Russian interaction with native peoples of Siberia, including the rapid expansion of the Russian Empire and its tribute and administrative systems, has been an important topic in comparative political economy and world systems theory. Studies of Siberian kinship and shamanism have influenced ethnological theories of social organization and religion. Soviet anthropologists had their own theoretical and applied developments relating to Siberia that flourished under the Marxist-Leninist prerequisites of the Soviet Union. Anthropological research in the circumpolar region, Beringia, and theories on the peopling of the New World involve Siberia. Property and identity transformations in Siberia have spawned a rich collection of ethnographic research in Eurasia since the 1991 cessation of the USSR. The documentation of endangered languages and practices of Siberia is an important area of applied anthropological research.
Archaeological studies have shown early peoples inhabited Siberia at least 20,000 to 8,000 years before present. Wide areas of the Eurasian Arctic coastline inhabited earlier are now submerged, including Beringia, the “land bridge” to North America. Anthropologists have made comparisons between the northwest coast of North America and the northeast coast of Asia that show striking ethnographic commonalities. Human interactions with big game, such as mammoths and other ungulates like reindeer and caribou, in Siberia and the New World are an important focus for paleoecological and human-rangifer comparisons across the circumpolar zone.
Modern ethnographic investigations of Siberia began under the direction of Russian anthropologists who published in Russian and English. Waldemar G. Bogoras (1865-1936) conducted ethnographic research with the Chukchee, Siberian Eskimo, Koryak, and Yukagir. One of his most influential studies, The Chukchee, was published in the Jesup North Pacific Expedition series edited by Franz Boas. A contemporary of Bogoras, Lev Iakovlevich Shternberg (18611927) worked in southeast Siberia with the Gilyak, Orochi, Goldi, Negedals, and Ainu. Shternberg’s ethnography on the social organization and sexual life of the Gilyak influenced Claude Levi-Strauss’s thinking on kinship and marriage. Waldemar Jochelson (18551937), a contemporary of Bogoras and Shternberg, worked with Aleuts, Kamchadals, Koryak, Yakuts, and Yukagir. Jochelson’s Peoples of Asiatic Russia was published in 1928 by the American Museum of Natural History. Bogoras established ethnography as a discipline in Russia and the Soviet Union with his colleague Shternberg. After the revolution, Jochelson emigrated to New York. Sergei Mikhailovich Shirokogorov (1887-1939), another Bolshevik refugee working in northern China and southern Siberia, published influential studies on the Social Organization of the Northern Tungus (1929) and the Psychomental Complex of the Tungus (1935), adding to anthropological interest in Siberian kinship and shamanism.
The role of the fur trade in the expansion of the Russian empire and development of the modern Russian state has been explored in historical and political economic studies. Sable pelts, the soft Siberian gold of the 16th through 18th centuries, drove Russian military and population expansion east to the Pacific Ocean. This was extended to Alaska and south to Fort Ross in northern California. In the 19th century, the fur trade diminished in importance as a source of income for the Tsar, but the production of pelts of fur-bearing animals has remained important for Siberian peoples and rural economies to this day.
The connections between Russian colonization and ethnic developments in Siberia have been explored by anthropology and history. After the Russian Tsar’s defeat of the Tatar Khanate in 1551, Cossack armies continued east, defeating the horse-mounted and socially ranked steppe peoples in southern Siberia, and reindeer-herding and hunting-and-fishing people in northern Siberia. Beginning in the 16th century, Russian tribute collection intensified sable, squirrel, and fox hunting by native peoples, as did the fur trade in colonial North America. Russian fur trappers, merchants, and Russian Orthodox missions moved into Siberia, followed by peasants and exiles. Siberia’s native identities and ethnic groups formed within the colonial context as the antithesis of Russian identity. Alexander Pushkin referred to the “Tungus, still wild” in an 1836 poem, for example. The Tsar’s representatives created clan territories in Siberia, administered by native kings. Count Mikhail Mikhailovich Speranskii (1772-1839), while in exile in Siberia, developed a classification scheme (settled, nomadic, wandering) to determine tax and tribute liability as part of his effort at codification of Russian law. The Speranskii reforms also authorized clan administrations and steppe councils for administering Siberian peoples. Russian authorities continued to create and authorize native identities through the Soviet period, and this has been a subject of intensive anthropological study.
Soviet government policy on minority indigenous peoples was part of a larger problem of nationality across the Soviet Union. After the revolution, Vladimir Il’ich Lenin (1870-1924) promoted the idea of national rights for minority ethnic groups, and many gave their political support. A typology of administrative units was developed depending on the population of the ethnic group and its level of ethnic consciousness.
After the establishment of Soviet power in Siberia in the late 1920s and 1930s, the smallest ethnic groups, or small-numbering peoples of Siberia ( malochislennie narody), were recognized in the titles of national and autonomous regions (okrugy) located in the Siberian provinces and territories. Larger ethnic groups, such as Yakut (Sakha) and Buryat, were recognized as titular nationalities in a series of autonomous republics within the Russian Federation. Early on, state ethnographers played critical roles in designing nomadic and clan soviets, as well as in determining favorable locations for planned cultural stations that included trading posts, red tents (for visiting political agitators), schools, and health clinics. Soviet anthropologists tracked the historical development of “ethnos” in Siberia through ethnographic research and demographic studies using tribute and census data. The concepts of “ethnic processes” and “ethnogenesis” were prevalent in Soviet anthropology. The Peoples of Siberia, edited by M. B. Levin and L. P. Potapov and published in English in 1964, presented the Soviet view on Siberian natives.
Siberian peoples are well known as practitioners of shamanism, due in part to early historical and anthropological research. The word shaman is derived from an Evenk word, Saman, and has come to be used as the technical term for the religious leaders of kinship-based religions. Anthropological traditions in Siberian shamanism are strong among Hungarian, Russian, and American anthropologists. Siberian shamans are known to enter trances (kamlanie) during which they travel the cosmos to contact and influence spirits and deceased ancestors. Family and social rites were practiced, as well as rites to heal the sick and curse enemies. Siberian shamans were victimized as part of the political battle against primitive communism. Soviet policy toward shamans shifted through time and shamanism was viewed more in the line of folklore. Regional Departments of Culture created professional shamanic ensembles and recorded well-known shamans on the state Melodia record label. Shamanism continues today in Siberia under new formats such as state licensing of shamans in Tuva and urban shamans in Buryatia.
Today, the 30 ethnic groups conforming to the small-numbering category have joined in a national association called the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (www.raipon.org). The association, along with anthropologists and members of the international community, has been instrumental in lobbying for legislation promoting indigenous rights. A series of three laws was passed by the State Duma in 1999, 2000, and 2001 and signed into law, respectively, “on the fundamentals of legal status,” “on the organization of communes,” and “on territories of traditional nature-use” for “small-numbering native peoples of the North, Siberia, and the Far East.” Implementation of the laws has been uneven, and some regions have municipalized former state farm property and given small grants to individual entrepreneurs rather than support communes.
Industrial development occurred rapidly in Siberia during the Soviet era, especially when gulag exiles from European, Russian, and other Soviet republics were forced into hard labor during the purges. Native Siberians assisted operations in Soviet mining, metallurgy, and infrastructure by providing transport and through collective and state production of domestic and wild foods. Russian, British, and North American anthropologists have broadly pursed ethnographic study of the development of rural economies in Siberia since the early 1980s.
Indigenous peoples, having been incorporated into the state farms during the Soviet Union, had become increasingly dependent on outside sources of transportation, fuel, administration, health, and education. After the collapse of the USSR, the transition from the planned economy in Siberia has affected property relations, and this has been a major area of anthropological research. With the dismantling of Soviet agriculture, native Siberians were provided opportunities to form communes, or obshchiny, that could hold title to hunting lands and domestic reindeer herds. The success of these native organizations varies a lot, depending on the region and access to markets. Where access is better, Siberian obshchiny have been successful in entrepreneurial sales of traditional products such as meat, fish, and fur. Where access to markets is limited, Siberian hunters, fishermen, and herders have concentrated on subsistence production and common-pool resources. Many traditional forms of knowledge and authority are being employed in hunting, redistribution, and consumption ofnative foods across Siberia in non-market social settings. Studies of hunting and gathering and subsistence in Siberia are important for understanding human adaptability and decision making in a rapidly changing mixed economy.
Archaeological studies on hunter-gatherer sites in Siberia are similarly important for understanding human involvement in the ecosystem, human migration, technological development, and climate change through time. For example, on Zhokov Island, 700 miles north of today’s Siberian coast, a hunting settlement dated at 8000 years BP is being excavated by a Russian and international team. The peopling of Siberia and North America is one emphasis in research that combines archaeology and geology in the study of human society.
Processes of domestication are another area of focus in the anthropology of Siberian peoples. Berthold Laufer, another Jesup Expedition anthropologist from Leipzig, Germany who worked on Sakhalin Island and the Lower Amur region, wrote an early theory on reindeer domestication. Outside of prehistory, interdisciplinary research in Siberia and the wider Arctic region has focused on relationships between people and domestic and wild reindeer. The human role in reindeer/caribou systems combines anthropological, biological, and native researchers in monitoring and local projects. This topic is but one that has developed with growing Arctic globalization—evidenced by growing regional contacts, scientific and economic exchanges, and treaties. Documentation of the native languages of Siberia is an area of applied research that can aid native peoples in maintaining language fluency in an era of rapid globalization.
- Anderson, D. G. (2000). Identity and ecology in Arctic Siberia: The number one reindeer brigade. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Gray, P. (2003). Indigenous activism in the Russian far east: The Chukotko case. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Ziker, J. P. (2002). Peoples of the Tundra: Northern Siberians in the post-communist transition. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.