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The Siberian Collection – A New Perspective

Maut (lasso)

What could a man have been thinking about when looking at the herd of reindeer from the picture below, slowly moving before his or her eyes? And what could he or she have been thinking when engraving it on the radial bone of a giant eagle found 30,000 years later in Grotte de la Mairie in France?
They may have admired the animals’ beauty and majesty, that's true. Perhaps that's what we, their 21st century descendants, would do. But considering all the countless days they spent in the company of these animals, their thoughts could go in all possible directions and levels. Starting from the ground covered with moss, to even the most secret areas of heaven.
Knowing, however, the well-developed practical sense of man as a species, one would assume that they might as well have been wondering how to control what they saw. What wealth they would acquire if they could find a way.

For tens of thousands of years, hunting was the way to do it. The Upper Palaeolithic age is the reindeer era. Flocks as big as a million animals in Europe, Asia and America. And very few people living in their warmth. We don’t know if they only met at certain times of the year. At river crossings flowing with blood. Or maybe people followed the reindeer herds all year long, never losing sight of them for long. We know, however, that thousands of years later the Mesolithic people consistently made the same sacrifices from reindeer in Lake Stellmoor as their Palaeolithic ancestors.

They stuffed the animals' stitched bellies with stones and threw them into the water. They also put their horned skulls on long poles, sharpened on one end. So that’s probably two ways: hunting and trying to get along with the boss, the master of all animals.
Can anyone say when it first appeared? Version three?
Chaut, maut, tinzey, arkan, lasso. This object has many names and several versions, however, it marks a real revolution in the relations between man and animal. It gives man power, extends his arm. Allows to catch without killing. To take home. To let go and catch again. To domesticate. Nobody knows when exactly it happened: the domestication of the reindeer. Maybe two thousand years ago? Maybe in the Sayan mountain range? That's what some theories say. It is from there that waves of migration of people who could be called reindeer herders set off north- and north-eastwards. We don’t even know if the lariat was invented especially for the reindeer, or was it by chance the influence of steppe horse breeders on the simpler neighbours from the north. After all, the reindeer was domesticated only in Asia, the indigenous peoples of America never came up with the idea to do it.
The object in the picture belonged to the reindeer herders, living much, much later, in Kamchatka. They called themselves the Evens, and others called them the Lamuts in the  Yakut language, meaning the people from the sea, in this case, the  Okhotsk Sea. That is what Benedykt Dybowski called them. The Evens arrived in Kamchatka very late, only in the 19th century. They headed for this relatively narrow strip of land and there they formed a tightly knit group wedged between smoking volcanoes and settlements of people who had previously arrived: the Koryaks, Itelmens and Kamchadali. The Evens were reindeer breeding champions. Their animals were huge. They straddled them like horses. In 2019, in the Kamchatka mountains, some Evens still breed reindeer. And most importantly, they still use the lariat which they call maut. And we will also call it that. Let’s now listen to an experienced herder, Vladimir Indanov.
Vladimir was born in the Anavgay settlement in the central part of Kamchatka. He worked as a reindeer herder all his life. That’s what is written in his "employment booklet", a sacred document of all working citizens of the former USSR and of contemporary Russia. The employer was a sovkhoz, once owning thousands of "state-owned" reindeer, in herds scattered around the surrounding mountains.

All of Vladimir's ancestors were also herders, but not yet or already not having such "booklets". Their own "private" herds came with them to Kamchatka in the mid-nineteenth century somewhere from Magadan. And the ancestors of their ancestors? Yes, they lived somewhere off the coast of the Okhotsk Sea, upon the river Kolyma, in the Verkhoyansk Range. But scholars agree about their methods. First the domesticated reindeer were only used for transport. A few - a dozen animals per family. The food, continuously from the Palaeolithic period, was the meat of wild reindeer which they hunted for, using their tame cousins. The latter were never killed for meat, unless in desperate need. Large herds of domesticated reindeer breed for their meat, appeared much later, several hundred years ago, often due to contacts with the Europeans. The largest herds existed in the era of the socialist attempt to maximize meat production. At that time, the population of wild reindeer was killed off and gradually disappeared, giving way to the domesticated animals.
Currently, wild reindeer are rare, it is much easier to find them under a different name, the caribou, on another continent. An interesting fact: so far it hasn’t been discovered how the animal was tamed in Asia. At present, no one knows how to do it. On the other hand, wild reindeer easily lures the domesticated animal which then quickly turns wild. A real puzzle.

As for the huge socialist herds ... they disappeared together with socialism or rather they became scarce. Where the tradition of keeping them was firmly rooted, like among the Nenets, Chukchi or Evens peoples, they still exist. Where it was artificially introduced, for instance among the Evenks, it has disappeared almost completely.

For the Evens of Kamchatka, the maut is a source of pride to this day. They consider it an ideal tool. Using it and knowing how to do it is an important element of identity. Learning how to make it and use it brings back many colourful memories of each herder.
At the time when Vladimir was growing up, reindeer herders were nothing more than workers. A lot of effort was put into making them that. They were forbidden to wear traditional clothes and forced to don wadded coats. All this just so that the Even people would look and become standard representatives of the working class. Their status did not differ from the status of a mower or milking man in a state-owned farm. It was not a dream life for the young. And now? Herders are still employed by a state-owned enterprise. Mainly men. Some go on holiday to Thailand, get their false teeth during weekly stays in Chinese clinics. There is a lot of alcohol, there are drugs, WhatsApp is mainly used to get in touch with others, there is pornography on the mobiles, there is prostitution. And yet, at nights at the foot of volcanoes, dressed in warm furs needed for the night's watch, they are not much different from their ancestors that Benedykt Dybowski met. The situation is similar in the summer months, when they take their reindeer far away from human habitation. And the maut, their basic tool, has not changed at all.
Interestingly, Dybowski gives the name chaut in his note about this object. There are different opinions among the Evens themselves about the origin of the name.
Vladimir is no longer a full-time herder. He only helps every year at the time when the young are born. In the common herd, he also has several dozen private reindeer, which he uses when the family needs meat. Currently, he is a mechanic and driver of a tracked carrier transporting goods and people along the Kamchatka off-roads. He appears in National Geographic, Discovery, he also takes rich tourists from Europe and America on hunting trips. Mostly bear hunts.

“Bad work”, says Vladimir, “but well paid”.

The Even people have always tried to follow the basic rule of all bears hunters since the dawn of time. The head of the killed animal was left on the spot and placed with the eye sockets facing the east. It allowed the dead to be reborn. And what is the basic attraction of foreign hunts? The trophy in the form of a bear's head. They are taken to homes and offices by presidents of global corporations, German doctors, oil workers, rich inhabitants of international capitals. Will the bear be reborn in this way? Or will its soul and body be lost forever in air-conditioned prisons?

This was not a worry for either Dybowski or the herder from whom he got the maut. This man had other problems. For example, not enough sealskin to make the maut. Let's find out how Vladimir perceives the object exhibited at the Museum.
Reindeer look majestic and enjoy great interest. The Kamchatka herds are visited by tourists in organised groups in the summer. The French, Germans, Koreans and many others. The operators of these tours sometimes ask the herders to put on something more traditional than the worn-out military khaki uniform. The herders usually do it for a fee. The Europeans like to look at the reindeer and their people. They like the feeling that someone else in the world lives in the shadow of these wonderful animals.

Vladimir is now a mechanic of a tracked vehicle. Why didn’t we acquire a gearbox lubricated with grease for our collection?
The photos and films feature Vladimir Adukanov (who talks about the maut), Igor Adukanov (photos of herders), Nikolay Indanov (who talks about the maut) and Maya Lomovceva (who talks about the maut).

The author would like to thank them very much.

Both the photos and video materials were made in the winter of 2018 in Kamchatka, near the Anavgay settlement.


1.     J. Maringer, The Gods of Prehistoric Man, London, Phenix Press, 2002
2.     Piers Vitebsky, Reindeer People, London, HarperCollins Publishers, 2005
3.     William W. Fitzhugh, Aron Crowell, Crossroads of Continents, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988
4.     Benedykt Dybowski, Próba pomyślna przesiedlenia renów z Kamczatki na wyspę       Behringa morza Kamczackiego/ article in [W:] Kosmos, Lwow, 1916
5.     W. Bogoraz, The Chukchy, E.J Brill Ltd, 1904