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Contact in the Prehistory of the Sakha (Yakuts): Linguistic and Genetic Perspectives

This study analyses the prehistory of a northeastern Siberian population, the Sakha, from both a molecular-genetic and a linguistic perspective.

Brigitte Pakendorf
12 December 2007

The Sakha, who are a Turkic-speaking group of cattle- and horse-breeders, migrated to the Lena river from an area further to the south several hundred years ago. This migration brought the ancestors of the Sakha into contact with populations speaking different languages and with different subsistence patterns. The aim of this investigation is to elucidate the extent to which the Sakha interacted with the indigenous populations of the territory that they migrated to, both from the point of view of genetic admixture and from the point of view of language contact.

The results of this study show that the Sakha were in contact with two different groups during their history: with speakers of a Mongolic language and with speakers of Evenki. The contact with the Mongolic-speaking group can be shown to have taken place during the period of the Mongol Empire, when the Mongols ruled over large tracts of Eurasia. During this time, the Sakha copied a large number of lexical items from Mongolic, possibly due to the social and political prestige of the Mongolic-speaking group.

In contrast, the contact with the Evenks led to the introduction of a number of schematic copies, but only a relatively small amount of substance copies from Evenki into Sakha. The schematic copies from Evenki are the loss of the Genitive case, the use of the Partitive case to mark indefinite direct objects, the retention of the distinction between Comitative and Instrumental, the development of a Distant Future Imperative, and the extension in use of the possessive suffixes to non-possessive functions. The nature of the copies from Evenki implies that the Sakha were dominantly bilingual in Evenki. The genetic results, however, show no evidence of male admixture from Evenks, and little evidence for female admixture, although this cannot be excluded. Thus, the genetic analyses indicate that there was no shift of entire Evenk communities to the Sakha language and identity. The schematic copies from Evenki found in Sakha may provide evidence of female-biased intermarriage with Evenks; although there is no conclusive evidence for this in the genetic results, this cannot be excluded on the basis of the mtDNA analyses alone. Possibly, however, the schematic copies entered the language through frequent social interaction of Evenks and Sakha during the initial period after the Sakha migrated to the Lena. As shown by the genetic analyses, the immigrating Sakha ancestors consisted of a very small group of men; these may initially have been dependent on communication with the indigenous Evenks, until they had fully adapted to the new environment.

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