The Ket and Other Yeniseian Peoples

©Edward J. Vajda


The Ket are the sole survivors of an ancient group believed to have originally lived throughout central southern Siberia. Today there are about 1100 Ket living mostly to the east of the middle reaches of the Yenisei River. Their extinct relatives included the Kotts, Assans, Arins, Baikots, and Pumpokols, all of whom lived further upriver (that is, further to the south) than the modern Ket before being assimilated to the Russians or their Native Siberian neighbors during the 17-19th centuries. (The Assans merged with the Ewenki to the East; the Arins and Baikots merged with the Turkic Khakas to the south; the Kotts became Russified by the 1840's.) Only the most northerly group has retained their language and ethnic identity into the 20th century. Formerly called Ostyak, or Yenisei-Ostyak (from a Turkic word meaning "stranger"), the group is now known as the Ket, from the tribe's word for "person." At one time the northern group of Ket were also known by their tribal name Imbak, while one of the southern groups was known as Yugh (pronounced "yook"; often written "Yug"). During the 1960's it was discovered that the Yugh were a separate ethnos with their own distinct, though related language. The Yughs, along with their language, dissappeared as a distinct ethnic entity by the late 1980's, leaving the Imbaks as the sole remaining Yeniseian people. The Ket, as well as the Yughs and their extinct relatives are called Yeniseians by linguists and ethnographers.

Linguistically and anthropologically, the Ket are one of the most enigmatic people of Asia. The Yeniseian peoples are thought to be descendents of some of the earliest inhabitants of Central Southern Siberia, while all of their neighbors seem to be relative newcomers. DNA studies show affinities to the peoples of Southeast Asia (Tibetans, Burmese, and others) not shared by other Siberian peoples. The linguistic evidence is even more striking. The Ket language, still spoken by about 600 of the Ket, is entirely different than any other language in Siberia. (The extinct Yeniseian languages, which were recorded in the 18th and 19th centuries by European exploreres, were all fairly similar to modern Ket.) Linguists believe that a proto-Yeniseian language existed 2000 or more years ago. This language, in turn, may have been related to such far-flung languages as Basque in Spain, Burushaski in northern India, the native languages of the Caucusus, as well as Tibetan and Chinese. Some linguists see an affinity between proto-Yeniseian and such Native American languages as Tlingit and Navajo, as well. Recently, linguists have posited a superfamily called Dene-Causasian which includes Yeniseian as one of its branches. If all of these languages do stem from some common ancestor, this ancient proto-language might have existed 20,000 or more years ago. Studying modern Ket is essential for piecing together these ancient relationships.

The modern Ket are thought to have migrated to their present location on the middle Yenisei from some point closer to the Altai and Sayan mountains during the past 2000 years (where they were probably neighbors to the proto-Samoyeds. Ket legends tell of ancient migrations north into the taiga to escape fierce invaders. The legends tell of the tribe crossing a huge mountain range to escape the Tystad, or stone people. While we do not know who these stone people were (perhaps ancient Indo-Europeans), it is fairly certain that the mountain range in question was the Sayan mountains on the Russo-Chinese border. These Tystad may well have been some of the peoples who forged the early steppe confederations of the Huns (3rd century AD). Although the bulk of the peoples in these confederations are thought to have been Turkic speaking, there is some evidence that Ketic speakers were also represented--perhaps those who did not flee northward into the taiga were absorbed by the Huns. Once in Central Siberia, the Ketic tribes moved north again due to attacks by another fierce group, the Kiliki. These Kiliki may well have been the fierce Turkic Kirghiz (later called the Kazakhs) who rampaged through southern Siberia in the 9th century AD. By this time the Kets were far enough into the taiga to avoid trouble from the steppe nomads. In the Yeniseian river valley taiga, the Kets mixed with and probably displaced peoples related to the Eskimo. The term Yugh is the Eskimo word for "human being," which suggests that the Yughs are Keticized Siberian aborigines originally related to the Eskimo. There is additional evidence for this connection in a number of other Ket words, which seem borrowed from a language related to Eskimo.

Studying pre-Russian place names confirms the Ket belief in their southern origin, as do various Ket ethnographic details. Most of the river names in southern Siberia are of Ketic origin. Also, the clothing of the taiga Ket seems to have originally been developed for a more southern climate and later adapted to more extreme northern conditions. The Ket wore a type of loose-fitting robe or caftan unlike any found elsewhere in the northern taiga. Later, additions were made to the clothing which insulated it and better safeguarded against the extreme cold of the northern taiga. Ket men wore a type of scarf. There is also evidence that the southernmost Yeniseian peoples--the Arins and others-- had knowledge of iron smelting, and participated in livestock raising, features which the northermost Ket either lost during their migrations into the forest zone or never developed.

Culture of the Ket prior to Russification

The Ket, as the most northerly representatives of the ancient Yeniseian tribes, lived in the taiga and were nomadic hunters and gatherers. They began to come under Russian influence in the early 1600's.

The basic occupation of the Ket was hunting in the taiga. Squirrel pelts provided the most important trade item. Hunting was originally done with sharp wooden arrows tipped with a type of poison made from decomposed fish oil. The northernmost Ket also borrowed reindeer breeding from their Samoyedic neighbors, but this occupation always remained secondary to hunting and foraging. The Ket allowed their reindeer to wander during summer and kept them close to camp during winter. The northernmost Ket also hunted wild reindeer. During spring and fall great quantities of waterfowl were hunted. During summer the Ket gathered fish from the river and dug a type of wild lily bulb (sarana) from its banks. Dugout canoes were used for fishing. The Ket also kept dogs to help on the hunt. In the north, reindeer were used to carry loads when the group moved from place to place; the Ket also used their hunting dogs to carry small loads during the winter hunt (which the Ket performed on skis). Hunting and fishing were carried out on a collective basis, with a clan moving together from winter to summer lodgings; hunting and fishing equipment were owned by the group not the individual. The catch was likewise shared, with special renown going to the successful hunter.

The Ket, particularly those in the south, summered on a type of large, flatbottomed houseboat called ilimka. This item was borrowed via Russian contact after the 18th century and was not a part of prehistoric Yeniseian culture. In the warmer months, the Ket also built tipis called qus with conical pole frames and felt or bark covering. In winter the Ket lived in a sort of dugout made of earth and logs called banggus. During part of the winter the men were out hunting while the women and children stayed home.

The Ket were a patriarchal society, with women in a secondary role. The Imbat Ket were originally divided into two exogamous phratries which exchanged marriage partners. Marriages were arranged with a bride price being paid to compensate for the loss of the woman, who went to live with her husband's family.

Like other Native Siberians, the Ket were shamanists, with the shaman serving as priest and healer. The Ket believed that the whole world was populated by a multitude of good and evil spirits. The sky spirit, the male Es', was the embodiment of good, while his wife, the earth spirit Hosedam (or Qosedam), was the embodiment of evil who caused all sorts of sickness and misfortune. The shamans (sening) interceded between the human and spirit worlds. Reverence for the bear also played an important role in Ket belief. Also, each group had a totem animal which it was forbidden to kill. Ket shamanism is in most details very similar to that of their southern Samoyedic neighbors, the Selkups.

Ket buried their dead in the earth, along with personal possessions, which were broken up before being put in the tomb; sometimes dogs were also killed and placed with the deceased.

The Ket folk hero is Balna (a name which means "cherry stick") who is believed to have been an actual person of great strength who fought successfully against hostile neighbors. (Ket-Selkup relations were good and most of the fighting occured with the Nenets to the north and the Ewenki to the east.) The native folk instrument is a type of mouth harp called the pymel.

The Ket today. Today the Ket live in small, riverside villages and are no longer nomadic. They are nominally Christians, but shamanistic beliefs persist. Fewer than half of the 1100 Ket speak their native language with any fluency, while nearly all speak Russian. During perestroika (1988) an alphabet based on Cyrillic (which is the name of the Russian style of alphabet) was devised for Ket, and today the language is taught in the first three grades of the local schools, but it is losing ground to Russian in everyday life. There is increased intermarriage with Russians, and the survival of the unique Ket language as a medium of everyday communication beyond the next two generations is in doubt.