The Yukaghir from the Upper Kolyma Valley call themselves Odul, those from the Alazeya call themselves Vadul, and those from the Indigirka call themselves Dutke, Dutkil and Buguch. The name Yukaghir is considered to be a generic name of Tungus origin meaning the 'icy or frozen people'. However, there are also some other interpretations and Y. Kreinovich, for instance, claims that the origin of the word is unclear.
As recently as the beginning of the 17th century, the Yukaghirs were over a large territory in North-Eastern Siberia - from the lower reaches of the River Lena in the west to the middle and upper reaches of the River Anadyr in the east, and from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the Verkhoyansk Mountains in the south. It has been suggested that the early Yukaghir ( the Yukaghir-Chuvan tribes) inhabited areas further to the west and to the south. In the 12th or the 13th century the Tungus people (the Evens and the Evenks) invaded Northern Siberia, coming from the mountain taigas behind Lake Baikal. It may be assumed that the Tungus and the Yukaghir met near the River Vilyui and the lower Aldan. Probably part of the Yukaghir moved still further to the north: to the upper Yana, Indigirka, Kolyma and Anadyr rivers, and into the forests and the tundra. A part of them intermingled with the Tungus.
Today, a small number of the Yukaghir live in the Nizhnekolymsk district in YakutiaYakutia (the Forest Yukaghir or the Odul) and in the Srednekansk district in the Magadan region (the Tundra Yukaghir or the Vadul).
Anthropologically the Yukaghir belong to the Baikal group of the North-Asian race.
Ethnologically the Yukaghir are regarded as indigenous peoples of Eastern Siberia. Before the Russian colonization of the 17th century the Yukaghir tribes (the Chuvans, the Hodyns, the Anaul, etc.) were scattered over an area which extended from the River Lena to the mouth of the River Anadyr. The Yukaghir population was considerably reduced in the 17th-19th centuries owing to epidemics, internecine warfare and the colonization policy of the tsarist government -- partly also due to their assimilation by the Chukchi, Yakut, Even and Russian peoples.
The genetically isolated Yukaghir language has been regarded as one of the Paleo-Asiatic languages. It has been hypothesized that the Yukaghir language is related to the Uralic languages. However, the grammatical structure and the vocabulary of the Yukaghir language are so different from the modern Uralic languages that it is obvious that the Yukaghir separated from the common Uralic language earlier than the Samoyedic or the Finno-Ugric peoples, that is, more than 8, 000 years ago. A sizeable part of the Yukaghir vocabulary is of unknown origin. In the basic vocabulary of the two major dialects spoken today there are such disparities that the only possible explanation is the existence of a substratum or some other non-trivial dialectal differentiation.
The first Russians came to these parts in 1635. Their initial aim was to collect tribute in the form of sable furs from the native people and to build fortified towns along the banks of the River Yana. From there, they proceeded to the Indigirka, and then on to other areas. The Kolyma Valley was settled around 1643. The new settlers built towns to facilitate the collecting of tributes from the local inhabitants. The towns also served as places to keep hostages. Special detention houses were filled with hostages, held in order to force their relatives to bring in more pelts. Approximately 6% of the adult males were permanently kept hostage. However, the Russians realized that this reduced the number of able-bodied hunters, so toward the end of the 17th century the system was changed and, instead of prime males, youngsters were detained. The mortality rate was high. The anthropologist B. Dolgikh considers hostage-taking to be one reason for drastic decrease in the Yukaghir population following the Russian invasion. The Russians managed to put a strain on relations between the Chukchi, the Koryak and the Yukaghir people. The Yukaghir took part in looting raids and in punitive expeditions against the other people.
Among Russian officials there was competition for the right to collect tribute from the local people. The result was that some of the tribes had to pay tribute and supply hostages twice or more. Resistance was punished by wives and children being taken captive. Thus in the 17th century a lot of Yukaghir women were in the hands of Russian officials and traders. Dolgikh claims that between 1770 and 1780, for example, approximately 10 % of Yukaghir women of marrying age lived with officials and traders. The imbalance between the number of men and women, warfare, intermingling with neighbouring peoples and the smallpox epidemics which ravaged Yakutia in 1657, 1659-1660 and 1691-1692, all contributed to a marked decline in the Yukaghir population. While in the mid-17th century the Yukaghir numbered approximately 4,700, by the 1680s the population had fallen to 3,700 and by the end of the century the number was 2,600 (B. Dolgikh). Thousands of people continued to fall victim to venereal diseases and frequent famines and in 1861 there were only 1,000 Yukaghir in the province of Yakutia.
In the 17th century the invaders did not have time to put ideological pressure on the Yukaghir or any other native people of Siberia. Conversions to the Russian Orthodox religion were random (The Yukaghir were given a drink and, when drunk, were made to cross themselves). Systematic conversions began in the early 18th century after a church had been built in the fort of Zashiver, on the Indigirka. From then onwards the Yukaghir were given Russian names.
The main reason for the famines was that the Yukaghirs were unable to adjust to new, changed conditions. The Yukaghirs had been wholly dependent on the environment. However, the ecology of Siberia worsened after the Russian intrusion. Reindeer, waterfowl and fish all disappeared. The latter were literally eaten up by the dogs; the Russians settlers, the Yakut and the russified Yukaghir had begun to use dogsleds. In one year one dogsled ate 36,000--40,000 fish. Clergyman, A. Argentov, called dogsleds in the lower Kolyma "a destructive war waged by man against nature".
The early Yukaghir used weapons made of stone and bone. The Tungus who came to Northern Siberia sometime before the 13th century had the advantage of using iron weapons and keeping reindeer for transport.
The ancestors of the Forest Yukaghir were hunters and fishermen who moved from place to place in search of food. Until the 18th century, the main occupation of the Yukaghir in the upper Kolyma Valley was hunting wild reindeer. This was undertaken twice a year when the migrating reindeer crossed the large rivers. Experts say that the methods employed by the Yukaghir in hunting were of the utmost perfection. Hunting occupies an important place on the upper Kolyma even today. The Tundra Yukaghir placed no less value on hunting although their main use for reindeer was transport. One of the Yukaghir's main weapons was the bow - it remained in use until the 1920s because of the imperfection of firelocks and the shortage and high price of shot and gunpowder.
Then the economic conditions of the Yukaghir changed beyond recognition. The Yukaghir worked on state-owned farms, hunting fur animals, keeping reindeer, raising cattle (and horses) and gardening.
In the life of the elder Yukaghir people, game animal worship was still very important. While hunting they maintained one basic tenet: do not take from nature more than is needed. For a long time the shamanistic tradition was kept alive despite overwhelming russification. For a long time a matrilineal social organization survived, including matrilocal marriage. This is the main feature that distinguishes between the Yukaghir and the Tungus.