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Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism, and Personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs / Edition 1

Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism, and Personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs / Edition 1

by Rane WillerslevRane Willerslev
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This is an insightful, highly original ethnographic interpretation of the hunting life of the Yukaghirs, a little-known group of indigenous people in the Upper Kolyma region of northeastern Siberia. Basing his study on firsthand experience with Yukaghir hunters, Rane Willerslev focuses on the practical implications of living in a "hall-of-mirrors" world—one inhabited by humans, animals, and spirits, all of whom are understood to be endless mimetic doubles of one another. In this world human beings inhabit a betwixt-and-between state in which their souls are both substance and nonsubstance, both body and soul, both their own individual selves and reincarnated others. Hunters are thus both human and the animals they imitate, which forces them to steer a complicated course between the ability to transcend difference and the necessity of maintaining identity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520252172
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/24/2007
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 235
Sales rank: 643,065
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Rane Willerslev is Associate Professor in the Institute for Anthropology, Archaeology, and Linguistics at the University of Aarhus, Denmark. He is also the author of Hunting and Trapping in Siberia (2000).

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Soul Hunters

Hunting, Animism, and Personhood Among the Siberian Yukaghirs
By Rane Willerslev

University of California Press

Copyright © 2007 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-25217-2

Chapter One

Animism as Mimesis

Watching Old Spiridon rocking his body back and forth, I was puzzled whether the figure I saw before me was man or elk. The elk-hide coat worn with its hair outward, the headgear with its characteristic protruding ears, and the skis covered with an elk's smooth leg skins, so as to sound like the animal when moving in snow, made him an elk; yet the lower part of his face below the hat, with its human eyes, nose, and mouth, along with the loaded rifle in his hands, made him a man. Thus, it was not that Spiridon had stopped being human. Rather, he had a liminal quality: he was not an elk, and yet he was also not not an elk. He was occupying a strange place in between human and nonhuman identities.

A female elk appeared from among the willow bushes with her offspring. At first the animals stood still, the mother lifting and lowering her huge head in bewilderment, unable to solve the puzzle in front of her. But as Spiridon moved closer, she was captured by his mimetic performance, suspended her disbelief, and started walking straight toward him with the calf trotting behind her. At thatpoint he lifted his gun and shot them both dead. Later he explained the incident: "I saw two persons dancing toward me. The mother was a beautiful young woman and while singing, she said: 'Honored friend. Come and I'll take you by the arm and lead you to our home.' At that point I killed them both. Had I gone with her, I myself would have died. She would have killed me."

Lifting us into an animated world, this passage sets the scene for this book, which is about the Yukaghirs, a small group of indigenous hunters on the Upper Kolyma River in northeastern Siberia. For us in the West, it is customary to assume that attributes of personhood, with all this entails in terms of language, intentionality, reasoning, and moral awareness, belong exclusively to human beings. Animals are understood to be wholly natural beings, and their behavior is typically explained as automatic and instinctive. Among the Yukaghirs, however, a different assumption prevails. In their world, persons can take a variety of forms, of which a human being is only one. They can also appear in the shape of rivers, trees, souls, and spirits, but above all it is mammals that Yukaghirs see as "other-than-human persons" (Hallowell 1960: 36). Moreover, humans and animals can move in and out of different species' perspectives by temporarily taking on each other's bodies. Indeed, among the Yukaghirs, as we shall see later, this capacity to take on the appearance and viewpoint of another being is one of the key aspects of being a person.

The traditional term for this set of beliefs, whereby nonhuman animals (and even nonanimals such as inanimate objects and spirits) are endowed with intellectual, emotional, and spiritual qualities paralleling those of human persons, is animism. Animism is one of anthropology's earliest concepts, if not the first. It was introduced by Tylor (1929a [1871]: 424) as a way of characterizing the simplest form of religious belief, "the belief in spiritual beings," but it is a term that anthropologists today use with caution, if at all. The reason for this is summarized well by Descola, who writes, "modern anthropology has been extremely reticent on the topic of animism ... perhaps out of an implicit fear of drawing undue attention to an apparently irrational aspect of the life of archaic societies" (1992: 114). It is certainly true that anthropologists have tended to give little credence to accounts, such as that of Old Spiridon, that differ radically from what we would consider "normal." In the early days of the discipline, Victorian scholars would say that if the old hunter were not actually lying, then he must be suffering from delusions of some sort and would be incapable of telling fact from fantasy, or reality from dreams. Other, more recent, anthropologists, by temperament and training inclined to be rather more sympathetic to the indigenous viewpoint, would accept the hunter's story by adding an "as if" to his account-so instead of talking nonsense, the hunter is deemed to be speaking in metaphors, constructing figurative parallels between the two separate domains of nature and culture. However, to say that the hunter is talking "as if" animals were persons is to say that his story should not be taken in a literal way but instead seen as a symbolic statement. The "metaphor model," which has roots in Durkheim's sociology, is to be found everywhere in modern studies of hunter-gatherers. For both models, however, the result remains essentially the same: animals are not really persons, but exist as such only in the mind of the hunter, whose account is therefore not to be taken seriously as founded in reality. By this move, indigenous metaphysics appears to pose no challenge to our ontological certainties, and the anthropologist can get on with his job without having to worry about whether there is any foundation in reality for what people have to say.

In this book, however, I wish to reverse the primacy of Western metaphysics over indigenous understandings and to follow the lead of the Yukaghirs in what they are saying about the nature of spirits, souls, and animal persons. Only in this way can we hope to develop a framework that takes their viewpoints on these matters seriously. This does not imply exoticizing the Yukaghirs as being somehow more knowledgeable or wiser than us. Nor does it imply adopting their beliefs or accepting these beliefs without question. Rather, it involves an honest effort to draw attention to complex patterns of common features and differences between Yukaghirs and ourselves by placing their animistic beliefs and practices in a critical dialogue with our theories of knowledge. The remaining part of this chapter is mostly devoted to sketching out this new approach to the animism "problem." However, before we can embark on this task, which will bring us up against both philosophy and anthropological theory, I need to introduce the people with whom this book is concerned.


The name Yukaghir (alternative spellings: Iukagir, Yukagir, Yukagiry, and Yukagirskiy) is considered to be a generic name of Evenki origin, which was adopted by the Russians in the seventeenth century. The meaning of the name has not been firmly established, although it has been suggested that it could mean "the icy or frozen people" (Ivanov 1999: 153). In their own language the Upper Kolyma Yukaghirs call themselves Odul, which means "strong" or "powerful." Although this name is widely known among these people, hardly anyone uses it. Instead, they refer to themselves as Yukaghirs, which is why I refer to them by this name.

Roughly speaking, the Yukaghirs consist nowadays of two groups who speak mutually incomprehensible dialects of the Yukaghir language: the Upper Kolyma group, whose main settlement is the village of Nelemnoye in Verkhne Kolymsk Ulus; and the Lower Kolyma group, who live in Nizne Kolymsk Ulus (see the map of the Yukaghirs' territory). It is the former group with whom I have worked, and it is they who are the focus of this book. The most remarkable difference between the two groups is that while the Lower Kolyma group lives mainly from reindeer herding (which they are thought to have adopted in relatively recent times from the Evenki), members of the Upper Kolyma group have remained hunters and fishermen, and even today the dog is their only domesticated animal.

At the time of the Russian conquest of northeastern Siberia in the mid-seventeenth century, Yukaghir-speaking groups occupied a vast territory (about 1.5 million square kilometers) stretching from the lower reaches of the Lena River in the west to the Anadyr Basin in the east, and from the shores of the Arctic Ocean in the north to the upper reaches of the Yana, Indigirka, and Kolyma rivers in the south. They consisted of a large number of separate groups, such as the Chuvantsy, Khodyntsy, Anauls, and Omoks, who, although they spoke kindred languages, had no political unity. It is estimated that the Yukaghirs numbered about five thousand in the years before Russian contact (Zukova, Nikolaeva, and Dëmina 1993). However, during the first three centuries of Russian rule the Yukaghirs underwent the most rapid decline ever recorded among northern Siberian peoples. The 1859 census recorded some 2,500 Yukaghirs, the 1897 census 1,500, and the 1927 census only 443. Wars with invading neighboring reindeer-breeding peoples, including the Evenki, Evens, Koryaks, Chukchi, and Sakha (horse and cattle breeders), greatly reduced the population. The introduction of European diseases also had a disastrous impact, with very large numbers of Yukaghirs dying during smallpox and measles epidemics (Jochelson 1926: 54-55).

The practice of changing one's ethnic membership to avoid paying fur tribute (yasak) also may have contributed to the steady decline in the number of Yukaghirs (Morin and Saladin d'Anglure 1997: 168). Censuses for the purpose of fur tribute were undertaken infrequently, and the size of the tribute was calculated on the basis of the number of people counted in the previous census, so the Yukaghirs, with their population rapidly declining, often found themselves paying tribute for dead men. By identifying themselves as members of one of the demographically expanding groups, such as the Sakha (Yakuts) and Chukchi, they could ease their tax burden. Such "manipulation of ethnicity" is apparent even today. According to the 1989 census, there were a total of 1,112 Yukaghirs, of whom approximately half belonged to the Upper Kolyma group. Strikingly, the 1979 census gives a figure of only 500 Yukaghirs total. The reason for this remarkable increase is mostly that people from different ethnic backgrounds register themselves as Yukaghir in order to qualify for a variety of welfare entitlements, such as special hunting and fishing rights, for which only Yukaghirs are eligible (Derlicki 2003: 123). Likewise, most children born of mixed parentage are today being registered as Yukaghirs. At present, Nelemnoye's population numbers 307, of which 146 are registered as Yukaghirs. In addition to a few Evens, most of the remaining population is listed as either Sakha or Russian.

It is important to note, however, that these ethno-administrative categories (Rus. Natsional'nost') tell us very little about the local population's actual sense of belonging. For example, there are a number of elderly people in Nelemnoye who regard themselves as Yukaghirs and speak the Yukaghir language but who in their youth were registered as Sakha or Russians. Moreover, for many local people, being a Yukaghir person is not so much an identity that one is born with or born to, but a quality that is obtained through one's occupation and territory of residence. An elderly man thus explained to me that although his parents were Yukaghirs, he registered as an Even when he moved to the mountains to work with reindeer herders, and then became a Yukaghir again when he returned to Nelemnoye to take up hunting. Likewise, a man who was born in the neighboring village of Verkhne Kolymsk and listed as a Yakut assured me that after twenty years of residence in Nelemnoye, he is now more Yukaghir than Sakha because he is "living, eating, and working like a Yukaghir." Anderson calls this phenomenon a "relational identity," a way of accounting for the situational and fluid nature of identity formation in northeastern Siberia, where it is quite common for a single individual to move from one ethnic identity to another within a life span or even hold several identities simultaneously (Anderson 2000: 91). Indeed, as we shall see throughout this book, this relational quality of identity extends into the human-nonhuman domain as well: humans become animals, animals become humans, and one class of spirits turns into another. There are no fixed identities here, only continuous transformations of one class of beings into another.

The Yukaghir language belongs to the so-called Paleo-Asiatic group, where it occupies a special place. It is conventionally considered a genetically isolated group, yet it can probably be affiliated with the Uralic superfamily, consisting of the Finno-Ugric and Samoedian languages (Shnirelman 1999: 119). Until recently, multilingualism was widespread in Nelemnoye, with the Yukaghir, Even, and Sakha languages serving as alternative modes of intercultural communication (Maslova and Vakhtin 1996: 999). Although this is still the case among the oldest people (those over sixty), the long-term survival of the Yukaghir language is under threat from Russian, which since the late 1960s has become the dominant language. This, as I shall discuss in chapter 7, is mainly the result of the Soviet boarding school system, which removed Yukaghir children from their families. Today only the oldest generation is competent in the indigenous language; for everyone under the age of sixty, the primary language is Russian or Sakha, although for many of them the mother tongue is Yukaghir (Vakhtin 1991).

In 1931, during the Soviet era, the Yukaghirs were organized into a collective farm (kolkhoz) called Shining Life (Svetlaya zhizn), whose center was located in Nelemnoye, which was originally an old Yukaghir camp called Nungeden aNil', situated where the Yasachnaya River meets the Rassokha River. Between 1956 and 1958, Shining Life was merged with the mainly Sakha collective farm called the Soviet Constitution to form the kolkhoz named Yukaghir. However, just two years later this collective farm was subsumed into the much larger state farm (sovkhoz) called Verkhne Kolymsk, and Nelemnoye was moved downriver, about 70 kilometers from the district center of Zyrianka.

During the Soviet period, Nelemnoye's hunters were subject to the region's official planning regimes; they were set target figures for the number of sable skins they were required to deliver to the sovkhoz, in return for which they received cash payments. Subsistence hunting remained vital for local people until the mid-1960s. Thereafter, however, the village was increasingly incorporated into the Soviet state economy, with its wage employment and centralized delivery of consumer goods, and subsistence hunting came to constitute a supplementary rather than a central activity.

However, since the collapse of the state farm in 1991 and the economic crises that followed, people have largely returned to a subsistence-based lifestyle. Virtually no wages have been paid since 1993, yet prices of essential goods have risen several hundred percent. Consequently, the great majority of Nelemnoye's population are now totally dependent on hunting and fishing for their survival, and apart from bread, tea, and tobacco, no imported food products are consumed on a daily basis. This movement back to a subsistence existence is also reflected in the steady increase in the number of registered "full-time" or "professional" hunters (Rus. kadrovye okhotniki) through the 1990s. In 1991 there were twenty-two professional hunters in Nelemnoye (about 44 percent of the able-bodied male population), whereas there are now thirty-nine (about 78 percent). What is more, in comparison with the Soviet period, little time is spent hunting for sable today. Instead people focus mainly on subsistence. Old people, women, and children set nets for fish (white fish, trout, pike, and turbot), gather berries (cloudberries, great bilberries, and red bilberries), and set hoop snares for white grouse and hares near the village, while the men travel deep into the forest to hunt for big game, especially elk.

The Yukaghirs' history and present situation raise at least two interesting questions. First, to what extent are these people-who have undergone centuries of demographic decline, virtually lost their indigenous language, and lived through all the vicissitudes of Sovietization-still the bearers of old beliefs about spirits, souls, and animal persons? Moreover, what happens to these beliefs in times of total economic collapse, when subsistence and survival have again become critical issues? In chapters 6 and 7, which deal with Yukaghir shamanism and spiritual knowledge, I shall suggest some answers to these questions, but a few remarks are needed at this point.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1. Animism as Mimesis
2. To Kill or Not to Kill: Rebirth, Sharing, and Risk
3. Body-Soul Dialectics: Human Rebirth Beliefs
4. Ideas of Species and Personhood
5. Animals as Persons
6. Shamanism
7. The Spirit World
8. Leaning and Dreaming
9. Taking Animism Seriously


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"Willerslev's engagements with phenomenology, perspectivism, and mimesis makes a valuable and timely contribution to contemporary debates on knowledge diversity."—Social Anthropology

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