Pastoral Nomadism

Mongolia Table of Contents

Almost every aspect of Mongolian society has been shaped by pastoral nomadism, an ecological adaptation that makes it possible to support more people in the Mongolian environment than would be true under any other mode of subsistence. Pastoralism is a complex and sophisticated adaptation to environments marked by extreme variability in temperature and precipitation, on time scales ranging from days to decades. Mongolia's precipitation is not only low on the average; it varies widely and unpredictably from year to year and from place to place. The dates of first and last frosts, and hence the length of the growing season, also vary widely. Such general conditions favor grasses rather than trees, and they produce prairies rather than forests. Grain can be grown under such conditions, but not every year. Any population attempting to support itself by cereal agriculture could expect to lose its entire crop once every ten years, or every seven years, or every other year, depending on the localities they were farming. Because ecological systems adapt to extreme limiting conditions rather than to the mean of variation, agriculture is not adaptive to Mongolian circumstances.

Pastoralism, however, permits societies to exploit the variable and patchy resources of the steppe. The key to pastoralism is mobility, which permits temporary exploitation of resources that are not sufficient to sustain a human and herbivore population for an entire year. Pastoralism may be combined with agriculture if a stable resource base, such as an oasis, permits, or agriculture may serve, as in central Mongolia, only to supplement herding and may be practiced only to the extent that labor is available.

A host of features of nomadic life reflect the demands and costs of mobility and of dependence on herds of animals to convert the energy stored in grasses to the milk and meat that feed the human population. Such societies commonly develop a conscious and explicit nomadic ethos, which values mobility and the ability to cope with problems by moving away from threats or toward resources and which disparages permanent settlement, cultivation of the earth, and accumulation of objects.

Societies based on pastoral nomadism do not exist in isolation, and nomads commonly live in symbiotic relationships with settled agriculturalists, exchanging animal products for grain, textiles, and manufactured goods. Both the nomads and the agriculturalists can, if necessary, survive without the goods provided by the other, but under most circumstances both benefit from exchange. Mongols typically dressed in sheepskin tunics covered with Chinese silk; drank tea from China; consumed a certain amount of millet, barley, and wheat flour; and used cooking pots and steel tools produced by non-nomadic smiths, some of whom were Mongols and some Turkic speakers or Chinese. However, the scattered nature of the population and the necessity of moving trade goods long distances by camel caravan limited the quantity of bulky goods available to nomads.

Pastoralism as a Cultural System

Mongolian society and culture developed in interaction with, and in conscious opposition to, that of settled agriculturalists, most of them Chinese. Along the ill-defined Inner Asian frontier between the lands with sufficient rainfall and warm weather to support agriculture and the grasslands most effectively exploited by pastoralists, people and cultural elements for centuries have moved in both directions, with some agriculturalists abandoning their marginal farms and becoming herders, and with some herders settling down either as dominant overlords or as laborers. Superimposed on the gradation and shading that are characteristic of frontier cultural and biological systems is a cultural system of ethnic groups that exaggerates distinctions and denies commonalities.

Much of Mongolian traditional culture thus goes beyond the objective, technical demands of pastoral life to a conscious glorification of the values of nomadism and a disparagement of practices associated with settlement in general and with Chinese culture in particular. Traditionally, Mongols not only preferred a diet of meat and milk, but they despised, and refused to eat, vegetables, justifying this with a proverb, "Meat for men, leaves for animals." Although Mongolian lakes and rivers are full of fish, traditionally Mongols did not eat fish. Mongols disdained the sort of regular, patient toil practiced by Chinese farmers or traders, and scorned any work that could not be performed from horseback. Such values and attitudes have presented severe obstacles to efforts to modernize Mongolian society.

Pastoralism in Practice

Mongols herd sheep, horses, cattle, goats, camels, and yaks. Although horses are the most valued animal, Mongols actually depend on sheep for their basic livelihood. Horses are the focus of an elaborate cultural complex, in which the care of horses is a male prerogative, whereas tending and milking sheep is a female task. In Mongolian epics, the second lead is always the horse, which gives sound advice to the hero. In Mongolian chess, the most powerful piece is called the horse, rather than the queen. The national musical instrument is a bowed string instrument with a carved horse's head, called a morin huur, which, according to legend, was invented by a rider who used the rib bones and the mane of his favorite horse to make an instrument to express his sorrow at its death. Fermented mare's milk, ayrag, is the national drink; it is considered to have special nutritional and tonic qualities. State-owned mines and factories maintain special herds of horses to provide their workers with the ayrag they are thought to require to maintain their health.

Sheep provide milk, which is processed into butter, cheeses, and other dairy products; mutton, wool, and hide for clothes and tents; and dung for cooking and heating. Sheep can be herded on foot, with one person and a few dogs responsible for a flock. Mongolian dogs, which are famous for their ferocity and hostility to strangers, do not help herd sheep as Western sheepdogs do, but they protect the flocks from wolves or other predators. Sheep are driven back to the camp every night, both for their protection and to provide a concentrated and convenient supply of dung. The sheep are led out to pasture each day, ideally moving out from the camp in a spiral until fresh pasture is so far away that it is more convenient to move the camp.

Each species of animal is herded separately, and herders must balance, therefore, the expected benefit from each type of animal against the cost of providing human labor to watch each separate herd and to move to the precise environment to which each animal is best suited. Sheep are basic, horses something of a luxury item, and other species are added to the camp inventory as labor power and environmental considerations dictate. The demands on human labor mean that a single household is not the optimal unit for herding. The basic unit in Mongol pastoralism is a herding camp, composed of two to six households, that manages its flocks as a single integrated economic unit. In the past, the members of a herding camp were usually, though not necessarily, patrilineal kinsmen. Membership of the herding camp was reconstituted on a year-to-year basis, with some households remaining in the same camp, others leaving to join different camps, and some camps dividing if their human and animal populations grew too large for effective operation. Under collectivization, herding camps remained the basic unit of pastoral production.

Constraints on Herding

The harsh winter provides the greatest challenge to pastoralists. The herds traditionally have spent the winter eating dried grasses on the range, with at most a stone corral for shelter from the worst winter blizzards. Since the 1950s, Mongolian authorities have worked to provide shelters and fodder for the herds. Catastrophic storms, coming in midwinter or at the spring lambing season, can wipe out entire herds or severely reduce their numbers. Herders move to special winter campsites, and they reduce the size of the herd to be carried on the winter pasture by slaughtering any animals thought unlikely to survive the winter. Late fall is the only time Mongols routinely slaughter animals; the meat, preserved by drying and freezing, sustains the people during the season when neither sheep nor horses are producing milk. (Mongols do not eat horseflesh; Kazakhs do.) Mongols traditionally have consumed more milk products than meat; animals are slaughtered in seasons other than fall only for ceremonial occasions or for obligatory hospitality to guests.

Winter conditions, which severely test the Mongols' ability to sustain their herds and hence themselves, throw the society's property system and the larger political structure into relief. The key element in bringing a herd through the winter is a suitable winter campsite, which must have a source of water near terrain sheltered from the worst storms but open enough for the wind to blow snow off the grasses. The number of winter campsites is limited, and their ownership always has been well-defined. In the past, they were owned privately by families under the residual ownership of the lowest-level local administrative unit known by a number of names, banners (see Glossary--or koshuus in Mongol) being common. Now they are owned by the herding cooperative or state farm, which allocates them to herding camps.

Outsiders, who tended to observe Mongolian herders only in the summer, mistakenly assumed that they wandered randomly across an undifferentiated sea of grass. From a Mongolian perspective, however, the landscape was far from undifferentiated, and each move of a camp reflected a careful decision that matched the needs of the herd with an estimate of the condition of the grasses and the water supply at several known sites within a large, but bounded, territory. Traditionally, Mongols thought of ownership and territory not, as an agriculturalist would, in terms of square kilometers or hectares of ground with a sharp line around them, but as rights to use certain strategic areas in the landscape, such as springs, streambanks adjacent to good pasture, or named and permanent winter campsites. Such areas were the objects of conflict between and among groups of herders; the larger political structure, both past and present, regulated access to these key resources and adjudicated claims to them.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress