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THE HISTORY OF THE KARACHAI-BALKARIAN PEOPLE

CHAPTER II
WHAT IS ETHNOGENESIS

The meaning of the word “ethnogenesis”

“Ethnogenesis” is a Greek word combining notions “ethnos” (nationality), and “genesis” (development). The term “ethnogenesis” is commonly used for “the origin of the nationality”. The development of any ethnos is a long and complicated culture-historical process covering many hundred or thousand years. This process is closely related to the migration of various tribes, mixing their specific cultures and languages. Therefore, the formation of an ethnos cannot be explained by any single science. Such studies should be based on the data from many adjacent scientific disciplines: information from ancient and medieval written documents (text sources), archeological data, ethnography, material and spiritual culture, folklore, anthropology, knowledge received from the neighboring peoples about the ethnos under investigation, and its ancestors. It is only when the results of all these studies are consistent enough that it is possible to assert that the right direction is found in the description of this complicated historical process.

Of course, the principal role in ethnogenetic study is played by the national language.

The notion of language families and groups

The languages of the peoples of the world are commonly subdivided into language families: Indo-European family, Semite-Khamite family, Ural-Altai family etc. These families group languages by their grammatical structure, morphology, phonetics, vocabulary and other features. For example, Hyber-Caucasian language family includes Kartvelian, Abkhaz-Adyg, Nakh-Daghestan and other language groups. Turk group, belonging to the Ural-Altai family, is further subdivided into Kipchak, Oguz and other branches. Indo-European languages are subdivided into German, Slavic etc.

There is a misleading tendency to generally associate the origin of an ethnos with the tribe that gave the name to the corresponding language group. Thus, all the Turk peoples with the language belonging to the Kipchak branch of the Turk group are often considered as the offspring of Kipchaks. This approach ignores the fact that the names of the major part of language groups, including the Kipchak group, are merely conventional, and one should not conclude about the ethnogenetic commonality among the languages belonging to the same group.

The sources for ethnogenetic study

As noted, the basic source of information about the origin of an ethnos is its language. There is much reason in the common saying that the language of the people is their history. Forming in the deepest antiquity, language, together with its carrier, goes through a complicated process of development, being mixed with the neighbor languages, enriched, influenced by them and influencing them in its turn. History knows many examples of language mixture or assimilation of one language by another. Nevertheless, many languages preserve their peculiarities. It is these characteristic features of the language that make language one of the most important source of ethnogenetic information. The second important source in this problem is the data of ancient writers, which may describe the territory occupied by the specific tribes or peoples, the changes in their boundaries, the ways and causes of their migration in various directions, as well as report of the mixture of different peoples, and so on. However, one must always remember that the tribes or peoples are rarely mentioned in these sources under the same name in the course of several centuries. Quite often, the chronicles speak of specific parts of the same tribes which played more important historical roles in the particular historical phase and hence get mentioned in the annals.

Another important component of ethnogenetic data is the relics of material culture left by the ancient tribes, i. e. archeological sources. They include the remnants of dwellings, production tools or common-life accessories, weapons, or other articles of utility typical for the ancient tribes. Quite often, many such things are used for centuries in the traditional culture of ethnos. The specific features of these articles can be used to judge about ethnogenesis.


The sum of many archeological indicators, such as the burial rite (the leading archeological specifier), the collection of household articles, the tradition of dwelling construction, clothes fabrication, ornaments etc., constitutes the notion of archeological culture spread in a definite region in a specific period.


The description of the archeological cultures is usually called the ethnography (the description of people) of ancient tribes and peoples. Hence, the traces of antiquity and old traditions in the ethnography of modern peoples can be an invaluable source for studying their origin. Many ethnographic data, such as the ways of food preparation and eating, the design of clothes and footwear, the traditional forms of dwellings, mythological and religious rites and customs, can be as important ethnic indicator as language or archeology.


The ethnography of an ethnos, its traditional culture, always reflects a symbiosis and mutual cultural influence of the peoples living together for many centuries. The important place in the ethnogenetic study is also occupied by folklore, in which people always reflected the common understanding of their origin. Many folklore themes got mixed in the course of many centuries, incorporating new historical events and facts, often changing. Still, the historical grain can always be discovered in folk tales, legends and stories and cleared from the later features.

The state of knowledge about the ethnogenesis of Karachai-Balkarians

The origin of Karachai-Balkarians is one of the most difficult problems in Caucasus studies. For a long time, the fact that Turk-speaking people occupy the most Alpine regions of Central Caucasus, living in an environment of Caucasian and Iranian (Ossetian) languages attracted the special attention of many scientists of the past and present to their history and culture formation. The complexity of a problem lead to numerous hypotheses, often contradicting each other. Such a situation is due to that this problem has never been a subject of an integral study aggregating all the data available from the written sources, archeology, anthropology, ethnography, linguistics, topo-hydronymics (names of the territories, mountains, canyons, settlements, rivers, lakes etc.), folklore and other related scientific disciplines.


An attempt to achieve more clarity has been made in 1959, at the All-Union scientific session on the problem of the origin of Balkarians and Karachais. However, the problem had not been given a comprehensive analysis at this Session neither. Many hypotheses suggested were based on the superficial or incidental facts and coincidences, especially the theory of Kipchak origin of these peoples. The fact is, that the presence of Kipchaks, widely known in South-Russian steppes since XII century, in Northern Caucasus and especially its central regions is not supported by any written documents or archeological data, and their anthropological type is different from Karachai-Balkarian. Also, they differ in their language, which belongs to “yocking” Turk dialects, while Karachai-Balkarians speak a “jocking” dialect. There were much more evidence in support of the theory of the Bulgarian origin of Balkarians and Karachais as presented on the Session.
The positive moment of this Session, despite all the shortcomings, was the indication that Balkarians and Karachais are one of the most ancient Caucasian peoples, formed from the early Caucasian, Iranian and Turk tribes.

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