Anthropology of disease. In the wake of the Arctic Circle epidemics: field materials of I.S. Gurvich 

Romanova E.N., Stepanova L.B.


Vestnik arheologii, antropologii i etnografii, 2021, ¹ 3 (54)


              page 218230




The unique body of materials collected by the Soviet ethnographer and the North scholar I.S. Gurvich (19191992) in places of compact residence of the indigenous peoples of Yakutia (the Yukagir expedition of 1959) for the first time determined scientific interest in the problem of medical anthropology, which reflected original ideas about diseases and health as a vital unity (body and soul), as well as symbolic “charging” of medical practices. The purpose of this research is an attempt to understand the spiritual experience of the peoples of Yakutia in the context of social, epidemiological, and climatic disasters. An interpretation of the visual image of epidemics in the traditional worldview of the indigenous peoples of Yakutia is given. The main object of this research, which reconciles the past and present, is the traditional world of long-lasting “perception” and “experience” of mass epidemics by indigenous people of the North. The methodological innovation of the paper is the study of colonial diseases in the framework of social and cognitive anthropology. With the example of local ideas about diseases and treatment in different ethnic communities of North Asia (the Yakuts, Evens, and Yukagirs), we analyze a complex socio-cultural phenomenon that emerged in the 17th century from the historical contacts between local and foreign origin cultures. The cultural dimension of the epidemic diseases within the borders of the Arctic circle, based on the historical and ethnographic sources of the Northern expeditions of the Soviet ethnologist I.S. Gurvich, is the first attempt of the cognitive analysis, the image of the disease and symbolic strategies for its prevention. A broad semiotic analysis of the concept of disease in the indigenous peoples of the Arctic at the level of linguistic, historical, mythological, folklore and ritual texts allowed us to identify the original layer of demonological representations associated with mass epidemics and symbolic strategies for their prevention. Cultural codes of the demonic character-disease (space, color, object, action, ritual) are identified. Sacred practices of influencing the disease were expressed in the following ways: foresight; conciliation; gifting/redemption; deception techniques; and deliverance. Diseases are personified and encoded using certain characters. Obviously, the semiotic system serving the image of disease in the framework of the local ethno-cultural traditions reflected the local specifics.

Keywords: history of epidemics, medical anthropology, indigenous ethnic groups of the North-East of Russia, the population of the past, the anthropology of the disease, health-saving folk practices, the character and image of the disease, the language picture and the ritual context.


Acknowledgements. The authors express their sincere gratitude to employees of the Research center of book monuments the National library of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) and personally to the Director S.V. Maksimova for their assistance in providing the photo archive of I.S. Gurvich.

Funding. The research is funded by grant No. 2020-220'08-6030 «Preservation of Linguistic and Cultural Diversity and Sustainable Development of the Arctic and Subarctic of the Russian Federation».


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Accepted: 27.05.2020

Article is published: 27.08.2021


Romanova E.N., Institute for Humanities Research and Indigenous Studies of the North of Siberian branch of the RAS, Petrovskogo st., 1, Yakutsk, 677027, Russian Federation; International Research Laboratory “Linguistic Ecology of the Arctic”, Belinsky st., 58, Yakutsk, 677000, Russian Federation, E-mail:,


Stepanova L.B., Institute for Humanities Research and Indigenous Studies of the North of Siberian branch of the RAS, Petrovskogo st., 1, Yakutsk, 677027, Russian Federation, E-mail:,