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Encyclopedia of World Cultures
From: Encyclopedia of World Cultures(Vol. 6: Russia and Eurasia/China. )
Publisher: Macmillan Reference USA
Document Type: Topic overview
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ETHNONYMS: Alta, Altai, Altai Turks, Altays, Kizhi


Identification. Altaian is the general name for a group of Turkic peoples living in the region of the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia in the Altai Republic. These peoples include the Chelkan, Kumandin, Telengit, Teles, Teleut, and Tubalar. The name "Altai Kizhi" is applied both to a specific unit among them and to this group of peoples as a whole; it is a descriptive designation, not an official one. "Altai" designates the region; "kizhi" means "man" or "person" and is generally used to denote a nation, folk, or people. Historically, there is no specific name for these peoples. They may identify themselves by the name of the locality in which they live, such as a river or a forest zone; for example, one group of Altaians living in the Mayma River region refers to itself as the "Mayma Kizhi" or the "Maymalar" (i.e., the Maymas). The Tubalar occupy a forest zone and sometimes refer to themselves as the "Yish Kizhi"—the "Forest [lit., Wooded Mountain] People."

It is also the custom among peoples of the Altai to refer to themselves as the members of a line of common descent. In the past they were designated "Kalmyks," "Mountain Kalmyks," etc., but this is an error, because the Kalmyks speak a language classified in the Mongolian Language Family and have only a distant connection, if any, to the Turks. The frequent occurrence of the term "Tele" among the names of these peoples (Telengit, Teles, Teleut) goes back to the name of an ancient Turkic people, the Tele. A variant of this name is set down in Chinese records of the sixth to eighth centuries.

The Altaians are defined as Turkic not only by their language but also by their customs and history. It was once believed that the Altai Mountains, where they live, were the original homeland of all the members of the Altaic Linguistic Group, but there is no historical evidence of this. Nevertheless, the Altaians are near the center of distribution of the Turkic-speaking peoples, having neighbors within this language group to the north, east, south, and west.

Location. The Altaians constitute a group of related mountain peoples living beside the streams of the Altai complex of mountain ranges. This complex consists of the chief water-divide ranges, the South Altai, the Inner Altai, and the East Altai; the Mongolian Altai is connected to this mountain complex, rising to the southeast of the Siberian Altai region. The Altai system is located in the central part of southern Siberia, with Mongolia to the east and Kazakhstan to the south; it lies between 48° and 54° N and between 83° and 90° E. The mountains are of moderate elevation, with several reaching 4,500 meters; those higher than 3,000 meters are snowcapped throughout the year. The Altaians live in the broad plateaus, steppes, and valleys of the ranges. The climate is continental, with considerable temperature swings, but is modified by the effect of the mountains, which cause a winter temperature inversion. In effect, the Altai forms an island of higher temperaturesPage 20  |  Top of Article in winter than those found in the Siberian taiga to the north or in the Central Asian and Mongolian steppes to the south and east. The mean January temperature of the Chuya steppe, in the southeast of the region, is -31° C; winter temperatures fall as low as -48° C. The mountains form a nodal point for the gathering of precipitation. The main rainfall occurs in July and August, with a secondary and smaller period of rain in the late autumn. The western Altai has a mean annual rainfall of over 50 centimeters; the east is drier, receiving about 40 centimeters per year, or even less, and forms a transition to the more arid Mongolian steppe, farther east.

The Altai is rich in lakes and streams. The chief lakes of the region are Marka Kul in the south and Teletsk in the central part of the Altai region. In nearby parts of Siberia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan there are much larger lakes: Zaysan Nur, Kara Usu, Ubsu Nur, and Kulunda. The Siberian rivers Ob, Irtysh, and Yenisei have headwaters in the Altai Mountains. The most important rivers within the Altai are the Biya, Katun, Bukhtarma, Kondoma, Ursul, Charysh, Kan, Sema, and Mayma.

Of the groups of Altaians mentioned, the Kumandin live chiefly along the right, or north bank of the Biya River, in the northern part of the region; the Telengit live mainly along the river systems of the Chuya and Argut, in the southern Altai; the Tele occupy the valley of the Chulyshman River in the east-central district; the Teleut live beside the Charga River; and the Tubalar live in the valleys of the Greater and Lesser Isha and neighboring streams.

Their territory lies entirely within the former Soviet Union (specifically within Russia, there they form a unit for administrative and census purposes). The Altaians presently live compactly within the Gorno-Altai Autonomous Oblast (GAO) (founded 1 June 1922), a region of the Altai Krai in the southern part of west-central Siberia. The center of the autonomous oblast (92,600 square kilometers in area) is Gorno-Altaisk (until 1932 it was called Udala, from then until 1948 Oirot-Tura). The territory of the oblast is divided into eight administrative districts connected to the center by roads and air transport. In all districts the Altaians live mixed with other peoples, among whom Russians represent a large percentage; in the Komagach District of the GAO, the Altaians live among Kazakhs.

Stretches of farmland, pasture, and steppeland are found in the region; the steppes are drier than the farmland, the latter being located chiefly in the north, the steppeland in the south and east. The principal steppes are the Uimon, the Kurai, and the Chuia. The soils of economic importance to the Altaians are the rich chernozems, the steppe and mountain meadow soils, and the gray forest soils. The chernozems are most useful for farming, the others less so.

The natural vegetation in the area is variable, ranging from steppe grasses, shrubs, and bushes to a light forest of birch, fir, aspen, ash, cherry, spruce, and pine, with numerous clearings and spacings between the trees; this forest merges in the north with a modified Siberian taiga, with thinning vegetation. The wild fauna include hare, mountain sheep, several species of deer, bobacs, East European woodchucks, and moles; predators among them include the lynx, polecat, and snow leopard; bird species include the pheasant, ptarmigan, goose, partridge, snipe, and jay; fish in the lakes and streams include the trout, grayling, and sig (the latter is mistaken by the local Russian population for the herring).

Demography. With the exception of the postwar (1959) census of 45,270, the population remained near its present level of 59,130 between 1926 and 1989.

Linguistic Affiliation. Altai, a member of the Turkic Language Family, has two major dialect groups, Northern Altai and Southern Altai. The former includes those groups known as the Kumandin, Chelkan, and Tubalar, whereas the latter consists of the Altai-Kizhi, Telengit, and Teleut. The Northern Altai dialects reflect features typical of the Northeast Turkic languages and therefore are similar to the Turkic languages of southern Siberia, including Khakass, Shor, and Tuvan; the Southern Altai dialects share much in common with Kyrgyz and thus reflect features of the Kipchak Group of Turkic languages, which also includes Kazakh, Tatar, and Nogay. The Altai literary language is based on the Southern dialect group.

The first written language for the Altaians was established in the 1840s by the Russian missionary M. Glukhov, in conjunction with the Altaian M. V. Chevalkov. But its development was interrupted in the beginning of the twentieth century. In the 1930s a new written language, employing first the Latin script and then the Cyrillic, was established, becoming the basis for the development of education, the eradication of illiteracy, and the codification of the norms of the literary language.

Most Altaians are bilingual in their native language and Russian; instruction is in Altai. Radio broadcasts are transmitted in Altai three to four hours per day. The Altai language is not used for administrative purposes.

Education. In Gorno-Altaisk there are several specialty schools where Altaians can receive an education or learn a trade. The pedagogical institute prepares teachers in various specialties for the schools of the Altai. Some of the graduates find their calling in the scientific-academic or manufacturing-production areas. The secondary specialty schools are livestock and cooperative-trade technical colleges. The pedagogical and medical schools graduate specialists to work in the districts of the oblast. In addition, many Altaians also complete studies at universities and institutes in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk, and other Russian cities.


The Altaians live beside rivers, lakes, farmland, mountain meadows, and steppelands, where they till the soil, raise livestock, hunt, and gather wood in the nearby forests. Since ancient times, the rivers and lakes have been of importance as means of transport and communication and as economic lifelines for the local peoples of the Altai who rely on them as a source of fish. The Altaians have been involved in trade and political interrelations with surrounding parts of Asia for a long time. They traverse the steppes by both land and water transport.

Houses were chiefly wooden huts; they were clustered to form small villages along the banks of streams. FromPage 21  |  Top of Article ancient times, however, Altaians made felt tents with wooden frames, tied down by leather straps. The use of the tents has declined along with the practice of nomadic pastoralism. Today, families in rural districts live in homes with modern conveniences; these dwellings usually contain three or four rooms and a kitchen. In their personal plots near the house stand traditional dwellings—bark-covered conical cabins, felt yurts, or polygonal framework structures. These dwellings are used as kitchens in the summer and as storehouses in the winter. When the herdsman makes seasonal stops, however, he does live with his family in felt yurts, with other traditional structures serving for cattle.

History and Cultural Relations

In the first millenium before the present era, the Altai mountain region was inhabited by pastoral nomads who had domesticated sheep, horses, and other animals. They used bronze and other metals. The archaeological record of the great kurgan of Pazyryk indicates that the life of the peoples in the period from the fifth to first centuries B.C. was organized into a political society; the herding people were ruled by a kind of chief or local king. The peoples of the Altai were at this time in contact with the Central Asian peoples to the south and to the east. It is difficult to identify the culture or the language of these people, but it is not likely that they were Turkic speaking; the latter peoples came into the region at a later time. The Altai Mountains cannot be regarded as the center from which they dispersed. The region was settled in the first millenium of our era by a new population, who probably were Turkic speakers. In the eighteenth century, small groups of Siberian peoples belonging to the South Samoyed Branch of the Uralic Linguistic Family and to the Yeniseian Linguistic Stock (Ket, Kott, Arin, Assan) still lived in the northern parts of the Sayan Mountains, to the east of the Altai range, even as the Turkic languages were becoming dominant in the entire Altaian part of Asia. It is thought, though it is not firmly established, that the Northern Altaians, the Chelkan and Kumandin (along with groups of the Shor, Khakas, and Tofalar), may be Turkicized Samoyeds or Ket speakers, whereas the Telengit and others living in the south of the Altai region were original Turkic speakers who moved into this region in early historic (ancient and medieval) times.

The chief location of the Samoyeds at present is to the north and west of the Altaians, although once they were also to the east of them; the Ket as well are found chiefly to the northwest of the Altaians, although they also once lived to the east. Because all these peoples belong to different linguistic groups, without connection either to their Turkic-speaking neighbors or to one another, it is most probable that the Altaians moved into their present habitat at a later time, as a part of a general northern movement of the Turkic peoples, the most northerly of whom are the Yakut in central and eastern Siberia. In moving to their present region, the Altaians appear to have settled between the various groups of Samoyeds and Kets.

The Altaians formed a part of the ancient Turkic kingdoms of Central and East Asia, among them the Kök-Türk and Uigur, then later the Kara-Kitay and the Kitan, who ruled briefly in China at the end of the twelfth century; the Altai region was part of the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries.

The Altaians submitted to the czarist forces and were incorporated into the Russian Empire in the mid-eighteenth century, at the time of the Russian incursion into Dzungaria.

Elsewhere they were subject to a double yoke—that of the Russians and that of the Chinese.


Although the ancient archaeological record shows pastoral nomadism to have been the economic practice in the region, the local population later made the transition to the sedentary occupation of tilling the soil and raising livestock, predominately bovines. The transition to village life, raising cereal grains and livestock, took place in recent centuries, chiefly by acculturation. The appearance of Russian peasants in the region during the nineteenth century accelerated and intensified this process. Thus, beekeeping in the northern parts of the Altai region was introduced by the Russians, who also introduced the iron plow; Before that, the Altaians mainly used the wooden plow and the hoe or mattock.

Nevertheless, some seminomadism, particularly in the southern parts of the Altai region, persisted into the twentieth century. In the 1920s and 1930s land was collectivized and the nomadic and seminomadic life-style was transformed into a settled one. By 1937, 93 percent of the Altai population was settled. Nomadic and seminomadic forms of livestock breeding, however, did not disappear even then. The raising of livestock, especially in the southeast part of the Altai, is based on a pasturing system, with migration according to season or pasture. The principal cereal grains of the Altaians in the pre-Soviet period were barley and, to some extent, wheat and rye. The products of the cereal grains were ground into meal at home. The cereals together with the products of livestock (i.e., milk of the cattle and meat of their domesticated stock), supplemented by the products of hunting and fishing, constituted their diet.

Industrial Arts. Leather from the hides of the stock and furs of the local wild animals provided clothing. The Chelkans and the Kumandins engaged in wool weaving to some degree, and all the villages processed hides, furs, and felt. The forests provided wood for housing, fire, and the implements of labor, such as plows, horse saddles, and tool handles. The products of livestock rearing from a personal herd are still prepared according to ancient nomadic methods. In the summer Altaians prepare butter, various kinds of cheese, dried curds, etc., from the milk. The processing and working of pelts for the preparation of clothing, boots, and harnesses remain traditional.

The products of the hunt, together with those of livestock, such as wool and felt, were traded with neighboring peoples. In the past, Altaians mined metals such as iron and gold, the trade in which was important both to the Altaians and to their neighbors.

Clothing. The national costume of the Altaians is still worn. For the most part, elderly people, herdsmen, andPage 22  |  Top of Article children wear fur overcoats, boots, and a variety of headgear. The ubiquitous round sheepskin cap with a silk tassel on top is worn year-round by Altaian men and women and by the local Russians, with whom it has also become popular.

Brides, too, maintain traditional apparel; they wear elegant, silk-covered fur coats, headdresses, and sleeveless jackets (chegedek), which represent symbols of the bride's passage into the class of women.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kinship. The Altaians generally maintained a patrilineal organization. The local communities were bound together by ties of common descent, and their closest kin were generally their closest neighbors. Just as they traced their descent from father to son, so they maintained their village organization in terms of the patriline. This was most markedly developed among the southern Altaians. The more northerly of these peoples had village groups based on territorial and neighborly bonds rather than on kinship.

Traditional Turkic social organization was based on patrilineage, in particular the descent line called seok (lit., bone). Descent in the seok was still reckoned into the twentieth century among the Telengit. The seok roughly coincided with the patrilineal clan, or gens, and in traditional times was the unit of tax collection and of political, juridicial, and military organization. Traditionally, the seok was an exogamic unit. The importance of The seok and related traditional units were marginalized early in the czarist era through administrative reorganization and through contact with Russian peasants and merchants, primarily in the more northerly districts of the Altai, among the Chelkan and Kumandin.

The members of the seok hunted together, exchanged goods with one another, and were closely interdependent. Kinfolk distinguished those who were related to one another through the father from those related through the mother. The mother came to her husband's village from another village and from another patriline. Family and village organization was basically patrilocal. Within the patriline, close attention was paid to rank by order of birth; the younger brother paid pro forma respect to the elder brother, as to the father. As among other Turkic peoples of Central Asia, however, the youngest son inherited his father's house and the land immediately surrounding it.

Marriage. The selection of the bride is sometimes determined by the groom's parents. Matchmaking is an obligatory part of the marriage ritual. The soliciting of an agreement for marriage is accomplished by representatives (the matchmakers) from the groom's side. In the past, abduction of the bride was not uncommon. The bride must make her new home at the residence of the groom's parents. During the wedding she pays respect to the fire of her husband's clan, prepares tea for the guests, and receives gifts of cattle, money, furniture, and so forth.

Sociopolitical Organization

In traditional times the villages were gathered together in districts ruled by a hereditary aristocracy; the district rulers bore the title of zaysan, a rank that is found among many other Turkic-speaking peoples. This title corresponds elsewhere in the political world of the Turks to a nomenclature for nobility of the middle rank, well below the rank of the title of khan or king. The title bay was given to another rank of influential and wealthy people of the upper social class. The noble rank was bestowed on the aristocracy generally, who achieved their status by right of birth. The ordinary Altaians were ranked below the aristocracy; the Altaians were thus divided into social classes in traditional times. In addition to the two ranks mentioned, there were two strata lower on the social scale than the Altaian commoners: kuly, household slaves of the nobility, and ay bachi, groups of unfree labor of a more general kind.

Although the peoples of the Altai, whether Turks or others, were brought together under a king or emperor in ancient and medieval times, the Altaians did not create a kingdom of their own. The names of each of the peoples mentioned, and those of their combinations, refer to a grouping based on locality, on common descent, and on cultural and linguistic cohesion of a traditional kind. The members of the seok were referred to as karyndash, meaning "those of a common womb."

The acculturation Altaians experienced during the period of Russian imperial rule has brought formal social and cultural changes having to do with loss of sovereignty, transfer of local police power to central administrators, payment of taxes, or, in the past, the activities of missionaries. More informal acculturation has come about through contacts with Russian peasants, merchants, and travelers. The degree of acculturation was not uniform in traditional times (i.e., until the Russian Revolution). The peoples living in the northern parts of the Altai region were somewhat more acculturated than those in the south, where the traditional practices of seminomadic pastoralism and of the seok could still be observed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The seminomadic pastoralists raised herds of cattle and tended them on horseback, as did the full pastoralists who worked out of permanent villages. These full pastoralists live in tents year-round—setting them up, dismantling them, and moving seasonally from one encampment to another, in an annual round. This kind of nomadism was practiced by the neighbors of the Altaians as well as by the peoples of the Altai themselves in ancient times.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religion. The traditional religion of the region was shamanism, which was associated with the cults of the sky and of fire and the hearth. Shamanism is concerned with questions of good and evil, with the afterlife, and the supernatural. It is predicated on a belief in spirits that have the power to cause good or ill. The shaman seeks to master these spirits or otherwise get them to benignly serve human ends. The principal instrument of the shaman is the drum, which he or she beats to achieve a state of ecstasy and enter the spirit world. There, the shaman seeks out the spirits that become his or her familiars and tries to find out what will happen in the future, what has caused the ailment of a particular person, and what is generallyPage 23  |  Top of Article good or ill for people. Shamanism as a religion, medical practice, and philosophy is widespread in Central and Northern Asia. The Turkic term for shaman is kam.

Shamanism came under the onslaught first of the Russian Orthodox church during the czarist period, then of the campaign against religion during most of the Soviet era.

Arts. The Turks of the Altai were part of a civilization that had developed its own written tradition, leaving monuments with their runic inscriptions in the Yenisei Valley to the north of the Altai, and in the Orkhon Valley to the east; these inscriptions date from the sixth to the eighth centuries A.D. Later, the Uigur script was adopted by many Turkic-speaking peoples of Central Asia. The Uigur script is related to the alphabets of Western Asia and was also used by the Mongols during the era of Chinggis (Genghis) Khan.

In 1937 a National Drama Theater was created in the Altai, the repertoire of which includes plays by both Altaian and European playwrights, produced in the Altaian language and with Altaian actors. Among the most popular plays are those by one of the main figures of Altai literature, P. Kuchiiak. These plays deal with motifs of folklore or scenes from everyday life; the most noteworthy include Cheinesh and Orolor, Uch-Kis. The Altai troupe has toured throughout the districts of the oblast and beyond its borders.

Folklore is a cultural heritage of the Altai people; it conveys their centuries-old history and has continued to develop in the modern era. In the past forty years extensive collections of epics and other genres of Altai folklore have been recorded from kaichi (storytellers) and published. The archaic tales of such heroes as Altai Buuchai, Maadai-Kara, and Koguteei rank among the classical epics of world literature. In the Altai, both men and women could be Kaichi. Famous kaichi of yore included M. Yutkanakov and N. Ulagashev (1867-1946); those of today are A. Kalkin and N. Yalatov. The Teleuts have retained their epic tradition through the modern era better than other groups of Altaians and, earlier, transmitted it to some of the Shors as well.

Altai folklore has always been closely tied to musical instruments. Storytellers would perform the kai (epic), and the common people would sing songs at weddings or at home to the accompaniment of stringed instruments (ikili or topshur [a lutelike instrument with two horsehair strings]). The temir-komys, a semicircular metal instrument similar to a Jew's harp, was considered a woman's instrument. Wind instruments (shogur, shoor, abyrga) were used on the hunt as decoys.

Death and Afterlife. The death rites of the Altaians consist of burial in traditional clothing (particularly for older women), followed by an arrangement for "meeting" with the spirit of the deceased on the seventh and fortieth days after death. The shaman makes this contact at the grave.


Potapov, L. P. (1964). In The Peoples of Siberia, edited by M. G. Levin and L. P. Potapov, 304-341. Translated by Stephen P. Dunn and Ethel Dunn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Originally published in Russian in 1956.


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3458000951