The traditional multilingualism of Siberian populations


New paper (behind paywall) A case-study in historical sociolinguistics beyond Europe: Reconstructing patterns of multilingualism in a linguistic community in Siberia, by Khanina and Meyerhoff, Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics (2018) 4(2).

The Nganasans have been eastern neighbours of the Enets for at least several centuries, or even longer, as indicated in Figures 2 and 3.10 They often dwelled on the same grounds and had common households with the Enets. Nganasans and Enets could intermarry (Dolgikh 1962a), while the Nganasans did not marry representatives of any other ethnic groups. As a result, it was not unusual for Enets and Nganasans to live in the same tent and/or to have common relatives. Such close contact must clearly have favoured acquisition of Nganasan by Enets children and of Enets by Nganasan children from an early age.

The Nenets have been close neighbours of all the Enets groups more recently (Figures 2 and 3). In the seventeenth century, there were only warlike contacts between the Nenets and the Enets, while in the eighteenth century the Nenets started to live on the traditional Enets lands, on the western bank of the Yenisey river, with more peaceful interactions reported. (…) Since then the same situation of intermarriages and common households has been attested for these western Enets neighbours as with the Nganasans (Dolgikh 1962a), and this has also created conditions favouring early acquisition of both languages by children.

The Enets and neighbouring peoples in the middle of the seventeenth century; map by Yuri Koryakov (, adapted from Dolgikh (1960).

As for the Evenkis and the Selkups, the Enets had regular contact with these peoples (Figures 2 and 3), though they were not their close neighbours: in fact, geographically, the Selkups were not neighbours at all by the end of the nineteenth century. The Evenkis had always been direct south-eastern neighbours (…) Contacts with Selkups could be trade based, or they could simply be occasional encounters on adjacent lands. (…) [With Evenkis] some sporadic contacts were similar in nature to those with the Selkups, however many other contacts were war-like. Traditionally, the Enets considered the Evenkis to have a martial spirit, and the Evenkis were known as being accustomed to stealing Enets women. A number of stories in Dolgikh (1961) concern Evenkis stealing Enets women and Enets men going to Evenki lands to find and return them. It is clear, therefore, that if Evenki or Selkup were acquired by the Enets, this happened later in life, and this acquisition required particular conditions for it, i. e. it was not readily acquired through regular or harmonious contact (as with Nganasan).

In a pattern similar to the situation with Nganasan, in the second half of the twentieth century most Enets elders could speak Nenets (Vasil’jev 1963; Eugen Helimski p.c., the lead author’s fieldwork experience).

The Enets and neighbouring indigenous peoples: end of the nineteenth century – beginning of the twentieth century; map by Yuri Koryakov (, adapted from
Bruk (1961).

At the start of the period studied, in the 1850s, the Enets linguistic community could be characterized as multilingual in the following five languages: Enets, Nganasan, Nenets, Evenki, and Russian (Figure 4). The number of Enets individuals who were able to converse in each of the other four languages differed and generally was a property of the individuals who had regular social contact with speakers of the other four languages. (…) Note that in all cases of interethnic communication there could well be a lack of perfect proficiency in a language for which the multilingualism is ascribed to the Enets community or Enets individuals: as Braunmüller and Ferraresi (2003: 3) put it: “Nobody would ever have expected to know other languages ‘perfectly’ (whatever that may mean in detail). This expectation seems to be a quite modern idea when discussing issues of bilingualism or multilingualism in general”.

The complex interactions of Siberian populations during the 17th-19th centuries offer a reasonably good picture of the life in the centuries before these accounts, when Samoyedic peoples migrated northwards, and Palaeo-Siberian and Tungusic populations were gradually assimilated into their Uralic culture and language, through intermarriage and close contacts among naturally nomadic populations.

You can read more about the origin of Nganasans – and other modern Samoyedic-speaking peoples – as Palaeo-Siberian populations (hence probably speaking Palaeo-Siberian languages more or less related to each other) who adopted Samoyedic languages in Wikipedia, which offers a summary of Boris Dolgikh’s On the Origin of the Nganasans (1962). Dolgikh is one of the main sources of information for these Siberian groups, as is reflected in this paper, too.

Map of distribution of Samoyedic languages (red) in the XVII century (approximate; hatching) and in the end of XX century (continuous background). Notice late expansion to north and west into the typical territory where Nomadic peoples roamed. Modified from Wikipedia, with the Tuva region labelled (see a recent genetic study on the Tuva region, one of the most likely to be originally Samoyedic-speaking).

Why some geneticists are using Nganasans – in fact the latest Palaeo-Siberians to learn Samoyedic, already during historic times – as a model for the expansion of Uralic? I have never understood that. Among the many cases of circular reasoning based on modern populations that have been created since the start of population genomics, the use of Nganasans as a model of ‘true Uralians’ is probably the most clearly frontally opposed to what was well known in anthropology before geneticists started this new field.

If Kallio is right, most “eastern homeland” proposals are due to the interest of Russian nationalism, which is sadly quite likely to be influencing genetic research, too. It’s like letting Hindu nationalists influence publications on steppe-related migrations. As David Reich puts it in his book:

The tensest twenty-four hours of my scientific career came in October 2008, when my collaborator Nick Patterson and I traveled to Hyderabad to discuss these initial results with Singh and Thangaraj.

Our meeting on October 28 was challenging. Singh and Thangaraj seemed to be threatening to nix the whole project. Prior to the meeting, we had shown them a summary of our findings, which were that Indians today descend from a mixture of two highly divergent ancestral populations, one being “West Eurasians.” Singh and Thangaraj objected to this formulation because, they argued, it implied that West Eurasian people migrated en masse into India. They correctly pointed out that our data provided no direct evidence for this conclusion. They even reasoned that there could have been a migration in the other direction, of Indians to the Near East and Europe. (…) They also implied that the suggestion of a migration from West Eurasia would be politically explosive. They did not explicitly say this, but it had obvious overtones of the idea that migration from outside India had a transformative effect on the subcontinent.

If you add the nation-building myths in Eastern Europe (like the Russian Euro-Asian movements) to the now prevalent Indo-European—CWC idea, and a Siberian ancestry peaking in the Arctic, with little demographic or political relevance of modern Uralic-speaking peoples, you have clearly an explosive sociopolitical mix (based on a mythical Pan-Eurasian Indo-Slavonic) in the making…

Russia as the Euro-Asian Empire. Source: A. Dugin (1999), p. 415. From Eberhardt (2018).


The Tungusic Ulchi population probably linked to haplogroup C2b1a


New paper (behind paywall) Demographic and Genetic Portraits of the Ulchi Population, by Balanovska et al. Russian Journal of Genetics (2018) 54(10):1245–1253.

Interesting excerpts (emphasis mine):

Marital structure. The intensity of interethnic marriages puts the existence of the Ulchi population at risk. The colorful ethnic composition of the Ulchi settlements is reflected in the marriage structure [see featured image]. We found that the proportion of single-ethnic marriages of the Ulchi is on average 51%. The greatest number of such marriages takes place in the village of Bulava. Marriages of Ulchi with Russians are in second place. Marriages with indigenous peoples of the Far East, Nanais, Nivkhs, Evenks, and others, are in third place. Thus, almost half of the Ulchi marriages are with representatives of other nationalities. Such a significant level of interethnic mixing makes it possible to talk about intense processes of assimilation of this indigenous people and puts to the forefront the problem of loss of the unique gene pool of the Ulchi.

Haplogroup C (its branch M48) was genotyped for its five subbranches with markers M86, B470, F13686, B93, and the marker at position 16645386 (GRCh37), which was found by our team for the first time. Variant B93 is rare in the Ulchi, and 14 samples (that is, more than a quarter of the entire gene pool of the Ulchi, Fig. 2) belong to M86 and its subvariants. Therefore, we genotyped STR markers of C-M86 carriers for the Ulchi and neighboring Amur populations and analyzed the relationships of detected haplotypes on the phylogenetic network (Fig. 3, STR haplotypes are available from authors upon request).

(…) On the network, different clusters are associated with different populations: most Mongols belong to F13686, all Evenks of the Amur River region with this haplogroup form a subcluster within F13686, and part of Upper Nanais is the basis of cluster B470.

Frequencies of haplogroups of Y chromosome in the Ulchi population. The nomenclature of haplogroups is given according to [9]. Markers that are not in bold type were not typed, but are ancestral for these nodes.

An estimate of the age of the entire haplogroup C-F12355 obtained from the data of genome-wide sequencing of seven specimens is 2400 ± 500 years (O.P. Balanovsky, unpublished data). That is, the common ancestor of all the studied representatives of various peoples with this haplogroup lived not so long ago, the first millennium BC. The formation time of cluster F13686 is somewhat later: 1990 ± 600 years.

(…) obvious traces of the interaction of the gene pool of the Ulchi with neighboring and remote peoples of the Far East and Central Asia in the time range of the last one to three thousand years were revealed. This shows that the results of work [4] on the similarity of the gene pool of the ancient (age of 7500 years) Neolithic genomes of the Amur River region to the Ulchi probably indicate not the uniqueness of the Ulchi, but the fact that this ancient gene pool was preserved in a vast circle of populations of the Far East interwoven with gene flows both with each other and, to a lesser extent, with populations of Central Asia.

The expansion of C2b1a2a-M86 (among many basal C2-M217 samples) is thus possibly associated with the spread of Tungusic, which puts C2b1a at the root of the Micro-Altaic expansion, with a formation date ca. 12700 BC, TMRCA 12500 BC (and not only Mongolian). This shows that Micro-Altaic is connected with a local population which shows a clear continuity since at least 3500 BC. This, however, tells us little about the origin of the language.

See also the recent ISBA presentation on the Houtaomuga site, Neolithic transition in Northeast Asia; and also Bronze Age population dynamics and rise of dairy pastoralism in Mongolia, Impact of colonization in north-eastern Siberia

That leaves the ancestral N lineages found among Far East Asians as Palaeo-Siberian in origin, and their late expansions to the west not particularly linked with any of the known Palaeo-Siberian ethnolinguistic groups, let alone a supposed “Uralo-Altaic” language…