In traditional times the villages were gathered together in districts ruled by a hereditary aristocracy; the district rulers bore the title of zaysan, a rank that is found among many other Turkic-speaking peoples. This title corresponds elsewhere in the political world of the Turks to a nomenclature for nobility of the middle rank, well below the rank of the title of khan or king. The title bay was given to another rank of influential and wealthy people of the upper social class. The noble rank was bestowed on the aristocracy generally, who achieved their status by right of birth. The ordinary Altaians were ranked below the aristocracy; the Altaians were thus divided into social classes in traditional times. In addition to the two ranks mentioned, there were two strata lower on the social scale than the Altaian commoners: kuly, household slaves of the nobility, and ay bachi, groups of unfree labor of a more general kind.
Although the peoples of the Altai, whether Turks or others, were brought together under a king or emperor in ancient and medieval times, the Altaians did not create a kingdom of their own. The names of each of the peoples mentioned, and those of their combinations, refer to a grouping based on locality, on common descent, and on cultural and linguistic cohesion of a traditional kind. The members of the seok were referred to as karyndash, meaning "those of a common womb."
The acculturation Altaians experienced during the period of Russian imperial rule has brought formal social and cultural changes having to do with loss of sovereignty, transfer of local police power to central administrators, payment of taxes, or, in the past, the activities of missionaries. More informal acculturation has come about through contacts with Russian peasants, merchants, and travelers. The degree of acculturation was not uniform in traditional times (i.e., until the Russian Revolution). The peoples living in the northern parts of the Altai region were somewhat more acculturated than those in the south, where the traditional practices of seminomadic pastoralism and of the seok could still be observed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The seminomadic pastoralists raised herds of cattle and tended them on horseback, as did the full pastoralists who worked out of permanent villages. These full pastoralists live in tents year-round—setting them up, dismantling them, and moving seasonally from one encampment to another, in an annual round. This kind of nomadism was practiced by the neighbors of the Altaians as well as by the peoples of the Altai themselves in ancient times.