The Nganasan sagas

Gennady Porotov and Ignat Uksusnikov in their hunting hut. Taimyr Peninsula, Khatanga District, May 1987.

Andreĭ Aleksandrovich Popov (1964:579) introduces us to the epic tales (ситаби) and historical legends (дюрумэ1) of the Samoyedic-speaking Nganasans on the Taymyr Peninsula, which evince important links to their neighbors (Turkic-speaking Yakuts and Dolgans, North Tungusic-speaking Evenks, other Samoyeds like the Nenets/Nentsy2):

The epic tales are usually very long; it often takes several evenings to tell them. The description of the situation in which the action takes place is narrated, while the dialogue between the personages is sung, the storyteller singing in on voice and not trying to differentiate the personages as he sings, just as the Yakuts and Dolgans do. The heroes of the epic stories are warriors with bronze or iron armor, silver or brass helmets and belts; they are named after these parts of the clothing. The epic tales usually begin with the phrase: “And so our word went out, traveled for a long time and came upon a tent” or “a man,” after which the narration begins. The plots of the epic tales are very complex and usually tell of the struggle of warriors of good spirits with warriors of bad spirits, the cause of the dispute usually being women. Tales of cannibals (sigiye) and of the adventures of the clever man and the trickster (dyayku) are common.

The numerous historical legends deal with the wars of the Nganasans3, usually against the Nentsy and Evenks. Some are very close to the so-called Olenek Khosun epic, common among the northern Yakuts.


The metal equipment caught my eye.

Khlobystin (2005:185) relates how the Nganasan were smiths of some repute into modern times:

In spite of the declining metal industry and the state of Nganasan smithcraft noted by Popov (1948:72) at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Nganasan were reputedly the best blacksmiths on Taymyr and preserved traces of rituals related to metalworking. There is a story by the Nganasan shaman Dyukhadie Kosterkin of how he became a shaman. A critical part of the story is related to a blacksmith who acted as one of the masters or deities, nguo, and who literally forged a good shaman out of Dyukhadie (Popov 1936:90-93).

Some deeper prologue:

Häkkinen (2012:95) argues for a familiarity with bronze metallurgy at the linguistic level of Proto-Uralic, highlighting the telling compound word *äsa-wäśka (‘tin/lead’ [sic?]4, i.e., as in the bronze alloy produced in the eastern part of the Seima-Turbino world, where the Altai was the source of the tin). Proto-Samoyed has a cognate of Uralic *wäśka (‘copper/bronze’ after Hakkinen), *wesä (> e.g., Enets bese ‘iron’, Nganasan bása ‘iron; metal’, Kamas basa, wasa ‘iron’: Viisto 2012:193), which it may have lent — if so, I presume somewhere in South Siberia — into Proto-Tocharian (Toch. A wäs ~ Toch B yasa ‘gold’: Kallio 2004).

Michael Fortescue (1998:180), while not chiefly an Uralic specialist, memorably sums up the push of Samoyedic speakers toward Taymyr as the beginning and end of what is “known with reasonable certitude” in Uralic migrational prehistory:

… a sizeable part of the ancestors of the easternmost Uralians, the Samoyeds, moved north towards the Taymyr peninsula from the upper Yenisei/Sayan region east of Lake Baykal at some stage, probably in a series of waves during the first millennium A.D. (cf. Krupnik 1993, 205, also Levin and Potapov 1964, 672).

Juha Janhunen (2009:63) caps the time depth of differentiation amongst the documented 6–9 Samoyedic languages at “perhaps slightly more than 2000 years ago”, which is consistent with this migrational timeline. He further speculates that Proto-Samoyed was the “dominant language” of the South Siberian Tagar culture (Janhunen 2009:72), which, from the most comprehensive set of 14C dates (Svyatko et al. 2009), spans the 9th c. BC–2nd c. AD; traditional dating: 9th c. BC–4th c. AD (see, e.g., Svyatko et al. 2013, after Gryaznov 1969 and Vadetskaya 1986).

Granting just the first of Janhunen’s contentions, bronze-working on Taymyr would considerably predate the spread of Samoyedic into the peninsula.5 This technology seems to have established itself in the north of the Krasnoyask Region as far back as the 2nd6 and beginning of the 1st millennium BC, dislocating its early history here from any of the direct linguistic forebears of the Nganasans (who probably do have a fair amount of genetic continuity — in the biological sense — with polar Central Siberian pre-Samoyeds).

Khlobystin (2005:181) sees metalworking as a “Ymiyakhtakh” (Ымыяхтахская культура)7 development that arrived in Taymyr and Arctic Yakutia from the Lena Basin, which he would connect further to the Trans-Baikal. The bronze-casters of Taymyr seem to have situated themselves in quite an expansive lattice of raw material linkages: Tin could be obtained from the Indigirka River Basin where ore veins and placers contain cassiterite deposits. Lead and bismuth were available from the Urals or the southern part of Central Siberia. Large deposits of lead are located in the Yenisey region.

In closing, I was surprised by the scale of mid-1st millennium BC production posited for some of these industries:

A rather thriftless attitude to abundant metal [AMK: at “Pyasina” sites] is suggested by the numerous drops and pieces of bronze, and also by the presence8 of a large bronze ingot (weighing 73.1 grams) made of twisted thread-like filings that were cut from a finished product and thrown away.

[…] Whereas an Abylaakh 1 crucible could hold about fifteen cubic centimeters of melted metal, the average capacity of crucibles at Ust-Polovinka was 120 cubic centimeters. Dwelling I at Ust-Polovinka contained at least twelve crucibles. Assuming that each was used just once, the amount of bronze produced was at least 1440 cubic centimeters, or about fourteen kilos9. This amount would have been enough to make 1400 arrowheads, or 1160 awls, or 700 knife hafts similar to those found at the site. With a Seim-type celt weighing on average 250 grams, fifty-six celts could have been manufactured. These calculations give a rough idea of the volume of bronze output of a site that consisted of just a single dwelling. The total output for the entire occupation of the Pyasina site at the mouth of the Polovinka River was about four times greater.


Image source: Alexandr Polyakov (honorable mention, World Press Photo, 1987: Daily Life: “Nganasan hunters”), via Russia Beyond the Headlines, courtesy of RUSSPRESSPHOTO.


Dolgikh, B.O. (1961). Mifologicheskie skazki i istoricheskie predaniya entsev [Mythological Tales and Historical Legends of the Enets]. Trudy Instituta etnografii AN SSSR, 66. Moscow: USSR Academy of Sciences Publications.

———, ed. (1976). Mifologicheskie skazki i predaniya nganasan [Mythological Tales and Legends of the Nganasans]. Moscow: Nauka Publishing House.

Fortescue, M. (1998). Language Relations across Bering Strait: Reappraising the Archaeological and Linguistic Evidence. London and New York: Cassell.

Gryaznov, M.P. (1969). The Ancient Civilization of Southern Siberia: An Archaeological Adventure New York: Cowles Book Company, Inc.

Häkkinen, J. (2009). Kantauralin ajoitus ja paikannus: perustelet puntarissa. Journal de la Société Finno-Ougrienne, 92: 9–56.

——— (2012). Early contacts between Uralic and Yukaghir. In Hyytiäinen, T., Jalava, L., Saarikivi, J., and Sandman, E. (eds.), Per Urales ad Orientem. Iter polyphonicum multilingue. Festskrift tillägnad Juha Janhunen på hans sextioårsdag den 12 februari 2012, 91–101. Suomalais-Ugrilaisen Seuran Toimituksia = Mémoires de la Société Finno-Ougrienne, 264. Helsinki: Suomalais-Ugrilainen – Société Finno-Ougrienne.

Janhunen, J. (2009). Proto-Uralic—what, where, and when? In Ylikoski, J. (ed.), The Quasquicentennial of the Finno-Ugrian Society, 57–78. Suomalais-Ugrilaisen Seuran Toimituksia = Mémoires de la Société Finno-Ougrienne, 258. Helsinki: Suomalais-Ugrilainen – Société Finno-Ougrienne.

Kallio, P. (2004). Tocharian loanwords in Samoyed? Etymologie, Entlehnungen und Entwicklungen. Festschrift für Jorma Koivulehto zum 70. Geburtstag, 129–137. In Hyvärinen, I., Kallio, P., and Korhonen, J. (eds.); with the collaboration of Kolehmainen, L. Mémoires de la Société Néophilologique de Helsinki, LXIII. Helsinki: Société Néophilologique.

Karaphet, T.M., Sukernik, R.I., Osipova, L.P., and Simchenko, Y.B. (1981). Blood groups, serum proteins, and red cell enzymes in the Nganasans (Tavghi) — Reindeer Hunters from Taimir Peninsula. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 56(2), 139–145.

Khlobystin, L.P. (2005). Taymyr: The Archaeology of Northernmost Eurasia (Vishniatski, L., and Grudinko, B., trans., and Fitzhugh, W.W., and Pitulko, V.V., eds.) Washington, D.C.: Arctic Studies Center, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. (Original work published by Nauka Publishing House, St. Petersburg, 1998, under the title Drevnyaya istoriya Taymyrskogo Zapolyar’ya i voprosy formirovaniya kul’tur Severa Yevrazii [The Ancient History of the Taimyr Polar Region and Issues of the Formation of North Eurasian Cultures].)

Krupnik, I. (1993). Arctic Adaptations, Native Whalers and Reindeer Herders of Northern Eurasia. Hanover; London: University Press of New England.

Levin, M.G., & Potapov, L.P., eds. (1964). The Peoples of Siberia. (Scripta Technica, Inc., trans., and Dunn, S., ed.). Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press. (Original work published by the Russian Academy of Science, Moscow, 1956, under the title Narody Sibiri [Peoples of Siberia].)

Parpola, A. (2015). The Roots of Hinduism: The Early Aryans and the Indus Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Popov, A.A. (1936). Tavgiitsy [The Tavgi]. Trudy Instituta antropologii i etnografii, 1(5). Leningrad: USSR Academy of Sciences Publications.

——— (1948). Nganasany [The Nganasan]. Trudy Instituta etnografii AN SSSR, 3. New series. Moscow and Leningrad: USSR Academy of Sciences Publications.

——— (1964). The Nganasans. In Levin, M.G., & Potapov, L.P. (eds.), The Peoples of Siberia, 571–586. (Scripta Technica, Inc., trans., and Dunn, S., ed.). Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press. (Original work published by the Russian Academy of Science, Moscow, 1956, under the title Narody Sibiri [Peoples of Siberia].)

Svyatko, S.V., Mallory, J.P., Murphy, E.M., Polyakov, A.V., Reimer, P.J., & Schulting, R.J. (2009). New Radiocarbon Dates and a Review of the Chronology of Prehistoric Populations from the Minusinsk Basin, Southern Siberia, Russia. Radiocarbon, 51(1): 243–273. http://doi.org/10.1017/S0033822200033798

Vadetskaya, E.B. (1986). Arkheologicheskiye pamyatniki v stepyakh Srednego Yeniseya [Archaeological Monuments in the Steppes of the Middle Yenisei]. Leningrad: Nauka.

Viisto, T.-R. (2012). Early Metallurgy in Language: The History of Metal Names in Finnic. In Grünthal, R., and Kallio, P. (eds.), A Linguistic Map of Prehistoric Northern Europe, 185–200. Suomalais-Ugrilaisen Seuran Toimituksia = Mémoires de la Société Finno-Ougrienne, 266. Helsinki: Suomalais-Ugrilainen – Société Finno-Ougrienne.


  1. Nganasan dyurume or khyunsere dyurume, ‘old accounts’, corresponding to the derechu of the Enets (Khlobystin 2005:174).
  2. It has to be added that Yukaghiric languages are only recently extinct on Taimyr, and their last speakers (the northwesternmost of all historically attested Yukaghirs) were evidently important participants in the 17th century fusions that led to today’s Nganasans (Karaphet et al. 1981).
  3. Khlobystin (2005:174–175) suggests more than just military themes: “In some dyurume or derechu, the main character is a hunter, morinde or morinchi in Nganasan and morede in Enets (Dolgikh 1961, 1976). Hunters sought caribou by stalking or battue (barricade or ambush hunting) techniques.”
  4. reconstructed as ‘tin/lead’ in Häkkinen (2012:95), echoing earlier ‘tina tai lyijy’ ‘tin or lead’ in Häkkinen (2009:27) — but I think this makes more sense as ‘[tin/lead]-bronze’, cf. ‘tin-bronze’ in Parpola (2015:297)
  5. I don’t want to be too dogmatic about this. Highly mobile craftsmen or traders — such as we have in the Seima-Turbino phenomenon and its aftermath — surely went many places without precipitating language shift. I will note that Khlobystin identifies “Seim type” artifacts even in and around Taymyr (2005:88–90;96;181;184).
  6. Khlobystin sees the stage set by the 2nd millennium BC climatic deterioration that spread tundra southward and caused the reindeer population to burgeon, allowing increased specialization on reindeer hunting.
  7. Khlobystin (2005:108) notes that the few human osteological materials associated with Ymiyakhtakh are remarkably heterogeneous — I side with him in suspecting it had “a complex, polyethnic composition”.
  8. at Ust-Polovinka?
  9. Thinking about the range of possible compositions and densities, 14kg has to be somewhat of an overestimate.
TwitterEmail