Early Pictographs and Ideographs

In prehistoric times humans reflected the surrounding world that they perceived and learned through art. Numerous cave paintings and petroglyphs have been found in the Yenisey region, beginning in the Neolithic, for example petroglyphs in Yakutia (Belkachi Culture, 5200-4100 years ago and Ymyakhtakh Culture, 4200-3200 years ago) and at the Pegtymel' River in Chukotka (late Stone Age). Depiction of hunting scenes, animals, and rituals reflected the mode of life. In the Bronze Age, images may have changed to figurative composition of abstract character, but many thousands of years passed before human beings learnt to represent a concept or an idea as a single picture (pictographic writing) or later as a character (ideographic writing).

Few of the minority languages of the Russian north had writing systems before 1917. Pictographic writing among the peoples of Siberia seems to be unique to the Yukagir, the descendants of a circumpolar nomadic reindeer-breeding culture who now inhabit the Verkhnekolymsky district of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia). In the 19th century, samples of pictograph-ic writing (tos) were collected from the Yukagir by Vladimir Il'ich Iokhel'son (Waldemar Jochelson) and

Figure 1: Love letter (circa end of the 19th century). Collected by Iokhel'son. Published in Tugolukov, p. 51.

dotted line. Long vertical lines represent the legs of a man, collateral inclined lines are arms, and spots are parts of the body and joints. The ornamental frame above the figures is a house. The lines and arches symbolize thoughts and feelings.

When paper and other equipment for writing became available, birch bark went out of use as a writing material. There was also no need for pictographs with letter spreading. For example, birch-bark letters written in the 19th century were different from later birch-bark messages, the writings on paper being more schematic. The ideas in the pictographic letter in Figure 3, according to the words of its drawer, are as follows: "My thoughts are striving for you but we could not meet each other."

The hunter's shangar shorile messages were so accurate topographically that Iokhelson, who made his first studies on ancient letters at the end of the 19th century, called them "the embryo of geographic maps." Comparing them with women's messages, one can distinguish figures of people, animals, herds and summer houses, boats, ski, and other hunting tools drawn separately. These messages were used to transfer information about the routes taken by people leading a nomadic hunting and fishing existence.

Figure 2 depicts Yukagir people walking on the thin crust of ice over snow for the spring hunt. Two hunters, the representatives of four families, are skiing and going in the same direction to hunt. Each of them had a team of two dogs and a sledge. Then they parted. The content of the letter is conveyed twice: first by pictographs and then by an ideogram. According to the ideogram placed at the center of the letter, the dwelling houses are represented as traditional conical tents and each footstep means a hunter. The "tree" ideogram shows that a man belongs to a particular clan.

S. Shargorodsky; further samples were collected by the 1959 scientific expedition of the Siberian Branch of the Academy of Sciences and by the present author in the 1980s. The Yukagir used both feminine and masculine pictographs with elements of ideography. Pictographic letters were also used by shamans. The Yukagir wrote their letters on birch bark or shangar shorile ("a letter written on a tree skin," from the Yukagir words shaal — "tree," khaar — "skin," sho-rileshum — "to write"). Women used the pictographs mostly to send love letters, and men's messages were about hunting and route maps.

Figure 1 (from the end of the 19th century) is an example of a letter by a young girl suffering from unrequited love. Each figure in the form of a "feather" or "umbrella" symbolizes a human being. The figure of a woman is distinguished by a plait depicted by a

Treaty Signed Pictographs
thin crust of ice over snow (circa end of the 19th century). Collected by Iokhel'son. Published in Tugolukov, p. 104.

Figure 3: Love letter: (1) figure of a woman; (2) figure of a man; and (3) an obstacle (drawing on paper, 1959). Published in Iokhel'son, Yukagiry: Istoriko-etnograficheskii ocherk, p. 57.

Figure 5: Copy of an original drawing on paper (circa 1980) from the author's (Zhukova) archives.

Figure 3: Love letter: (1) figure of a woman; (2) figure of a man; and (3) an obstacle (drawing on paper, 1959). Published in Iokhel'son, Yukagiry: Istoriko-etnograficheskii ocherk, p. 57.

Picture 4 shows another route message: the trees "a" symbolize two adults and a child, "8" represents a traditional conical tent, and "B" is a road drawn in long dotted lines. Each dotted line meant one day, so in the picture we can see a route of six days length. The position of the moon shows the same phase as it was the day the people left for hunting. "A" is a special sign known from shaman pictograms, folklore of the Yukagir people, and from rock art of ancient Yakutia, and is connected with the idea of soul reincarnation and a cult of fertility and ancestors. This sign was also used in messages to indicate the action of "returning." Picture 4 means that in six days the hosts would return to their houses. Sometimes the sign "return" would be accompanied by a definite moon phase, which was supposed to be the day the hunters would return.

Picture 5 is a letter written by a Yukagir shaman in the 1980s. On the right, one can see realistic pictures: a house, man, tree, fire, and dog, which symbolize five spirit-helpers of the shaman. The picture of the dog is

Figure 5: Copy of an original drawing on paper (circa 1980) from the author's (Zhukova) archives.

placed lower, which means, according to the shaman's explanation, that this helper is always near the shaman and that the others left the shaman during the first phase of the moon and went to a man living in a big house. The "way" of spirits is conveyed by short dotted lines and means their absence: "go and return." Using the sign "return," a shaman "closes" ways of further movement of spirits and makes them come back to him. In this case the "arch" sign carries a magical meaning.

The origin of pictographic and later the ideographic messages was conditioned by the way of life led by the seminomadic population of the taiga forests of Siberia:

During their nomadic existence especially during the period of winter hunting, ... the relations between groups were stopped for a long time ... The group of people being in the taiga forest or rivers would leave on trees pieces of birch-bark with realistic pictures on them. Another group seeing those original "letters" would learn of the destiny of the first group and, according to picture, take decisions. (Ivanov, 1954: 520)

Such "birch-bark mail" probably operated among the aboriginal population of the North and Siberia for at least a thousand years. However, some scholars say that the Yukagir pictographic writing may have appeared at the end of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century as an imitation of Russian correspondence (Yukagiry: istoriko-etnograficheskii ocherk, p. 56) (Figures 6-8).

Figure 6: Love letter (circa late 1920s).Source unknown; published in Tugolukov, p. 105.

Figure 4: Ink copy from an original drawing on paper done by a Yukagir (circa 1980) from the authors's (Zhukova) field diary.

Figure 6: Love letter (circa late 1920s).Source unknown; published in Tugolukov, p. 105.

Figure 7: A map message: (1) picture of a summer house (Yukagir dwelling), somebody spent the night there; (2) figure of a hunter and elk (got an elk); and (3) a place where one is planning to stay for a night. Published in Iokhel'son,Yukagiry: Istoriko-etnograficheskii ocherk, p. 57.

After the revolution of 1917, efforts were made to promote literacy among people of the USSR. As a result, people of different nationalities living in Russian territory began to study Russian and Russian grammar, and use paper and writing equipment. The use of pictographic and ideographic writing has disappeared in connection with the increase in literacy among the northern peoples.

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