Two Weeks with the Taz Sel’kup: Ethnoarchaeological Fieldwork in the West Siberian Taiga

Weat Sibirian Taiga
Fig. 1: Henny (left) and Tanja (right) in one of the Sel’kup boats en route on the Taz River to our final destination (photo by M. Windle).

In August 2021, a ROOTS team, including Henny Piezonka (member of the ROOTS subclusters Dietary ROOTS and ROOTS of Social Inequality) and the PhD candidates Morgan Windle and Tanja Schreiber (both ROOTS Young Academy), was able to conduct essential ethnoarchaeological fieldwork in the depths of the Western Siberia taiga after a break forced by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. The joint expedition took place together with the Russian cooperation partners of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, Russian Academy of Science, Novosibirsk, the EthnoArkheoCentr, Khanty-Mansiysk (Aleksandr Kenig, Andrei Novikov and their team), and the indigenous Northern Sel’kup community.

Living in the north of Western Siberia between the rivers Ob' and Yenisei, Northern Sel’kup families, who still actively use their Samoyed language, engage in a mosaic of traditional mobile lifeways along the Taz River. This includes hunting and fishing, gathering, and the incorporation of small-scale reindeer herding in their subsistence economy for transport purposes. The aim of this fieldwork was to pursue a variety of inquiries into these lifeways and practices, particularly focusing on (1) human-reindeer systems (Morgan Windle’s PhD project), (2) the oral history of indigenous war and conflict (Tanja Schreiber’s PhD project), and (3) the dynamics of dwelling typology between persistence and adaptation from the 17th century AD onwards, when the Sel’kup migrated into this region from the south and took up reindeer husbandry (Henny Piezonka’s project in Dietary ROOTS).

Besides a multi-day journey, which involved a 26-hour train-ride, a helicopter flight, and seven hours by boat to reach our destination in the remote, pathless taiga (Fig. 1), the trip had many highlights. Together with our colleagues, Henny oversaw the excavation of a winter earth house (Sel’kup poi-mot), presumably dating to the late Tsarist or early Soviet period, i.e. approximately one hundred years ago (a terminus post quem was provided by a pine tree growing in the ruin with 80 tree rings) (Fig. 2 and 3). Both the architecture of the pyramidal dwelling and the finds combine elements known a) from the southern Sel’kup region from where the groups had migrated, and b) adaptive forms integrated into Sel’kup lifeways in the north (Fig. 4). Through interviews conducted by Morgan and Tanja with the Sel’kup expert hunter-herders as well as during various excursions, which included hiking to abandoned settlements and visiting other Sel’kup families at their summer camps, the team was able to observe and document some of the unique reindeer herding practices (Fig. 5 and 6), traditional reindeer sledge paraphernalia, forager tools and implements, and the dynamics of forest ecology. Samples for zooarchaeological analyses within the framework of Morgan’s PhD project were collected. The team was also privileged to observe the construction of a traditional fishing log boat (Fig. 7) and was taught how to process and treat reindeer skins, which were immensely unique and informative experiences.

Two weeks in the taiga yielded exciting insights into hunter-gatherer strategies in forest ecosystems, the integration of reindeer herding in these communities, as well as potential processes of reindeer domestication. The team plans to return to the Sel’kup families in early spring and again in the summer of 2022 for more work (Fig. 8).

Acknowledgements: Most importantly, we are greatly indebted to our Sel’kup partners, including Evgeniya Bayakina, Inga Irikova, and Yuri and Sergei Bayakin for sharing their immense expertise, time, and hospitality. Thanks are extended to our Russian collaborators Aleksandr Kenig (NIPI EtnoArkheoCenter & Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Science, Novosibirsk), site director Anastasia Kimpitskaya, and Andrei Novikov (Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Science, Novosibirsk), and their team for assistance in conducting the expedition so successfully. Their experience, hospitality, and generosity cannot be overstated. We also thank Graciano Capitini (Bologna) for sharing an Italian approach to ethnoarchaeology and human-animal studies.

West Sibirian TaigaFig. 2: Aerial view of the excavation of a Sel’kup winter house (poi-mot) that was in use ca. one hundred years ago (photo by A. Kimpitskaya).

West Sibirian TaigaFig. 3: Two of our Sel’kup hosts, Evgeniya Bayakina (left) and Inga Irikova (right), not only shared their immense knowledge in order to understand and interpret the poj mot structure but also energetically joined the excavation (photo by A. Kimpitskaya).

West Sibirian TaigaFig. 4: A birch bark vessel decorated with an unusual pattern – better known from the southern Sel’kup area ca. 500 km further south – was discovered in the poi-mot excavation. It indicates persisting contacts between southern and northern Sel’kup groups some two hundred years after the initial migration (photo by A. Kimpitskaya).

West Sibirian TaigaFig. 5: Morgan (left) and Tanja (right) visiting the Bayakin’s reindeer at the summer camp (photo by O. Kruglov).

West Sibirian Taiga

Fig. 6: Curious reindeer from a neighbouring Sel’kup herd coming out of their smokehouse to investigate us (photo by H. Piezonka).

West Sibirian TaigaFig. 7: Expert S. Bayakin (left) in the final stages of constructing a traditional fishing log boat. A. Novikov (right) documents the intricate process (photo by O. Kruglov).

West Sibirian TaigaFig. 8: The ROOTS team with our Russian cooperation partner Aleksandr Kenig (photo: O. Kruglov).


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