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ETHNONYMS: Dubo, Tyva (Chinese historical sources); Soioty, Tannu-Uriankhaitsy,

Tuvintsy, Uriankhi (nineteenth-century Russian); Tandy-Uriankhai or Uriankhai (nineteenth-century Tuvan)


Identification. Most of Tuva is contained today in the Tuvan Republic, one of eighteen republics in Russia. The Tuvan Republic comprises about 171,000 square kilometers. The capital is Kyzyl.

Location. The Tuva region is located in southern Siberia. The Tuvan Republic is bounded on the west by the Gorno-Altai Autonomous Region, on the northwest by the Khakas Autonomous Region, on the north by the Krasnoyarsk Territory, on the northeast by the Irkutsk region, on the east by the Buriat Republic, and from the east to the southwest by Mongolia. Tuva is located at about 52° N, approximately the same latitude as Warsaw, London, and Calgary. Kyzyl was once thought to be the geographical center of Asia; an obelisk there contains the words "Centre of Asia," "Azianyng Tövü" (in Tuvan) and "Tsentr Azii" (in Russian).

The landscape of Tuva is mainly alpine. Mountains occupy about 82 percent of the country, plains only 18 percent. The entire territory lies above 500 meters; the highest mountain, Möngün Taiga (Silver Mountain) is 3,976 meters above sea level. Fertile lands are mainly in the river valleys, including those of the Ulug Khem (Tuvan: "Big River," the Yenisei between Kyzyl and Shagonar), Khemchik, Shagaan-Aryg, Chadaana, and Barlyk.

In Tuva one can find practically all the climatic zones and landscapes typical of Asia: deserts, tundra plateaus, reed jungles, alpine meadows, open steppe lands, high mountains, and dense taiga. Tuva is characterized by the diversity of its wildlife (antelope, foxes, bears, wolves, mountain goats, sables, snow leopards, and reindeer) and of its domestic herds (Tibetan yaks, reindeer [which are continually mixed with wild stock], Bactrian camels, small and sturdy horses, cattle, sheep, and goats, among others). Tuva's climate is sharply continental, with severe, cold winters and hot, dry summers. Temperatures range from a low of 61° C in the mountains in winter, to 43° C in the plains in summer. The mean annual temperature is 3.3° C in the plains and 6.1 ° C in the mountains. Winter, the longest season, lasts from the end of October to the end of March. Temperatures remain below 0° C 190 days on average, of which 60 days are below 30° C. January is the coldest month. Spring begins in April, summer begins in mid-May, and autumn begins in mid-September. Clear weather prevails all year in Tuva, with about 300 sunny days annually. The dry air makes it easier for people to withstand the winter cold and the summer heat. Precipitation ranges from about 20 centimeters per year in the river valleys to about 50 centimeters annually in the mountains.

Demography. In 1989 the population of the Tuvan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) was reckoned to be 308,557; of which 198,360 (64 percent) were Tuvan; 98,831 (32 percent) Russian; and 11,366 (4 percent) other nationalities. The same census showed there were 206,924 Tuvans in the USSR, 99 percent of whom considered Tuvan their native language. There were about 20,000 Tuvans living in northwestern Mongolia and about 4,000 in the Altai region (northern Xinjiang) of China. Nearly 30 percent of Tuva's population resided in the capital, Kyzyl, which had a population of more than 86,000 (mainly Russians). Most Tuvans still live in rural areas. The annual population increase among Tuvans is 21 per 1,000, or just over 2 percent.

linguistic Affiliation. Tuvan is a Turkic language influenced by Mongolian. It can be divided into four mutually intelligible territorial dialects that are distinguishable by pronunciation and vocabulary. About 3,000 inhabitants of southeastern Tuva speak Mongolian as well as Tuvan.

More than a thousand years ago, ancestors of the Tuvans used a runelike script to write ancient Turkic, but the system eventually died out. During the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, as Tuva was influenced by Lamaism, only Mongolian and Tibetan were written in Tuva. Around 1930 the Unified Turkic Latin Alphabet was developed for Tuvan and for other Turkic languages; little more than a decade later, various forms of the Cyrillic alphabet were devised for Turkic languages in the USSR. The Tuvan version uses the Russian alphabet plus three extra letters to accommodate specifically Tuvan sounds. Nevertheless, the Tuvan Cyrillic alphabet remains an imperfect vehicle for representing spoken Tuvan.

History and Cultural Relations

Archaeological evidence shows that Tuva was inhabited in the Paleolithic era by heterogeneous tribes of Europoid, Mongoloid, and mixed stock. In addition to native tribes, Scythians (or at least their culture) were present in Tuva (seventh to third centuries b.c.), followed by the Huns (second century b.c. to second century a.d.) and Ancient Turks (sixth to twelfth centuries)most notably the Uighurs (eighth century) and the Kyrgyz (ninth century), whose ethnonyms survive today as clan names in western and southeastern Tuva, respectively. There are notable burial sites from each of these historical periods that have yielded rich archaeological material: Arzhan (Scythian), Kökel (Hunnic), Tere-Khöl (Uighur), and various locations with "stone men" (Tuvan: közhee ; Russian: balbal ) with runelike inscriptions in Ancient Turkic (Kyrgyz).

In 1207 Tuva was conquered by armies of Chinggis (Genghis) Khan. It was settled over the following centuries by Mongolian tribes, who eventually became absorbed by the local Turkic, Ket, and Samoyed population, under the rule of the Altyn khans. From 1757 to 1911 the territory was ruled by the Ch'ing dynasty. In 1914 Tuva, without being given a choice in the matter, was placed under the protection of Russia.

In the years following the October Revolution of 1917, several battles between the Reds and the Whites took place in Tuva. The name of Tuva's capital reflects that struggle: originally Khem Beldiri (Tuvan for "River Confluence"), it was renamed Byelotsarsk in 1914 (Russian for "White Czar"), and Kyzyl-Khoto (Tuvan for "red" and Mongolian for "town") in 1921. Today it is known simply as Kyzyl.

From August 1921 to October 1944 Tuva was a nominally independent state issuing its own currency and postage stamps. (Virtually all the stamps were designed by Russians and printed in Moscow, however.) Although only the USSR and Mongolia sent diplomatic representatives to Kyzyl, the maps of many other countries showed Tuva as a separate state. The government of Taiwan still considers Tuva Chinese territory. Near the end of World War II the "small khural " (politburo) of Tuva, led by Salchak Toka, a graduate of the Communist University of the Toilers of the East (acronym KUTV in Russian), petitioned that Tuva be brought into the USSR.


Tuvans traditionally lived in settlements called aals, based on kinship, which formed the basic administrative units called somon or arban. Yurts were arranged according to each household's relation to the aal's leader, who was elected irrespective of age or sex. With urbanization, the collectivization of herds, and the enlargement of settlements, the traditional aal system is weakening. The somons and arbans have been replaced by thirteen administrative districts based on territory.

For centuries the Tuvans lived in felt yurts, as did Mongolians, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, and other Central Asian nomads, with whom the Tuvans historically have had close cultural ties. The yurt is a cylindrical structure with a conic top. Its trellised frame is made of wood; its walls are made of felt, which provide good protection from Tuva's sharply continental climate. Held together by rope, the yurt is designed for easy erection and dismantling, essential for nomadism. A more permanent variant is the hexagonal log "yurt." In eastern Tuva conical "yurts" made of birch bark (Tuvan: chadyr or alazhy ), similar to the native American tipi have been used by hunters and reindeer herders. Beginning in the 1950s under Soviet influence, Tuvans began a slow conversion to rectangular dwellings made of wood, brick, or concrete. This transition has been marked in many cases by the deterioration of such dwellings.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The basis of the Tuvan economy is and has been livestock breeding augmented by hunting and limited irrigated agriculture. Shepherds continue their traditional way of life, living in yurts and migrating with their herds to specific pastures. Hunting still provides furs for export (squirrels are the most common; sables the most lucrative), and Siberian elk (maral ) horns are sold to Oriental pharmacists as an aphrodisiac. The principal grain cropsoats, barley, wheat, and milletare grown for food and fodder. In the 1950s heavily mechanized agriculture was introduced and at first yielded marginally better results, but loss of fertility and soil erosion have since taken their toll. New cropsin particular, vegetableshave been introduced recently, and farmers from northern China have been recruited to show the Tuvans and Russians how to grow them. The predominant industrial activity in Tuva is mining, especially for asbestos, cobalt, coal, gold, and uranium.

The typical Tuvan diet historically has consisted of meat (mutton, beef, horse, goat, camel, reindeer, and wild game), roots, cedar nuts, preserved dairy products such as dried curds (aarzhy ), melted butter (sarzhag ), and cheese (byshtak ), andfor those living close to rivers or lakesfish. For special festive occasions Tuvans brew arak, fermented milk. In the past Tuvans did not eat bread, fruits, vegetables, or pork, but today all of these are part of the Tuvan diet when they are available.

Division of Labor. Traditionally, there was a clear division of labor, although it did not prevent a husband and wife from working together at the same tasks. Men tended to pasture livestock, sow grain, hunt, and do certain physical household chores, whereas women generally reared children, milked cattle, cooked, and kept house. In recent years this division has been blurred, with women doing many of the same jobs as menand the children's upbringing being neglected in many cases.

Land Tenure. Land in Tuva was state property during the Soviet period, which has resulted in a host of serious problems, including the predatory exploitation of forests and mineral resources, the flooding of river valleys for hydroelectric projects, and the destruction of pastures and arable land. Beginning in the late 1980s, some limited land reforms were discussed.


In the past Tuvans were strictly subdivided into clansMongush, Kyrgys, Ondar, Maady, Sat, and so on. Since the introduction of the paqssport (identity card) system in the 1950s, the Tuvans have been using family names, which are inherited only through the male line. This has given rise to a high demand for male children. Nevertheless, Tuvans still use terms that reflect their earlier complex kinship system. Some of these terms have different meanings according to context. For example, aky (elder brother) can also mean an uncle from the father's side (father's younger brother); similarly, ugba (elder sister) can also mean an aunt from the father's side (father's younger sister). Such precision based on age and sex, applied to older relations, is not accorded to younger brothers and sisters: all are referred to as dunma.

Marriage and Family

In the past marriages were arranged and took place at the ages of 12 or 13. Polygamy was not infrequent. Today polygamy is illegal, the minimum age for marriage is 18 years, and parental consent is not required. Formerly, the bride lived with the husband's family; today, the couple's place of residence is determined mostly by economic conditions. Divorce has become common; abortion is a widespread form of birth control because of a lack of alternatives. Three-generation families, still common in the countryside, are giving way to two-generation (nuclear) families in the towns as housing becomes more available. In the past inheritance was strictly through the male lines of descent; today all children have equal rights of inheritance.

Sociopolitical Organization

Under the Soviet system, the Tuvan ASSR had a Supreme Soviet (legislature) of 130 members, and a Council of Ministers, both guided by the Communist party of the Soviet Union's Regional Party Committee. With the disintegration of the USSR, attempts are being made to strengthen the legal and political rights of citizens and to make government responsive to the people's will.

Under Soviet rule the social structure in Tuva was artificially simplified from its traditional form. After the collectivization of herding and agriculture, people were assigned various categories of work; nevertheless, there were several thousand unemployed persons, especially in towns. Tuvan society is now guided by an intelligentsia that includes scientists, educators, technicians, and artists.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. The traditional religions in Tuva are Siberian shamanism, traces of which can still be found in the countryside, and Tibetan Lamaism, which entered Tuva in the second half of the eighteenth century and still persists among older people. In 1931 there were more than 4,000 lamas and two dozen lamaseries. After purges instigated by graduates of the KUTV during the 1930s, the lamas were dispersed and repressed, some of them were shot, and nearly all the lamaseries were destroyed. Recently, however, a Buddhist community was officially registered in Tuva. Efforts are underway to rebuild the great lamasery at Chadan.

Arts. Tuvan culture is noted for its rich oral epic poetry (as are other Turkic cultures) and especially for its music. There are more than fifty different musical instruments. In Kyzyl, music and drama are performed in an ornate theater with Oriental architectural influences. In the countryside, traveling ensembles often perform outdoors. Perhaps the best-known Tuvan movie star is Makhim Munzuk, who played the title role in Akira Kurosawa's Oscar-winning film (1975), Dersu Uzala (The Hunter). The most unusual Tuvan art form is overtone singing (khöömei, also known as "harmonic" or "throat" singing), in which a low, throaty voiceusually a drone lasting up to thirty seconds, sung after a melodic line of textis accompanied by a "second voice"that is, harmonics of the droneproduced by the same singer contorting his lips, tongue, soft palate, and throat muscles. Overtone singing, practiced almost exclusively by men, has at least five stylesfrom sügüt ("whistling"), through khöömei ("hoomei," the Anglicized Tuvan name given to the entire genre), to hargyraa ("rattling"). Overtone choirs are being formed in Europe and North America, and overtone singing is finding its way into the repertoire of a wide variety of musical groups.

Tuvans have a highly developed stone-carving art that is deeply rooted in their history. In the twentieth century stone carving has focused on small (hand-sized) renderings of animals and humans in a style reminiscent of the Scythian. The medium is pyrophyllite, a material like soapstone. Other carved materials include wood and bone. Gold-and silversmithery also have a long tradition. There is a constellation of crafts involving animal skinstanning, currying, pressing wool, and so onthat result in ornate utensils, clothes, and footwear.

Medicine. Herbal treatments were developed over the centuries by shamans and were augmented by Tibetan medicine as practiced by lamas. Since the 1940s conventional Western medicine has been dominant. Recently there has been a revival of interest in herbal remedies and medicinal plants.

Death and Afterlife. Although Lamaism is not publicly practiced in Tuva today, belief in reincarnation and the influence of karma is strong, especially among older people. When a person dies, the funeral is held within five days. The influence of shamanism can be seen in the timing of subsequent ceremonies, on the seventh and forty-ninth days after death: the soul is believed to remain in the dwelling of the deceased for seven days, at which time it departs for the kingdom of the dead (in the realm of darkness and shadows), reaching its ultimate wandering point only on the forty-ninth day. A ritual candle (chula ) is kept burning by the family of the deceased during this six-week period. Tuvans do not decorate the dead nor the grave, as they believe the body goes back to Mother Nature, and the soul needs no decoration. Today Tuvans, like Christians, often have an annual feast on a particular day to honor the dead ancestor.


Krueger, John R., ed. (1977). Tuvan Manual: Area Handbook, Grammar, Reader, Glossary, Bibliography. Uralic and Altaic Series, vol. 126. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Potapov, L. P. (1964). "The Tuvans." In The Peoples of Siberia, edited by M. G. Levin and L. P. Potapov, 380-422. Translated by Stephen P. Dunn and Ethel Dunn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Originally published in Russian in 1956.

Sovetskaia Tuva v tsifrakh. Statisticheskii sbornik (Soviet Tuva in figures) (1984). Kyzyl: Statistical Collection.

Vainshtein, Sevyan I. (1980). Istoricheskaya etnografiya Tuvintsev (Ethographic history of the Tuvans). Translated as Nomads of South Siberia: The Pastoral Economies of Tuva. Cambridge Studies in Social Anthropology, vol. 25. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


[Editor's Note: This summary is based largely on an essay written specifically for the Encyclopedia of World Cultures by K. A. Bicheldei, researcher at the Tuvan Institute of Language, Literature, and History. In early 1990 Mr. Bicheldei was elected a delegate from Tuva to the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR.]

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