The Khanty and Mansi

©Edward J. Vajda


The vast central basin of the Ob River in the West Siberian taiga east of the Ural mountains is inhabited by tribes speaking languages distantly related to modern Hungarian. These tribes today belong to two ethnicities: the Khanty (pronounced "Hanty") and Mansi. Each ethnos is composed of several local groups speaking mutually unintelligible dialects. Together with Hungarian, these two language groups make up the Ugric (or Yugric) branch of the Finno-Ugric family. (The Hungarians also originated from the same area, the southern Ural mountains.) Today there are about 22,500 Khanty, fewer than 14,000 of whom speak any Khanty dialect fluently; there are about 8,400 Mansi but only about 3,000 of them speak a Mansi dialect fluently. Although the Khanty-Mansi are one of the more numerous of the so-called "Small Peoples of the North," the strong dialectal divisions between the various tribes have made it difficult to create and use a single Khanty or Mansi literary language. In fact, more than four Khanty literary languages have been created based on various dialects. This lack of linguistic homogeneity fosters the replacement of the individual Khanty-Mansi dialects by Russian.

Their Finnic neighbors formerly called the Khanty-Mansy Ugrians (from the Finnic Yugra). The Tatars to the south called them Ostyak (Ostyak is an old Turkic word, meaning "stranger" which was applied to all West Siberian forest peoples who did not speak Turkic). Up to the 20th century, the Russians called the Khanty the Ob Ostyaks and called the Mansi the Vogul, a word of unknown origin (possibly a clan name). The word "Khanty" derives from a clan name; the word "Mansi" means human being and is related to the Hungarian self-designation "Magyar."

Most Khanty-Mansi live in an area with a sharply continental climate, with several feet of snow for six months of the year alternating with humid summer warmth which brings floods and clouds of biting insects to the marshy forests.

Some of the earliest Khanty-Mansi seem to have adopted horsebreeding from the Indo-European peoples who became established in the steppe and forest-steppe areas of Western Siberia after 3,000BC (the early ancestors of the Scythians, Persians and modern peoples of northern India). Genetic studies of the Ugric peoples reveal a racial mixture of Mongoloid (presumably of Uralic ancestry) and European (from a more recent admixture with these Indo-European pastoralists). It is also likely that the ancestors of the Yugrians mingled with some aboriginal Mongoloid people (possibly related to the Yukagir), who already lived in Western Siberia at the time of their arrival.

One Ugric group related to the Khanty-Mansi, the Hungarians, migrated to Central Europe in the 9th century AD. Today there are 10 million Hungarians in Central Europe.

The ancestors of today's Khanty-Mansi, however, moved in the opposite direction--northward into the taiga. This was probably in response to the warlike Hunnic confederation and other such groups who moved through the steppelands. In the taiga, most Khanty-Mansi groups lost horsebreeding and returned to a hunter-gatherer-fisher economy. Khanty and Mansi folklore and folk art preserves numerous references to a horse-breeding past. Many motifs on their clothing also seem to have been borrowed from the early Indo-Europeans. Khanty tribes who moved farthest north borrowed reindeer herding from their Samoyedic neighbors. The culture of the groups in the far north differed from those in the southern areas located near the steppe zone.

Traditional lifeway

The economy of the bulk of Khanty and Mansi groups combined fishing and hunting with reindeer-herding (in the far north) or pastoralism (in the south). Tribes on the lower reaches of the Ob were primarily fishers, who set up summer camp near the banks of the Ob or its tributaries to catch fish, then moved farther upland for the winter. Fishing was of less importance in the upper reaches of the Ob basin. Hunting was primarily a winter pastime, and the killing of a bear (thought by the Khanty to be a totemic ancestor) was the occasion for a special ceremony. Ducks and other waterfowl were hunted in the spring. Dogs were used in duck hunting.

Reindeer herding, borrowed from the Nenets no earlier than the 15th century, was a secondary occupation, with herds very small. Family herds were rarely larger than 25-30 animals. Families combined their herds in the summer so that part of a group could pasture the animals, while the rest remained in summer camp to fish.

In the south, animal husbandry and farming were also practiced on a small scale (tribes there were semi-sedentary). Some groups planted barley and a few vegetables during their summer encampment. Others raised a few cows or horses, which were left to graze in summer by themselves. Even for people with livestock, hunting and fishing were the basic means of subsistence.

The most important foods were wild reindeer, fish, waterfowl. Several varieties of berries were also used. The Khanty-Mansi did not use salt in food preservation. Larch resin, which contains vitamin C, was chewed as a means of preventing scurvy.

Transportation was by dugout canoe along rivers. Reindeer in the north and horses in the south were used for overland travel. Dogs were also used to pull sledges loaded with supplies during winter hunting expeditions.

The Khanty-Mansi lived in log huts, using animal skin tents during winter hunting expeditions. Fires were kept lit in the huts even in summer as a protection against the swarms of biting insects. At the summer encampment each household had a barn built on stilts.

Each tribal group traced its ancestry back to a legendary male forebearer; thus, the patrilineal clan was the basis of social organization. Each group had its own dialect; there were also many designs and symbols used in clothing that distinguished one group from another. Mansi tribes were divided into exogamous phratries, with members of one group (or phratry) marrying only with members of another; in-marriage was considered a form of incest. This practice may have developed as a way of assimilating divergent groups (such as the Finnic, Indo-European, Ugrian elements and possibly aboriginal elements which formed the Mansi into a tribal whole). Among the Khanty, however, marriage was usually endogamous, that is, performed only within a single tribal group.

Among the Khanty, the position of women was inferior to that of men, who made most group decisions. A girl's consent was not asked for in marriage, the decision being made by the groom and his family. The bride came to live with the husband's family, her family received a bride price (kalym). The bride's mother played a key role in negotiating this bride's price, however. Sometimes the husband would stay with the bride's family to work off the bride price. Some ethnologists interpret this as an archaic form of matrilocal organization, thought to have preceded the current patriarchal arrangement.

Among the Mansi, women played a greater role in family affairs, and their position could not be said to be inferior to that of the men.

Religion was animistic and totemistic, with each group having a sacred totem. This totem could be an animal, or even a butterfly or birch tree. The totem was sacred for the entire group, and it was thought that all members of the tribe were blood relatives with every birch tree, or butterfly, etc. The bear was sacred to all the tribes, and an elaborate bear festival accompanied the killing of this animal. Effigies of ancestor spirits were invoked by the shaman before the hunt. (The shaman in Siberian religion resembles the Native American "medicine man.")

Of all the peoples of Siberia, only the Khanty-Mansi had their own native stringed instruments, including the naras-yukh, a type of five-string zither.

***NOTE: In these supplementary materials, you will be required to reproduce on tests those words which are given in bold-face type; underlined words, on the other hand, are non-English terms which you will not need to memorize and reproduce on the test.