Altai people

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Altai people
Алтайлар (Altailar)
Алтай-кижи (Altai-kizhi)
Flag of Altai Republic.svg
Flag of the Altai Republic, Russia
Regions with significant populations
 Russia 74,238[1]
 Mongolia and
  • Altay Prefecture
  • several thousand[2]
    Altai, Russian
    2/3 "Altai Faith" (modern synthesis of Burkhanism, Shamanism, other native cults),[3] 1/3 Russian Orthodox, Tibetan Buddhism, and Sunni Islam
    Related ethnic groups
    Turkic peoples and Mongols
    Altai people.

    The Altai people (Altay: алтай-кижи, romanized: Altai-kizhi), also the Altaians (Altay: Алтайлар, romanized: Altailar), are a Turkic ethnic group of indigenous peoples of Siberia living in the Altai Republic and Altai Krai, Russia.[4] Several thousand of the Altaians also live in Mongolia (Mongolian Altai Mountains) and China (Altay Prefecture, Northern Xinjiang) but are officially unrecognized as a distinct group[2] and listed under name "oirots" as a part of the Mongols. For alternative ethnonyms see also Tele, Black Tatar and Oirats. During the Northern Yuan Dynasty of Mongolia, they were ruled in the administrative area known as Telengid Province.

    Ethnic groups and subgroups[edit]

    Altaian woman.

    The Altaians are represented by two ethnographic groups:[4][5][6]

    The Northern and Southern Altaians formed in the Altai area on the basis of tribes of Kimek-Kipchaks.[7][8]

    In the Soviet years and until 2000, the authorities considered the nothern Altaians and the Teleuts to be part of the Altai people.[9] Currently, according to the Resolution of the Government of the Russian Federation No. 255 dated March 24, 2000, the Chelkans, Kumandins, Telengits, Teleuts, and the Tubalars were recognized as separate ethnic groups as well as the indigenous small-numbered peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East, but during 2010 Russian Census as distinct ethnic groups are recognized only the Kumandins and the Teleuts.


    The Altaians by Grigory Gurkin (1907).

    Recent linguistic, genetic and archaeological evidence suggests that the earliest Turkic peoples descended from agricultural communities in Northeast China who moved westwards into Mongolia in the late 3rd millennium BC, where they adopted a pastoral lifestyle.[10][11][12][13][14] By the early 1st millennium BC, these peoples had become equestrian nomads.[10] In subsequent centuries, the steppe populations of Central Asia appear to have been progressively replaced and Turkified by East Asian nomadic Turks, moving out of Mongolia.[15][16]

    There were heterogeneous ethnic settlements during the Bronze and Iron Age in the region where the Altai people live today. From the fifth century BC and onwards Turkic peoples settled in the area and soon began to blend with the prior populations. The region was then conquered or became within the sphere of influence of the Xiongnu, the Rouran Khaganate, the Turkic Khanganate, the Uyghur Empire and the Yenisei Kyrgyz. During these time periods the area's local people became Turkicized culturally and linguistically.[17]

    According to one study in 2016, the Altaians, precisely some southern Altaians, assimilated local Yeniseian people which were closely related to the Paleo-Eskimo groups.[18]

    From the thirteenth to eighteenth century the Altai people were dominated politically and culturally by the Mongols. The origin of the southern Altaians can be traced during this period from the result of the mixing of Kipchak and Mongol tribes. Meanwhile, the Northern Altaians were a result of the fusion of Turkic tribes with Samoyeds, Kets and other Siberian groups.[17]

    The Altaians were annexed by the Four Oirat of Western Mongols in the 16th century.[citation needed] The Mongols called them "Telengid" or "Telengid aimag" in the period of the Northern Yuan dynasty, with the region known as Telengid Province. [19] After the fall of the Zunghar Khanate in the 18th century, the Altaians were subjugated by the Qing Dynasty, which referred to them as Altan Nuur Uriyangkhai.[20] But Altaians are not genetically related to the Uriyangkhai, which is a distinct neighbouring Oirat Mongol ethnic group in Mongolia.[citation needed]

    The Altai came into contact with Russians in the 18th century. In the tsarist period, the Altai were known as oirot or oyrot (this name means oirat and would later be carried on for the Oyrot Autonomous Oblast). The Altai report that many of them became addicted to the Russians' vodka, which they called "fire water".[21]

    In regard to religion, some of the Altai remain Shamanists and others (in a trend beginning in the mid-19th century) have converted to the Russian Orthodox Church. The Altai mission was developed under Saint Makarii Glukharev († 1847), known as the 'Apostle to the Altai'.[citation needed] In 1904, a religious movement called Ak Jang or Burkhanism arose among these people.[22]

    Prior to 1917 the Altai were considered to be made up of many different ethnic groups.[23]

    With the rise of the 1917 revolution, the Altai attempted to make their region a separate Burkhanist republic called Oyrot. Their support for the Mensheviks during the Civil War led to the venture's collapse after the Bolshevik victory and the later rise of Joseph Stalin. In the 1940s, during World War II and when he was directing numerous purges, his government accused the Altai of being pro-Japanese. The word "oyrot" was declared to be counterrevolutionary. By 1950, Soviet industrialization policies and development in this area resulted in considerable migration of Russians to this republic, reducing the proportion of Altai in the total population from 50% to 20%.[24] In the early 21st century, ethnic Altaians make up about 31% of the Altai Republic's population.[25]

    Today, the special interests of the Altaians are articulated and defended by the Association of Northern Ethnoses of Altai.[6]


    A Voice of America reporter tours the Altai region in 2012.

    According to the 2010 Russian census, there was a total of 69,963 Altaians who resided within the Altai Republic. This represented 34.5% of the total population of the republic, compared with 56.6% with a Russian background, Altaian families are the majority only in certain villages. However, Altaian culture is still the local culture between people and communities.


    Traditional lifestyle[edit]

    Altaian horseman.

    The Southern Altaians were mostly nomadic or semi-nomadic livestock holders. They raised horses, goats, sheep, and cattle. The Northern Altaians mainly engaged in hunting as their primary form of subsistence. Their main prey were animals from the taiga (boreal forests). However, some Altaians also engaged in small scale agriculture, gathering, and fishing.[17]


    A conical birchbark Altai yurta.
    Ail —the traditional wooden dwelling.

    Most of the Southern Altaians traditionally lived in yurts. Many Northern Altaians mainly built polygonal yurts with conic roofs made out of logs and bark. Some Altai-Kizhi also lived in mud huts with birch bark gable roofs and log or plank walling. The Teleuts and a few Northern Altaians lived in conic homes made out of perches or bark. With the influx of Russians near the homeland of the Altaians, there was an increase of the construction of large huts with two to four slope roofs in consequence of Russian influence.[17]

    Despite the many social and political changes the Altaians have endured, many modern and settled families still keep a yurt in their yards. These yurts are usually used as a summertime kitchen or extra room.[26]


    Altai man in national suit on horse.
    Altai woman in national dress.

    The traditional clothing of Southern Altaian men and women are very similar with little differences between the two. Average clothing consisted of long shirts with wide breeches, oriental robes, and sleeves. Other apparel often included fur hats, high boots, and sheepskin coats. Northern Altaians and some Teleuts traditionally wore short breeches, linen shirts, and single-breasted oriental robes. Despite the fact that most Altaians today wear modern clothes, traditional wear still remains in use.[6]


    Altaian cuisine consists of soups of horseflesh or mutton. Dishes with gopher, badger, martmot, fermented milk, cream (from boiled milk), blood pudding, butter, fried barley flour, and certain vegetables are also staples of Altaian cuisine. Popular drinks include aryki (milk vodka).[6]


    The Altai shamaness, early 20 century.


    Altai shamanic drum.

    Traditional Altaian shamanism is rich with mythology and supernatural beings. Popular deities included Yerlik, the god of the underworld and Oyrot-Khan, a sagely and heroic figure who is a composite blend taken from historical Zungarian (Oirat) Khans and ancient legendary heroes. However, with many migrations, settlement changes, and the presence of the Russians and their eventual union with the Russian Empire, the Altaians encountered three world religions: Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity. At first, the Altaians were indifferent and at times even hostile to these faiths and their expansion. In 1829, an Orthodox mission was founded in the region (modern Altai Republic) as part of it being a protectorate of the Russian Empire.[6] Orthodox missionaries often confiscated land from Altaians who refused to convert.[27] Other Altaians were forcefully converted to Christianity.[28] Mongolian Buddhist missionaries attempted to spread the faith among the Altaians during the 19th century. The Buddhist missionaries also encouraged the Altaians to unite together against the Russians. However, their activities and preaching were suppressed by the Russian state and Christian missionaries. Buddhism made little headway among the Altaians but many Buddhist ideas and principles entered into Altaian spiritual thought.[27]

    The mission and its missionaries were initially culturally sensitive and tolerant to the Altaians and their customs. However, the rise of Russian nationalism during the late nineteenth century caused the Russification of Orthodox Christianity and the mostly Russian clergy in Siberia also took up the ideology. This created intolerant views of the natives of Siberia (including the Altaians) and of their culture. This led to the rejection of Christianity by many Altaians who saw it as a foreign Russian religion. However, Russian rule continued to grow increasingly strict both politically and religiously.[6]

    Around 1904, the development of Burkhanism among the Altaians was underway. Burkhanism is a monotheistic religion named after Ak-Burkhan, a deity who is believed and recognized by adherents to have been the sole god. Burkhanism was opposed to both the Russians and the traditional shamans. The hostility towards the shamans was so great that the shamans had to seek protection from Russian authorities. The rise of the Bolsheviks in the first quarter of the twentieth century also led to the brutal repression of all religions which included the faiths in the Altai region. For the next few decades, most religions basically vanished with only shamanistic and ancient polytheistic beliefs surviving the chaos. This was believed to have occurred because ancient religious beliefs could be easily orally transmitted from generation to another. It's also likely that no Burkhanist texts survived the repression and main sources for the beliefs of the religion come from Russian missionaries, travellers, and scholars.[6]

    Modern spirituality[edit]

    A shrine ovoo/obo.
    A ritual horse-pole serge/chaky.

    Recently, Burkhanism and shamanism has seen a revival in the Altai region which is especially popular among Altaian youth. According to recent statistical studies, up to 70 % of the Altaians continue to profess Burkhanism, shamanism and other native spiritual cults and traditions.[3] According to Natalia Zhukovskaia, the Altaian shamanism is supreme religion of the majority of the Altai people.[4]

    At present, shamanism is practiced by many Telengits though there is a large amount that also profess Orthodox Christianity. Burkhanism is the main religion of the Altai-Kizhi, a largest Altaians' group, but there is a significant number of Orthodox Christians. The majority of Kumandins, Tubalars, Teleuts, and Chelkans are Russian Orthodox although there is a significant minority that practice shamanism.[6] A few Altaians also practice Sunni Islam and Tibetan Buddhism.[26][29]

    In principle, the division into the Burkhanists and shamanists has ceased to be relevant for the contemporary religiosity of the Altaians. According to a number of studies, by the beginning of the 21st century, there were practically no traditional shamans or classical Burkhanists anti-shamanists. The main one was the single "Altai Faith" (Altay: Алтай јаҥ)—a traditional ethnic religion in the form of a synthesis of Burkhanism with the remnants of shamanism and other tribal beliefs and customs.[30][31]


    Altai population can be divided into northern and southern clusters based on linguistics, culture, and genetics. According to a 2012 study that analyzed mtDNA (by PCR-RFLP analysis and control region sequencing) and nonrecombinant Y-DNA (by scoring more than 100 biallelic markers and 17 Y-STRs) obtained from Altaian samples, northern Altaians are genetically more similar to Yeniseian, Ugric, and Samoyedic speakers to the north, while southern Altaians having greater affinities to other Turkic speaking populations of southern Siberia and Central Asia. The same study conducted a high-resolution analysis of Y chromosome haplogroup Q that was found in Altaian samples and concluded that southern Altaians and Native Americans share a recent common ancestor.[32]

    In accordance with a new study by Russian geneticists, the genetic isolation of the northern and southern Altaians is undeniable. The southern Altaians are dominated by such variants of the Y chromosome haplogroup as Q and R1a, and there are also I and O. Within the northern Altaians, the R1a haplogroup is dominant, Q is rarely found, and I and O are not found at all.[33]

    See also[edit]


    1. ^ Russian Census 2010: Population by ethnicity Archived 2012-04-24 at the Wayback Machine (in Russian)
    2. ^ a b Olson, James S. (1998). "Altai". An Ethnohistorical Dictionary of China. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press. pp. 9–11. ISBN 0-313-28853-4.
    3. ^ a b Bourdeaux, Michael; Filatov, Sergey, eds. (2006). Современная религиозная жизнь России. Опыт систематического описания [Contemporary Religious Life of Russia. Systematic description experience] (in Russian). 4. Moscow: Keston Institute; Logos. p. 105. ISBN 5-98704-057-4.
    4. ^ a b c Zhukovskaia, Natalia L. (2007) [1999]. "Алтайцы" [Altaians]. In L.M. Mints (ed.). Народы мира: Энциклопедия [Peoples of the World: an Encyclopedia] (in Russian). Moscow: OLMA Media Group. pp. 34–35. ISBN 978-5-373-01057-3.
    5. ^ Potapov, Leonid P. (1969). Этнический состав и происхождение алтайцев. Историко-этнографический очерк [Ethnic composition and origin of the Altaians. Historical ethnographical essay] (in Russian). Leningrad: Nauka. pp. 16–17.
    6. ^ a b c d e f g h Skutsch, Carl, ed. (2005). Encyclopedia of the World's Minorities. New York: Routledge. pp. 81–83. ISBN 1-57958-468-3.
    7. ^ Ethnic history, History of a region, Statistic information at Archived 2011-07-17 at the Wayback Machine
    8. ^ NUPI Centre for Russian Studies Archived 2007-09-30 at the Wayback Machine
    9. ^ "Northern Altai". ELP Endangered Languages Project. Retrieved 2021-07-15.
    10. ^ a b Robbeets 2017, pp. 216–218.
    11. ^ Robbeets 2020.
    12. ^ Nelson et al. 2020.
    13. ^ Li et al. 2020.
    14. ^ Uchiyama et al. 2020.
    15. ^ Damgaard et al. 2018, pp. 4–5. "These results suggest that Turkic cultural customs were imposed by an East Asian minority elite onto central steppe nomad populations... The wide distribution of the Turkic languages from Northwest China, Mongolia and Siberia in the east to Turkey and Bulgaria in the west implies large-scale migrations out of the homeland in Mongolia.
    16. ^ Lee & Kuang 2017, p. 197. "Both Chinese histories and modern dna studies indicate that the early and medieval Turkic peoples were made up of heterogeneous populations. The Turkicisation of central and western Eurasia was not the product of migrations involving a homogeneous entity, but that of language diffusion."
    17. ^ a b c d Skutsch, Carl, ed. (2005). Encyclopedia of the World's Minorities. 1. New York: Routledge. p. 82. ISBN 1-57958-468-3.
    18. ^ Flegontov, Pavel; Changmai, Piya; Zidkova, Anastassiya; Logacheva, Maria D.; Altınışık, N. Ezgi; Flegontova, Olga; Gelfand, Mikhail S.; Gerasimov, Evgeny S.; Khrameeva, Ekaterina E. (2016-02-11). "Genomic study of the Ket: a Paleo-Eskimo-related ethnic group with significant ancient North Eurasian ancestry". Scientific Reports. 6: 20768. arXiv:1508.03097. Bibcode:2016NatSR...620768F. doi:10.1038/srep20768. ISSN 2045-2322. PMC 4750364. PMID 26865217.
    19. ^ Altan, KH. (10 August 2018). "Ulaanbaatar hosts Altaic People International Conference". The UB Post. Retrieved 25 February 2021 – via Altains are presented by two ethnographic groups including the Northern Altains; the Tulbar, Chelkans, Kumandin and the Shor. The Southern Altaians consist of Altaian (Altai-Kizhi), the Teleut, the Teles and the Telengit. The history of Altains is deeply rooted to Mongolia as for a period of time they were ruled by Mongolia as Telengid Province during the Northern Yuan Dynasty.
    20. ^ C.P.Atwood- Encyclopedia of Mongolia and the Mongol Empire, p.9
    21. ^ "People from Russia — Interviews on the Streets", Way To Russia, 24 September 2003
    22. ^ Znamenski, Andrei A. (2014-06-30). "Power for the Powerless : Oirot/Amursana Prophecy in Altai and Western Mongolia, 1890s–1920s". Études mongoles et sibériennes, centrasiatiques et tibétaines (45). doi:10.4000/emscat.2444. ISSN 0766-5075.
    23. ^ Kolga et al., The Red Book of the Peoples of the Russian Empire, p. 29
    24. ^ "Altay" Archived 2006-04-24 at the Wayback Machine, Centre for Russian Studies, NUPI, retrieved 17 October 2006
    25. ^ "Altai Republic :: official portal". Archived from the original on 2006-08-13. Retrieved 2006-10-24.
    26. ^ a b Winston, Robert, ed. (2004). Human: The Definitive Visual Guide. New York: Dorling Kindersley. p. 429. ISBN 0-7566-0520-2.
    27. ^ a b West, Barbara A. (2010). Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Asia and Oceania. Infobase Publishing. pp. 39–42. ISBN 978-1-4381-1913-7.
    28. ^ Minahan, James B. (2014). Ethnic Groups of North, East, and Central Asia: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 11–13. ISBN 9781610690188.
    29. ^ Akiner, Shirin (1986). Islamic Peoples of the Soviet Union: With an Appendix on the non-Muslim Turkic peoples of the Soviet Union. London: Routledge. p. 417. ISBN 0-7103-0025-5.
    30. ^ Halemba, Agnieszka (2003). "Contemporary religious life in the Republic of Altai: the interaction of Buddhism and Shamanism" (PDF). Sibirica. 3 (2): 165–182. doi:10.1080/1361736042000245295. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2005-05-10. p. 168.
    31. ^ Tadina, Nadezhda (2013). "Два взгляда на бурханизм у алтай-кижи" [Two views on Burkhanism among the Altai-Kizhi]. Журнал социологии и социальной антропологии [Journal of Sociology and Social Anthropology] (in Russian). 16 (4): 159–166.
    32. ^ Dulik, Matthew C.; Zhadanov, Sergey I.; Osipova, Ludmila P.; Askapuli, Ayken; Gau, Lydia; Gokcumen, Omer; Rubinstein, Samara; Schurr, Theodore G. (2012-02-10). "Mitochondrial DNA and Y Chromosome Variation Provides Evidence for a Recent Common Ancestry between Native Americans and Indigenous Altaians". The American Journal of Human Genetics. 90 (2): 229–246. doi:10.1016/j.ajhg.2011.12.014. ISSN 0002-9297. PMC 3276666. PMID 22281367.
    33. ^ Lavriashina M. B.; et al. "Коренные народы Алтае-Саян: соотношения генофондов по данным о ДНК маркерах — аутосомных и Y хромосомы" [Indigenous peoples of Altai-Sayan: Gene pool ratios according to data on DNA markers—autosomal and Y chromosomes]. (in Russian). Лаборатория геногеографии/Genogeography laboratory. Retrieved 2021-07-14.

    External links[edit]