From the earliest times, the Chukchee were nomads and hunters of wild reindeer, whereas domesticated reindeer were used as a means of transportation through the tundra. These animals formed an indispensable part of their lives. They gave people food, warmth, and light. From reindeer hide they made clothes and footwear and covered their dwellings. Reindeer fat was used in lamps.
The first reference to the Chukchee as a rather numerous people in Northeast Asia dates to 1641-1642. By that time the Chukchee were divided into two economic-cultural groups: "deer" Chukchee, who called themselves "Chauchu" or "Chavchu" and were nomadic reindeer herders of the tundra; and the maritime "settlers," the Ankalin Chukchee, who were sedentary hunters of sea mammals. Sometimes another group of Chukchee is delineated, the "walkers" (i.e., they did not ride reindeer), who also hunted sea mammals. These groups maintained close trade relations with one another.
In the seventeenth and at the beginning of the eighteenth centuries the Chukchee gradually began to penetrate the coastal territories inhabited by the Eskimos. They changed to a sedentary way of life and began to engage in sea-animal trade and to assimilate some of the Eskimos. During this time, elements of Eskimo culture actively enriched Chuckchee culture.
The Chukchee appeared in Yakutia comparatively recently. In the middle of the nineteenth century, with the permission of the authorities, they crossed the Kolyma River and began to migrate through the broad western tundra territory between the Kolyma and Indigirka rivers. This area attracted Chukchee reindeer breeders because it was rich in reindeer moss. By the nineteenth century the Kolyma-Indigirka Chukchee were separated from their eastern relatives, although they maintained ties with them. They became close to the Yukagir and Even. Western Chukchee were typical tundra reindeer herders who spent most of their time on the open tundra.