Face Music - History of the Altai people

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P & C December 1998
- Face Music / Albi

- last update 03-2016

The Altai people – a Turk speaking, ethnically mixed people

Their tribes comprise mainly the Telengits, the Teles, the Teleuts as well as the Soyots (Tuvans) and Shorians (Khakas) settling in the southern Siberian area of today’s Russia.

They are an ethnically mixed people situated around the Altai and the Sayan Highland, in today’s South-Russian Gorny Altai, Altaiski Kray (Highland or Altai Mountains) as well as at the Upper Yenissei, in the Minusinsk Basin and its tributaries. They constituted a community of people being under Turk influence. They settled as nomads in mountainous highland valleya that were impenetratable for their enemies, living in stable residences, which they habituated in winter. They relied on farming, cattle breeding and alpine farming having summer and winter pastures. They shared close contacts with their neighbouring peoples up to the Pacific Ocean, with whom they entered trade relations.

The Altai people are Turk tribes, who claimed origins with the Ashina tribe – they themselves considered them as descendants of these legendary ancestors, whose ten boys had been raised – as the story goes- by a she-wolf. Asena was married to an Indo-German wife from the Turfan, and he lived with his family at the Tien Shan. According to legend, supposedly all Turk tribes go back to this first clan or family, ancestors with the Totemistic symbol of a wolf.

All Turk people share the belief that the holy she-wolf Asena (also Ashina) had been sent by the god Tengri (Heavenly god of the Turks) in order to save this people. According to legend, one of the ten boys was given the name A-Se-Na. They are connected with the ten tribes of the Onoks (ten arrows), from which the western part had formed a first Turk realm in the mountains northwestern of the Kao-ch'ang, which is being recognized as today’s Altai Mountains.

The rulers of the first and the second Turk realm had their origins in this family A-shih-na (or Asena, Ashina), an aristocratic family closely related according to the myth of descent. The wolf (old-Turk Böri) is today a rather Pan-Turk symbol. This animal is seen as a holy totem animal and is worshipped as their ancestor. In former times, it was called kök böri (Heavenyl or Blue Wolf). Among some tribes, however, it was taboo to utter the name Böri in relation with the animal.

The Altai Sayan Highlands and the Minusinsk Basin in Central Asia are adjacent to the Eurasian Steppe belt, which was settled by nomadic tribes. In this plane landscape with rivers, vast fields and a continental climate, conditions were ideal for cattle breeding. Ever since the beginning of the Early Iron Age and the Bronze Age, nomads have settled in these steppes (grassland)
see stepp map. These steppe peoples did not, however, have their own script, which is why information on these civilizations has to be deduced from archaeological studies.

Bronze Age – until 1200 B.C.

Andronovo culture is an archaeological culture prevalent in the first half of the 2nd millennium B.C. in South Siberia and Central Asia (2100 – 1400 B.C.).

In South Siberia and in Kazakhstan, the Andronovo culture was followed by the
Karasuk culture (1500 – 800 B.C.), which is, one the one side, considered non-Indo-European but rather Proto-Iranian, and, on the other side, is still exotic. The Karasuk culture (named after the Karasuk, a left tributary of the Yenissei river) was predominant at the end of the second pre-Christian millennium at the Central Yenissei, near Minusinsk in today’s Khakass territory in southern Siberia.
The settlements usually comprise fewer than 10 pit-houses arranged around a central spot. It cannot be excluded, however, that the settlements were partly used for some seasons. Economy was dominated by livestock breeding, as animal skeleton findings from settlements show. Findings from settlements furthermore show that there was also practised the art of bronze and copper metallurgy.

It is rather difficult to determine an enormous geographical distribution of such groups. In the west, these share frontiers between the rivers Volga and Ural with the territory of the
Srubna culture having its appearance more or less at the same time. In the east, they reach as far as the Minusinsk Basin (region Krasnojarsk – Abakan), thus being situated partly within the territory of the Afanessievo culture (3500 and 2500 B.C.), which had developed earlier on. Further settlements are distributed to the very south, e.g. in Kopet-Dag (Turkmenistan), Pamir (Tadshikistan) or in Tian Shan (Kyrgyzstan). The northern frontier is situated at the southern beginning of the Taiga. But south of the Oxus (Amudarja) there cannot be found any such burial findings or such rather rare ones. Excavations, which may be associated with this Afanassievo culture (see map), are predominately found in the area of Minusink and in the region Krasnojarsk in southern Siberia, in the south neighbouring Tuva and in the Altai mountains, but more frequently in western Mongolia, northern Xinjiang as well as eastern and Central Kazakhstan. Connections with Tajikistan and the area of the Lake Aral may also be existent.

Tuva – Tannu-Tuva was an independent state in Central Asia between 1921 and 1944, located between Mongolia and Russia. The history of the Tannu-Tuva (or Tuva, as they are nowadays called) is a rather diverse one. In 1207 the region was conquered by Genghis Khan and subsequently ruled by the Yuan dynasty. Thereafter, Tuva had been ruled by Mongols and Kirghiz until the region was incorporated into the Chinese Empire in 1757. In 1911 the Chinese Revolution led to the secession of Outer Mongolia, including Tuva. In 1914 the Russian Tsar expanded his realm by incorporating Tuva as a protectorate.

- further information on the Khakas people and Khakassia
- further information on Andronovo, Srubna, Afanassiewo und Karasuk culture please find under Bronce Age until 1200 B.C. and the tribes see “History of the Horsemen Nomads

Tujekta-Bashadar-Pazyryk culture – Northaltai

During the 8th –7th centuries B.C. the populations around the Altai (South Siberia – Republic Altai, Tuva, and north-western Mongolia) are considered to have been a united cultural-political unit. In the first half of the 6th century B.C. profound changes took place. The southern areas of the Altai became a single unit with a centre in the north-eastern region and were of the Tujekta-Bashadar-Pazyryk culture. The tradition of erecting deer stones and kheregsur pottery disappeared north of the Sayan and Altai region as well as in Mongolia during the 6th century B.C. The appearance of new handicraft may be accorded to the immigration of militant nomadic clans from Asia Minor at the end of the 7th or the beginning of the 6th century B.C. Parallels point to a relationship between immigrants in the Altai and a Gordion population in the region of Anatolia. Gordion was the capital of the Phrygian kingdom and lay to the southwest of today’s Ankara at the Sangarios River – today’s Sakarya. An elite of these immigrants probably hailed from Gordion or the surrounding regions. They occupied the fertile valley of the Altai. Burial mounds are located along the central Altaic route (the Chuyskaya Road) that leads through the Altai from east to west as well as from north to south. Clans from Central Asia or Asia Minor brought new handicraft, pots with long necks, incense cups, bridles with bits, weapons forged of iron and decorated with gold inlays, tools whose heritage can be accorded to Assyrian handiwork, jewellery with depictions of animals (lions, griffins, fantastic animals etc. – see jewellery plaques) and lotus motifs (see Ornaments 1 und 2). Finds from the first half of the 6th century B.C., weapons and tools of iron, also indicate a connection to Asia Minor. A military, strongly connected group formed a new community in which the elite of the diverse population previously located here was formed a new in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. Their ethnogenetic image was probably even more complex than it has been previously described. Relationships existed with the people settled in Southeast Kazakhstan and more distant regions within the Central Asian region and China. On the basis of these arguments, archaeology must incorporate the history of this area even more into its research. Was there an affinity between the then immigrated nomadic clans that could be descendants of the Cimmerians (1) of Asia Minor? After they had arrived, did they commingle with the local Maiemir tribes that occupied this region before them and forge an independent community? Did only one ruling elite make out this Pazyryk culture during 6th through 2nd century B.C.?

  • (1) Cimmerians: 8th and 7th centuries before Christ
    An Indo-European riding people that according to Greek authors like Herodot lived on the Cimmerian Bosporus (today’s Strait of Kerch) between the Crimea and South Russia and in North Caucasus. Aristeas of Proconnesos first mentioned these nomadic people (Cimmerians), inhabitants of the steppes on the north shore of the Black Sea. The Cimmerians were banished from their tribal area by the encroaching Scythians in the 8th century B.C.. Following this they followed the sea boarder and entered Asia Minor. Several tribes came via the Caucasus. They then settled in Anatolia between the Mannai (kingdom at Lake Urmia) and the Medes (an old Iranian people).

  • Tagar culture from the 9th to the 6th century B.C.
  • Pazyrik culture from the 6th to the 2nd century B.C.

- further information on “Tujekta-Baschadar-Pasyryk culture

Early Iron Age – 1200 - 1000 before Christ

By the end of the 1st millennium B.C., changes in homogenous burial forms had taken place, probably due to immigrations of other civilizations. According to archaeological and anthropological data, cultural and ethnic mingling had occurred. Immigration into the central Yenisei area, the Minusinsk Basin and contemporary Tuva in the upper Yenisei introduced new shapes to clothing, jewellery and tools. It is believed that tribes from the west penetrated into what used to be the area of settlement for the Xiongnu (1) and the Rouran (2) at the time. It is possible that these new tribes invaded from the south and undermined tribes that had been settling there for a long time. It is the first time that collective burials appear. A cemetery found from the late Tagar culture (3) contained more than 100 skeletons in the same pit, many of which were incomplete, although all of them must have been buried at once (mass grave). In excavations, bodies were found that had been processed in some way, separated parts had been buried successively. Trepanations of a kind were also found (skull trepanation) , which can be attributed to the late Tagar culture at Kyzyl Kum from the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C. Trepanation rituals of this type were very common cults in the Central Asian area. Perhaps mutual spiritual beliefs and ritual routines were characteristic for such cults at the end of the 1st millennium B.C. It seems probable that the tribes who practiced these kinds of rituals are derived from the same genetic origin – as was discovered in burial objects, bodies and trepanations. These very old customs must have had at least some connection to the Bronze Age, and they extend back to the time of the Eurasian steppes, where similar ritual behaviours occurred in burials, i.e. where trepanations with soft-part removal, death-mask preparation and separation of body parts had been practiced. It is possible that similar world views and the idea of an afterlife promoted these types of burial traditions in the steppes. According to finds in southern and western regions in Siberia, it appears that in north-western Mongolia and Central Kazakhstan amulets were produced from human skulls, as can be seen in finds in the northwest of Mongolia, in Tuva, in Central Kazakhstan and around the Altai.
Trepanations were common at the time. The death cult associated with burial objects was a common tradition within nomadic societies. There was a material relationship between the deceased and their descendants (ancestor cult). Parts of the skullcap were processed into amulets or otherwise worn as keepsakes to remember the dead. Primarily, this was a ritual of major importance where skulls were connected to an ancestor cult and where a tradition including death masks, embalmment and mummification was pursued. Skulls were used for rituals associated with these death cults or to intimidate defeated enemies. Decapitations and subsequent skull representations served as proof of a victory over the enemy. These trepanations were found in the
Saglynskaya culture in Tuva and in the Pazyryk culture (4) in the
High Altai, and they can doubtlessly be interpreted as a sequence in rituals including embalming. The trepanations in Ulaangom, Mongolia, and examples from Central Kazakhstan had either been performed intravitally (i.e. on living persons) or post mortem (on dead bodies). Decorated skulls were popular burial objects.
Processing and mummifying the dead seems to have been a widely common phenomenon in South Siberia in late prehistorical times. Mummified bodies were found in tombs of the
Pazyryk culture of the High Altai. Evidence of burials from the last period of the Tagar culture and in the Minusinsk Basin has been identified as such. Various forms of mummification with practices of a secondary burial were common in South Siberia and in a late period of the Scythian era. The term “Scythian world” (5) was coined by a group of archaeologists to define civilizations from the 7th to 2rd centuries B.C., referring to tribes who predominantly stayed in steppes, in forest steppes, on hills and in mountain valleys. Finds in Ukraine, Siberia, central Kazakhstan, Mongolia and the northern part of China included similar pit constructions with burial objects.
Uyuk culture in Tuva, named after the river Uyuk, where first scientific excavations in tumuli were evaluated, was also a civilization of the Scythian-world type. It was located on the way between Abakan and Kyzil. Handcrafts from this Scythian time found in burial sites show that here in this highland steppe a pastoral economy was pursued on a semi-nomadic basis, with winter and summer pastures (as in the Alps). The necessities of life were complemented by hunting and gathering. Fighting (war) played an important role within societies, as revealed by a great variety of weapons used as burial objects.
The Uyuk culture was accompanied by two other civilizations from this Scythian era, the Pazyryk culture in the west and the Tagar culture in the north. These cemeteries were used by the tribes who settled here for several generations. First burials originate in the Bronze Age, while more recent burials can be dated back to the 18th century A.D. A majority of burials are part of a Scythian time, the largest percentage being from the 3rd to 2nd centuries B.C. Finds can be ascribed to a
Hunno-Sarmatian (Tashtyk – 6) time ranging from the 1st century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D. Mummified bodies were found in burials of the Uyuk culture, the Pazyryk culture of the High Altai and the Tagar culture in the Minusinsk Basin. Archaeologists have declared them as part of the Scythian culture (era). This is a civilization similar to the Eurasian-steppe, semi-nomadic civilization regarding its spiritual world views and economic customs (husbandry and agriculture). In this Scythian World, weapons, harnesses and handicrafts were influenced by the “Animal Style“ (5). Other components like habitation, burials, ceramics, objects of daily use and jewellery had minor differences. As a result, one cannot speak of a single Scythian civilization but has to accept various differences, as a family relationship to “Eurasian” tribes existed. Neighbouring tribes were involved in similar material and spiritual world views while retaining a regional originality. It would be more appropriate to speak of a Scythian epoch. These tribes settled in the Eurasian steppe zone in relatively monotonous and forest-free landscapes, the ecological preconditions of which were the same in the distant steppes of Hungary in the west and in the planes of Mongolia in the east. This grassland shared borders in the north with Eastern European forests and the Siberian Taiga. Further east, these steppes are bounded by the Caspian Sea, Lake Aral and the Kazakh sand desert. The Pamir and the Altai-Sayan Mountains constitute south-eastern borders. Furthermore, this Scythian World was no Central Asian state but rather a loose confederation of nomadic tribes and their clans. The clans and tribes date back to the first recordings in chronicles by the Saka, the Hsiung-nu and the Huns as well as the Hunan-Sarmats (Tashtyk) forming associations in the last millennia before and after Christ. The Hsiung-nu or Xionites (Red Huns) settled in the Central-Asian and Mongolian area, the Saka and Hephthalites (White Huns) settled between the Altai and around the Lake Aral, and the European Huns (Black Huns) with Attila settled originally in the Caucasus. The Rouran settled in the Altai region. These as well as other tribal associations in the entire steppe area did not have any ethnical fundaments. They formed great multi-ethnical and political confederations, an association of clans led by a leader. Such associations also included the Indo-Europeans, the Old Turks and the Mongols, who were always in conflict with the Chinese.

  • (1) Hsiung-nu – Xiongnu – 3rd century B.C. until 4th century A.D.
    More information, also on these Altai tribes, please find under Hsiung-nu - Xiongnu
  • (2) Rouran (Ruan Ruan – Juan Juan – Quryqan)
    Comparable pre-historic findings, excavated around the Lake Baikal, may be attributed to the predecessors of the
    Yakuts, the Quryqan (Rouran), settling at the same time as the Xiongnu in the Altai area.
  • (3) Tagar Kultur culture from the 9th to the 6th century B.C.
  • (4) Pazyrik culture from the 6th to the 2nd century B.C.
  • (5) Skyten World - more information Animal Style and “Archaeological findings of the steppecultures – Iron Age
  • Scythians (Saks – Sauromats – Massagetae): 8th to 3rd century B.C
  • Sarmats – Sauromats: 6th century B.C. until 4th century A.D.
  • (6) Hunno-Sarmatian Period (Tashtyk): 1st century B.C., until 2nd century A.D.

- further information on the tribes see “History of the Equestrian Nomads

In the first centuries A.D. the corpses were replaced by dummies filled with grass, which were also clothed. In some cases, these corpse representations were also embroidered using Chinese silk. The head was made from leather, with a death mask put on, the surface of which was then painted. The cremated bodies of the deceased were then filled into the dummy. The Koryaks (1) in Siberia manufactured a replica of the dead person from dried grass and placed it in his house, aiming to soothe the Kala (an evil spirit) in order to not inhibit the transmigration of the soul. A similar custom existed with the Samoyeds (2) and the Ostyaks (Khanty people – 3). The dummy was dressed and decorated just like the dead person. Dummies were treated in this way and stored for six months after the person’s death. The Yakuts, too, knew these dummies (4), in which spirits could be captured or dead souls could live.

  • (1) Before the Russians arrived, the Koryaks lived in patriarchal large families. Among them were both nomadic, reindeer-breeding groups and resident groups who lived on hunting and whalehunting.
    The Koryaks are a people on the peninsula of Kamchatka in the far east of Russia.
  • (2) The term Samoyedic peoples (Samodi peoples, Samoyeds, Samojadj) comprises the peoples, populations or groups of people who used Samoyedic languages in history or in the present. If combined with the linguistically related Finno-Ugrian peoples, the proper generic term is Uralic peoples or the Uralic family of peoples. The Samoyedic peoples include the Nenets (Yurak Samoyeds, Yuraks), the Enets, the Nganasan (Tawgi Samoyeds), and the Selkup. The latter are the remaining southern Samoyeds who lived in parts of central and southern Siberia until the 19th century. Some of the ancestors of the Kamasins and other Siberian Turkic peoples were related to the Samoyeds. The Mator (or Motor) were a Samoyedic ethnic group that perished during the 19th
    The Nenets live on the Yamal Peninsula and in the northeast of the European part of Russia. The Nganasan or Tawgi and Awam Samoyeds include only about one thousand people. They live between the lower Yenissei and Khatanga Gulf on the peninsula of Taymyr.
  • (3) The Finno-Ugrian ethnic group of the Khanty (former name: “Ostyaks”) speaks a Ugrian language that is part of the Finno-Ugrian branch of the Uralic languages: the Khanty language, which can be divided into four dialects. Along with the Mansi people, they are referred to as Ob-Ugrians, and they are the indigenous population of their region. In linguistic terms they are the closest living relatives of the Hungarians.
    Initially being horse breeders from the upper Irtysh river, they became hunters and reindeer breeders and came into contact with Russians in the 11th century. In the 16th century, they fell under Russian rule. It was only in the 18th century that the Khantyzation of the Khanty began. Their cultural existence is threatened by the oil industry in the area..

    - more information on the Sami is found under “Fenno-Scandinavia (Lapland)”
    - more information on the indigenous peoples of Siberia: (see map -
    Indigenous People of Siberia)
    - a paper on indigenous people, small peoples of Siberia.

  • (4) Dummy – Human beings are inhabited by two spirits (souls), one of which affects physical procedures, while the other is responsible for the psychological ones. The latter turns into the spirit of death when somebody dies. In order to protect oneself against his stalking, human-like figurines are shaped out of wood, into which the shaman places the dead soul by magic before packing them into a small birch-bark bag. The bag is hung in a corner of the house and sacrificed to.

    The figurine of the former female shaman “Makyny-Kysa-Tynyraxtax Kägäi”, who has been playing a fury-like character ever since her death, is found in particularly many representations. She is carved out of wood and dressed in fur. Even though the shaman has banned her spirit into this dummy, it continues to be dangerous to touch this idol, which is usually put on the bar above the chimney, facing north. The wrath of this creature that should not even be named, the furor of this doll “Kys-Tangara” (“virgin goddess”), could erupt any moment to commit evil. Also, the Yakuts say that the spirit that is in every object presents itself in the object’s shadow.

- more information: Schmanisums (Tengerismus) in Mongolia
- more information:
Religion of the indigenous people of Siberia
- more information on the Yakuts see
Ornaments of the Yakuts

Kurgans were not only active cemeteries (morgues), they also had complex architectural structures reflecting artistic and cosmological ideas of a society. The Kazakh and Kyrgyz people buried their dead exclusively close to their winter fields. The Tuvans buried their dead in the area of mystical places because they believed in a traditionally rooted transmigration of souls (afterlife – rebirth). Clan members were therefore exclusively buried in domestic cemeteries that were built (in winter or summer) within the clan territories. There is to be found a variety of constructions and internal equipments including burial objects with these settlers in the steppes and in the forest steppe zone. This might be an indiciation of the fact that also nomads had solid winter houses in rather protected places, where the weather was of a less influence. Archaeologists encountering such Eurasian kurgans of the Iron Age have found out that large kurgans were mainly erected on higher positions on hills, thus being visible from far away. These systems of sites could have played a role, as these might have served as markers and points of orientation for nomadic tribes.

- more information on the Animal style and motifs of early Shamanism and Petroglyphs and motifs of early shamanism
- more information on the tribes see “
History of the Equestrian Nomads
- more information on the Archaeological findings of the steppecultures – Iron Age – 1200 until 1000 B.C.

A far eastern migration of a Finno-Ugrian speaking clan can be found at the river Ob, near the Ural. In West Siberia the
Samoyeds settled, hunters that speak a similar Finno-Ugrian language and live off of reindeer breeding. They practice a similar shaman cosmology that still exists today. The origin of the Sami therefore remains a mystery, even though the Finno-Ugrian language of the Sami can be associated with one of these Ural language families because they do not share the same genetic data with these Ugrian peoples. Studies confirm that the males are more closely related to the hunters of Siberia than the women, who mainly share a genetic code with the other peoples of Europe. Archaeological finds also show that the Sami rather belong to the indigenous peoples within Europe that settled here before the Indo-European clans immigrated. Blood studies show that they share a unique blood type A2 with the indigenous people of Polynesia in the Pacific!

see map of the
Indigenous People of Siberia

Archaeological finds have shown that contacts between the
Fenno-Scandinavian (Lapland) and the Siberian area existed in the first millennium B.C. A parallel basic knowledge of reindeer breeding existed in this northern area at that time. It seems obvious that mythological motifs can be found between the pre-Christian Sami communities and similar beliefs in the nomadic horse-breeding group in the eastern steppe. Finds contain such “Ruto” motifs (Sami Ruto cult). A mythological rider on a horse reigns over the world of the dead. Handicrafts from Scandinavia and West Siberia have confirmed such long-standing contacts. Reindeer gear consisted mainly of organic materials such as bones, wood or leather and was found well preserved in peat or permafrost. But reindeer breeding with large herds required new grazing grounds to have enough food. The development from a sedentary hunting community with the keeping of domesticated animals with agriculture and settlement structures could not be continued. These reindeer hunters had contacts with cattle breeding nomads, farmers and metal workers in the Eurasian and Siberian areas. They played an important role in influencing the transfer from gathering communities to field agriculture and migrations with large herds. Social similarities and ideological beliefs influenced each other over great distances.

- see map of the
east-west contacts with northern migrations with herds
- more information on the Sami is found under “Fenno-Scandinavia (Lapland)”

A stagnation in the development occurred in the time frames of 8th – 7th and 6th – 4th century B.C. that can be observed in the finds in the Altai. The
Maiemir tribes (8th – 7th centuries B.C.) were heterogeneous within their ethnic structure and generally buried their dead on the old cemetery or in rather shallow graves, orientating their heads to the northwest. They included clay vessels in the tomb. Horses were buried separately in pits next to humans. During this time, contacts had been established between the Altai tribes and the peoples of Central Asia and the Middle East. During the first half of the 6th century B.C., new burial rituals were established in the Altai, for example that of the Bashadar–Tuekta–Pazyryk Culture with great and small barrows (see example grave barrow with grave construcion). Nomads brought new rites and are probably ancestors of this Pazyryk Culture. In burials their heads were oriented east and for the first time weapons were found in the graves. Humans and horses were buried in the same pit and wood constructions protected them. Graves contained instruments in the shape of ships with long necks (see lute), bridles with cheek pieces, chariots (see chariot), jewellery and iron tools. These were similar to this kind of handiwork and burials in Middle Eastern grave finds with Animal style motifs. It should be noted that anthropologists found Europoid skeletons in the Altai for the first time, a type from Eurasia. Yet everything points to the fact that there are no cultural or genetic links to the early Altai cultures. However, similarities to the Gordion tumuli in Southwest Ankara were found in Turkey. These graves show parallels to the Altai graves and seem to be due to the immigrant clans from the 6th century B.C. Handicraft whittled from wood in the Animal style was made with the following motifs: stag, lion, griffin and geometric figures. These motifs were found both in Gordion and now in the Altai. It should be mentioned that the five largest Pazyryk kurgans found date back to ca. 455–406 B.C. so long before the great kurgans of Bashadar and Tuekta that were built between 590 and 570 B.C. The immigration of nomadic clans that were descendants of these Cimmerians from the Middle East therefore seems probable. They achieved sovereignty over these indigenous people in the Altai sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries B.C. Anthropologists have pointed out the presence of a Europoid human from the Middle East and Central Asia that is identical with finds in the Altai. The appearance of new clans could explain the changes to previously unknown rites in the Altai region. At the beginning of the 6th century B.C. the clans of the Medians and the Lydians banished the Cimmerians from Asia Minor after fights (between 610 and 585 B.C.). In this time frame they may have immigrated via the Eurasian steppes, Central Asia and Tien Shan into the Altai.

  • Cimmerians: 8th and 7th century B.C.
  • Pazyrik culture from the 6th to the 2nd century B.C.

- more information on “Tujekta-Baschadar-Pasyryk culture
- more information on the Animal style and motifs of early Shamanism and Petroglyphs and motifs of early shamanism

Their original community disappeared step by step due to the invasions of new tribes or due to migrations because of climatic changes and/or overpopulation. There were formed new clan federations between nomadic and settling communities in the 6th century, which was then interrupted by the rulership of Genghis Khan, who initiated the development of the Mongol Empire as the association of all Turk and Mongol tribes in the 13th century.

The history of the Turks and Mongols is rich in associations with federations or realms, which were never based on a national principle but rather effective and well-functioning, though in general rather short-lived. Federations or clans (söks) are united under the rulership of a leader or chief (Beks, Kagan, Zaisan or Khan) – a “leader chosen by god”. Reasons for such clan federations were external pressure, threats or attacks by other tribes. The formation of these confederations was intended to stop
these invading tribes. But also climatic changes or the population growth that entails increasing herds were the forces to search for new farming lands, thus causing huge migration waves. Such federations or realms were composed of clan associations, forming federations among tribes of the most diverse origin. The history of the nomadic stele peoples is full of such inter-groups wars and migrations. Such
“dynasties” or “confederations” constitute the central core of such federations under the rule of a leader; they did not, however, last permanently. Some, however, did succeed to prevail due to strong leaders and their descendants. In general, these associations or federations were rather short-lived and lasted for one or two generations. They were unities of confederations of clans; and within the history of the “Altai people” they can only be understood in the context of the entire Turk-speaking Mongolian concept. The clans formed the basic units of the population of the Altai, having self-identification and lasting for a long period of time. In their nomadic lifestyle they were all more or less identical, with their peak being the Turk influence in the 6th to 8th century with short-term expansion of confederations as far as the Pacific Ocean and the Danube River. In the course of the centuries they were able to develop a homogenous “clan pool”. While some regions at the western frontiers of the Turk-Mongolian territory were occupied by a Turk-Mongolian nomad population, the development of settling Turk people began to prevail.

Tribes formed a series of “steppe realms” between the 5th and the 8th century, being designated then as
Gök-Turks, Turkestan and Uighurs, this being “federations” reaching well into the 14th century. Many of these clans share relations with their neighbours and the “Altai people”, such as the Soyots (Tuva), Shors and ‘Yenissei-Kirghiz (Khakas people), settling in the near east in the Sayan Mountains and in the Minusinsk Basin, in the western area with the Muslim Kazakh (Kara-Kirghiz), the Uighurs in Xinjiang, and in the north-west with the Urianchai in what today is western Mongolia; also with the Yakuts (Sakha) settling at the Upper Yenissei and invading shortly before the rulership of Genghis Khan in the 12th century in two waves via the Baikal region into the Lena area, in this way forcing back Tungisic tribes (Evenks and Evens). Such population shifts may be traced rather far back due to archaeological findings.

At the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th century, the western “branch” was removed from Mongolian rulership and associated with Genghis Khan’s son Juchi and his descendants. They lost their integrity and became vassals of the White and the Golden Horde. At this time, the Golden Horde was already undergoing a process of Islamification, with the population becoming Muslims. The White Horde and the Dzungars developed into individual and independent confederations, with the Dzungars being prone to Buddhism.

  • The designation "Dzungar" was an inherited name of a military-political unity with the inclusion of the “Oirats” (the four tribes) having the meaning of “allies”. In this way, 400 years of rulership of the peoples of western Mongolia had its beginning with a “four-party-alliance (Dörböd Oirats = 4- Oirats): with the Dörböd, Dörbet, the Dzungars (Jüün Ghar – Ölöt, Eleuths), the Khoshuud,
    Khoshut and the Torghuud, Torgut.

The princes or rulers of the four tribes in part referred to different origins. The rulers of the Jüün Ghar, Dürbets and the Khoit shared common relations – their clan name was Khoros; the leaders of the Khoshuud claimed to be descendants of Jochi Qasar, one of Genghis Khan’s brothers, and the Torgut leaders even claimed to be descendants of old Khereid khans. Sometimes, there are even mentioned the Khot (dependent on the Dörbets) as well as the alliances with neighbouring tribes such as the Zakhchin – Dzakhchin, Bayads, Torguud (Torgut), Khoton – Khotan, Durvud – Dörvöd, Üzemchin, Dariganga, Darkhad – Darkhat, Myangat – Mingat and Mangits, and the Turk tribes, such as the Altai Uriankhai, Telengits, Teles, Teleuts (Altai people), Soyots (Tuva) and Shors (Khakas). They lived in portable round tents (yurts) and travelled the steppes (“grassland” between the Lake Baikal and the Baikal) as well as the steppes in the Mongolian area (Inner and Outer Mongolia) with their herds (horses, cattle, sheep, yaks and camels) – just like their ancestors used to do. They were united under Genghis Khan with the tribes of the Kheroids (settling between the Orchon and the Kherlen rivers since the 3rd and 5th century), the Naimans (tribe of the Sekiz-Oghuz) and the Merkits (settling in south-eastern Siberia). Of course, also the tribes of the Eastern Mongols, the Chalka, the Tschachhar and the Türmed, who had to suffer under Manchurian rulership for a long time, are to be included.

In the 17th century, the last elements of the traditional Turk-Mongolian society were Eastern Mongolia (Chalcha), later on a Chinese vassal, and the Dzungar realm, the ancestors of today’s Altai
people. The “Oirots” and the “Dzungars” are more a political than an ethnical term. The Zaisans (leaders) were also representatives of the gentry of other tribes of this Oirat alliance, with the Eke Jürge being the supreme legislative as well as executive authority of the Oirats (meaning allies). The Dzungars twice assumed the dominant position within Central Asia, for the first time between 1368 (
end of theYuan Dynasty) and 1456. Following the death of Kagan Esen, under whose rulership Dzungaria reached as far as the south of Tibet and Beijing, the supremacy of the Dzungar was lost. The second rise to power occurred at the beginning of the 17th century, with Kagan Khara Khula again uniting the Oirot tribes. During the rulership of his successors, Galdan (1653-1697) and Tsevan-Rabtan (1697-1750) they ruled over a large part of Central Asia (Eastern Turkestan), including Tibet and Mongolia, as well as the Upper Altai, Khakassia (Yenissei-Kirghiz – designating those, who have not left their settlements at the Upper Yenissei) and Tuva. A part of the tribe of the Teleuts became part of the population of modern Tuva. For this reason, they are also predecessors of the Altai people – the Teleuts were vassals of the Dzungars and later on also under Oirat rulership. During the reign of the two Kagans mentioned last, a huge part of the Teleuts and of the Kyrgyz tribes migrated towards Turfan, thereafter establishing the modern Kyrgyzstan (Kirgizia). In the year 1756 the Great Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) destroyed the Dzungar realm, killing and thus decimating the population. For several years, they had tried under Oirat rulership, with the best known one being Amyrsana, to resist Chinese destruction; they did not, however, succeed. Together with Teleut tribes and other Oirat tribes, they returned to the Upper Altai area (today Russia), which would protect the tribes against new Chinese attacks by way of a natural fortress. Some parts of the Oirots, the Kalmyks, migrated towards the Volga region. During the 100 years to follow, the people of the Altai lived in permanent war. Three quarters of them were murdered by the Qing Dynasty of the Manchu. Those surviving lost their integrity also on the level of clan identity (söks). Until late in the middle of the 19th century, they did not have Zaisans (leaders or council of elders) of their own. The Teleut tribes of the former Dzungaria are today called Urianchai (Mongolian for “people who do not speak our language”) and live in the north-west of today’s Mongolia near the border to Tuva and in China.

  • Yuan-Dynasty – after the collapse of the Tang Dynasty (906) China was split into several federal
    states for nearly four centuries. Foreign dynasties ruled the north, whereas the power and the
    influence of the Chinese Emperor of the Song were restricted to the south of the empire.
    Already in the 12th century, from 1127 on, the nomadic herdsmen of the Mongols gained more
    and more influence in the northern steppe and dessert areas of China. The zenith of their
    power, however, was achieved by the Mongols only in the 13th century under the rule of
    Genghis Khan as well as his sons and grandsons. At the same time, Kublai Khan is
    considered to be the founder of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

  • Oirats (Oirots) – 12th to 18th century A.C.
  • Dzungars – Eleuths – 17th and 18th century A.C.
  • Urianchai (Altai Urianchai and Tuva people)
  • Kyrgyz – 3rd century B.C. until 19th century A.D. (Khakas people and Mountain Kyrgyz / Kara Kyrgyz)
  • Manchurians – 17th to 20th century A.D. – their ancestors were the Jurchen people – 12th century A.D.

    - see more information on the tribes “
    History of the Equestrian Nomads

The Islamification of parts of the population, in particular the Kyrgyz (Mountain Kazakh) and the Uighurs, began in the 9th century, and in the 14th century the majority of the descendants of Genghis Khan became Muslims under Timur Lenk. The Oirat alliance, however, in spite of long-term inter-actions, did promote and support Shamanism and also Tibetan Buddhism (Lamaism). Clan federations existed until the 18th century, before the conquest by Russia and China.

  • Lamaismus, a branch of northern Buddhism, spread in the 7th century in Tibet. It did, however, never succeed to extinct the old Bon forms. The first contacts of the Mongols in the territory north of the Gobi with the religion of Buddhism, however, were realized in 1219, when the Mongolian general Mukali attacked the city of Lan Ch'eng in the province Shansi.

Until the middle of the 19th century, the nomads settling in the southern part of Siberia in the High Altai did not have much contact with the Russian Tsars. They were more considered as puffer zones between the Tsar realm and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). In the same period of time up to the middle of the 18th century, they formed – together with the Mongolian tribes - a loosely organized tribal association of the Oirat alliance with the Dörbets, Choros and Khoit (Dzungars). Because of internal problems, this Oirat alliance came to an end under the attacks of the Qing Dynasty (1750). This latter dynasty initiated devastating wars, as a form of punishment for some disloyal ones of their chiefs, which permanently changed sides. In the course of this war, the troops more or less entirely destroyed the population of these Oirat and Dzungar tribal confederations. The tribes fought for their lives, fleeing. They sought refuge in the Altai mountain valleys with related tribes, and asked for protection by the then Tsar Elisabeth as subjects. One Altai sayings goes, „I cannot know whether I will return to this county again, dead or alive“.

  • The Qing Dynasty was, apart from the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty, the second dynasty in China which had not been founded by the Han Chinese. It is based on the rise of the Jurchen people ruling northern China as Jin Dynasty (1125– 1234) and later on as Jin. In 1635 the Jurchen people changed their name into Manchu; and from 1636 on the dynasty itself was called Qing.
  • Dzungars – Eleuths – 17th and 18th century A.C.
  • Oirats (Oirots) – 12th to 18th century A.C.

    - see more information on the tribes “History of the Equestrian Nomads

Fleeing the Qing army into the Altai, the tribes migrated together with other tribes from Dzungaria into the Altai area. Those having fled, however, did not all belong to the Teleuts, and they were not all Turk. But they were granted the right of settlement and were “assimilated back” in tribe units. Maybe hundred years before their emigration, they might have been a coherent part of the population. They then formed a new unit with the Altai Kizhi (people of the Altai highlands) tribes together with the Telengits, the Teleuts and the Teles. In the time between 1756 and the 19th century, this crisis seemed to affect the inhabitants of the Altai region. After the shock of genocide following the conquest by the Qing army in 1756 those returning encountered then Russian settlers who farmed their pastures and farmlands. Excessive prices of Russian traders and high taxes issued by the new rulers forced those returning to find new settlements, thus promoting the collapse of the alpine farming and the social structures they had been used to. Furthermore, they were subjected to missionary works bringing about orthodox religion, which had their beginnings about 1820. Though being favourable towards the returning people, these had to adapt to these social and economic compulsory measures, such as, e.g., notifying authorities of permanent residence. With the beginning of the 20th centuries, the Altai people were still organized in independent societies that were self-producing and divided into several clans (söks), directing trading with the markets of their neighbouring peoples. They assumed an active role in the cultural and economic establishment of an Altai society. But the catastrophe of the Qing invasion and later on the Russian colonization destroyed their networks and clan identity. The population of the Altai highlands, of the Mongolian Altai (Kazakhstan), the Minusinsk Basin (Khakassia), north-western (Altai Urianchai), the Soyots (Tuva) and a part of the population of the former Dzungaria all originally had shared the same origin and union of clans with languages and traditions – they all have the same ancestors, as they are all "Kizhi". They lived together in the confederation of the “Oirat alliance” (four tribes), holding a Kurultai (assembly of delegates) in today’s Kosch-Agatch. This Oirot confederation – with all this traditionally linked Turk-speaking and proto-Mongolian consolidations were associated with an Ak Jang - White Faith (see more under Burchanism) having an ideology of their own with priests and Shamanism. Thereof, there have developed in the High Altai area the new and semi-autonomous republics Altai, Tuva and Khakassia within the Russian federation, which are also associated with the tribes in the north-western Altai, in Xjinjiang and in eastern Kazakhstan.

- more information: Schmanisums (Tengerismus) in Mongolia
- more information:
Religion of the indigenous people of Siberia
- see more information on the tribes “
History of the Equestrian Nomads

The inhabitants of the Altai, which are now called “Altai people“, were frequently also called White Kalmyks, Forest Kalmyks, Altai Tatars, Oirots, Sayans, Telengits and so on. These are about 30 to 40 tribes (söks), which are all related with each other. Although, originally, these groups had different languages, which may be traced back to the Turk, Mongolian and Finno-Ugrian family, the prevailing majority of the Altai inhabitants spoke a Turk language. With the beginning of the 19th century, within this ethnically and language-related mixed population there were developed two geographical groups: the Northern Altai people with the Tubular, the Kumandin, Chelkan and the Shors, and those in the southern Altai area: Altai-kizhi with the Telengits, the Teleuts and the Teles. These Altai tribes today also live in Tuva, where they form clans, and who also in earlier times had a confederation with
the tribes of the Urianchai living in the north-western Mongolian area. The unity of the Turks and Mongols, who have become members of these Altai tribes, however, has never mixed with those living in today’s Tuva, even though they belong to the same clans. Clans (söks) were patrilinear, exogamous entities of the clans, a very conservative structure of the Turk and Mongols living together: the names of many tribes may be traced back far in their history. This difference in special features is mirrored in the polymorphous nature, which is more deeply founded and more fundamental than such multi-cultural unities of societies in confederations. The present indigenous demographical conditions formed in the Altai area at the end of the 18th century, after the collapse of the Dzungar Khanate (1756), when a great number of different ethical groups fled Dzungaria into the Altai because of the destruction caused by the conquest by the Qing army. In the northern Altai, these immigrants developed a new group settling there - Altai Kizhi ("Altai people"). The returned refugees returned to their related tribes within the Altai region – thereby meeting their tribes of the Telengits, Teles, Teleuts, Soyots and Shors in the southern Russian Altai.

In the 19th century a Turk-speaking population formed in the Altai area, a northern population of hunters and gatherers, the so-called “Black Forest Tatars” (this is how they are called in concurrent Russian dialect), living in dense forests at the edge or out of the Oirat confederation, as well as a southern population, the Altai people (Altai Kizhi), who were nomads and cattlebreeders with pasture farming. The southern tribes (the “Mountain Kalmyks” according to old Russian recordings) were nomads with cattle herds, settling in the mountain valleys of the Altai; these also belonged to this confederation of the Oirat alliance up to the 19th century. There were also some neighbouring Turk-speaking groups such as the Tuvan and Khakas tribes, which are considered to be of the same language family. But neither the population in the southern Altai nor that of the northern part developed a subpatrinal line, and that in spite of shared sufferings due to destruction in the 17th and 18th century because of tumults and conquests. Orally transmitted stories narrate in songs of such military conflicts, sufferings and persecutions. On the other side, the old home country is praised as “the golden time”, when people were still able to live in peace and prosperity. Some epic stories tell of western Mongolian tribal leaders and also of chiefs, who had participated in such political and military conflicts; those were then praised as indigenous legendary heroes and protectors.

In 1476 the Russian Tsar Ivan III discontinued his tributes to the Khanate of the Golden Horde. Some years later, he encountered the Mongols moving along the Volga upstream – with arms prepared. The Mongols returned without any acts of war. In this way, the connection with the Khanate of the Golden Horde, the centre of power of which was situated in Sarai at the Lower Volga, was finally and permanently dissolved. The supremacy of the Tatars, which had been gained by Khan Batu and reached as far as Moscova since 1239, came to an end. Tsar Ivan IV the Terrible (1533-1584) ordered
the colonization of the western Siberian area. In 1558 he authorized the trading family Stronagov to establish settlements in the western Siberian area, to clear forests and to extract salt. With the help of the Don Cossacks under the leadership of Hetman (general) Jermak Timofejew they entered the river systems following the Ural Mountains together with the traders in 1581 – 1858 and conquered also the Khanate Sibir.

The first thing to build were defence settlements (sitsch) und military bases (staniza), forts for soldiers and their families, who were led by a captain (ataman). Later on, trappers, farmers, missionaries, banned traders and craftsmen were to follow. The trade with furs and the extraction of precious metals attracted people to migrate to this area, which is rather easy to be reached by waterways. When gold was discovered near Tomsk, this set the beginning for a quick economic rise, which simultaneously caused the suppression and partial extinction of the Siberian peoples, who were then collectively called Tatars.

Russification (1) had its beginnings at the right shores of the river Ob with the establishment of the settlement and the building of the prison of Kusnezk in the year 1618. Russification had to break the rather fierce resistance shown by the peoples (2) already settling there. Those suppressed had to pay tributes (jassak). By granting credits and by the introduction of alcohol, the traders further contributed to the impoverishment of the indigenous population. Christianization and combat of traditional Shamanism also helped. In order to build fortresses and prisons, workers were recruited from the indigenous tribes having settled there; also migrants were used.

People professing the Buddhist religion in lamaistic form (in contrast to the Islamic tribes such as the Kazakh or Kyrgyz) settled originally in the north-west of Astrachan. Only after years this former homogenous or nearly homogenous regional, cultural and ethnical continuity was destroyed by external influences – in particular because of the Russian Tsars and China several national states, republics or “national republics” were formed within Russia, China or Mongolia; the southern Altai of Siberia has now become a part of Russia.

Attempting to revive the past of an old home country with their independence by way of powerful leaders under the Oirat alliance, the Altai people conserve their desire and longing for such myths of a
“golden past” by way of epic narrations and stories. Under pressure of Russian rule, rituals and Shamanism, which were based on animated nature including ghosts and spirits, were prohibited, and representatives thereof were persecuted. So they indulged in sessions of worshipping ancestors and deities with semi-mythological heroes.

Stories and songs tell of powerful legendary heroes like Oirot-Khan, Amyr-Sana, Schunu (wolf) and Galdan-Tseren, heavenly deities like Uch-Kurbustan, Tengere, Erlik, Burchans as well as well-known warlords or leaders. They refer to their old home country during their independence, the socalled “Golden Altai” with eternal white mountain tops. Such stories and legends were presented on warm summer nights, on long journeys and rides, or they were celebrated on the occasion of events or meetings and gatherings. Although throat-singers (Kaichi) represent neither medicinal nor ideological power, they are more or less on the same level as Shamans, holding an important position within this Altai culture and belonging to the group of well-acclaimed persons. Some of them had contacts with the ghost world, who were then called “Eelu Kaichi“, these were story tellers, which were supposedly directly sent epic stories by the ghosts. The tradition of such story tellers and their representatives were provided with enormous competencies. The power of the “epic wisdom” has developed into a dominant element, opening up new ethnical ideologies for the Altai people.

© Albi – December 2012 – revised and translated into English by Hermelinde Steiner – March 2014

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