Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, Russian Academy of Sciences
Novikova Natalia Ivanovna



The Nivkh. General Information (Endonyms, Ethnographic Groups, Population, Settlement)


The Nivkh are a small indigenous people residing in the Russian Federation. They live in the Khabarovsk Territory (mainly in the Nikolaevsky and Ulchsky districts) and the Sakhalin region (mainly in the Nogliksky, Okhinsky, Tymovsky, Poronaisky districts and in the city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk). 

The First All-Russian Population Census of 1897 recorded 4,642 Nivkh, of which 2,673 were on the mainland and 1,969 on Sakhalin Island. Since then, the number has fluctuated: in 2002 it was 5,162 people, and in 2010 it dropped to 4,652. According to the 2020 All-Russian Population Census, it was 3,842 people. This number is at odds with current statistics, which are primarily used by government authorities to resolve practical issues. For example, in the Sakhalin region, as of January 1, 2023, 3,199 Nivkhs were recorded (according to the 2020 census - 1,851 people).

Nivkh live in equal parts in the Khabarovsk Territory and the Sakhalin Region.

The Amur Nivkh call themselves nivkh , plural nivkhgu . the Sakhalin Nivkh use the term nikhvn , plural nihvynhun , meaning “person”. The Japanese and the Ainu called them by the same name.

Scholars are still debating the origins of the Nivkh. In the middle of the 19th century, Leopold Shrenk, based on the data gathered by his expedition, noted the isolation of the Nivkh language. He was the first to identify a Paleo-Asian group, in which he included the Gilyaks (the Nivkh), along with the Kamchadals, Aleuts, Chukchi, and Koryaks. Their migrations were caused by pressure from other peoples, such as the Tungus-Manchu and the Ainu. Shrenk theorized that the Gilyaks (the Nivkh) had been the descendants of the indigenous population of the lower reaches of the Amur and Sakhalin. This theory had many supporters. Some archaeologists, physical anthropologists, and ethnographers opted for the autochthonous theory, though. Maksim Levin thought that, according to archaeological materials, there had, for thousands of years, existed an ethnic substrate, the bearer of ancient cultural traditions, that included the ancient ancestors of the Nivkh.

Lev Sternberg, the most prominent researcher of the peoples of this region, expressed a theory about the northern origin of the Nivkh. He built it upon the similarity of their language with the languages of the North American Indians. In his opinion, the Nivkh had originally lived much further north. This is also evidenced by some Arctic features of their culture: sled dog breeding, the design of their half-dugouts, and others. The third theory upholds the southern origin of the Nivkh. It is also based on linguistic materials, a kinship with the Korean language, in this case. This allowed the scholars to surmise that the Nivkh originally had lived south of their modern territory, coming into contact with the ancestors of the Koreans and the Manchus. This theory was adhered to by Erukhim Kreinovich, a famous Soviet researcher of the Nivkh.

Despite all these and subsequent studies, the questions about the origin of the Nivkh and the identity of their language remain unresolved. There are a few hypotheses about the place of the Nivkh language, but they remain unsubstantiated. Thus, for now, scholars consider it as an isolated tongue that does not belong to any language family. One supporting piece of evidence of this is the unique system of Nivkh numerals, in which there are 26 subsystems of cardinal numerals, each used to count certain groups of items, which is typical for the most ancient linguistic classifications of objects.

Historically, scholars have distinguished four dialects: the Amur, the East Sakhalin, the South Sakhalin, and the North Sakhalin. The differences between the Sakhalin and the Amur dialects are especially noticeable. The numerous lexical borrowings in the Nivkh language were the result of the long-term and active interactions with the Tungus and Russian languages. Erukhim Kreinovich developed a writing system for the Amur dialect based on the Latin alphabet, which was transferred into Cyrillic in the 1930s. At the end of the 1970s, Vladimir Sangi created a written language for the East Sakhalin dialect. Fiction and educational literature are published in the Nivkh language. In the village of Nekrasovka in the Okhinsky district of the Sakhalin region, the newspaper “Nivkh Dif” (“The Nivkh Word”) publishes news and materials on the culture and languages of minorities in Nivkh and Russian. Conferences are held on Sakhalin with presentations in Nivkh and other indigenous languages, in which, along with the researchers, the schoolchildren are invited to participate.