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Title: Spatial knowledge, language, and cognitive adaptation to landscape among Siberian Ewenki
Author: Mamontova, Nadezhda
ISNI:       0000 0004 9347 9179
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 2020
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This thesis examines the relationships between spatial knowledge, adaptation, and mobility through the analysis of landscape terminology and place names among Ewenki, one of the hunting and reindeer herding Indigenous communities of Siberia. Ewenki have the biggest area of distribution in Eurasia among hunter-gatherers. It studies how this knowledge is linked to and reflected in people’s patterns and understanding of mobility, the ontology of geospatial domain, and cognitive adaptation to new environments in a broader cultural and geographic portrayal of the interactions between humans, animals, spirits, particular places, and landscapes. This thesis argues that mobility, which is linked to the precise knowledge of hydrological systems, has played a key role in spreading the system of landscape terminology and Ewenki place names over a huge territory of Siberia. Mobility is considered not only as the physical movement of people but also includes an understanding of landscape perception from a mobility perspective. This perspective corresponds to Ewenki’s understanding of the landscape as constantly changing or fluid. In contrast to sedentarist communities, Ewenki tend to perceive landscape objects as primarily fluid and their geospatial categories demonstrate a great deal of variation in meaning across communities. In order to examine this phenomenon of variation and change in geospatial terms and place names, this thesis addresses three broad objectives. First, to examine the key terms and concepts Ewenki use to mark and relate landscape features across the Ewenki ethnolinguistic and ethnogeographic continuum. Second, to analyse the phenomenology and semiotics of Ewenki place names and examine how the names are produced, modified, and used within a broader cultural context of human geographic experience, especially in negotiating the relationships between humans and other beings and in their relations with mobility. Third, to study the structure and distribution of Ewenki place names cross-regionally in order to establish the general patterns of place naming across Ewenki communities, as well as to examine the variations and changes in place names over time. These objectives are addressed in three papers. The results show that in Ewenki the same landscape terms can be linked to completely different landscape features and objects, remaining semantically linked to all of these objects. This variation in meaning, which is linguistically defined as the semantic variation of cognates, is especially evident in terms for ‘plains’, as this type of landscape is particularly prone to transformations in their Siberia homeland. These variations reflect not only the Ewenki people’s flexible cognitive adaptation to new ecosystems and their perception of landscapes as being fluid, but also the fact that landscape objects are relational and have to be considered in the context in which they function. This finding challenges the essentialist nature of landscape terms, which are traditionally considered as being linked to salient and well-defined features of landscape, and their universality within a single language. This research further demonstrates that similar variation in meaning occurs in Ewenki place names derived from landscape terms. These names, which are also highly variable in meaning across Ewenki communities, follow the same type of variation as the corresponding geographical terms. In addition, Ewenki place names are not only passed from one generation to the next, as in most Indigenous communities, but also transformed and created through numerous contacts and engagements among humans, places and other beings encountered in travel to fit the constantly changing landscapes and environments. This variation is analysed over both space (in different Ewenki communities) and time (the same community in different periods). The change of a place name may happen as a result of the transformation of the environment, personal experiences or relations between participants, including humans, animals and other beings. This thesis intends to contribute to the fields of ethnophysiography and place and space studies by introducing a novel approach to the study of landscape terms and place names in nomadic societies whose understanding of the landscape and environment and the relationships with non-human beings significantly differ from sedentarist communities, which have been better examined so far.
Supervisor: Thornton, Thomas Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Ethnophysiography ; Toponomastics ; Human geography