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Crimean Tatars And Why Not All Natives Are Indigenous

The Genoese Fortress in Caffa
The Genoese Fortress in Caffa
Matthias Heine

BERLIN — Over the past week, the term “original inhabitants” has been used repeatedly to characterize Crimean Tatars, who seem to be the only inhabitants of the peninsula who don’t see a home for themselves in Russia.

“The original inhabitants since the late Middle Ages were the Tatars,” a serious historian and professor of East European history said the other day during an interview with Deutschland Radio. But clearly noticing that he had entered a semantic minefield, he then clarified himself. “Before them, there were other original inhabitants.” He mentioned the people of Iphigenies Tauris, as Crimea was called in classical antiquity, as well as the Genoese traders who founded the Crimean city of Caffa.

The dictionary defines “original inhabitants” as “members of the original population;” and “original population” as “the first, native population of a place.” That certainly doesn’t describe the Crimean Tartars, who arrived on the peninsula in the late Middle Ages after the Mongol attacks in Eastern Europe.

The only “indigenous” Europeans

There are only two ethnicities in Europe that could be considered “indigenous.” The Sami (previously called the Lapp) in the extreme north and the Basques. Germanic people are not indigenous to Germany. They are, like all other ethnic groups who speak Indo-European languages, descendants of the Indo-Europeans who spread out to the East, West and South from the region just north of the Black Sea in waves between 4400 and 2200 BCE.

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Miniature: Szigetvár campaign 1566, Tatars as avantgarde (Chester Beatty Library)

At best, these Indo-European arrivals mixed with the previous residents of the area that is now Germany. Further genetic research is expected to shed light on that still-open question.

Nonetheless, here at Die Welt we have no reason to mock the professor and other people who are calling the Crimean Tartars “indigenous.” In an article about the 2010 Robin Hood movie starring Russell Crowe, we characterized the Saxons as the original inhabitants of England. Of course, that’s nonsense. Not even the Celts were the original inhabitants of modern Great Britain. Stonehedge was build by people who preceded the Celts.

The first record of the German word for “indigenous” or “original inhabitant” was in the 18th century, and for at least 100 years it was used exclusively to refer to the people who displaced or were Hellenized by the ancient Greeks.

It seems clear that the frequent uses of “indigenous” and “original inhabitant” has something to do with the search for something to replace the word “native,” which sounds pejorative and reeks of colonialism.

North American Indians have solved this semantic puzzle in the most elegant way by calling themselves First Nations. Unfortunately, a similar expression wouldn’t work for the Crimean Tatars. At most they would be the Third or Fourth Nations.

More important than the semantic gymnastics, though, is the question of whether there is really a meaningful difference between indigenous and non-indigenous nearly 250 years after the original Russian conquest of Crimea.

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Life On "Mars": With The Teams Simulating Space Missions Under A Dome

A niche research community plays out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another planet.

Photo of a person in a space suit walking toward the ​Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

At the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

Sarah Scoles

In November 2022, Tara Sweeney’s plane landed on Thwaites Glacier, a 74,000-square-mile mass of frozen water in West Antarctica. She arrived with an international research team to study the glacier’s geology and ice fabric, and how its ice melt might contribute to sea level rise. But while near Earth’s southernmost point, Sweeney kept thinking about the moon.

“It felt every bit of what I think it will feel like being a space explorer,” said Sweeney, a former Air Force officer who’s now working on a doctorate in lunar geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have all of these resources, and you get to be the one to go out and do the exploring and do the science. And that was really spectacular.”

That similarity is why space scientists study the physiology and psychology of people living in Antarctic and other remote outposts: For around 25 years, people have played out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another world. Polar explorers are, in a way, analogous to astronauts who land on alien planets. And while Sweeney wasn’t technically on an “analog astronaut” mission — her primary objective being the geological exploration of Earth — her days played out much the same as a space explorer’s might.

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