Georg Gmelin: the First Ethnographer of Baikal
© Фото: Первый Байкальский
August, 12

Georg Gmelin: the First Ethnographer of Baikal

The 310th anniversary of the birth of the talented German naturalist, botanist, ethnographer, researcher of Eastern Siberia Johann Georg Gmelin is celebrated on August 12 of this year. In addition, his book about the local residents of Lake Baikal was strictly forbidden in tsarist Russia...

300 years ago, scientists could be characterized by an incredible scope of knowledge, without dividing the scientific field into separate topics. Gmelin was no exception and achieved excellent results in any industry that he was interested in back then.

He defended his thesis research in Medicine in Germany, having arrived in the capital of the Russian Empire as a Professor of Chemistry, joining the academic detachment of the Second Kamchatka Expedition as a botanist; when he described his travels throughout Siberia, Gmelin gained a reputation of a diligent historian, ethnographer, and outstanding writer.

Gmelin and the Second Kamchatka Expedition

Johann Gmelin came to St. Petersburg at the age of 18, in 1727; already in 1731 he became a full-fledged member of the St. Petersburg Academy in the rank of Professor of Chemistry and Natural History. A year later, the formation of the Second Kamchatka expedition began: the expedition was led by the legendary Vitus Bering. It was aimed at a comprehensive study of the distant Siberian and Far Eastern regions and the search for ways to Japan and America; it consisted of several detachments, including the Academic one - it had to study the Siberian resources, climate, and life of indigenous peoples. Gmelin spent almost 10 years on that trip.

During these years, he went along the route from Yaroslavl to Kazan, Tobolsk, Semipalatinsk, Ust-Kamenogorsk, Tomsk, Yeniseisk, Irkutsk and Yakutsk.

Gmelin in Irkutsk

There are no exact data on the dates of stay of Johann Georg in Irkutsk.

According to some sources, the members of the Academic detachment reached Irkutsk on February 18, 1735. Starting from here and going along the sleigh road, Gmelin, Miller, draftsman Lyursenius, translator Yakhontov and student Gorlanov crossed Baikal to get to Selenginsk. They spent spring and summer on getting acquainted with the lands beyond Baikal (Kyakhta, Chita, Nerchinsk); and travelers returned to Irkutsk in the last week of September.

Documentary evidence has been preserved about their stay in Irkutsk in the handwritten chronicle of the city: “The gentlemen Prof. Gerard Friedrich Miller, Doctor Ivan Georg Gmelin with attendants arrived in Irkutsk”. The document also provides information about their occupation: “Miller wrote out data from the archive and asked the old-timers about the things described by him, whereas Dr. Gmelin gathered herbs”.

Then Gmelin and Miller left Irkutsk to Lena and reached Yakutsk, but never reached Kamchatka. They returned to Irkutsk through the Kirensky prison - from that place they repeatedly traveled to the Buryat villages for the purpose of ethnographic observations.

The researchers finally left the city on August 2, 1738.

How Gmelin Studied the Baikal Region

Gmelin conducted incredibly diverse research in the fields of botany, geology, geography, history, ethnography.


Botany. Johann Gmelin spent a lot of time on studying Siberian flora and fauna; as a result, he published a the multi-volume work titled “The Flora of Siberia”.

Geology: During his trips around the Baikal region, he managed to collect materials on the geology and mineralogy of the Angara River; but I want to emphasize Gmelin’s interest in the issues of seismic activity on Lake Baikal that was expressed in the collection of information about earthquakes around the lake. J.G. Gmelin was the first to elucidate the manifestations of seismic events in the region before 1840s. In fact, he was also the first to record the impressions of locals on the earthquake as of October 1734 observed in the city and its surrounding, “on the heels of the disaster”: “The most powerful of these seismic events ... were perceived in Irkutsk: chimneys were knocked over and bells were ringing on their own”.

Modern scientists note that the data extracted from the notes of Gmelin make it possible to identify several earthquakes on the eastern coast of Lake Baikal that have been absent in modern catalogs.

Geography. The initial scientific image Eastern Siberia were formed based on the works of Gmelin. He described Baikal, explored the lower reaches of the Selenga River, followed the Angara up to Bratsky prison, having familiarized himself with the peculiar river rapids.

Ethnography. The main historical and ethnographic data obtained during the ten-year expedition were generalized by Gmelin in the four-volume work titled “A Journey through Siberia” that can be called his travel diary. That was where serious difficulties began. The author did not receive any official permission of the Russian authorities for publication, although he managed to convey a true picture of Siberian life to the reader; as one of the researchers wrote recently, “he depicted the Siberian way of life that was notorious for the incredible bribery of the tsarist administration that robbed local population - with his usual sense of humor”. The authorities considered the book to be “obscene” and containing “blasphemy against the Russian people and Russia”. The book was not translated into Russian.

According to the opinion modern ethnographers, “personal observations and data collected by Gmelin make it possible to consider him to a pioneer in the scientific study of the ethnography of the Evenki people”. The scientist described of their camps, raw-hide tents (chums), boats, lifestyle features, the process of making tattoos, and even military traditions.

The name of Gmelin in the Baikal region has been preserved not only in the surname on the gable of the Local History Museum, but also in the name of one of the most common trees of the Baikal coast - Gmelin larch (Larix gmelinii).

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