Totemism, Animism and North Asian Indigenous Ontologies

By Pedersen, Morten A. | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Totemism, Animism and North Asian Indigenous Ontologies


Pedersen, Morten A., Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


This article examines the extent to which new theories of animism advanced by Descola and Viveiros de Castro are consistent with the indigenous ontologies of North Asia. Based on a survey of North Asian ethnography and on fieldwork in Mongolia and Siberia, it is proposed that an analytical distinction between animist and totemist modalities will shed light on indigenous ontologies in North Asia. Whereas the ontologies of Northern North Asia (NNA) are predominantly animistic in nature, the ontologies of Southern North Asia (SNA) are predominantly totemistic. This opposition falls in line with established anthropological distinctions concerning North Asian societies, such as the one between 'horizontally' and 'vertically' organized social formations. Finally, adopting Viveiros de Castro's notion of 'perspectivism', I address the question of why, when perspectivist notions seem to thrive in NNA, the societies of SNA do not show them.

This aim of this article is to show how different indigenous ontologies of North Asia can be described and compared through the three analytical categories of animism, totemism, and perspectivism. I seek to contribute to the recent revival of the animism debate within anthropology (Bird-David 1999; Descola 1992; 1996; Ingold 1998; Stringer 1999; Viveiros de Castro 1998), and aim to provide insights into a theme largely neglected by anthropology, namely the comparative study of the indigenous societies of North Asia.

The indigenous societies of North Asia range from former deeply hierarchical tribal empires of the Mongolian grasslands to the current small egalitarian bands of reindeer-breeding hunters traversing the wilderness of Northern Siberia. Indeed, a geographical as well as cultural opposition between Northern North Asia (NNA) and Southern North Asia (SNA) is crucial for my argument. Partly following Levin and Potapov (1964), I see NNA as encompassing the extremely sparsely populated taiga and tundra regions of both Northeastern Siberia and the Russian Far East. Its indigenous people belong primarily to the palaeo-Asiatic language group (e.g. the Itelmen, the Koryak, the Chukchi, and the Yukaghir), but also include people of the Tungoso-Manchurian (e.g. the Even, the Evenki) and the Turkic language group (i.e. the Tuvans, the Yakut). SNA includes the steppe regions of the Mongolian Plateau as well as the forest-steppes of its northern fringe, such as the South Siberian Transbaikal region. The indigenous peoples of SNA belong primarily to the Ural-Altaic language group (e.g. the Halx, the Darxad, and the Buriat), but also to the aforementioned Turkic language group (e.g. the Altays).

This article must be seen as a somewhat bold attempt at a synthesis of a pool of quite different societies and locations, drawing on ethnographic descriptions from different historical periods. Much of the basis for my analyses originates from the beginning of the twentieth century, another large set of data is of quite recent date, while very little information stems from the middle period, that of state Communism. This is mainly due to the restrictions imposed on scholars during this period. While all of the indigenous people mentioned have been subject to various forms of Communist political economy and state power, as well as earlier Russian and Chinese (Manchurian) imperial colonialism, some have remained largely independent (such the Halx of the present-day Mongolian Republic), while others (such as the Yukaghir of Northeastern Siberia) have been under a constant threat of assimilation, not only from colonizing states, but also from stronger indigenous groups (e.g. the Yakut).

So we must accept a certain level of generalization to reach the level of synthesis aspired to here. Regardless of the actual historical period described, I shall use the ethnographic present. Also, when I refer to a particular group or aspects of their social life, for the sake of clarity and brevity I shall gloss over most of the internal differences that are present - unless, of course, these are pertinent. …

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