The Tuvans


East of the Altai, Khakas and Shor, on the northern slopes of the Sayan mountains which border the western part of Mongolia, in an area called Tuva, live a Turkic speaking nationality called the Tuvans, or Tuvinians. In the 19th century the Tuvans were sometimes known as the Uryankhai (pronounced "oo-rin-HIGH"), which meant "distant forest people." Because of their proximity to and long historic interaction with their eastern neighbors, the Mongols, the Tuvans speak a Turkic language that is heavily influenced by Mongol. Modern Tuvans are in fact descended from various Turkic speaking tribes with Mongol ethnic elements intermixed. The mostly Turkic and Mongol tribes who came together over many centuries to form the Tuvan nation also contain detectable remnants of the now vanished Samoyedic and Ketic peoples of Southern Siberia, especially among the northernmost, forest-dwelling Tuvans.

Like their Turkic-speaking neighbors to the west--the Altai, Khakas, and Shor--the Tuvans are a mixture of Turkic and non-Turkic ethnic elements who today speak a Turkic language (though the strong Mongol admixture sets the Tuvan language apart from the more westerly Turkic tongues). Like the other Altai and Sayan tribes, the Tuvans and their ancestors lived under the domination of successive steppe empires and confederations, from the ancient Indo-Europeans of the Afanasyevo and Andronovo cultures to the Turks, the Mongols, and finally the imperial Chinese and tsarist Russians.

Today there are nearly 200,000 Tuvans in the Republic of Tuva (adding to this the number of Tuvans in neighboring areas makes 235,000). Nearly all Tuvans retain their native language (such a high percentage is unusual for the native peoples of Siberia). Between 1921 and 1944 Tuva was nominally an independent country; in 1944 it was absorbed into the Soviet Union as an autonomous republic (unlike Mongolia, which continued to be independent throughout the Soviet period and still is). Today many Tuvans would like to cecede from the Russian Federation but hesitate to do so out of fear of starting a Chechen-style war. Most Tuvans live in the Tuvan Republic, but one group, the Todzhi, lives in Irkutsk Province apart from the others.

Traditional lifeways

The highland Tuvans were predominantly semi-nomadic hunters and reindeer breeders. In the lowlands and drier areas, livestock breeding was predominant. This is not surprising, since many of the ancestors of the Tuvans, beginning with the Hunnic expansions into Tuva over 2,000 years ago, were fully nomadic Turks. Some of the semi-sedentary Tuvans planted millet and barely (which has recently been replaced by winter wheat.) Tuvan dwellings include both the portable felt yurt of all the steppe poeples, as well as the conical pole and bark tent of the taiga hunters; finally, some Tuvans lived in Russian-style wooden cabins.

The traditional Tuvan dwelling, or yurt, was a felt tent supported by a wooden frame. Yurt construction was influenced by the Mongols. The northern Tuvan tribes, as well as the Todzhi and Tofalars (see below), lived in conical tents made of poles covered with bark. These dwellings are much more like those of the other peoples of the Siberian taiga, whereas the yurt is a product of steppe culture. The left side of the yurt from the door was considered the male side, the right side was the female living quarters.

Among the reindeer breeders, the reindeer were owned by each family unit and allowed to wander free for part of the summer, the calves were kept tethered near the family dwelling. Tuvans milked their reindeer and made various drinks from the milk. In winter, reindeer were also used as pack animals during the hunt.

In their well watered and forested upland environment, hunting and fishing remained of great importance to the Tuvans. The Tuvan hunter often rode the reindeer. The traditional weapon was the bow and arrow. (The modern Tuvan word for bullet, ok, is the old word for "arrow.")

The Tuvans were known for their manufacture and sale of reindeer felt, wood products, as well as iron implements and tools. Metalworking is a trade which goes back many centuries in most of the Altai region.

The Tuvans were also accomplished singers and musicians, and developed the famous "throat singing" where one person sings from two to four musical notes simultaneously. Tuvans also played a variety of musical instruments, including metal mouth harps (for women) and wooden ones (for men).

Unlike most of the peoples of Siberia, the Tuvans had modified their original shamanistic beliefs well before the arrival of the Christian Russians. The Tuvans, along with most Mongols, adopted the Tibetan variety of Lamaist Buddhism in the seventeenth century. (Lamaism itself was a mixture of Indian Buddhism and the shamanistic native Tibetan religion Bon, and this previous shamanist admixture apparently helped facilitate its spread among Mongols and Tuvans.) Religious Tuvans today are either Buddhists or, for a minority in the more isolated areas of the country, still shamanists.

The Tofalar

Closely related to the Tuvans and Todzhi are the Tofalar (or Tubalars), who number slightly more than 700 and also live north of the Tuvan Republic. The word Tofalar stems from Tofa (the same word as Tuva) plus the Turkic plural ending -lar. The Tofalars were formerly known as the Karagas (after one of the major Tofalar clans). The Tofalars, however speak a dialect that is not mutually intelligible with the Tuvan dialects; Tofalars are believed to be descended from several small groups of Ketic and Samoyedic hunters who adopted a Turkic language many centuries ago. Unlike other such turkicized groups who live in the vicinity of the Altai and Sayan mountains, the Tofalar lived farther to the north in Central Siberia, surrounded by Ewenki tribes; for this reason they coalesced by the 19th century into a separate ethnos. Today only about 300 Tofalar still speak their Turkic language.

Traditional lifeways

The Tofalar were and are wandering hunter-gatherers, who also use domesticated reindeer for transport (domestic reindeer were ridden and used to pull loads, but almost never used for meat). Pastoralism never seems to have been their way of life (as might be expected from a group living deep in the taiga who only recently acquired a Turkic form of speech). The Tofalar hunted fur animals primarily in the late fall and through the winter, while wild deer and reindeer were hunted all year around. Deer hide was the primary material for tent coverings and clothing. The hunting was chiefly man's work.

The traditional dwelling was the conical pole and hide tent, with wooden cabins later introduced by the Russian settlers. The left side of the tent from the entrance was for the men; the right side for the women (a feature borrowed from the pastoralist Turks). Since the 1970's the conical tent has no longer been used.

Like all the Turkic as well as the Ketic and Samoyedic peoples (except the Nenets), the Tofalars were patriarchal. Traditionally, the Tofalars were divided into eight great clans, and each person reckoned descent to one of eight male progenitors (patrilineal reckoning). Studies show that some of the clans were originally Samoyedic, others Ketic. But all of these languages have been replaced by the Turkic Tofalar.

Men as well as women among the Tofalar could be shamans. Each shaman kept amulets in the form of various plant and animals which were thought to be inhabited by spirits who, through the entreaty of the shaman, helped heal sick tribesman.