Peoples of Baikal
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December, 02

Peoples of Baikal

The oldest man sites found in the Baikal region are about 25 thousand years. We cannot tell if these were the ancestors of the tribes that lived here later or not. Scientists still argue who constituted the indigenous population of Eastern Siberia.

However, we can look at the peculiarities of some nations living near Lake Baikal or those who once lived there.

Qurykan People

The renaissance of the culture of the qurykan people in the Baikal region fell to VI-X century. They settled from the Tunkinskaya to Barguzinskaya valleys, the union of qurykan tribes led a semi-settled or nomadic way of life. The main occupation was cattle breeding: they bred goats, camels and horses. Qurykans were also engaged in farming - plowing fields, in balcksmith’s business - making weapons, everyday items and tools. The cultural level of the people was very high: art and writing were developing, complex religious cults were present. The decline of the culture fell to the 10th century, when the Mongol tribes came to the Baikal region. Some of the qurykan people went to the North under pressure, and the remaining part mingled with Mongols and became the progenitors of Buryats.


Buryats constitute one of the most numerous nations living in Siberia. The former basis of their household economy was nomadic herding which gave food, clothing and felt for the construction of dwellings. Buryats bred sheep, goats, camels, horses. Agriculture was poorly developed, but after the arrival of Russians they started to engage in agriculture more actively, adopting the new neighbors’ plow and other tools. Men went fishing and hunting: in winter they hunted squirrel, sable, fox, otter, and in summer - elk. 

Blacksmiths made various items of metal. This profession was hereditary, blacksmiths were often shamans at the same time. 
Horses occupied a special place in the life of Buryats, because these animals were considered pure. They were used in the household not only as a transportation means. Horse-breeding products were widely spread: horse meat was considered the most delicious dish, hair was used for the manufacture of ropes and nets, leather served for sewing shoes. 

The quality of saddles and decorations on the horse served as a distinctive sign of the person’s solvency.

The basis of a traditional Buryat dwelling, “yurt”, consisted of easily transported latticed walls that were covered with felt and tied up with ropes. An entrance to a yurt has always been directed to the South. The insides of the dwelling were divided into two halves: the western one belonged to men, the eastern one – to women. The hotbed was placed in the centre.

Nowadays Buryats live in Buryatia, Irkutsk Oblast, Trans-Baikal Territory and other regions of Russia, as well as in Mongolia and China. Their population amounts to about 690,000 people.


The nation of Evenks was formed by mixing of the Eastern Siberian indigenous tribes with the Tungus tribes of the Trans-Baikal Territory. The tribes settled along the shores of Lake Baikal, rivers Angara and Lena and later moved on. Today Evenks live on the territory from Yenisei to Amur.

Ethnographers awarded Evenks with the nickname of “Taiga Gypsies” for their nomadic way of life: they move through the taiga in search of new places for hunting, transporting their light dwellings (“chums”) and all property on reindeer.

Evenks have been engaged in hunting, fishing and cattle breeding since ancient times. There were three basic types of Evenks (according to occupation): hunters “lamuchens”, reindeer-breeders “orochens” and horse-breeders “khamnigans”. Reindeer-breeding was well developed in all communities, anyway. Reindeer for Envenks are not just pets, but a symbol of prosperity and wealth of the family, the main means of transportation and a source of food. An old Evenki saying goes: Evenks are alive as long as the reindeer are alive.
Different cults have a great importance, Evenks are taught to respect them since childhood. For example, there is a cult of the bear, the owner of taiga, which obliges each hunter to kill only a strictly determined number of bears - otherwise the hunter may die soon.
Today there are about 77 thousand Evenks living in Yakutia, Irkutsk Oblast, Krasnoyarsk Territory and other places.

Evenks believe that the nature is alive, inhabited by spirits, and they definitely know where to stop – they do not cut more trees than they need, do not kill game without a need, clean up the place where there they set their hunting camps when they go.

A small semi-nomadic people - tofalars – live on the territory from Nizhneudinsky District to the North-Eastern slope of the Eastern Sayan Mountains. Their traditional occupations were and remain hunting and nomadic reindeer-breeding. These are skilful hunters and pathfinders who hunt different animals in different seasons: elk, red deer, roe deer, sable, beaver, fox, wolverine and other taiga animals.

The art of curing any sickness with herbs, as well as their habit to drink salted green tea all year round, distinguish tofalars from other peoples of the Baikal region. In autumn they usually pick up many Sarana flowers ((Lilium martagon) to dry them for winter, as well as edible roots, pine nuts, berries, ramson, rhubarb, wild onions.

Patrimonial pattern of tofalars’ life survived until the middle of the 20th century. A great importance in the public life belonged to annual December meetings of all families, “suglans”, that served to elect men to some positions and solve important problems.

Tofalars are one of the small-numbered indigenous peoples of Russia. Now there are only about 800 of them.

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