Skip navigation

You are in:  Home » Staff and students » Academic staff » Piers Vitebsky

Dr Piers Vitebsky MA PhD

Assistant Director of Research


Piers Vitebsky has been Head of Anthropology and Russian Northern Studies at the Scott Polar Research Institute since 1986.

He was educated at the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Delhi and London, and studied ancient languages before becoming a social anthropologist specialising in the religion, psychology, poetics and ecology of small-scale societies, and the relations of these societies to the centralised state.

He has carried out long-term fieldwork among shamans and shifting cultivators in tribal India since 1975, and among nomadic reindeer herders in the Siberian Arctic since 1988.

In the Russian Arctic, he was the first westerner since the Revolution to live long-term with an indigenous community. In the early 1980s, he also studied marginal subsistence agriculturalists in Sri Lanka.

Piers Vitebsky has supervised over 20 PhD theses on Siberia, the wider Arctic, and the Indian subcontinent. He has trained a generation of specialists on the Russian North who now occupy positions in universities, government departments and NGOs worldwide. He is the initiator and convenor of the Magic Circle interdisciplinary seminar on religion, ritual and symbolism.

Languages: Russian, French, Modern Greek, Sora (tribal India, Austroasiatic family), Classical Greek, Latin; some knowledge of many other European, Indian and Siberian languages.



Current core fields of research on Siberia and the Arctic:

Other areas of research: indigenous peoples of tropical forests, especially in tribal India; the ancient Greek world; indigenous religions, especially forms of shamanism; psychological anthropology and comparative psychotherapy; memory and forgetting; psychobiography, continuity and transmission; philology and poetics of oral traditions; narrative and dialogue, myth and ritual

Current PhD students

Previous PhD students (sole or main supervisor)

Previous PhD students (joint or additional supervisor)



Selected articles


Coping with distance: social, economic and environmental change in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia), northeast Siberia, Cambridge: SPRI for Royal Geographical Society and Gilchrist Educational Trust 2000

Policy dilemmas for unirrigated agriculture in Sri Lanka: a social anthropologist's report on shifting and semi-permanent cultivation in an area of Moneragala District, Cambridge: Centre of South Asian Studies for ODA [now DfID] 1984

Documentary films

Piers Vitebsky's numerous documentary film collaborations include 'Arctic aviators' (National Geographic) and 'Flightpaths to the gods' (BBC2, on the Nazca lines in Peru), and 'Siberia: after the shaman' (Channel 4), which won first prize at the Film Festival of the European Foundation for the Environment and was screened at the Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York.


Piers Vitebsky teaches for the Scott Polar Research Institute's MPhil in Polar Studies and for the Geography Department's part II courses on 'Human geography of the Arctic' and 'Social Engagement with Nature'. He also conducts PhD writing classes for anthropology departments in Norway and Denmark.

External activities

External activities include: