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

Peoples of the North and their impact of West Siberian landscape transformation.

V.N. Adaev

Institute of the North Development, SB RAS, Tyumen




The problem raised in the paper represents an interface between ethnic ecology,  ecological history, cultural geography and archeology. It seems that its practical relevance is best of all demonstrated within the ethno-archaeological studies framework.

For a long time it was generally assumed that the pre-industrial non-agricultural societies living in small groups could hardly have a significant impact on the environment. An American geographer K. Sauer was one of the first to demonstrate on the North American forest and prairies landscapes example what a significant role in their formation was played by burning out and grass fires practiced for centuries by local Indian tribes [Sauer, 1971. P. 282-284]. 

A study of this problem on the Siberian North ethnography materials may be both practicable and informative owing to a relative simplicity of the local population's life support systems, as well as the rather limited opportunities and needs to modify the natural landscape. Main motivations stimulating landscape modification activities of the northern peoples of Siberia included: improvement of the natural resources harvesting productivity; development of communication routes; creation of comfortable living conditions and strengthening security. Here we list the most common types of traditional occupations which could potentially have a transformational effect on the environment.

  1. The intentional grassland fires were used to clean the territory from "rubbish", as protection from spontaneous forest fires, to raise berries productivities in waterlogged areas and create the attractive for elks fresh burnt-wood territories. The burning out of territory was the largest in scale consequence with the significantly high probability of unintended fires which started as a result of careless fire handling practices.
  2. The hydro-technical works included building of canals, additional river arms, cut offs, deepening of the water course, artificial cutoffs creation on rivers, building of dikes, regulation of water level in lakes and 'sors', etc. The goal of all these actions was raising the fishing productivity, development and improvement of water transportation routes, prevention of uncontrolled spontaneous banks erosion.
  3. Excavation works were associated with the construction of houses and barns, arrangement of descent roads (including the ones leading to water), construction of protective dykes, middens and pit traps, leveling of the surrounding landscape, etc.
  4. Forest areas were cleared for building various structures, hunting devices, airing of the territory for fighting mosquitoes, for everyday works convenience, road building, etc.
  5. Reindeer herding contributed to changes of vegetation cover, trampling and soil erosion. The consequences could be aggravated as a result of excessive use of the same pastures for grazing.

Some types of activities (e.g. intentional grassland fires, hydro-technical works) were practiced by the indigenous peoples of Western Siberia only within certain rather limited territories. A significant role in this was played by the worldview attitudes supporting certain types of landscape transformation actions, or on the contrary, preventing such actions.




Sauer C. (К. Соер) Sixteenth century North America: The land and the people as seen by the Europeans. – Berkeley: University of California press, 1971. – 320 p.

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