A common traditional practice among northern Siberian, but also northern European and even some northern American peoples is the preservation of single animal bones or even the whole skeleton of game animals. According rites involving animal bones are mostly observed with bones of wild, game animals with hunters, where the rites are hunting rituals, i.e. magic, to increase the hunter's luck and success and to preserve and enrich the stock of game in the area. According to Paulson (1968) similar bone preservation rites are also found among some north American peoples with regard to game and hunting rites, but not involving domestic animals, which is probably due to the fact that northern American peoples don't hold domestic animals, except for dogs. In northern Eurasia, however, animal sacrifices can also be observed, usually with domestic animals.

Animals involved

The following animals have been recorded as being preserved in some form or other: bear, reindeer, elk, deer, fox, hare, sable, other fur animals, wolf, lynx, wolverine, walrus, seal, swordfish, whale, and various birds and fish. In coastal areas the rites involving big animals like walrus, seal and whale are naturally more prominent than those with other animals, while generally, useful game like wild reindeer, elk and deer, as well as prey beasts like wolves are more prominent over other animals in these traditional practices and rites. Bear takes an outstanding prominent position in bone preservation rites. In many places there are festivals involving bear bones, which of course appeals to the natives, but also to reporters and travellers. Major festivities involving bear bones are reported of the Saami (Lapps), Mansi (Voguls), Khanty (Ostyaks), Nivkhi (Gilyaks), and the Ainu. With other peoples without a bear cult, similar rites with other game are prominent; some of these peoples are the Evenki (Tungus), Yakuts, Yukaghirs (Oduls), and others.

Preservation methods

  1. Burial in the ground. Mostly in Lapland concerning bears, but sporadically also observed elsewhere, even with other animals.
  2. Burial in trees or on platforms. This practice is especially spread in Siberia and it involves various animals.
  3. Laid out on the earth. Sometimes uncovered, otherwise covered with stones or wood.
  4. Buried in water. Most frequently used with animals which's natural habitat is water, including both sea and inland water. In Eurasia there is no evidence of land animals ever buried in water, while in North America this has been observed (Paulson 1959).

Ritual cremation of animal bones doesn't seem to occur, with a rare exception — there is a vague reference of ritual animal burning among the Khanty. Another interesting fact to be mentioned is the wide-spread prohibition to break or otherwise damage the bones — no matter which preservation method is common locally.

Motives, meaning

Accounts by natives mostly motivate the bone preservation with protecting them from dogs and wild animals. Natives also have maintained that sometimes the soul of the animals develops an interest in its own early remains and demands special rites be carried out for them. These then should indeed be carried out in order to prevent the animal's wrath and revenge. Another motivation is aiming at future luck in hunting, but also achieve or ask for protection from animals of the same kind, if they are prey beasts. There are records for example, that bear lets himself more easily get killed, when a hunter has always respectfully treated the bones of previous bears he has killed, while hunters who have not done that correctly are likely to get killed by he bear they hunt.

From some peoples corresponding accounts state that after the bear's bones have been duefully honoured, he is requested to go to other animals and tell them of his fair treatment and the honours he has received from the humans. He's also supposed to ask other bears to let themselves killed more easily. Some rites include sending the souls of the dead animals to a certain place, like a 'forest home' (Finns), to become 'Master of the forest' (Nivkhi), or to go west to the land of the dead for wild animals (Tungus). (Paulson 1968)

According to Paulson, other data suggest a belief in the resurrection of the killed game when it's treated correctly after its death. The Yukaghirs believe an animal will resume its life at some time in the future, if its bones are correctly preserved. A Lapp belief is 'slow resurrection', where 'a new bear' (or other animal, including birds) may emerge. Often just parts of the body — sometimes including soft tissue — are preserved. The skull is especially prominent, as many northern native peoples consider it the place of the soul. The animal is nevertheless always considered as a whole on the basis of the principle pars pro toto.

In several interpretations by scholars which are supported by natives' accounts in both Siberia and North America, humans feel/felt inseparably connected in a mystic relationship with nature and the animal world. Especially with North American natives, conceptions of humans being a part of surrounding nature just like the animals was widespread and it includes beliefs of even plants having souls. The Russian explorer A. A. Popov has called this assimilatism. (Paulson 1968)