International Scientific Conference "Archeology of the Arctic"
November 19-23, 2017

The North-East end of Eurasia: a potential for the historical and ethnographic study.

M.A. Chlenov

The State Classical Maimonides Academy, Moscow



Until recently the historical past of the Dezhnev promontory and the Bering Strait islands appeared rather vague in the eyes of the researchers. The discovery and the study of the  Uelen and the Ekven burial sites seemed to have offered lots of materials for the study of the early stages of the sea mammals hunters, presumably the Eskimo, culture. However, the Dezhnev Cape itself remained, and still is, practically untouched by the archaeological research.  In recent years there were a number of serious studies of the Naukan Yupik language, the Eskimo toponymy of the whole region, the recent and modern history of the Naukan people.  At the same time there are still lots of gaps in the study of the ethnography, the social organization, linguistics, ancient migrations, contacts between the different languages speaking communities of the indigenous population groups of the region, both the various groups of the Eskimos and the Chukchi. One of the unresolved problems is the place of the Naukan, their language and culture in the total structure of population of the Bering Sea Eskimos. Until recently the most popular concept presumed the existence of a common "Asian-Eskimo" language with three dialects. However it has been proven linguistically untenable. The Sirenik language was, apparently, a remnant of some third branch of the Eskimo family alongside with the Yupik and the Inyupic languages. While the place of the Naukan within or outside this triad is still unclear:  is the Naukan, in the same way as the Chaplin one of the dialects of the "Asian-Eskimo" language, or the Naukan was one of the peripheral languages of the Alaskan "central Yupik group"? The latter seems more plausible, however this has not yet been confirmed linguistically. Resolution of this difficult linguistic classification problem is, in fact, directly related to the problem the Naukan people origin. The available today pool of linguistic and folklore data points to a relatively late origin of the Naukan ethno-cultural group as a result of migration from Alaska to the Dezhnev cape territory. Some historical facts provided grounds for a cautious hypothesis about the possible recent use of the central Yupik languages also by the Diomede and the King Islands populations. In that case the Naukan language may be considered to represent an extreme western element of the linguistic tradition migration from Alaska across the strait.

Today however the Bering Strait islands, as well as its eastern mainland coast, are populated by the Inyupic language speaking Eskimo groups. The Inyupic languages expansion to the  Bering Strait coast took place already in the historic time, even though it was rather poorly studied, this can still be done.  It is possible that the linguistic and the migration shifts were related to the emergence of the yet practically unresearched trade route connecting  the Anyuj fair in the Koluma estuary and the British factories in the Mackenzie delta from the end of the 18th century. This route was serviced not by the Europeans but by the aboriginal ethnic groups - the Eskimos, the Indians, and the Chukchi. Apparently this early modernization of the social and economic structure of the aboriginal society had serious consequences manifested, inter alia, in various migrations and shifts in the ethnic and the linguistic map, Finally, one more practically unexamined community is represented with the Chukchi groups of the north-east end of Eurasia forming the majority of today's indigenous population. It appears quite probable that the Chukchi language speaking population came to the region in the late Middle Ages, partially as a result of the strengthening of the Russian pressure, and, in part, following the dynamics of the Chukchi nomadism tradition and the accompanying territorial expansion. This expansion lead to the formation of a special ethnic group of the coastal, or the seaside Chukchi, who pushed out or, rather, assimilated the local Eskimo Chaplin language speaking population. We may take it as a proven fact, that the Eskimo population, the so called Masigmit, was in part merged with various clan groups of the Naukan and the Chaplin populations, and, in part, assimilated into the Mechigmen, Uelen, etc. Chukchi groups. 

The relatively recent study rather unexpectedly demonstrated that this assimilated by the Chukchi Eskimo  population between the Dezhnev cape and the Providence Bay spoke the so called Chaplin language, and not the Naukan as was implied earlier. It became clear now that the Naukan language was spoken only on Dezhnev promontory itself without penetrating deeper into the Asian mainland coast. This conclusion in itself allowed to  look at the development of the whole Bering Strait area, including the  Saint Lawrence island from a different angle. Today the possibilities of the ethnographic study of the indigenous population of the Bering Strait area are quite limited because of the intensive indigenous population acculturation processes. Nonetheless not all is lost yet. It is still possible to find some oral evidences which may throw light on the social organization and culture of the Eskimos and, in particular, the Chukchi. The real study of the ethno-historical aspects of the rich folklore heritage of the Eskimos and the Chukchi has not  yet even started. The study of the Russian, British, and American historical archives has not been completed.  The potential for further study of the aforementioned issues of historical and ethnic past of the Bering Strait area have been far from exhausted. The inclusion of the north-east Eurasia into the protected natural and cultural zone would have helped in creating a practical basis for the continuation of this type of ethno-cultural research. 

Electronic versions of printed documents