An elite juridical lineage in Nanai foragers

Richard Zgusta (2015:149) sketches the migrations, transformations, and fluctuating fortunes1 of lineages grafted from outside food-producers onto the Nanai, historically non-agricultural sedentary fisher-hunters in the Khabarovsk and Primorsky regions of the Russian Far East—lassos for lines, equestrians to pedestrians. Some of these come to insinuate themselves into multiple “ethnicities” or народы.

One of the numerically largest lineages associated with immigrants from Manchuria are the Beldy. According to their oral traditions, their homeland was in the flat grasslands of the upper Amur basin where they bred horses. From there they gradually migrated with their horses via the Sungari valley toward the lower Amur. Discarding their horses in the dense lower Amur forests, they became fishermen following the majority population, and through marriage alliances and expansion they became a leading lineage among both the Nanay and Ulcha. They were also present in the Nivkh and Orochi ethnic composition, often including lineage segments associated with other ethnic groups such as the Kui segment of Beldy which is of Ainu origin (Turaev 2003: 23–24). Other Ussuri and Sungari lineages that trace their descents in part from Manchus or some other groups of Manchurian cultivators are the Ojal and Passar whose oral traditions mention agricultural and horse breeding ancestors (Levin and Potapov 1964: 697).

Especially interesting are how some “originally Manchurian occupational hierarch[ies]” maintain life in new bodies (ibid.:149–150):

The Zaksor lineage includes a group called zangin, the members of which are described as elite, gifted, intelligent, with oratorical skills, who act as judges among the Nanay and their neighbors. Shternberg (1933: 472–473) regards this upper class group a transplant of a Manchurian lineage structure. Many newly formed Nanay lineages in the middle Amur, and especially the Sungari and the left bank Ussuri valleys, trace their descents from unions between the Nanay, who colonized the region after its depopulation, and the Jucher, who were gradually returning from the Mudan river valley where they were resettled by the Qing government to their ancestral lands during the late 18th and 19th century (Turaev 2003: 26). Since the Nanay colonists were more populous than the Jucher returnees, the ethnicity of these unions tilted to the former, and they became known as the Nanay subgroup Akani, perhaps derived from the Nanay word akha ‘slave’ due to their subservient position in the Manchu-Chinese Qing state (Levin and Potapov 1964: 695).

There are a number of places to go from here: The quasi-shamanic aspects of zangin status (probably not what you imagined when you pictured a ‘judge’); the multidirectional links of administrative loanwords in the Russian Far East; other scenarios of food-producers losing themselves (if only in the sense of subsistence) among hunter-gatherers; attributed, hereditary status in sedentary fisher-foragers more broadly.


Zgusta, R. (2015). The Peoples of Northeast Asia through Time: Precolonial Ethnic and Cultural Processes along the Coast between Hokkaido and the Bering Strait. Leiden; Boston: Brill.

Levin, Maksim Grigor’evich, & Potapov, Leonid Pavlovich (eds.) (1964). The Peoples of Siberia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (transl. of Narody Sibiri, 1956).

Shternberg, Lev Iakovlevich (1933). Giliaki, orochi, gol’dy, negidal’tsy, ainy (Gilyak, Orochi, Goldi, Negidal, Ainu). Khabarovsk: Dal’nevostochnoe knizhnoe izdatel’stvo.

Turaev, V.A. (2003). “Etnogenez i ethnicheskaia istoriia” (Ethnogenesis and ethnic history of the Nanay). In Larin, V.I., & Turaev, Istoriia i kul’tura nanaitsev: Istoriko-etnograficheskie ocherki (History and culture of the Nanai: Historical-ethnographic outlines), pp. 19–36. Sankt-Peterburg: Nauka.


  1. Zgusta (2015:149): Although lineage names may be old, the lineages themselves do not go back beyond the 17th century and generally the larger and stronger ones are younger than the traditional ones that often appear only as sublineages or members of doha unions. Some Nanay lineages that had been reported as large and strong in the 17th century, such as the Cheu, Siecha and Bolo, no longer existed in the mid 19th century (Turaev 2003: 29). I wonder how long the zangin have held their special social position.
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