In the traditional economies of the Upper Kolyma and Tundra Yukagir, a great number of extremely archaic traits were preserved. In essence, the Yukagir had a well-adapted economy. Their techniques of hunting and fishing date to the Neolithic period.
The yearly productive cycle of the Upper Kolyma Yukagir was divided into several seasons. During the cold winter months the Yukagir were sedentary, living off their reindeer and summer stores of fish and meat. Winter camps were usually situated near winter fishing holes. In their winter quarters they repaired their sledges and fashioned boats and canoes for sale to the Yakut and Siberiaki (Russian Old Settlers). At the end of February or early March they abandoned their winter camps. The nomadic period lasted from February until July. This interim period between winter and spring was the most difficult.
If no food was obtained during migration, the situation became critical and the Yukagir were forced to turn to the Yakut or the Even. But they also often lived half-hungry, and in the nineteenth century many cases of starvation were registered. There are many Yukagir tales of small, isolated nomadic groups that meet a tragic end when the hearth fire goes out. During migrations, every family had to provide itself with several sleds; they harnessed four or five dogs to each. As women and children helped the dogs convey the heavily loaded sleds, men broke trail on skis. Behind these men but ahead of the women went a man who was harnessed to a strap that, in turn, was attached to the bow of the sled. He directed its course with the help of a long pole that was attached by a belt to the first bar of the sledge. These bars were small half-hoops of bent birch wood that connected the runners to the chassis and were fixed in a vertical position, three or four to a sledge. In the late winter and early spring, women and children also used skis.
During their migrations the men tracked reindeer and elk, primarily along the Iasachna, Korkolon, Rossakh, and Shamanikh rivers. Having discovered the track of a reindeer or of an elk, the men broke up into groups that took turns pursuing the animal so as not to allow it to rest. The most productive hunting was on snow that had been crusted over. The hunters strove to drive the animals out over sections covered by deep snow with such a crust. The weight of the reindeer would cause them to fall through the crust, injure their legs on its sharp edges, and exhaust themselves. The thin crust hindered any rapid running by deer or elk, and they fell prey to the hunters. Pursuing elk and reindeer on skis called for great endurance and skill. It was usually young men who engaged in this kind of hunt, which was one of the basic sources of livelihood. In a successful year, one family would take up to 100 reindeer and elk, ensuring a supply of meat that would last for many months.
In August and September the Yukagir hunted reindeer by driving them into lakes through corridors of scarecrows. Hunters in boats on the lakes stabbed the deer to death. In case of failure at the crossings, they would pursue the wild reindeer while riding on tame ones, but in winter they used sleds drawn by reindeer or dogs. Next to reindeer paths, not far from their campsites, they would set up crossbows rigged to discharge when reindeer came by. The main season for catching wild reindeer was autumn, when the herds were returning from their summer haunts and trying to overcome the obstacles presented by bodies of water. Pitching camp nearby, the hunters went to meet these "swimming reindeer" in dugout canoes and stabbed them with iron spears and pikes, thus providing meat for the entire winter. Usually each hunter was able to catch several dozen reindeer this way. Siberiaki and sedentary Yukagir also took part in these hunts.
Gathering was supplementary. In summer wild currants and raspberries, bulbs, the inner bark of the larch, and the juice of the red poplar were collected, whereas in winter it was larch sapwood, cedar nuts, and berries. The Yukagir gathered mushrooms (under Russian influence) and used them to garnish soups. The seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Yukagir used fly agaric mushrooms as a narcotic (probably as part of shamanic rituals), but after the arrival of the Russians, this was replaced by tea and tobacco.
During winter the Yukagir lived in conical tipis covered with reindeer hides. The frame, of birch poles, was selected at each stopping place. The covering for a tipi consisted of five or six skins on the lower part and four or five on the upper part, that many skins being needed as insulation against the cold. In summer, during the rainy period, tipis were covered with the bark of larch trees. In the center of the tipi the Yukagir laid out the fire, and cloth bed curtains were set up over the sleeping places. Near old camp grounds were supplies on one or two poles with a gabled roof and a ladder made of a notched pole.
The Upper Kolyma Yukagir began to fish in the spring. To get to the fishing sites they used rafts, dugouts, and floats made of boards. In summer they set nets along the lakes and small rivers. The catches during this time were customarily for everyday consumption. Only the autumnal catch was large enough to allow the storage of fish for the future. To this end the Yukagir surrounded the schools of fish with seines, got them to shore, and landed them. The places to collect fish in this way were well known to the population, and several of these operations would provide oneself and one's dogs with fish. In past times the Yukagir used to fish with dragnets made out of willow withies.
The traditional economy was marked by certain peculiarities. Although the basis of livelihood was the wild reindeer hunted at fords, the Yukagir in the Forest Tundra also hunted elks, arctic foxes, hare, and ptarmigan. Foxes and arctic foxes were chased with sleds and killed with cudgels. In summer the Yukagir dug up arctic fox dens and collected the cubs. Also important was bird hunting, especially during the autumn moulting season when the birds, unable to fly, could be driven into nets. As late as the nineteenth century birds were hunted with a bola. Trapping for fur was on a large scale: "Every industrious Yukagir set up up to 500 traps annually in various places after the first snow" (Stepanova et al. 1964). Pelts were exchanged for hunters supplies and horse hair used for fishing nets. In March, just like the Even, the Yukagir crossed over the tundra after the wild reindeer, using decoys resembling wild reindeer. In the summer season the women and children settled near lakes and fished using nets set in the streams or a bone gorge on a sinew line. Fish were preferred slightly putrified.