Hey guys, it’s time for Office Hours with the Brofessor, the Show Where I Say Things. Before going into specific detail about Ket, let’s talk a little about the different language and cultures of the indigenous Siberians, who we first heard about last time. Indigenous Siberian peoples and languages can be grouped into five main categories:
The first four categories represent language families. The fifth is an umbrella term for a number of not-necessarily-related peoples and languages that predate the arrival of the others:
Let’s look at our big, beautiful Siberian language map. The first four groups, you’ll notice, are pretty widespread throughout Siberia and the Russian Far East. Their spread-outness is mainly due to the fact that these peoples have traditionally practiced nomadic pastoralism; that is, they raise herds of animals and follow a carefully timed seasonal migration. In the northern taiga, or forest, people keep reindeer, while in the southern steppes we have cattle and sheep, for example among the Mongolic-speaking Buryat people. The Turkic Sakha people of eastern Siberia even keep these cute little mini horses that have the superpower of resisting cold:
Pastoral nomadic people are actually quite new to Siberia—they’ve only been around for the last few thousand years.
The Paleosiberians, on the other hand, are the survivors of the region’s pre-pastoral peoples. Instead of herding animals, Paleosiberians are hunter-gatherers, following a way of life as old as humanity itself. Their ancestors have lived in Siberia since time immemorial, perhaps even since the very glaciers receded. The Paleosiberians are really a diverse group of people, and for the most part aren’t really linked either by genetics or linguistics. One of these peoples, of course, is known as the Ket.
So what’s the deal with these Ket guys? The Ket are interesting because they’re the last surviving true hunter-gatherers of inland Eurasia. A few other Paleosiberian hunter-gatherer groups exist, but these are all coastal peoples who rely on the sea. The Ket are the last living representatives of a lifestyle that was once, thousands of years ago, widespread across interior Eurasia.
Their language, too, is a last survivor. Ket belongs to the small Yeniseic language family, all other members of which have gone extinct:
Of the Yeniseic languages and peoples, Ket is as I say the only one to survive to the present day, but even now it is what we would call a moribund language—that is, kids aren’t learning it anymore and it’s spoken only by older people. Within a few decades, barring a dramatic change in the situation of the Ket, it will have gone extinct as a native language. This is sad, because a number of linguists since the twenties have been drawing parallels between Ket and some of the native languages of North America. When Ket dies, so will what appears to be the only known prehistoric linguistic connection between the Old and New Worlds.
So, let’s review: the Ket are the last of the Yeniseic ethnolinguistic family, which for the sake of convenience is classified with several other families as “Paleosiberian”. Paleosiberians stand in contrast to the more widespread pastoralists, or “neo-Siberians”, who again comprise several different language families. So not only are the Ket linguistically unique, but they’re also a culturally distinct people who traditionally practiced hunting and gathering as opposed to their reindeer-herding neighbors.
Now that we know the very basics of who the Ket are, our next topic will be what daily life was like in traditional Ket culture. What was important, what did people care about? What did they do every day, and does this culture live on today? Find out in our next discussion.
2. By Maarten Takens from Germany - A Yakutian horse, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38384584