Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History

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ByW.n/aJOCHELSONn/an/a (n/an/a)

Like the tent of the Reindeer people, the dwelling of the Maritime Koryak is called, besides li’g-e-yan ("genuine house"), also yaya’ñi. It is an underground, or rather semi-underground, solidly built, permanent dwelling-place. It is of wood, mainly of poplar or aspen, which grows to a considerable height even along the lower courses of the rivers of the Koryak territory. The Koryak float the timber down in summer to the mouths of the rivers; and sometimes they use driftwood. Driftwood carried down by the current from the river-heads may be found mountain-high in the bays and at the mouths of the rivers.

The dwellings vary in size according to the number of inhabitants. Small houses occupied by a family of from five to eight persons may be found frequently. From excavations undertaken by me on the sites of ancient settlements in Gishiga Bay, it appears that in olden times the underground houses were more spacious than those of the present time. Families separated more rarely, and all relatives used to live together. The average number of occupants of one house at present is from six to thirteen. Out of 110 underground houses on the shores of Penshina Bay, of which I took a census, in only one (in the Paren settlement) did I find twenty-one persons, and they comprised two families. According to tales of olden times, there were formerly underground houses occupied by as many as forty persons. Among the Kerek we still find twenty-five persons in one house. A house in Mikino inhabited by fifteen people was found to be 15 metres long (not including the entrance room), 12 metres wide, and 7 metres high. Such a house is somewhat larger than the average present-day underground house; and those but half as large, or even smaller, may often be found.

In order to build an underground house, a circular hole from 1 to 1.5 metres deep is dug, in which the walls are put up in the form of an octagon. The octagon is not equilateral. The sides a (fig. 60) are longer than b; and the sides c are half as long as b. Eight poles (P) about as long as the height of a man are driven into the ground at the eight corners. Between the poles two vertical rows of split logs, or large poles, or round stakes, are driven into the ground, and the spaces between them are filled in with dry grass. The tops of the eight outside corner poles (P) are notched, and into the notches wooden cross-beams are placed. Each pole holds the ends of two cross-beams. The upper ends of the inner vertical poles forming the walls are fitted into grooves in the cross-beams. In some houses, one row of the wall-boards, either the inner or the outer one, is set horizontally, and fits into grooves in the corner poles. When the vertical walls are thus prepared, they are covered to the top with earth taken from the hole (see fig. 61, s).

Fig. 60.

Four main posts (P′) are driven into the ground in the middle space enclosed by the walls (figs. 60 and 61). These posts support the roof of the house, and form a square. In large houses the diameter of these posts is more than 30 cm., while their height is from 5 to 7 metres and over. Into the notches on the top of these posts two beams are placed, across the grooved ends of which two other cross-beams are fitted and lashed. These four cross-beams together form a square frame. One pair of such beams resting on the posts may be seen in figure 61. From these beams, slanting down to the top-beams of the walls a and b (figure 60), poles of poplar or aspen logs split in two are placed, thus forming four sides of the roof. The triangle between the cross-beams c and the inner posts P′ (fig. 60) are covered with stakes of varying sizes, the lower ends of which rest on the beams c, and the upper ends on the extreme side-logs of the rectangular slopes.

All the crevices between the poles are carefully filled up with dry grass and loose earth, and on top is placed a row of cleft logs. In this manner the slanting roof of the house is formed. From each corner of the square frame formed by the four main inner beams, two posts rise obliquely (see figures 61 and 62 g). Their lower grooved ends rest on the beams on each side of the corner posts. They diverge widely, and their upper sides rest on posts (h) which are grooved at the top for this purpose. These posts, called tivo’, are driven into the ground outside of the house. Logs (d) are placed on the poles g (see figures 61, 62). This structure consisting of three parts g, h, d (fig. 61), has the appearance of a funnel, or of an umbrella turned upside down, and placed over the square frame on top of the roof. This funnel is called, in the Koryak language, ti’votil, and is built for the purpose of protecting the upper entrance to the underground house from the drifting snow piled up by the raging winter storms. The snow driven by the gale from any point of the compass whatsoever strikes against the lower part of the funnel, and is scattered in all directions.

Fig. 61. Cross-section of underground house. (Koryak.)

Inside of the funnel is the square upper roof with the square winter entrance in the middle (see fig. 62). The upper roof (fig. 62, l) consists of logs covering the frame made of the four top beams, and forms the bottom of the walls of the funnel. In the middle of the roof a square well-shaped opening, each side of which is about one metre long, is made. This is the winter entrance (cina’ ugicñin), through which, by descending a ladder (, people enter the house (figs. 61, 62, E). This opening serves at the same time as a smoke-hole. The poles of the flat roof are double, like those of the slanting roof, and the open spaces and crevices between them are filled with dry grass and earth.

One side of the funnel, which is above the roof of the narrow passage serving as an entrance-room (fig. 62, V), is narrower and lower than the others. A ladder is placed against it for the purpose of getting up from the roof of the entrance-room to the upper roof of the house. The entrance-room is a narrow covered passage leading into the house. It is also excavated. Four short straight posts are driven into the ground, with stakes placed between them, forming two side-walls. A low door is made in the front wall. The wall of the house serves as the rear wall of the ante-room. A small door is placed in that wall also. Both doors turn on wooden hinges. Cross-beams are placed upon the posts of the ante-room, and on top of them are horizontal poles forming the roof, which is covered with earth. The two side-walls of the entrance-room are covered outside with earth up to the top, so that the roof of the ante-room is accessible without a ladder. The height of the passage is hardly that of an average man. I had to stoop considerably to pass through the ante-room into the house. The door leading from outside into the entrance-room and that leading from the entrance-room into the house (see fig. 61), are each only a little over one metre in height, so that one has to stoop very much to enter the passage and the house.

Fig. 62. Roof-plan of underground house. (Koryak.)

The dirt floor of the entrance-room slopes slightly down toward the door leading into the house. At the entrance from the ante-room into the house there is a threshold. The dirt floor of the house is on a somewhat lower level than that of the ante-room. The entrance-room, or passage, is called ya’xel.

The door leading from the entrance-room to the house is in use only during the fishing and sealing season—from the early part of May till the end of October. In October, when the skin boat is taken out of the water and put away for the winter, the entrance to the passage is closed up. It is first covered with grass, then earth is put over it, and pressed down with heavy logs. The custom of shutting off the door for the winter might be very simply explained as due to the wish to avoid the unpleasant necessity of constantly clearing the entrance from snow-drifts.

In the Kamenskoye settlement my wife and I occupied a small Russian log-cabin belonging to a Cossack who was absent at that time, and we had ample opportunity of experiencing the inconveniences of this type of dwelling in that climate. Every wind, violent or not, would cover our house with snow to the top, and we were fastened in until my men (a Cossack and an interpreter), who slept in a neighboring Koryak house, came, together with Koryaks, and cleared away the snow from our door.

But the Koryak attach a religious importance to the custom of closing up the lower entrance during the winter. It is sinful, they say, to go into the house through that entrance in winter-time. However, none of the Koryaks were able to explain the meaning of this taboo, and but one offered a plausible explanation.

Just as the entrance to the tent of the Reindeer Koryak faces the side where the sun rises, so does the lower entrance to the house of the Maritime Koryak face the sea. In summer the door of the lower entrance is open in order to give free access to the sea-mammals, as though they were visitors; but, if, without any cause, the door should be left open in winter, when all hunting for sea-mammals is at an end, then the animals would avoid that house the next summer, and the occupants would be unsuccessful in their hunt. The lower doors of the houses which are occupied only during winter are, for the same reason, not opened at all.

When the lower door is walled up, a ladder is placed vertically on the floor of the house, rising toward the side f (fig. 62) of the entranceplace in the roof. The ladder is made from half of a split poplar-tree. On the side where it was cleft, that is, on the back of the ladder, the wood is hollowed out like a trough, that it may be easily grasped with the bands. Instead of steps, holes are cut through at distances of from 30 cm. to 40 cm. apart. These holes are like flattened disks in form. They are large enough for the small feet of the Koryak, particularly those of the women, and children’s feet would enter up to the instep; but my feet, in shaggy winter stockings and boots, could hardly get through them. On ladders with small holes I had to get up by the tips of my toes only. Once, as I remember, the fur toe of my boot slipped off the step, and I should have fallen down into the house from a height of five metres, had I not clutched the ladder with my hands, and in this manner slid down. Once my Cossack, carrying in one hand a bowl of flour for dinner, was going down into the house. In changing the bowl from one hand to the other, he let go of the ladder, and, losing his balance, fell into the house flat on his back.

Occasionally a Koryak falls from the ladder; but as a rule they run up the ladder carrying heavy loads in one hand, their children on their backs, or with heavy buckets of water, or with pails filled with hot soup for the dogs. It is particularly interesting to see how skillfully they strike the holes, coming down without even looking at their feet. Children three and four years old climb up the ladder as quickly as squirrels, and slide down on their hands to save time. Such a way of sliding down is not quite safe, as I found out for myself. The ladder is planed smooth, so that the hands shall not get hurt by splinters. In course of time it becomes covered with a layer of fat mixed with soot, which makes it look as though it were covered with a dark, glossy varnish. The edges are so slippery on this account that it is quite impossible to hold fast to the ladder with the hands, particularly if they are mittened. If one foot slips out of a hole before the other has had time to get into the next, a fall is likely to follow. In such case, one should by no means let go of the ladder, or he will surely land in the house on his back.

In houses occupied all the year round the ladder is removed in summer, and put away on the floor of the house, near the wall, until the next autumn. When the ladder is put up, it is anointed with fat, and charmed, in order that it may not admit any evil spirits into the house. As we have seen before, the ladder is one of the family guardians and its top is carved in the form of a human face. The top of the ladder rises about 1.3 metres above the opening, so that it can be grasped with the hands when one begins to descend. The ladder is fastened with thongs to the entrance-hole (fig. 62, f), lest it should shake or fall backward; and it is placed nearer to the left-hand corner, when facing the side f. This is done to prevent articles or heavy loads carried in the right hand from striking against the right side of the frame of the entrance-opening. The vertical position of the ladder is accounted for in the same way; namely, that buckets, loads, or children carried on the back may not strike the rear side of the frame of the opening. Very heavy or bulky articles are lifted up, or let down, into the house, by means of thongs.

The hearth usually consists of two oblong stones placed on the dirt floor at a distance of about 50 cm. from each other (see fig. 60, F). The fire is made of wood in the space between them. The hearth is about 50 cm. from the ladder, toward the entrance-room. Whether going in or out of the house, a person always faces the fire. The smoke escapes through the entrance-opening in the roof. Cinders and hot air also rise from the hearth, and escape along the ladder through the opening. The upper part of the ladder becomes so hot while there is a fire, that it burns the hands.

At first we had a very hard time getting down into the house while the fire was burning. As soon as we put our feet upon the ladder, the smoke blinded our eyes, and the heat nearly took away our breath, but after getting over the first trying moments, and as soon as we had descended a little, we felt relieved. The Koryak, however, do not experience any discomfort from having the opening serve the double purpose of a means of exit for people and of escape for smoke.

The arrangement for a draught is as follows. The door leading from the house to the entrance-room, even in winter, is left open, for the entrance-room serves also as a cold-storage place. Seals killed late in fall are put away there, and also blubber, berries picked for winter use, frozen fish, and other provisions. Shelves (see fig. 61) are arranged there for this purpose. Owing to the exigencies of the climate, a part of the provisions has to be kept near at hand; for during violent winds it is difficult, especially for women, to get out to the storehouses, which are built on poles. A round opening sufficiently large for a man to get through is left on the roof of the entrance-room (see fig. 62, W). This opening is called . Women and children often get in and out of the house through this opening, in order to avoid going up and down the ladder. The men consider it incompatible with their dignity to enter the house through this opening. In olden times, men "transformed" into women (kavau) used to go in and out through this opening. Provisions, dogs’ harness, and other articles are lowered down through it. Besides, it serves as a draught-hole.

When the fire is not burning in the house, the entrance-room door is closed and the opening on its roof is stopped by a plug plaited of the stems of Elymus mollis. When the fire is started, the plug is removed from outside, placed upon the roof of the entrance-room, and the door leading from the latter into the house is opened. Thus a current of cold air forces the smoke upward into the roof-hole; but, since the opening is not directly over the hearth, the smoke strikes the ceiling, and spreads over the upper part of the house. When sitting on the floor, it is possible to remain in an atmosphere which is not charged with smoke. For instance, I could easily take notes when sitting on a log; but when I stood erect taking anthropometrical measurements, while the fire was burning, my eyes would begin to water. During very violent or irregular winds, a return-draught or a changing draught is formed, and the house becomes completely filled with smoke.

In the fall the Koryak chop driftwood into thin billets, and put them upon the roof around the funnel, except on that side by which the people ascend to the roof. This is done in order to have handy a supply of wood during severe snow-storms, which often rage for several days in succession, when it is utterly impossible to get out of the house. Of course, in good weather the supply of wood is sometimes renewed in winter. The wood is split into small bits to secure a fire quickly.

When the fire is first started and the entrance-room door is opened for the draught, the cold air strikes the feet, and the house is quite cold; but after the wood has burned out and the draught is shut off, the house begins to grow warm. It gets very warm when only red coals are left on the hearth and the smoke-opening is covered up. The temperature sometimes reaches 20 degrees Centigrade. When the entrance-opening is covered up, the heat remains for a considerable time. During the night the house gets very cold, and the temperature in the morning is often below zero. Thus the temperature drops between the times when the fire is made. To save fuel, the fire is not made often, only two or three times during the day. It is made invariably in the morning directly after getting up, and in the evening, before going to bed—at the time of the two main meals. During the day, fire is sometimes made in order to prepare tea, or if company should come.

The Maritime Koryak dwelling, compared with the tent of the Reindeer Koryak, provides the people with good shelter from frosts and winds. I think, therefore, that this type of Arctic dwelling is more ancient than the tent, Which must have appeared in the far northeast of Asia together with the domesticated reindeer.

The cover used for shutting the roof-hole is made of boards tied to two cross-pieces by means of thongs drawn through holes. The cover is somewhat wider than the square opening of the entrance. A half-circular section is cut out at the side for the ladder to pass through, and thus the entire opening is covered up. During the day, however, the entrance is seldom closed, since people are constantly coming and going. In the evening, after all are in bed, the entrance is always covered up. The one who closes it gets up the ladder, and with his hands pushes out the cover from below over the opening. Of course, crevices enough remain for ventilation.

The cover of the entrance-opening also serves to regulate the draught while the fire is burning. It is placed vertically, near the entrance to face the wind, in order to prevent it from blowing into the entrance. The grass plug on the roof of the entrance-room is also utilized for regulating the draught. It is placed at the edge, in a direction opposite that of the wind, which, after striking against the plug, gets into the opening. Of course, all these arrangements are of no avail when strong winds are blowing.

The inner arrangement of the underground house is as follows. On the side opposite the door leading to the entrance-room, behind the posts, is a platform, from 30 cm. to 60 cm. high, made of boards (see figures 60 and 61). This place (ayo’-ai) serves as a seat and as a bedroom for visitors. It is covered with seal and reindeer skins. Upon it, near the walls, are stored away household articles that are in frequent use. The right and left sides of the house are called yelñi-xal. On the right side lives the master; on the left, his brothers, relatives, and neighbors. The places behind the posts are called yoyo’ñi. They serve for bedrooms, and have a dirt floor like the center of the house. These places are separated from the middle of the room by means of logs (fig. 60, L). The floor is strewn with willow-branches covered over with dry grass (grass mats are used in northern Kamchatka), and then with seal and reindeer skins. Sleeping tents are pitched over these skins.

These tents are of the same shape as the inner tents of the Reindeer Koryak, but, instead of being made of heavy reindeer skins, they are made of old skins which have served for bedding before; or they are made of old fur clothing. The hair of the skins is closely clipped with a knife. These tents serve as bedrooms only, and are let down at night. In the daytime the front side of the tent is raised, and fastened on top with thongs. The children are kept on the skins under the raised tents, and the women also sit there with their work. The men sit, during the day, on logs in front of the tents, unless they are lounging in bed. They sleep in the tents with their heads toward the middle of the house. Bags filled with clothing, scraps of skin, nets, and other household articles, serve as pillows, while the bolster is supplied by the log.

To give better support to the main roof-beams in large houses, three additional posts are driven in between the central posts (fig. 61, P), except on the side opposite the door.


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Chicago: Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History in Source Book in Anthropology, ed. Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1920), Original Sources, accessed September 22, 2023,

MLA: . Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History, Vol. 10, in Source Book in Anthropology, edited by Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T., Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1920, Original Sources. 22 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: , Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History. cited in 1920, Source Book in Anthropology, ed. , University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. Original Sources, retrieved 22 September 2023, from