Tribes and Dialects
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Another name for them, Oirot, originated in Oyrat, a Mongolian tribe that once ruled over Altai. Until 1947 the Altaics were officially known as Oirots and their territory the Oirot autonomous region. In 1947 Oirot was officially replaced by the term Altaic and the territory was renamed the Mountain-Altai (Gorno-Altai) autonomous region.
At the end of the 19th century the Altai-kizhis possessed no clear idea of their ethnic territory. The national awareness that would have promoted the distinction between the Altai-kizhis and other kindred tribes of the Mountain Altai had not yet developed.
Habitat. Nowadays the Altaics live in the Sayan uplands in the Altai district of the Mountain Altai autonomous region.
Population. Past censuses do not contain complete data for the Altaics. For example, the census of 1897 does not take into account the Chelkans, Kumandins and Teleuts. According to the 1959 census the Altaics numbered either 44,654 or 45,300 (according to different sources), 88.7 % of whom were native speakers. According to the 1979 census data the total number of Altaics was approximately 60,000 of whom 50,203 lived in the autonomous region. A characteristic of the Altaics, as well as of other Turkic peoples, is a somewhat low rate of birth. This is due to the relatively large number of people who are below the child-bearing age (1--19 years). Soviet scholars consider this to be a result of the last war. The Altaics make up only 29.1 % of the population of the Mountain-Altai autonomous region.
Anthropologically, the Altaics are divided into the North and South Altaics, between whom there are outstanding differences. The South Altaics belong to the Asiatic and South-Siberian type of the Mongoloid race. The North Altaics are less Mongoloid. They exhibit some European traits and they belong anthropologically to the Uralic race.
Origin. During the last century it was thought that Altai had been the original home of all the Turkic tribes (V. Radlov, N. Aristov).
The Altaics consolidated as a nation only during the Soviet era, in the sense that before the October Revolution they were not a homogeneous ethnic group and they did not have a common name for themselves.
Presently quite a lot of different people are united as Altaics. For the most part they have had different occupations, modes of life and ethnic origins which is the reason why Altai is linguistically and ethnically so diverse. The division of people at the end of the 19th century, for example, was as follows:
The Altai-kizhi ethnic group made up the main part of the Altaics, and their name was expanded to all kindred tribes of Mountain Altai. Burhanism, a religion that spread like wildfire at the beginning of the 20th century, served as a powerful means of integrating the nation. In 1904 there was a large convention for common prayer at the village of Toron on the River Korlok in southwestern Altai and since then Burhanism has quickly spread through the areas inhabited by the Altai-kizhis. Burhanism includes some archaic shamanistic elements and principles of Dzhungarian Lamaism. Its central figure is a mythical Oirot Khan. The main requirements of the monotheistic Burhanism, or white religion, were that the Altaics should say prayers three times a day, they should not deal with witchcraft and they should not make sacrifices of blood to their god Burhan. North Altaics and Telengits did not adopt this new religion. Burhanism united the Altai-kizhis and distinguished them more clearly from other Mountain Altaics.
The distant ancestors of present-day Altaics are descended on one side from the ancient Turkic tribes Tele and Tüküi, and on the other side, from those Turkic tribes that are characterized probably by the substratum of Yenisey Ostyaks or Kets, (South) Samoyeds and Ugrians. A number of Mongols were absorbed into the Altaics (especially the South Altaics) during the reign of Genghis Khan in the Middle Ages. The Altaics further assimilated many Mongols during the 15th to 18th centuries when Altai was ruled by Western Mongols (known as Dzhungars since the 17th century).
North and South Altaics are distinguished by great differences in their economic life, culture (and living conditions), language and anthropological type.
Language. The Altaic language is divided into two large groups: the southern group consists of the languages of the Altaics, Teleuts and Telengits, the northern group of the Kumandin and Chelkan languages. The northern dialects of Altaic belong to the eastern branch of the Uighur-Oguz group, the southern dialects to the Kirgiz-Kipchak group. The linguistic differences between the northern and the southern dialectal groups are so big that they seriously hamper mutual comprehension. The northern dialects of Altaic are close to the Kondoma dialect of the Shor language.
History. Until the 18th century the Altaic tribes belonged to the khanate of Dzhungaria (1635--1758). Later the southwestern and central part of Mountain Altai fell under the rule of Russia. Dzhungaria and Russia fought for supremacy over the Altaics. There were years when the North Altaics had to pay tributes to both the Dzhungar khan and the Russian tsar. After the disintegration of Dzhungaria, in the middle of the 18th century, the South Altaics "voluntarily" entered into the sphere of Russian influence. At first the new masters did not intervene in the Altaics' internal affairs. In 1822 there were the beginnings of radical change when the Reform of Administration of Aliens, prepared by N. Speransky, was put into effect in Russia. At the end of the last century the majority of the Altaics were nomads. In 1922 the Oirot autonomous region was founded (which was renamed the Mountain Altai autonomous region in 1947). With the arrival of collectivization practically all the Altaics were forced into having a fixed place of abode.
Since the 1950s a number of small villages have been demolished in Mountain Altai as part of the process of uniting collective farms. In 1959 there were 388 villages in the autonomous region but by the year 1980 only 240 remained. There are now settlements with more than 1,000 inhabitants. These changes have caused the formation of villages with mixed populations (Altai-Kazakh, Altai-Russian). It has been claimed that the growth of large villages at the expense of smaller ones has not altered the Altaics' tribal structure.
Ethnic culture. Throughout the centuries the Altaics have tenaciously held on to several elements of Old Turkic culture and the accompanying way of life.
Previous to collectivization the South Altaics occupied themselves with nomadic herding. The North Altaics were mainly hunters -- the mountain taigas, where they lived, were full of game. There was also some small-scale farming. A lot of people were gatherers. From the middle of the 19th century cedar nut picking rose to become a very important activity, mainly for the Kumandins, Chelkans and Tubalars.
There is a great difference between the North and South Altaics in their customs and clothing.
Altai is a very old centre for the art of metal working. Since ancient times the North Altaics have been remarkable for their skill in mining and melting iron and fashioning harnesses, helmets, spears, hunting gear, sabres and many other things.
Up to the beginning of the 20th century Old Turkic burial customs were retained in Altai; for example a harnessed horse was put in the tumulus together with the deceased. Many Old Turkic shamanistic customs remained, including the rite of sacrificing animals.
A strict tribal exogamy used to be a characteristic of the Altaics, they never married members of their own clan (seoki).
Writing. An Altaic written language, based on the southern dialect (Teleut), was created in the 1840s in the course of Russian missionary work. It was based on the Cyrillic alphabet. Biblical as well as profane literature was produced. This literary language existed until 1922. After that the Altaic alphabet was supplemented with several Russian characters in order to convey accurately the abundance of words borrowed directly from Russian. In 1931 a tendency to latinize the alphabet developed. In 1938 the Cyrillic script had to be reinstated.
The origins of systematic research into the Altaic language are connected with the name of V. Radlov, a distinguished Russian Turcologist. Radlov lived in Altai for 12 years (1859--1871), collecting linguistic and ethnographic material. The vocabulary of the written form of Altaic is influenced by Mongolian (like all the other Turkic languages in Siberia) and to some extent by Arabic and Iranian. The Altaic intelligentsia has constantly been accused of nationalism and anti-Sovietism.