EARLY PEOPLE OF RUSSIA: REINDEER HERDERS, SLAVS AND HORSEMEN

EARLY PEOPLE OF RUSSIA

The oldest of the far northern people of Eurasia were Neolothic hunters of wild reindeer. Archeological evidence of their existence has been dated to the 5th milleneum B.C.. Small scale reindeer herding is believed to have evolved around 2,000 years ago with large scale herding developing in the lasted 400 years.

In the A.D. 9th and 10th century Varangians (Vikings) controlled the heartland and the major rivers of eastern Russian. . Eastern Slav occupied the northwestern region. Khazars, a Turkic people, controlled the south-central region.

In early 2002, a graveyard with 1000-year-old mummies was found at site called Zelenyy Yar, just a few kilometers south of the Arctic Circle in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Area in the northern Urals. Well preserved and unintentionally mummified by the cold, the 34 mummies were clad in copper masks, hoops and plates and were shrouded in blankets of reindeer, beaver, wolverine or bear fur. The presence of 10th century bronze bowls from Persia helped date the site and provided evidence that were was trade with region. Also buried with the mummies were an iron combat knife, a silver medallion and bronze buried figurines. Eleven of the mummies had missing or shattered skulls.

Early People of Siberia

The earliest known Siberians were early stone age tribes that lived around Lake Baikal and the headwaters of the Ob and Yenisey rivers. Later stone age sites have been found all over Siberia. Many tribes were still in the stone age when they were discovered by Russians. When the Greeks dominated Europe, Siberia was inhabited largely tribes that originated in the Caucasus. After the 3rd century B.C. it was occupied by a secession of horsemen—Huns, Turkic tribes and Mongols.

The earliest inhabitants of the tundra and the taiga are believed to Mongolian-descended hunters and reindeer herders. Little is known about them because they had no written language and left behind few artifacts. A 5,000 year-old Siberian rock engraving shows a stone-age man on skis trying to have sex with an elk.

Many Siberian groups used tepees and had religious beliefs similar to those of native Americans. Many scientists believe they may be related to the first people to cross the Bering Strait even though soe of these groups lived more 2,000 kilometers from the Bering Strait. The spear points found at the Yana River site in Siberia resemble those of the Clovis People, who lived in North America at least 12,000 years ago.

In the April 2008 issue of Science, University of Oregon professor Dennis Jenkins said that he found some fossilized pieces of excrement in the Oregon dated to be 14,300 years old. Using a new technique called polymerase chain reaction---which allows researchers to “unzip” minute fragments of DNA and make millions of duplicate so they can be tested---he was able to determine the excrement was human and was linked genetically to native Americans and Asians.

First People to Cross the Bering Strait from Japan?

It had long been thought that the first Americans were hunters who crossed a land bridge across the Bering Strait from Siberia to Alaska about 13,500 years ago and followed an “ice-free corridor” southward though glacier-covered North America, presumably chasing mammoths and mastodons as they went. Studies of skull and facial structures indicates these people were closely related to the Jomon people of Japan. The skull and facial structures of the Jomon people are in fact more similar to the skull and facial structures of Americans and Europeans than to mainland Asians.

In 1996, scientist in Kennewick Washington found a complete skeleton of a 9,300-year-old man with "apparently Caucasoid" features similar to those found on Jomon people skulls. This so called "Kennewick Man" is thought to have descended from Jomon people or a common ancestors of the Jomon people. The oldest form of human DNA recovered in North America---dated to be around 10,300 years old---is common in type to that found in Japan and Tibet. Similar DNA has been found in native Americans all the way down the west coast of North and South America. These people had established themselves in America when a second migration came across the Bering Strait around 5,000 years ago. This second migration is most closely related to native Americans found in the United States today.

The latest and most widely accepted theory on the first Americans is that they were fishermen who traveled in small boats along the coasts of eastern Asia and western America, bridging the two continents by island hoping between Siberia and Alaska. Some scientists have theorized they originated from Japan and followed a near continuous belt of kelp forests, rich in fish and other sea creatures, that have existed in coastal waters from Japan to Alaska to southern California and flourished even during the Ice Age.

Jon Erlandson, an archeologist at the University of Oregon, wrote an article New Scientist magazine in 2007, promoting this theory. On the first people to arrive in America he said, “I think they were just moving along the coast and exploring. It was like a kelp highway." He said these people could have arrived sometime after 16,000 ago when the massive glaciers started retreating from the outer northwest coast of North America.

Backing up this assertion is evidence that the coastline and northeastern Asia and northwestern America was not as inhospitable as previously thought and could have easily supported migrating, seafaring communities. In the 1990s evidence emerged of a community living in shellfish at a site called Monte Verde on an island off the Chilean coast around 14,850 years ago. It is likely these people arrived by boat. The ice-free corridor mentioned above was blocked until 13,000 years ago.

There is evidence that people living on Honshu set out across the North Pacific more than 20,000 years ago to Kozushima, an island 50 kilometers away, to collect a type of volcanic glass to make tools. Erland believes these people made the journey in animal skin boats and could have used to the same boats to travel northward to Hokkaido, the Kuril islands and Kamchatka Peninsula, all of which, even today, are rich in game and fish, and continuing onto to Alaska and North America. Recently the remains of a seafarer, dates to between 13,000 and 13,200 years old, were found in the Channel Islands off southern California.

Early People of Russia

The earliest people in eastern Russia were Finno-Ugric and Baltic tribes that lived scattered in the forests. Some scientists have offered evidence that in ancient times tribes of hunters, fishermen and agriculturalist who spoke languages identified as Finno-Ugric ad East Slavonic lived in the forests and bogs of northeast United States. This is seen as evidence that early people from Russia crossed the Arctic to North America centuries before the Vikings and Columbus did.

Some scholars have speculated the Finno-Ugarians, the ancestors of the Finns, the Hungarians and fair-haired Siberian people, descended from the Scythian Budinis, a tribe known to the ancient Greeks. Herodotus described the Scythian Budini tribes as having bright eyes and ruddy complexions. According to archaeologists who sculpted faces from casts of 2,600-year-old skull, the Scythians had high cheekbone and large noses like a "northern Iranian face."

Around 2000 B.C. people who raised rough grains using primitive agriculture as far north as present-day Moscow and as far east as the Urals. At around the same time people in the Ukraine were also raising grain. Petroglyphs from the 6th and 7th century found near Belonorsk north of St. Petersburg are believed to have been made by the forbears of the Samis. The Samis are the nomadic reindeer herders of northern Scandinavia. Nobody is sure where they came from. They are believed to have originated near Lake Baikal in Siberia and migrated across present-day Russia to Scandinavia. The speak a Finno-Urgic language.

The Khanty are a group of Finno-Ugric-speaking, semi-nomadic reindeer herders that live today in a region along the northern tributaries of the Ob River in northwestern Siberia about 1,100 miles northwest of Moscow and 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle. They are believed to have migrated from the steppes of Central Asia northward around the 8th century. They fought with the ancestors of the Komi and Nenets, and captured slaves and wives and sacrificed victims.

There are some indications that nomadic herders have been in Scandinavia and Russia since the ice age. The Nenets are an ethnic group of 35,000 nomadic reindeer herders who live in northern Siberia and speak a Finno-Ugric language. The Tundra Nenets live in an area that extends from the Kanin Peninsula in the White Sea in the west to the Taimyr Peninsula in the east, a distance of about 2,000 kilometers, The Forest Nenets live in a taiga region in and around the middle Ob River. The Nenets are of particular interest to anthologists because a group of about 1,000 Nenets was found in 1994, which had almost no contact with the outside world. They used tools and sleds that were almost identical to those found in 8,000-year-old archeological sites. The anthropologists reason that the lifestyle, customs and culture of these people is also similar to that of the people from the archeological dig.

Early Horsemen of the Steppe

Long before the organization of Kievan Rus', Iranian and other peoples lived in the area of present-day Ukraine. The best known of those groups was the nomadic Scythians, who occupied the region from about 600 B.C. to 200 B.C. and whose skill in warfare and horsemanship is legendary. Between A.D. 100 and A.D. 900, Goths and nomadic Huns, Avars, and Magyars passed through the region in their migrations. Although some of them subjugated the Slavs in the region, those tribes left little of lasting importance. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

During the centuries before and after the birth of Christ, the 3000-mile-wide steppes of central Asia (in present-day Russia, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and several other former Soviet Republics) were inhabited by dozens of semi-nomadic peoples like the Altays, Scythians and Pazyryks.

When the Greeks dominated Europe, Siberia was inhabited largely tribes that originated in the Caucasus. After the 3rd century B.C. it was occupied by a secession of horsemen—Huns, Turkic tribes and Mongols.

The Scythians were driven out by the Sarmatians in the 3rd Century B.C. Little is known about them. The Sarmatians were followed by the Ostrogoths, a Germanic people from northern Poland, who claimed most of present-day Ukraine, and, in the 4th century, by the Huns, from the Altay region, who in turn were driven out by the Avars, cousins of the Huns, also from the Altay region.

Khazars and Their Conversion to Judaism

The Khazar occupied the steppes occupied the steppes of southern Russia between the 7th and 8th centuries. Originating from the Caucasus they were a group of Turkic and Iranian tribes that settled primarily in the steppes of the of the lower Volga and Don basins.

The Khazar established their capital in Itil, near the mouth of the Volga, and founded an empire that spread to the Caspian Sea. They were talented craftsmen and merchants and brought religious tolerance to the areas under their control. In the 9th century they converted to Judaism. By the 10th century most had settled down as farmers or become tradesmen.

The Khazar Khan Turk Bulan accepted Judaism and underwent a ritual circumcision. Some say the conversion of the Khazars to Judaism was as much of political move—to distance themselves from the Christian Byzantines and Muslim Arabs—as a religious one.

There were many Jewish aristocrats, merchants and advisors from the Caucasus in the Khazar court before the Khazars converted. Even though some scholars have dismissed the Khazar as a peripheral second class state, others say the contrary is true. The Khazar state was quite powerful. It held its own against the Byzantines and Arabs and prospered through its location at a key trade crossroads. The Khazar Empire eventually collapsed after Arab and Turkish incursions form the south and pressure from Russians in the north in the 10th century.

Khazars and Mountain Jews

Some attribute the mass conversion of the pagan Khazars to Judaism in the 8th century to the influence of people that became known as Mountain Jews of the Caucasus. The Mountain Jews are a distinct Jewish subgroup and one of the oldest ethnic groups in the Caucasus. They live mostly in Dagestan and Azerbaijan. Only about 17,000 Mountain Jews remain today.

The Mountain Jews and trace their origins to the “Eastern Diaspora” from Babylon in th the 7th century B.C. There are no accurate records that describe how they arrived in the Caucasus but according to their folklore, passed down orally through the generations, they came from Babylon.

Archeological evidence—mostly ancient Jewish gravestones and epigraphic inscriptions—unearthed near Mountain Jew villages—indicates that the Mountain Jews have been in the Caucasus for a long time. The first people that later evolved into Mountain Jews are believed to have arrived from Iran during the ancient Persian period (7th to 3rd centuries B.C.) and the Sassanid period (3rd century B.C. to A.D. 7th century). Most are believed to have arrived in the Caucasus to escape persecution during the Arab and Turk conquests beginning in the 7th century. They fled into the mountains of Dagestan and Khazaria because that is where they found the greatest religious tolerance and favorable living conditions.

Although they were never great in numbers the Mountain Jews did have an economic impact, by facilitating trade, in the areas where they lived. They also influenced the pagan people they lived among and the Khazars. To this day the Mountain Jews regard their language as that of the original Jewish Khazar khans. During the Khazar period the Mountain Jews enjoyed great influence an prestige.

After the Khazar empire collapse the Mountain Jews retreated to their former Caucasus mountain homeland only to find that many of the ethnic groups there were now Muslims and wanted tribute for permission to live there. They were also required to pay a special tax for permission to practice their religion.

Slavs in Russia

Many ethnically diverse peoples migrated into what is now eastern Russia, the East Slavs remained and gradually became dominant. Early Slavs were agriculturists and beekeepers as well as hunters, fishers, herders, and trappers. By A.D. 600, the Slavs were the dominant ethnic group on the East European Plain. Kievan Rus', the first East Slavic state, emerged in the ninth century A.D. and developed a complex and frequently unstable political system that flourished until the thirteenth century, when it declined abruptly. Among the lasting achievements of Kievan Rus' are the introduction of a Slavic variant of the Eastern Orthodox religion and a synthesis of Byzantine and Slavic cultures. The disintegration of Kievan Rus' played a crucial role in the evolution of the East Slavs into the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian peoples. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The Slavs moved east in Russia and found Finno-Ugrics and Baltic tribes living scattered in the forest and forced these people to the far north. Later the Slavs established themselves in northern steppes of southern Russia and the Ukraine. They were still moving eastward towards Siberia in the 9th century.

The Slavs withstood invasions by the Goths from Germany and Sweden and the Huns from Central Asia in the 3rd and 4th centuries. By the 7th centuries they had established villages all along the major rivers of what is now eastern Russia. In the early Middle Ages, the Slavs lived between the Viking kingdoms in Scandinavia, the Holy Roman Empire in Germany, the Byzantines in Turkey and the Mongol and Turkish tribes in Central Asia.

Origin of the Slavs

It said the word “”slav” is derived from the Latin and Greek words for slave. Slavs are divided into three main groups: 1) Western Slavs (chiefly Poles, Czechs and Slovaks); 2) Southern Slavs (mainly people from Bulgaria and former Yugoslavia): 3) Eastern Slavs (primarily Russians, Ukrainians and Belorussians).

Little is known of the origin of the Slavs. Slavs inhabited areas of east cental Europe in prehistoric times and reached most of their present limits by 850. Pagan Slavic tribes migrated from what is now Russia into the southern Balkans more than a thousand years ago and overran Christian communities founded by Roman colonists.

Philologists and archaeologists theorize that the Slavs settled very early in the Carpathian Mountains or in the area of present-day Belarus. By A.D. 600, they had split linguistically into southern, western, and eastern branches. The East Slavs settled along the Dnepr River in what is now Ukraine; then they spread northward to the northern Volga River valley, east of modern-day Moscow, and westward to the basins of the northern Dnestr and the western Bug rivers, in present-day Moldova and southern Ukraine. In the eighth and ninth centuries, many East Slavic tribes paid tribute to the Khazars, a Turkic-speaking people who adopted Judaism about A.D. 740 and lived in the southern Volga and Caucasus regions. *

The Slavs later adopted Christianity. They were dispersed and hurt by invasions of horsemen like the Huns, Mongols and Turks. First Slavic states were the Turk-Slav Bulgarian Empire (680-1018) and Monrovia (863, christianized by missions of St. Cyril in 86) and the Turkish-Jewish Khazar trading empire (7th-10th century). Poland began with King Boleslav I (992-1025). Kieven state accepted Christianity under Prince Vladimir in 989. Some Slav groups like Wends, Bohemians and Dalmatians lost their sovereignty.

Slavs and Slavery

Germanic tribes enslaved their Slavic neighbors. Some say this custom gave birth to the terms "slave" and "slavery," both derived from Slav. Slavery never really caught in Europe because Christians were not allowed to enslave other Christians and peasants and serfs proved to be more efficient than slaves in European agriculture.

According to “Word Histories and Mysteries: From Abracadabra to Zeus”, edited by Editors of the American Heritage Dictionaries: “ The derivation of the word slave encapsulates a bit of European history and explains why the two words slaves and Slavs are so similar; they are, in fact, historically identical. The word slave first appears in English around 1290, spelled sclave. The spelling is based on Old French esclave from Medieval Latin sclavus, “Slav, slave,” first recorded around 800. Sclavus comes from Byzantine Greek sklabos (pronounced sklävs) “Slav,” which appears around 580. Sklavos approximates the Slavs' own name for themselves, the Slovnci, surviving in English Slovene and Slovenian.

“The spelling of English slave, closer to its original Slavic form, first appears in English in 1538. Slavs became slaves around the beginning of the ninth century when the Holy Roman Empire tried to stabilize a German-Slav frontier. By the 12th century stabilization had given way to wars of expansion and extermination that did not end until the Poles crushed the Teutonic Knights at Grunwald in 1410. As far as the Slavs' own self-designation goes, its meaning is, understandably, better than “slave” it comes from the Indo-European root *kleu-, whose basic meaning is “to hear” and occurs in many derivatives meaning “renown, fame.” The Slavs are thus “the famous people.” Slavic names ending in -slav incorporate the same word, such as Czech Bohu-slav, “God's fame,” Russian Msti-slav, “vengeful fame,” and Polish Stani-slaw, “famous for withstanding (enemies).”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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