View Full Version : The Yukaghirs

20-10-2007, 05:40 PM
The Yukaghirs


The Upper Kolyma Yukaghirs are a small indigenous population who have survived centuries of demographic decline and are remarkable in having maintained an almost pure hunting economy. Thus, while all neighbouring indigenous groups are involved in either intensive reindeer- or cattle-breeding, the Upper Kolyma Yukaghirs have never pursued any livestock and the dog is, even today, their only domesticated animal.

At the time the Russians entered northeastern Siberia in the mid-seventeenth century, the Yukaghirs occupied a huge territory, ranging from the Lena to the Anadyr Rivers, and were bounded in the south by the Verkhoyansk Mountains and in the north by the Arctic Ocean. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, when the Russian anthropologist Waldemar Jochelson carried out his classical fieldwork among the people, the Yukaghirs numbered only a few hundred, scattered along the tributaries of the Kolyma River. Wars against invading neighbouring reindeer-breeding peoples, the Evenki, Evens, Koryaks, Chukchi, and Sakha (horse- and cattle-breeders), combined with epidemics of European diseases and frequent starvation as a result of game shortage, greatly reduced the Yukaghir population in a period of less than three hundred years. Today, the so-called ‘Upper Kolyma group’ numbers only 600 people, the majority of whom are based in the village of Nelemnoye at the Yasachnaya River in Verhnekolymsk Ulus, about 70 kilometres away from the region's centre, Zyrianka. They inhabit a forest environment, dominated by larch trees, more popularly known as the taiga. Seasonal temperature variations are extreme, with winter temperatures reaching lows of −60°C and summer highs of +45°C.

In ancient times Yukaghir hunting was part of a subsistence life-style in which the elk (the Siberian counterpart of the American moose) was the most important game animal. However, with the Russian expansion into Siberia in the mid-seventeenth century, Yukaghir hunting took on a commercial turn. Wild fur – especially of sable – was an unparalleled source of wealth for the Russian state, and the Yukaghirs became fur-trappers as well as subsistence hunters. Sable-hunting was partly forced upon them via the imposition of the ‘Yasak’ (fur-tax), an occupation they willingly took up due to the many imported consumer goods they could obtain by trading in furs. Thus, over time, commercial values attached to sable-hunting were woven into the social fabric of Yukaghir life.


The importance of commercial hunting continued during the Soviet period. Yukaghir hunters were provided with ‘plans’ for how many sable furs they were expected to deliver to the sovkhoz (state farm), in return for which they received hard cash. Subsistence hunting for elk remained vital until the mid-1960s. However, with Nelemnoye's ever-increasing incorporation into the Soviet state economy, and all this entailed of cash payment and centralized consumer goods deliveries, elk-hunting came to constitute a supplementary livelihood. This took a further step after the collapse of the state farm in 1991, when people largely returned to a subsistence-based life-style. Virtually no wages have been paid since 1993, while the prices of essentials have risen several hundred per cent. Today old people, women, and children fish, gather berries, and set snares for small animals near the village, while the men spend eight months or more deep within the forest, hunting for elk and sable. The meat from elk is for the most part consumed within Nelemnoye, while the furs from sable are sold to Sakha and Russian traders in exchange for consumer goods.

Elk or Moose

21-10-2007, 05:23 PM
These folk are so isolated in Siberia that when an expedition bumped into a tribe in the 1990's and told them that the Soviet Union had fallen they replied "The Soviet Union? What's that?... Who's the Czar these days?"

I wonder if they have any contact with Anastasia from the Ringing Cedars books.

21-10-2007, 10:05 PM
These folk are so isolated in Siberia that when an expedition bumped into a tribe in the 1990's and told them that the Soviet Union had fallen they replied "The Soviet Union? What's that?... Who's the Czar these days?"

They are isolated, you're right. I wish I lived there.

The visible economy

Hunting for elk is a collective activity, typically involving five or more hunters, many of whom are not genealogically related. In fact, hunting groups are extremely unstable units; people are constantly moving in and out, and the constitution of a group may change completely from one year to the next. Moreover, while leadership exists, it is ad hoc and frequently changing. Sable-hunting, by contrast, tends to be a much more private activity, tightly organized around a stable group of close kin with the household head as the principal leader. Furthermore, the practical and spiritual knowledge associated with sable-hunting is regarded as highly secret and owned strictly by the individual hunter. By contrast, hunters regard such knowledge about elk-hunting as a communal resource that must be shared with the rest of the group. The same contrast is apparent in questions of access to land: anyone may hunt elk wherever he likes, without restriction, whereas sable-hunting involves exclusive rights to family-owned territories.


Following, an important difference between the elk and sable economies would seem to rest in the fact that the former is structured around the egalitarian principle of ‘immediate sharing’, whereas stratification and the moral right to ownership and to accumulate wealth marks out the sable economy (‘delayed-returns’). There is a historical pattern to this, as we have seen above, since the elk economy is subsistence-based, whereas the sable economy is generated through an external market of supply and demand. Moreover, there would also seem to be a neat correspondence between the Yukaghirs' two hunting traditions and Marshall Sahlins's famous ‘sector model’ of reciprocities in which there is a systematic correlation between the quality of reciprocity obtaining in a given relationship and the level of social distance between the parties. Thus, the Yukaghirs, as we shall see, are obliged to share meat with kin in the manner characteristic of Sahlins's ‘generalized reciprocity’,2 in which people give and take regardless of the specific balance of account. Indeed, Sahlins himself draws on Jochelson's Yukaghir ethnography to make this point. The sable economy, by contrast, concerns interaction with ‘outsiders’ in the form of traders who provide resources with a view to receive an equivalent or greater return and who make claims for debts. Thus, a principle of ‘balanced reciprocity’, with its emphasis on exact repayment, dominates the sable economy, which at times may even take the form of ‘negative reciprocity’ or ‘theft’, characterized, as it were, by persistent and underhand ‘attempts to get something for nothing’.

The economy, however, does not only encompass human-with-human relations, but extends also into the realm of spirits. Thus, hunters' relations with the spirits of prey animals are in general modelled on the same principle of unconditional sharing that applies to the human community – comprising together what Nurit Bird-David (1990) has called ‘a cosmic economy of sharing’.

I wonder if they have any contact with Anastasia from the Ringing Cedars books.

Russia is space.. anything is possible Hagbard :)


27-10-2007, 06:41 PM
The economy in parts and wholes

Woodburn's ‘immediate- and delayed-return systems’, Sahlins's three forms of ‘reciprocity’, and Bird-David's ‘cosmic economy of sharing’ are all attempts at producing concepts that can work as stable funds of meaning. They are concepts with a context, as Gellner would have put it. However, as Marilyn Strathern has noted in an important paper on the provisionality of all such models, the idea of the concept that is used here is one where different parts are correlated to make up a conceptual whole. For instance, in Sahlins's concept of ‘reciprocity’, kinship and the economy are the ‘parts’ that are brought together in a correlative function, so that more of something (say, kinship distance) becomes less of something else (say, undisguised reciprocity). The problem with such parts-to-wholes models of conceptual organization, as Strathern has noted, is not so much what gets aggregated into a whole, but that the notion of co-relation itself remains unproblematized. When kinship and economy each work as the correlate of the other, there is a second, ‘internal relationship’ that is tacitly invoked and yet whose analytical work remains unacknowledged. This is the relation that each term has to an imagined ‘society’. This so-called ‘society’ is here made to stay in the background as a conceptual whole and provides the stability that ‘kinship’ and ‘reciprocity’ need to work freely and visibly as correlates of one another. In other words, their visibility is rendered stable by the unacknowledged work of an invisible conceptual whole.

The coupling of economy and society in a fiction of visible and invisible parts and wholes has an old genealogy in social theory. Gunnar Myrdal, for example, in his The political element in the development of economic theory, criticized liberal economists for holding the ‘communist fiction’ that some kind of ‘harmony of interests’ made ‘society’ appear as a ‘whole’. His work had a considerable influence on Hannah Arendt, for whom notions such as ‘political economy’, ‘economy’, or indeed ‘society’ had no real analytical purchase. For Arendt, the economy moved: once a household concept, it later took residency in the public sphere, and has today installed itself in the labour market.

Economic anthropology has seldom paid attention to Arendt's lesson about the residency-in-motion of the economy. In the formalist vs substantivist debate of the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, the underlying discussion was about the political nature of the economy; few attended to the qualities of the concepts deployed to describe such nature. The concepts of land and labour, for example, were defined by both camps in terms of the contribution they made to the overarching concept of the economy: they were both consolidated and given stability as economic concepts by being made to work in an economic context. But as Keith Hart has pointed out, these are originally agrarian concepts whose direct application to contemporary society lends a rudimentary consistency to our social theory.. descriptions of the exchange of labour and land in capitalist market economies echo Hobbes's model of possessive individualistic society; the category of labour is reminiscent also of Marx's views on human action and human energy. On both fronts it can be argued that Hobbes and Marx's conceptualizations of ‘labour’ and ‘land’ responded primarily to political motivations, and it was in a political rather than in an economic context that they intended to put the concepts to work. The question of how concepts are mapped onto and stabilized within specific contexts is therefore never a straightforward affair.

That the difficulty of pinning down the residency-in-motion of the economy might be an epistemological problem did not go unnoticed to participants in the debate. Scott Cook, for instance, once distinguished between substantivists' synthetic and formalists' analytical methodology: in the former, the whole determines the part; in the latter, the part determines the whole. For Cook, substantivists' failure to see this difference meant that they treated the economy as a ‘real’ object, as opposed to an epistemological perspective. What Cook did not question, however, was the very nature of the concepts that all participants were using. For him, epistemology had a transcendental quality: different methodologies render different relationships (between parts and whole) visible; but the fact that there is a ‘whole’ (be it a formal economy or a substantive social relationship) to be analysed was never questioned. Once elucidated and settled, the economy's whole became its very residency.

It is at this juncture that we would like to return to Gellner and Strathern's original insights into the problem of visible co-relation: the question of what exactly is being evoked when parts and wholes, concepts and contexts are put to work together. In what follows, we want to take their interest in the way relations and conceptual orders are conjured one step further. Our interest is in how the very ideas of ‘concepts’ and ‘relations’ have been rendered stable in anthropological epistemology. In our ethnography, a closer look at the hunting practices of the Yukaghirs shows that the realms of the elk and sable traditions, rather than being opposed orders of relationality, form two movements in a complex moment of potentiality, where each order becomes the shadow and the creative force behind the other: at once its invisible agency and its visible future. In epistemological terms, this is the idea that parts and wholes already contain within them the possibility for becoming something other than what they are: the whole inhabits the part; the part encompasses the whole; and each folds into the other through a reversible movement. In what follows we call this capturing of the visible by the invisible a ‘limit appearance’.

11-01-2009, 12:24 PM
The elk economy

In many respects, one could say that Yukaghirs' distribution of resources follows the sharing economy model. Thus, they run what Nicolas Peterson has described as a 'demand sharing' principle, where people are expected to make claims on other people's possessions, and where those who possess more than they can immediately use or consume are expected to give it up without expectation of repayment. This principle of sharing affects virtually everything from trade goods, such as cigarettes and fuel, to knowledge about how to hunt elk, but applies most forcefully to the distribution of game meat: 'I eat, you eat. I have nothing, you have nothing. We all share out of one pot', say the Yukaghirs.

When meat is shared in the forest among hunters, shares are put in piles according to the number of group members and everyone gets an equal share, irrespective of age and skill. Hunters say they own the slain animal collectively, because everybody has in one way or another applied his labour and skill to the hunt. It is the hunting leader who is in charge of the distribution. By recognizing and fostering a fair distribution of meat, the leader enjoys the authority to decide who gets what. Should he exploit his role as a fair distributor, however, the others will abandon him or another member will start to take authority and sooner or later be recognized as the new leader of the group.

Now, while all of this fits neatly into Woodburn's category of immediate-return societies, based, as it were, on the ethos of equal sharing and individual autonomy, the articulated egalitarianism suggests its other, 'hidden side'. Hunting groups are not financially self-sufficient units, but depend on donations of 'gifts' from wealthy sponsors in the form of fuel and ammunition. Whereas in pre-Soviet times these were mainly wealthy Sakha from neighbouring communities, during the Soviet period they were replaced by state farm deputy directors, policemen, or other important figures from the bureaucratic establishment, who would join the hunting group for a few days during holidays, either because they needed meat or for pure leisure. Today they are mostly Russian or Sakha businessmen from the regional centre of Zyrianka. The important point, however, is that their sponsorship of essentials is what enables hunters to carry on with their profession. Without the gifts of fuel and ammunition, hunters could simply not afford to go hunting. Although hunters usually share meat in a spirit of equality and no visible signs of hierarchy or interpersonal dependency are apparent, the burden of indebtedness is nevertheless present along the margins of the transaction. This becomes visible in those rare but awkward moments in which a wealthy sponsor demands a larger or better part of the meat, arguing that after all he was the one who waged the expedition. Hunters will then bow their heads in humility and offer the sponsor the meat, because a relationship of dependency hitherto 'hidden' is now made painfully manifest. At this point a change of vocabulary takes place. Sponsors, who had previously been referred to by the kinship term brat (Rus. brother), are now addressed as Khozyain (Rus. Master), a term that, as we shall see, has echoes in the invisible economy of spirits.

What we want to bring to attention here is that sharing and reciprocity are not manifestly different forms of exchange, as many writers on hunter-gatherers would have it. Such an understanding reflects the type of epistemological organization that we criticized above for its conceptual stability and wholeness. There is instead a case for understanding every moment of sharing as a limit-case in itself: both itself (sharing) and something other than itself (reciprocity). This means that any attempt to characterize the elk economy as a sharing economy is bound to fail because sharing and reciprocity are expressions of one unitary appearance. The visible side of the egalitarianism of sharing is defined and takes texture against an invisible background constituted by hierarchical relations of exchange and dependency. The ongoing debate about the egalitarianism vs stratification of hunter-gatherer societies is in this light reframed from an 'either stratification' or 'no stratification' paradigm to a situation where both egalitarianism and stratification carry each other as invisible moments of their visible manifestations.

The sable economy

While the ethos of sharing is foregrounded in the elk economy, the right to ownership and to accumulate stand out in the sable economy. On the most basic level, this difference is reflected in the fact that, unlike game meat, the furs from sable and other fur-bearing animals are considered the private property of the individual hunter. Indeed, the role of the hunting leader in sable hunting is not that of a sharer of resources, but a steward of the individual's right to the bounty of his land and labour. Thus, if a hunter from within or outside the hunting group starts placing traps within another person's trap-line or another group's territory, it is the leader's role to settle the matter before it develops into physical fighting. In previous times, such conflict over access to trapping grounds led to killings and even warfare. Today, such violence is mostly apparent in relation to predatory animals, most notably the wolverine, which, if caught stealing from hunters' traps, is tortured to death on the grounds of 'theft'. However, while hunters conceive the wolverine as an enemy and competitor, occasionally a kind of 'silent trade' develops between the two parties, in which gifts of sables and other goods are left on the forest trails to be picked up by the opponent – gifts that bear a message of peace and friendship and thus of the potential of all social encounters to become something other than what they are.

The source of all imported consumer goods are Russian and Sakha fur-traders. They belong for most part to the fur company 'Sakhabult', which has monopolized the republic's fur trade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Yukaghirs see these traders as unpredictable and extremely unreliable, for they are subject to everything from the vagaries of the weather to government regulations and inflation. Moreover, the traders are generally conceived as immoral and greedy beings, who give away things in a spirit of self-aggrandisement or profit and who use the seductive power of their goods to keep hunters in a constant state of indebtedness. Often hunters do not know if the furs they give are in payment for last year's goods, an advance on the next, or both at once. The traders, it is said, take delight in playing tricks on hunters by providing them with poor-quality products or outsmarting them of their furs by getting them drunk. It is for all of these reasons that hunters refer to them as 'children of the devil'. The devil's (Yuk. Yioodeiis'ien'ulben) character is said to be that of carelessness, having no feeling of concern for others, but being simply obsessed by satisfying selfish and voracious needs. Importantly, Yukaghirs also consider the devil to be the same spirit as the master of the animals (Yuk. Lebi'-po'gil), whom Jochelson places among the highest of benevolent beings and who is said to feed his 'human children' generously without asking anything in return. In the context of trading, this reversible image of the devil, as not only evil but benevolent too, plays itself out during the exchange of furs for consumer goods. Here the trader is addressed as a compassionate 'friend' and a 'member of the family' (Willerslev & Ulturgasheva 2007: 87). Indeed, at times a hunter may offer his 'friend' large quantities of furs without demanding anything in return, as he would do with close kin. What this points to is that in an environment in which supplies of consumer goods are unpredictable and notoriously unreliable, the desire for goods and the need to establish social bonds with traders are not incompatible goals. It is also the reason why Yukaghirs say that 'a rich man is born in debt' and 'the more debts a man has, the richer is he regarded'. The point is that 'debts' and 'sharing' can only be said to carry (negative or positive) reciprocity within the compass of a so-called 'visible' economy. It is only when one neglects the effects of their shadows that one can speak about a co-relation between kinship distance and reciprocity, as does Sahlins in his 'sector model'. The moment one takes the shadow into account, the various forms of reciprocity become co-implicated in a potential reversible movement.

30-01-2010, 12:32 AM
The hunter becoming the hunted

When arriving in the forest, Yukaghir hunters often address the master-spirits of the rivers and places where they go hunting as 'fathers' and 'mothers' and refer to themselves in this context as the 'children' of the spirits. They will, for example, say: 'Mother, your children are hungry and poor. Feed us as you have fed us before'. Hunters believe that the animal spirits in their nurturing capacity are obliged to share their abundance of game with them, in much the same way as fellow humans who possess resources beyond their immediate needs are obliged to give them up. This notion is reflected in the fact that, although hunters often praise the goodness and generosity of the spirits before going hunting, they hardly ever thank them after a successful hunt. Thus, from their viewpoint, the spirits are doing no more than they should do when they provide them with prey. Moreover, whenever hunting luck fails, hunters will swear at the spirits, in much the same way as fellow humans who are not willing to share are openly accused of being stingy.

This analogy between Yukaghirs' relations with spirits, activated during hunting, and their relations with fellow humans, activated in the sharing of meat and other goods within the village, could be interpreted as an integrated system, an all-embracing 'cosmic economy of sharing.' This is what Bird-David (1990; 1992) proposes in her comparative study of how hunter-gatherers and cultivators relate to their natural environments. She makes a two-front distinction: hunter-gatherers tend to represent their forest environment as a 'parent,' who gives them food in abundance without expecting anything in return – what she labels the 'giving environment' (Bird-David 1992: 28); cultivators, by contrast, link the environment to 'ancestors', who give their bounty only reciprocally, that is, in return for favours rendered – what she calls the 'reciprocating environment'.

Yukaghirs' relation with their spiritual environment is not, however, as straightforward as Bird-David's account allows for. As already pointed out, for them benevolent and evil spirits are not separate beings but reversible figures. A story that an elderly Yukaghir woman told to Willerslev makes the point:

Our friend Igor caught a strange fish. I've never seen anything like it. It was singing with different voices. I got scared and told Igor to put it back into the river. So he did. That winter, he had great luck in hunting. I believe he took more than fifty sables and God knows how many elk. They just came to him time and time again. The next year was the same. The animals kept coming. However, he did not notice that, in line with his good luck, his own son got worse and worse. He [the son] kept to himself and looked increasingly depressed. In the end, he went and hanged himself, and you saw for yourself how the father died shortly after, while hunting in the forest. Khozyain (spirit master) was in love with him and wanted to live with him. This is why it sent him prey in over-abundance. Khozyain could then go and kill him and drag his ayibii back to its house.

In a sharing economy, people have the right to demand that those who possess goods beyond their immediate needs give them up. With regard to the hunter-spirit relationship, this means that, as long as an animal master-spirit possesses prey in plenty, the hunter is entitled to demand the spirit to share its animal resources with him, and the spirit for its part is obliged to comply with the hunter's demands. However, if the wealth divide between the two agencies becomes displaced, their respective roles as 'donor' and 'recipient' would be inverted, and the spirit would now be entitled to demand the hunter to share his resources with it. Such a changeover of roles is exactly what happens in the story cited above: the spirit provides the hunter with prey in over-abundance, and the latter takes all the animals 'offered.' As a result, he comes to stand out as accumulating a surplus of animal souls. This in turn gives the spirit the right to demand the hunter to share with it, and asserts its claim by striking him and his son with sickness and death, so that it can then drag their ayibii back to its dwelling place. Thus, the spirit deliberately manipulates the principle of sharing to put the hunter in the position of wealthy donor, which justifies it in going and 'demanding' his soul. An urge for reciprocity therefore underlies the ethos of sharing, which hitherto remained invisible but which now becomes dangerously manifest. It follows from this that the 'environment as giving' and the 'environment as reciprocating' cannot easily be polarized (cf. Bird-David 1990: 191). Rather, in this case, reciprocity is derived from the shadow-limit of sharing. Sharing constitutes the 'premise' of reciprocity, the condition of its possibility. Yet, reciprocity also constitutes the impossibility of sharing, because the moment the switch from one to the other occurs, we are no longer dealing with sharing as such, but with a different kind of economic constituency. This switch appears to be characterized by what we call a 'reversible movement': the two transaction-regimes constitute reciprocally the shadow-limit of each other, mutually enabling themselves to move beyond what they appear to be on the surface.