Vitebsky, Piers

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Vitebsky, Piers

PERSONAL: Male. Education: University of Cambridge, B.A., 1971, M.A., 1974; University of Oxford, diploma in social anthropology, 1972; attended Delhi School of Economics, 1977–79; School of Oriental and African Studies, London, Ph.D., 1982.

ADDRESSES: Home—England. Office—Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, Lensfield Rd., Cambridge CB2 1ER, England. E-mail—pv100@

CAREER: University of Cambridge, Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, England, assistant director of research, 1986–


Policy Dilemmas for Unirrigated Agriculture in Southeastern Sri Lanka: A Social Anthropologist's Report on Shifting and Semi-Permanent Cultivation in an Area of Moneragala District, Center of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge (Cambridge, England), 1984.

Dialogues with the Dead: The Discussion of Mortality among the Sora of Eastern India, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England), 1993.

The Saami of Lapland, Wayland (Hove, England), 1993, reprinted, Thomson Learning (New York, NY), 1994.

The Shaman, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1995, published as Shamanism, University of Oklahoma Press (Norman, OK), 2001.

(With Caroline Humphrey) Sacred Architecture, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1997.

(With Tony Allan) Triumph of the Hero: Greek and Roman Myth, Duncan Baird (London, England), 1998.

(With Michael Kerrigan and Alan Lothian) Epics of Early Civilization, Duncan Baird (London, England), 1998.

(With Brian Leigh Molyneaux) Sacred Earth, Sacred Stones, Laurel Glen (San Diego, CA), 2001.

Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia (memoir), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2005.

Author of documentary films, including Siberia: After the Shaman, Channel 4; Arctic Aviators, National Geographic; and Flightpaths to the Gods, BBC2. Contributor to periodicals, including Natural History.

SIDELIGHTS: Piers Vitebsky is an anthropologist who has carried out fieldwork in India since 1975 and the Siberian Arctic since 1988. Dialogues with the Dead: The Discussion of Mortality among the Sora of Eastern India is Vitebsky's study of a group of people he worked with during the 1970s, and then revisited in 1984 and 1992. The book presents their beliefs about death and the afterlife of the dead, who they refer to as sonum. K.I. Koppedrayer noted in the International Journal of Comparative Sociology that "dialogues with the dead, mediated by funeral shamans—mainly women—in trance, are moving, complex, and densely packed with layers of social and personal meaning."

Sacred Earth, Sacred Stones is a revised version of the 1995 book The Sacred Earth, by Brian Leigh Molyneaux, whom Vitebsky joins for this edition. The volume examines twenty-five major sacred sites around the world, including Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, Teotihuacan, and Chichen Itza, but also less well-known sites. Folklore contributor Janet Bord noted that "apart from the sites, the book's subject-matter ranges across such topics as Creation, spirit paths, rock images, earth energy, spirituality, the ancestors, pilgrimages, sacred lakes, mandalas, ceremonial landscapes, shrines and temples, worship and ritual, the afterlife, and much more."

Vitebsky visited the Eveny tribe of northeastern Siberia for many years before writing Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia. It is a memoir and a study of life in a region where the temperature can fall to nearly minus one hundred degrees, so cold that boiling water thrown into the air will freeze before touching ground. In this environment, the relationship of the Eveny people with the animals that feed and warm them reaches back into prehistory. The animals are used for their meat and hides as well as for transportation and trade. In the past, the Eveny and their cousins, the Evenk, followed the animals as they migrated, and Vitebsky retraced those routes with some of the older hunters. Under the Soviets, the Eveny were forced to live in settlements, and while the wives maintained their villages and the children attended school, the men were often away for long periods managing the herds. Vitebsky documents the harm caused by the forced changes on the culture and the loss of self-esteem experienced by the reindeer herders.

Roger Took noted in Geographical that in spite of this history, the Eveny have retained their independence. Took wrote that it is this attribute "that has made significant intercourse particularly difficult for outsiders. It's much to Vitebsky's credit, therefore, that he has been able to glean so much natural and human detail, in addition to the purely anthropological and historical." A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that Vitebsky's book "teems with strong personalities, perilous adventures and time-honored folkways." "Gorgeously observed and evocative are his descriptions of living in the landscape," Anna Reid noted in the Spectator. A Kirkus Reviews contributor described Reindeer People as "extraordinary fieldnotes."



Vitebsky, Piers, Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2005.


Folklore, October, 2002, Janet Bord, review of Sacred Earth, Sacred Stones, p. 288.

Geographical, May, 2005, Roger Took, review of Reindeer People, p. 72.

International Journal of Comparative Sociology, November, 1998, K.I. Koppedrayer, review of Dialogues with the Dead: The Discussion of Mortality among the Sora of Eastern India, p. 419.

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, June, 1995, Gananath Obeyesekere, review of Dialogues with the Dead, p. 458.

Kirkus Reviews, October 15, 2005, review of Reindeer People, p. 1128.

Library Journal, November 15, 2005, Dan Harms, review of Reindeer People, p. 74.

M2 Best Books, July 1, 2003, review of Sacred Architecture.

New Scientist, May 14, 2005, Nick Saunders, review of Reindeer People, p. 53.

People, December 5, 2005, Allison Lynn, review of Reindeer People, p. 55.

Publishers Weekly, October 24, 2005, review of Reindeer People, p. 51.

Spectator, April 23, 2005, Anna Reid, review of Reindeer People, p. 38.


Scott Polar Research Institute Web site, (January 15, 2006).