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.

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

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.

Until the 16th century the population of Siberia, the Far East and the Arctic was the home of numerous indigenous groups that ranged in size for a few hundred members to several tens of thousands members. They traded with one another and sometimes gathered together and occasionally fought with one another, but for the most part they were independent and avoided conflict. A few regions were ruled under khanates.

'Denisovans': New Human Species from Siberia?

Research involving DNA seems to indicate there may have been an identified human ancestor living in Siberia at the same time as early modern man. DNA markers found by scientists don't match those of modern humans or Neanderthal and appears to have belonged to species that split off from the branches leading to modern humans and Neanderthal a million or so years ago. A lot questions about the finding remain and scientists that announced it have been cautious about making any bold claims about it.

The research was published online in the journal Nature in March 2010 by Johannes Krause and Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. The research decoded the complete set of DNA from mitochondria. If the research does hold up it suggests a migration out of Africa around 1 million years ago. Scientists are now low looking for similarities between the DNA of the “Siberian ancestor” and that of Neanderthal. Neanderthals, Homo erectus and homo heidelbergensis.

The existence of a new human relative was first revealed in early 2010 from a sampling of DNA recovered from a finger bone discovered in the Denisova Cave in southern Siberia. Researchers gave the new humans the informal name Denisovans. [Source: Malcolm Ritter, AP, December 22, 2010 ***]

The genome, recovered from the finger bone, showed that Denisovans are more closely related to Neanderthals than to modern humans. That indicates that both they and Neanderthals sprang from a common ancestor on a different branch of the evolutionary family tree than the one leading to modern humans. There's not enough evidence to determine whether Denisovans are a distinct species, the researchers said."**

Scientists have no idea what Denisovans looked like, David Reich, a Harvard University researcher and an author of the paper, told AP. Apart from the genome, the researchers reported finding a Denisovan upper molar in the cave. Its large size and features differ from teeth of Neanderthals or early modern humans, both of which lived in the same area at about the same time as the Denisovans. Neither the finger bone nor the tooth can be dated directly, but tests of animal bones found nearby show the Denisovan remains are at least 30,000 years old, and maybe more than 50,000 years old, Reich said. Yet, archaeologists have reported virtually no sign of the Denisovans, no tools or other indications of how they lived. Maybe that's because sites in Asia haven't been studied as systematically as Neanderthal sites in Europe, he said. ***

Siberia Under the Soviets

The Russian Revolution caused great upheaval in Siberia as it did everywhere in Russia. Much of the fighting between the Red and the Whites took place in Siberia. Many civilians died and villages were obliterated as territory changed hands and then changed back again. Siberia was involved in mass collectivization campaigns but was largely spared fighting during World War II but local people were required to turn over their food supplies for the war effort

Under the Soviets, the identity of the Siberia’s indigenous groups was threatened by Russification and collectivization. Many of these groups were forced to settle on fishery collectives, reindeer farms and agricultural collectives. Forced collectivization caused great disruption to traditional culture and way of life. Some groups attempted to escape. There was also religious persecution, cultural destruction and severe environmental damage.

Under the Soviets, there was large scale economic development, especially in industry, mining and “virgin land” agriculture. The Soviet brought healthcare and schooling. Children were often required to go off to boarding schools and spent large amounts of time away from their parents. Some groups, namely the Yakut and Tatars, were large enough to maintain some degree of economic and cultural viability.

Mass Deportations of Ethnic Groups

In the 1930s, a number of ethnic groups, including the Greeks, Tatars, Koreans and Volga Germans were suddenly evacuated from their homes and sent into exile n Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Siberia. Some were imprisoned and executed as “enemies of the people.” More than 1.5 million people were deported to Siberia and Central Asia.

Initially the Greeks prospered under Soviet rule. Greek schools, newspapers and culture flourished in places where there were large numbers of Greeks. The number of Greek schools rose from 33 in 1924 to 140 in 1938. There a was political drive to create an autonomous Greek territory.

Things changed in 1930s, when Stalin included the Greeks among the groups that were persecuted and deported. Greek schools were shut down. Publications in Greek were banned and much of the Greek population was suddenly evacuated from their homes and sent into exile in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Siberia. Many were imprisoned and executed as “enemies of the people.” In 1949, Stalin exiled tens of thousands of Pontic Greeks in Crimea and the Caucasus.

During World War II, the Volga Germans and Caucasus ethnic groups such as the Chechens and Ingush were rounded up a transported in cattle cars to new "homelands" in Siberia and Central Asia. After Stalin died some were allowed to return. The mass deportation and, arguably, genocide against twenty nationalities—including the Chechens, Crimean Tatars, and the Volga Germans—during World War II is called the “war on cosmopolitans.

Mass Deportations of Chechens

In 1936 Stalin created the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic. In 1943, when Nazi forces reached the gates of the Chechen capital, Groznyy, Chechen separatists staged a rebellion against Russian rule. In response, the next year Stalin deported more than 1 million Chechens, Ingush, and other North Caucasian peoples to Siberia and Central Asia on the pretext that they had collaborated with the Nazis. The remaining Muslim people of the Chechnya region were resettled among neighboring Christian communities. Stalin's genocidal policy virtually erased Chechnya from the map,

Some Chechens and Ingush had collaborated with the Nazi who occupied the northern Caucasus briefly from later 1942 to early 1943 but less of them did than Ukrainians and Byelorussians were not similarly persecuted. No Chechens or Ingush were spared, even those who fought for the red Army on the German front. A third of the population of Chechnya is believed to have died from suffocation, hunger, disease and cold. It was clear the goal was to eliminate Chechnya and the Chechens. Chechnya was divided among its neighbors. Mapmakers and historians were instructed to remove all references to Chechnya and Chechens from maps, textbooks and reference books.

The carefully prepared operation began on February 22, 1944, towards the end of World War II. Hundreds of thousands of Chechens were packed into cattle cars in trains in the dead of winter and taken on a three week journey for "resettlement". Many Chechens regard the operation as an act of genocide. Most ended up in Kazakhstan.

The operation was organized by the Lavrenty Beria, the head of Stalin's secret police. In a memo he wrote: "The eviction of the Chechens and Ingush is proceeding normally: 342,647 people were loaded onto trains February 25 and by February 29] the number had risen to 478,479 of whom 91,250 were Ingush and 387,229 were Chechens...The operation proceeded in an organized fashion, with no serious instances or resistance, or other incidents. There were only isolated cases of attempted flights."

As many as a third of the Chechens died in transit. According to one memo only 12,000 railway carriages were used instead of the planned 15,000 because of "compressed cargo" and large numbers of children were shipped because they took up less space.

Forced Exile of Crimean Tatars

On May 18, 1944, towards the end of World War II, all of the Crimean Tatars—some 230,000 of them—were roused from their beds and rounded up in one night, under orders from Stalin, and forced onto trucks and rail cattle cars for the long trip to Central Asia (mostly to Uzbekistan) and the southern Urals. The Tatars were falsely accused by Stalin of collaborating with the Nazis— even though they supplied a large of soldiers to anti-Nazi units in the Red Army—and were exiled as punishment. The Tatars were one of a dozen or so ethnic groups accused by Stalin of collaborating with the Nazis.

One Tatar late told the Washington Post, "A Russian officer came with three soldiers and ordered us to leave. He said the Tatars were traitors to the Motherland. My father gave him documents showing that my brother was fighting the Germans in the Red Army, but [the officer] threw them aside. He said that meant nothing.”

The Tatars were locked inside the cattle cars. At stops some food and water was thrown in and dead bodies were removed. As many 100,000 of them died—nearly half their entire population— during the journey and the early days or resettlement. Those who survived lost their land, lost their identity and were subjected to crushing restrictions.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston); 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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