Most ethnographers locate the heart of Evenki culture in southeastern Siberia, to the northwest and north of Manchuria. Here, in the prehistoric past, the Evenki domesticated the reindeer and began to use them as mounts. They gradually spread out across Siberia. A good-sized Tungus reindeer can travel 80 kilometers a day with about 80 kilograms over terrain too rough for a horse. Riding reindeer increased the efficiency of the Evenki both in hunting and in military raids against other indigenous peoples. Not all contacts were warlike, however; the Evenki established commercial and cultural ties with neighboring Yakut, Buriat, and other peoples, as evidenced in adopted innovations and linguistic borrowings by both the Evenki and these other nations.
Contact with the Russians began with the so-called conquest in 1540 by the Cossak Ermak and intensified during the seventeenth century—first in the west, later in the east. As Russians penetrated into Siberia along the larger rivers and began to exact tribute and taxes from the native population, the Evenki retreated to the spaces between rivers. Those remaining close to Russian settlement often assimilated linguistically and economically. In the early Soviet period, Evenki pleaded with the government to control and limit Russian encroachment on their hunting grounds in order to protect their economy and culture. These same pleas are being repeated today.