Tofa Culture

Page Index

The content of this page was developed from the data of Dr. K. David Harrison.


The Tofa (also Tofalar, Karagas) nation numbers about 600 persons, inhabiting three remote villages in the Sayan mountains of southern Siberia. For ten months of each year, these villages can be reached only by helicopter or by small, 1950's vintage bi-planes. In the dead of winter, one can drive along frozen rivers in an all-terrain truck to reach Tofa villages. Their extreme isolation has proved to be both a hardship and a benefit, as the Tofa struggle with the collapse of their traditional hunting and reindeer herding lifestyle and the impending loss of their language and cultural traditions.

Traditional lifestyle

Herders and hunters of the Altai-Sayan region, including the Tofa, exhibit highly specialized abilities for mimicking and stylizing the natural acoustic environment. Together, these phenomena may confer an adaptive advantage by offering herders another tool to manage scarce resources. Some of the elder members of the Tofa community can perform various animal calls and a few still remember an ancient singing tradition. Many of the songs describe daily activities (milking and herding reindeer), and some songs have more metaphysical themes: the bear cult, Tofa deities and spirits, love and friendship, etc. Distinctive song styles of the three villages vary slightly in tempo or pitch, but all conform rigidly to the canonical motif. The Tofa, like neighboring peoples the Tuha and Tozhu, were once reindeer-herders relying on deer for transport and on hunting and gathering activities for food. But south Siberian reindeer herding is in steep decline, and has been for the last century. The Tuha are down to about 700 deer, the Tozhu have perhaps 1,000 deer, and the Tofa now keep only 200 to 300 head of deer. Decline in deer stocks is due to in-breeding, disease, predation (wolves), and the collapse of the Soviet planned economy. The decline has reached such a nadir that it is not clear whether these people, faced with a complete disappearance of deer, can maintain their traditional economic livelihoods in any meaningful way at all. Sable (fur) hunting, for example is an activity that provides much of the community's cash income and requires intensive use of reindeer.

Tofa language

The decline of the Tofa language has gone hand in hand with the decline in reindeer ecology. Specialized herding technologies encoded in the language (for example elaborate systems for naming deer, complex animal domestication songs, and hunting calls) vanish as Tofa youth shift to exclusive use of Russian. Much of the intricate knowledge needed to manage resources and animals may be lost to the younger generation.

Follow the path of the Tofa data

  1. Get Started: Summary of the Tofa conversion
  2. Digitize Video: Video page (Classroom)
  3. Annotate Video: Annotation page (Classroom)
  4. Store Text: XML page (Classroom)
  5. Present Video: Stylesheets page (Classroom)

User Contributed Notes
E-MELD School of Best Practices: Tofa Culture
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