From archaeological and folkloric evidence it is known that the territory now inhabited by the Nenets had human populations long before the spread of any Samoyed language to the north. In all likelihood, traces of these populations still survive in the composition of the modern Nenets, although the original pre-Nenets languages have become extinct. This means that the modern Nenets may be assumed to have two basic ethnogenetic components: a northern component, continuing the earlier local arctic populations, and a southern component, connected with the introduction of the Samoyed language to the north. A similar dualism may be assumed to characterize the ethnogenesis of the Enets and the Nganasan. It has been assumed that Nenets society may still show traces of an earlier division into two exogamic phratries, corresponding to the southern and northern ethnogenetic components. Although not proven in detail, this assumption is supported to some extent by the information that an analogous phratrial division is characteristic of the aboriginal peoples living immediately to the south of the Nenets, notably the Mansi and Khanty, and also of the Selkup.
Together with the other Samoyed peoples, the Nenets belong linguistically to the easternmost or Samoyed Branch of the Uralic Language Family. The core territory of the Proto-Uralic speech community was presumably located in the region of the southern Urals, from where the Samoyed branch separated by diffusion toward the east. The Proto-Samoyed speech community seems to have centered on the region between the middle courses of the Ob and Yenisei rivers in western Siberia, where it underwent further diffusion after the so-called Hunnic period in Central Eurasian history (beginning approximately 200 B.C. ). As a result, the linguistic ancestors of the Mountain Samoyeds moved toward the Sayan region in the southeast, whereas the linguistic ancestors of the modern Tundra Samoyeds moved in a northern direction along the Yenisei Basin. The first group to separate from the Proto-Samoyed speech community seems to have been formed by the linguistic ancestors of the Nganasan, whereas the Nenets and Enets together constitute a second wave of linguistic expansion toward the north. The Nenets were first concentrated in the region around the lower course and the mouth of the Ob River, from where the language was carried further along the arctic tundra zone.