The Altai Turks

©Edward J. Vajda


There are a number of tribes on the northern slopes of the Altai and Sayan mountains in south central Siberia who speak closely related Turkic languages. For the most part, these peoples are descendants of the ancient (non-Turkic) inhabitants of this mountainous area who mixed with various waves of Turkic speaking nomads beginning about 2,000 years ago.

In modern Siberia, several of these tribes are know collectively as the Altai or the Altai Turks. As an ethnic group, the Altai are divided primarily into two groups. The southern group is sometimes known as the Altai Kizhi (the word kizhi means "person" in Altai) after the largest of the four constituent groups; the remaining three are the Telengits, Telesy, and Teleuts). The northern group consists of the Tubalars, Chelkans, and Kumandins. Some scholars associate a group called the Bachat Teleuts with the northern Altai, but the Bachat Teleuts consider themselves a separate ethnos and do not use the Altai literary language as a standard form of communication. These Bachat Teleuts are sometimes associated with the Siberian Tatars, who did not coalesce into a unified ethnic group and who, as we have seen, are actually a collection of various Turkicized Siberian peoples scattered throughout Western and Southern Siberia today.

Because of the linguistic similarity among all the Turkic speaking peoples of southern and western Siberia, the Altai in the past were sometimes simply called Tatars or even, quite incorrectly, Kalmyk, or Oirat (the real Kalmyk, or Oirat are a Mongol people with a similar lifestyle but otherwise unrelated to the Altai; today they live in southern Russia, to the west of the Volga river). The above named tribal and clan divisions of the Altai are not important today due to the establishment of a common literary language and a common administrative territory, the Gorno-Altai Autonomous Region. There are more than 70,000 Altai today, about 80% of whom still speak one of the Altai dialects as their native language. The literary language is based mostly on the southern dialects, especially Altai-Kizhi.

The Altai tribes have lived in the northern Altai mountains for centuries, falling under the successive domination of many nomadic civilizations, from the Turks to the Mongols. Before the arrival of the Russians in the 17th century, the Altai were under the influence of the Western Mongols (the true Kalmyk, or Oirats, who are the ancestors of the Kalmyks living in southernmost European Russia today). After the wholesale Chinese destruction of the Western Mongols in the 18th century, the Altai area became the scene of major Russian-Chinese imperial conflict. In the 19th century, however, as China declined as a military power, the entire Altai area came firmly under Russian control.

Traditional lifeways

The Altai tribes were originally semi-nomadic taiga hunters and fishers. Turkic influence brought livestock rearing; the 19th century influx of Russian peasants brought more of a dependence on grain and vegetable farming, especially in the lower slopes. The chief means of transportation was the horse, which was ridden and used to pull sledges. Felt and saddle making were two locally developed crafts.

Women and men wore similar clothing, but married women wore a long sleeveless caftan called the chegedek. Some of the tribes who were less influenced by the Russians continued to make much of their cloth from homespun hemp. Men wore their hair in a pigtail, with the rest of the head shaven.

There was significant social stratification among the Altai before the 1917 revolution, the upper classes enjoying plentiful meat and western style bread (the upper classes were the families of Moslem bays). The poorer people, many of whom were not devout Moslems but followed their old shamanistic religions, ate porriges of grains and gathered wild roots and tubers. Cow's milk was used to make cheeses and sour drinks. One type of cheese, kurut, was smoked and dried in the sun. Mare's milk was used to make the fermented drink kumys. The hunting of game and waterfowl were important to the poorer Altai. Wood was the material from which most implements and vessels were made.

Traditionally, the Altai tribes were shamanists, believing in a host of nature spirits. The Altai sacrificed a horse during a special ceremony to their supreme benevolent deity, Ul'gen. In the late Tsarist period many Altai converted to Orthodox Christianity yet retained many of their shamanist practices.


©Edward J. Vajda


The Khakas (sometimes spelled Hakass, pronounced "huh-KOSS") are also Turkic speaking minority of Southern Siberia. Today there are close to 80,000, most of whom live in the Taiga regions on the northwestern slopes of the Sayan mountains in the Minusin Basin which contains the headwaters of the Abakan, Chulym and Yenisei Rivers. Because of their location, as well as their close linguistic relation to the West Siberian Tatars, before 1917 the Khakas were known as the Minusin, Abakan, or Yenisei Tatars. Many of the Khakas tribes, in fact, formerly called themselves Tadar. Before the 20th century these various Turkic-speaking tribes did not consider themselves a single nationality. The Khakas nation coalesced in Soviet times, when a standard, written literary language was developed and the artificial ethnonym "Khakas" was adopted (the word "khakas" apparently derives from hyagas, an old Chinese word applied generally to all peoples of the Minusin Basin; whether these ancient people were the direct forerunners of the modern Khakas, however, is difficult to say). The Khakas literary language is still in the developmental stage even today, with two main tribal dialects jockeying for dominance.

The Minusin Basin was one of the earliest inhabited areas of Siberia. Although Turkic, the Khakas are believed to contain ethnic elements of some of the ancient populations of the Minusin Basin, including perhaps even the Indo-Aryans (proto-Iranians) who developed the Afanasyevo and Andronovo cultures in the second millenium BC. Some Khakas groups also show evidence of origin from the pre-Turkic Ketic and Samoyedic tribes of this area, as well. The modern Khakas nation is derived from a union of several main tribes, each of which developed from a complex mix of Turkic and non-Turkic ethnic elements: these include the Kachin, Kyzyl, Sagay, Beltir, and Koibal tribal units--each of which had its own distinct ethnic origin development before coalescing into the modern Khakas nationality.


©Edward J. Vajda


The Shor, who call themselves Shor Kizhi (or "Shor people"), are a Turkic speaking minority of Southern Siberia who live to the east of the Altai tribes. Today there are about 16,000 Shor, most of whom live in the Taiga along the hilly fringe of the Altai Mountains. About 9,000 of the Shor still speak their native Turkic language.

Before the 1917 Revolution the Shor used separate clan (seok) names and had no unifying ethnonym. The name "Shor" was used by one of the most prominent clans and eventually extended to the entire ethnos. Before the Revolution, Russians called the Shor Mras Tatars, Kondom Tatars, Kuznetsk Tatars, and other names, each deriving from the location of the given tribe or clan. By the 20th century all of these separate tribes had mixed so much that they became a single ethnic unit. During Soviet times a standard written Shor language was developed for the first time.

The modern Shor seem to be mainly the Turkicized descendants of Samoyedic, Ugric (related to Hungarian), and Ketic peoples who lived thousands of years ago in the uppermost reaches of the Yenisei River. The process whereby the Samoyedic and Ketic tribes were displaced by Turks seems to have gone on for centuries, perhaps beginning as early as the first few centuried AD, during the time of the Hunnic Confederation. Although today considered a Turkic people speaking a Turkic language, the Shor display numerous cultural and linguistic peculiarities which tie them to the Samoyedic and even the Yugrian Khanty-Mansi of Northwestern Siberia. For instance, during the bear festival, the Khanty-Mansi construct a phallic symbol out of wood (the bear being one of the sacred male symbols). This is done by the Shor, as well, although it is unknown among other Turkic tribes. Also, Samoyedic and especially Ketic place names are evident over all of the territory presently inhabited by the Shor. The Shor shaman's tamborine also shows similarity to that of the present-day Kets. There may have also been ancient Indo-European influenc among the Turkic speaking peoples of the Altai and Sayan, as Shor and their neighbors seem to have fewer Mongoloid traits than the ancient Turks.

The Shor and other inhabitants of the Northern Altai had long paid fur tribute to their southern neighbors (Mongols, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, etc.); the arrival of the Russians in the 17th century simply led to a transference of this payment to a new overlord.

Traditional lifeways

The tribes who became the modern Shor were primarily taiga hunters and fishers. With Turkic influence also came a limited use of livestock, as well as an affinity for the use of iron in making tools and implements (skill in ironworking may in fact have existed already among the pre-Turkic Ketic population). The Shor mined and smelted the iron ore themselves (the northern Altai is rich in iron ore and even today supports a large iron smelting industry). Before the coming of the Russians, the Shor paid some of their tribute in the form of iron tools and weapons. The Shor also traded with their pastoralist neighbors to obtain livestock, felt, leather and other goods. The Shor were also agriculturalists, tilling the soil with iron hoes. Agriculture was more important in the lower slopes of the hills. Wheat, barely and hemp (for fiber) were primary crops. Hunting remained the primary occupation of the northern Shor clans, with reindeer, elk and other large animals the most important game.

Hunting retained its ancient, collective basis, with the game shared equally among the clan group. Usually, the men hunted in winter in nomad-like style, while the women stayed home and tended the children. Livestock rearing was never more than a rudimentary, secondary occupation (a fact which further underscores the non-Turkic origin of the Shor).

Whether agriculturalists or seasonal hunters, the Shor were predominantly a settled people. Most lived in log huts with several small wooden outbuildings. The Shor only changed residences when cropland was used up. In many ways, the Shor economy was not unlike that of the Slavic (i.e., Russian and Ukrainian) peasants of Eastern Europe.

Staple foods included wheat flour and barley groats. Horsemeat was considered a great delicacy among the common people.

Communication and travel in the taiga of the Northern Altai was extremely difficult because of the heavy annual snowfall and hilly terrain. Winter traveling was mostly on skis, with special poles used to maintain balance on the surface crust of ice. Boats were used along the rivers in summer.

The traditional Shor clan (seok) was exogamous and patrilineal. Each clan had its own territory and hunting grounds. Each clan had its own shamans. Shamans and other members of the tribe were traditionally buried upright in a dead tree trunk in an isolate part of the forest; the shaman's tambourine was left on the branch of the tree to rot away.

One curious feature of traditional Shor society was the ability to smelt ore and forge iron. No other native people of this region before the coming of the Russians possessed this ability, although metallic objects were widely revered as having a spiritual significance, and as such were incorporated into the shaman's costume among the Kets and other groups. Interestingly, the iron ore deposits in Shor territory were extensive enought to support a large industry in the 20th century. The capital of the Shor area is called Novokuznetsk, which translates from the Russian as "New Smithy."