Kitoi People Live Near Lake Baikal in Siberia

The Kitoi culture, a hunter-fisher society, inhabited central Siberia in the late Mesolithic and early Neolithic periods before disappearing, perhaps because of harsh conditions.

Summary of Event

The Kitoi culture was the first of three early fisher-hunter societies that occupied the north and west regions adjacent to Lake Baikal, including the Lena and Upper Angara River valleys. This Cis-Baikal area is enveloped by three mountain ranges: the Baikal and Primorskiy to the north, and the higher Sayan range to the southwest. Kitoi settlements were centered in the permafrost-free areas of the Little Sea and Ol’khon Island and south along the west side of Lake Baikal, where the climate is roughly Continental.

A sequence of cultures first developed by scholar A. P. Okladnikov in the 1930’s suggested a natural progression from the Kitoi to the Serovo to the Glazkovo societies. However, radiocarbon dating of habitation sites conducted in the late twentieth century shows little, if any, progression, as well as a significant gap between the Kitoi and their successors. The Kitoi experience dates from approximately 6800 to 4900 b.c.e., after which about seven hundred years of unexplained developments occur before the rise of the Serovo and Glazkovo civilizations.

The first sites from the Lake Baikal area—Rogatka, Ulan-Khada, Sarma, Berloga, Ludar, and Kurla—attest to the dominance of the hunting culture peculiar to the Mesolithic and early Neolithic periods. The Kitoi diet relied on the killing of red, roe, and musk deer, and moose. Smaller game such as boar and hare were also sought. Fish, including whitefish, pike, perch, and Siberian dace, were very important for their survival. Unlike the Serovo-Glazkovo peoples, the Kitoi devoted little attention to seal hunting.

The Kitoi produced new techniques and tools, such as stone-polished ceramics and slate fishhooks, adzes, and knives. Copper alloys were not yet employed. Ceramic tools appeared in the middle of the Kitoi era, and somewhat later, there is evidence of incised, geometrical motifs. The Kitoi made projectile points that may have been used for darts or arrows, but the use of bows and arrows dates from a later time. The Kitoi also produced perforators, drills, and harpoon heads. The cemetery sites that produced these artifacts also produced bones of forest animals and are located near what were probably seasonal campsites of tents. The Locomotiv cemetery in the present environs of Irkutsk dates between 5800 and 5300 b.c.e. Excavations there in the 1920’s, 1950’s, and 1980’s uncovered more than a hundred Kitoi gravesites.

Goods in these graves may reveal belief in the afterlife. Whether the extant ornaments reveal religious symbolism can only be conjectured, as the religious values of the Kitoi are yet undetermined. Hunter-gatherers commonly associated features in the natural environment with parts of the spiritual world. Although it is believed that shamanism did not yet exist during this period, its basis can be found in similar cultures.

The variability in the size of the gravesites indicates that the Kitoi were not egalitarians. Some graves were for single individuals, and some larger sites contained a number of personal adornments and semiprecious stones such as green jade. Graves held green and white polished nephrite disks, but it is not clear that they were worn by the living. The plentiful red ocher in Kitoi graves was rarely found among the Serovo-Glazkovo gravesites. The colorful nephrite, traced to the Sayan Mountains, may indicate a trade network. Shell and antler beads and pendants from bear, deer, and boar teeth were not uncommon.

Other findings demonstrate that this culture was extremely fragile because the food supply was erratic and undependable. Attempts to master the environment were feeble and unproductive. Although there was little sharing of food among the families, making life more insecure, there was little evidence of violent contests regarding land and resources. The social experiences of the Kitoi culture were simple and primitive, nearly nonexistent. The relative scarcity of adult women seriously curtailed population growth and hampered more sophisticated social needs. Kitoi women were less healthy nutritionally than the men and also less healthy than women in the later Serovo-Glazkovo societies. The lifespan in general was exceedingly short, despite a lack of evidence indicating violence or widespread chronic or endemic diseases.

The Kitoi peoples’ activities took place in a restricted geographical range. They engaged in organized foraging during the warmer seasons but over a limited land area. Consequently, subsistence problems developed in the later era, and the food supply was distributed unequally, favoring the adult males. These conditions probably explain the eventual disappearance of this civilization, as there is no evidence that external factors account for the end of the Kitoi culture. The area became completely depopulated, rather than undergoing a decline followed by a period of recovery among the survivors. Immigrant groups did not arrive in the area until seven hundred or eight hundred years later.


The cultural and even biological (cranial) discontinuity between the end of the Kitoi culture, the earliest civilization in Cis-Baikal, and the succeeding cultures of the Serovo and Glazkovo, and the distinctiveness of the Kitoi are the subjects of continued speculation and research. Scholars are especially interested in the Baikal region because of its archaeological relevance to similar cultures of hunter-gatherers in early North America, especially in Canada.

Further Reading

  • Asimov, M. S., et al. Ethnic Problems of the History of Central Asia in the Early Period (Second Millenium b.c.). Moscow: Izd-vo Nauka, 1981. A collection of papers from a 1977 symposium attended by Soviet scholars who were pioneers in this region. Bibliography.
  • Christian, David. Inner Asia from Prehistory to the Mongol Empire. Vol. 1 in A History of Russia, Central Asia, and Mongolia. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1998. An excellent summary of the work of archaeologists, although the most recent work is not included. Bibliography and index.
  • Edwards, I. E. S., C. J. Gadd, and N. G. L. Hammond, eds. Prolegomena and Prehistory. Vol. 1 in The Cambridge Ancient History. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Places the region in perspective with the other civilizations of Siberia and Central Asia. Bibliography, maps and index.
  • Weber, Andrzej W., David W. Link, and M. Anne Katzenberg. “Hunter-Gatherer Culture Change and Continuity in the Middle Holocene of the Cis-Baikal, Siberia.” Journal of Anthropology and Archeology 21, no. 2 (2002): 230-299. A review of Kitoi culture by the leading team of Canadian researchers. Bibliography and index.