Vitebsky studied his undergraduate degree in Classics with Modern and Medieval Languages at the University of Cambridge, graduating in 1971. He then went on to take a diploma in Social Anthropology at the Oxford University. In the late seventies he was an affiliated student at the Delhi School of Economics. Eventually he completed his PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in 1982.
Since the 1980s, Vitebsky has carried out long-term fieldwork among with the Evens of Siberia, and among shamans and shifting cultivators in tribal India and Sri Lanka. In the Russian Arctic, he was the first westerner since the Revolution to live long-term with an indigenous community. Only after working for several months at the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in Leningrad was he allowed to fly out to Yakutsk in 1988.
Vitebsky has been Head of Anthropology and Russian Northern Studies at the Scott Polar Research Institute since 1986.
His current focus is on reindeer herders' perceptions of and responses to climate change.
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.
Vitebsky has won the Gilchrist Expedition Award from the Royal Geographical Society. In 2006 he won the Kiriyama Prize for non-fiction. He was also runner up for the Victor Turner Prize for Ethnographic Writing in 2007 - awarded annually by Society for Humanistic Anthropology, American Anthropological Association.
- Dialogues with the dead: the discussion of mortality among the Sora of eastern India (Cambridge University Press 1993; reprinted Delhi: Foundation Books 1993);
- The shaman: voyages of the soul from the Arctic to the Amazon (London: Duncan Baird; Boston: Little Brown 1995; reprinted as 'Shamanism' by University of Oklahoma Press 2001; translated into 15 languages);
- Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia. HarperCollins. 2005. ISBN 0-00-713362-6.
- 'Loving and Forgetting: a farewell to ancestors' Sora attitudes toward the dead. A presentation given at Cambridge 4 May 2007 based on the Henry Myers Lecture given at EASA Biennial Conference 2006 (film)
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