The Ainu

©Edward J. Vajda


The Ainu (from the word "aynu," meaning "person" in the Ainu language) are the aboriginal inhabitants of the Kurile (or Kuril) Islands, the southern half of Sakhalin Island, and Hokkaido, the northernmost of the four major islands of Japan. The first Russian explorers to visit Kamchatka in the 18th century also found a mixed Ainu-Itelmen population in the southern tip of that peninsula. In addition, place names across much of the northern part of Honshu (the main Japanese island) also indicate a prehistoric presence of the Ainu in this area. Some claim that the earliest cultures of Japan, notably the prehistoric Jomon Culture, which disappeared from southern Japan over 2,000 years ago, may have been non-Japanese and possibly Ainu or Ainu related. This remains unsubstantiated speculation, however, and the majority of specialists today are inclined to believe that the Jomon Culture was proto-Japanese. Whether or not the ancestors of the modern Japanese were already established in southern Japan more than 2,000 years ago, one thing is definitely known: during the past two millenia, the Japanese expanded their farming culture northward ever deeper into Ainu hunting and fishing territory; in doing so, the Japanese assimilated or drove out the land's original inhabitants (much as Europeans did in North America).

Today the Ainu as an ethnic group have disappeared entirely from the Russian held areas (Kamchatka, Sakhalin, and the Kuriles); the entire Ainu population of the Kuriles and Sakhalin was evacuated with the Japanese en masse to northern Japan in 1946 at the close of the Second World War. But something of the original Ainu culture and language does survive in northern Japan, and, as such, represents Japan's only aboriginal minority. The history of the Ainu resembles that of the Native Siberian or Native American: the hunter-gatherer Ainu were gradually pushed onto less desirable land by a numerically superior farming people; assimilation to the dominant culture was stressed. Today, some 16,000 people of mixed Ainu-Japanese ancestry (perhaps less than 1% of whom are full-blooded Ainu) live on Hokkaido, but the language is no longer used as a regular means of communication. Linguists consider Ainu to be virtually extinct, though some older people retain a knowledge of it (the last completely fluent speaker is reported to have died in the 1960's). Fortunately, there exist extensive tape recordings of the various Ainu dialects spoken in the recent past (the three main dialect areas seem, as might be expected, to be Sakhalin, Kurile, and Hokkaido). Study of these materials reveals that Ainu is not closely related to any other language (in other words, it is a language isolate, like Ket). There have been attempts to link Ainu to Nivkh, another Far Eastern language isolate, but they are inconclusive. If Ainu is related to Nivkh, Korean, or any other living language, the connection would be found only in the extremely distant past (perhaps over 10,000 years ago).

Anthropologically, the Ainu are equally distinct, showing no close genetic affiliation with any of the surrounding peoples. They have more facial and body hair than other peoples of East Asia, show a less pronounced epicanthic fold, thin lips, and more exaggerated eyebrow ridges. These features have led some observers in the past to the mistaken assumption that the "hairy" Ainu are close relatives of the European peoples--a Caucasian island in an East-Asian Mongoloid sea. This is definitely not true, as the Ainu are themselves of Mongoloid stock rather than Europoid. It would be most accurate to call them proto-East Asians. No evidence of actual Caucasoid expansion into Asia before recent times has ever been proven even east of the Transbaikal region, let alone in Japan.

The Ainu seem to have been sedentary fishers and marine hunters, much like the traditional Nivkh on the northern part of Sakhalin Island. No crops were planted, and the only domesticated animal was the dog. The Ainu language shows great numbers of words for all aspects of the salmon life cycle, as well as an intricate vocabulary for seals, whales, and other animals formerly hunted by the tribe. (Dogs were apparently trained to catch salmon during the heavy spring salmon runs.) One land animal that was hunted was the bear. The Ainu revered the bear as a type of god who came to people to deliver its meat. The killing of a bear and the preparation of its flesh for food was attended by elaborate and solemn rituals (as was true in traditional Nivkh society). These rites have come to be known as the "Bear Festival." Like the aboriginal peoples of Siberia, the Ainu were shamanists.

The Nivkh (Gilyak)

©Edward J. Vajda


The Nivkh live at the mouth of the Amur River and on the northern parts of Sakhalin Island. They speak a language not proven to be related to any other language, either in Siberia or anywhere else. Many features of the Nivkh language are unique, especially the number system (in Nivkh there are about seven ways to express each number, depending upon the shape of the object being quantified). The ethnonym derives from the word "nivkh" meaning "human being." Formerly the Nivkh were known as Gilyak, a name borrowed by the Russians from the Tungusic tribes who were the Nivkh's neighbors.

The Nivkh, like the Ainu, are thought to be a remnant of the aboriginal population of the Amur region that everywhere else was replaced by Tungusic tribes such as the Ewenki. Several features link the modern Nivkh to the ancient Neolithic inhabitants of the Pacific coast: a settled way of life based on fishing, dugout dwellings, fishskin clothing as well as dogskin clothing, and a religious cult related to the worship of the river. Among the peoples of the Pacific Coast, the Nivkh preserve these traits best and have passed some of them on to more recent Tungusic invaders from the taiga (for instance, the Nedigal and Nanai, who are Ewenki-related tribes and the Nivkhs' southern neighbors).

Today's Nivkh consist of two groups who speak nearly mutually unintelligible language forms. The Mainland Nivkh live on the lower reaches of the Amur River. The Sakhalin Nivkh live on the island of Sakhalin. Formerly, the Nivkh lived even in the southern part of the island. There is ample evidence to indicate that the Nivkh are descendents of the earliest Neolithic peoples of the lower Amur area.

Today there are over 4,500 Nivkh, but only about 1,000 can speak either dialect of their unique language fluently.

Traditional lifeways

The Nivkh were primarily fishermen and sea hunters. The most important economic event for them was the annual salmon run. The fish were caught in large L-shaped nets by groups of men. Other fish were caught with the help of a type of harpoon. The boats used in fishing were made of wood planks. The coastal Nivkh used large nets to capture seals; they also hunted larger animals such as sea lions with clubs and harpoons.

Hunting, which began in autumn at the end of the fish runs, was less important for the Nivkh than for other taiga peoples. At this time the Nivkh hunted bear with spears. The Nivkh used copper and silver for spear and arrow tips.

The staple food was fish, which was either cooked fresh or dried and preserved as yukola. A favorite dish was talkk, a salad of raw fish and wild garlic. Red meat was rarely eaten. Long before the coming of the Russians, the Nivkh had been influenced by Chinese culture and sometimes traded furs for tea, rice and other commodities.

The only domesticated animal was the dog, which was used as a draft animal. Dogs also provided fur for clothing. Domesticated dogs were fed on fish and seal fat.

Men's work included fishing, hunting, as well as making the tools needed for these occupations. The women cooked and processed the skins of fish, seals and dogs. Women also fashioned utensils out of wood and birchbark, gathered plant products, and took care of the dogs.

Nivkh villages were usually situated near the mouth of spawning rivers and rarely contained more than 20 dwellings. Hundreds of years ago, the Nivkh wintered in mud huts erected by placing a wooden frame over a dugout area of earth. Summer dwellings were more open, with fish racks covering much of the exterior. Later, under the influence of the Manchus (a Tungusic tribe who ruled China from 1644-1911), the Nivkh developed a type of wooden frame cottage.

Summer clothing was made of specially treated fish skins, especially carp. For winter clothing, seal skin and dog fur were the materials of choice.

The Nivkh were patriarchal and lived in exogamous clans. Some ethnographers have found evidence of a more ancient stage when group marriages prevailed and matriarchal relations were more prominent.

Nivkh religion was animistic. The mountains, trees and even the island of Sakhalin were considered animate beings with sentient spirits. Sakhalin was believed to be an enormous animal, its forests being the fur of this animal. When earthquakes rocked the land, the Nivkh believed that this huge beast was stirring. The bear was particularly revered (as among the Ainu). A clan would capture a bear cub and raise it to a certain age, wherupon they would ritually sacrifice it during a solemn ceremony that has come to be known in ethnographic literature as the Bear Festival. Dog races and communal feasting accompanied this important event. Afterward, the skull and certain other parts of the bear would be preserved in the clan storehouse. Shamanism was not elaborately developed among the Nivkh, and clan elders rather than shamans officiated at most ceremonies. The principal duty of the Nivkh shaman was to heal the sick.

Unlike their Tungusic neighbors (who buried their dead in the trunks of trees or in above-ground plank coffins), the Nivkh practiced cremation, burying the ashes in the earth. After the burial, the sled that carried the corpse to the place of burning was broken into pieces and the dogs who pulled it to the grave site were killed and roasted on a fire made from the wood of the sled. This was done to help along the celestial dogsled believed to be required for transporting the dead person's soul to the spirit world