Tsaatan Dukha circa 1980

YouTube user DukhaTsaatan has posted these videos of an old Mongolian movie showing the Tsaatan reindeer herders in 1983. It doesn't look like their life had changed much since 1960.

Tsaatan Dukha circa 1960, part deux

A YouTube user named DukhaTsaatan has posted several videos recorded of old Mongolian documentaries about the Tsaatan reindeer herders. Or at least he thinks they are. The earliest, from 1959, shows people collecting fish and transporting them on sleds pulled by reindeer, then some people riding reindeer toward the end. They don't look like the Tsaatan from that time shown in these photos. I'm not sure the Tsaatan are the only people in northern Mongolia who would use reindeer in the winter, though they may be. It looks to me like the film might be about a fishing collective. In 1959, the Mongolia government was probably eager to advertise their recent successes with collectivization. It would help if I understood Mongolian.

An Ear to the Chest review: flu and stethoscopes

If you work in health care, the chances are really, really good that you own a stethoscope. They are ubiquitous in hospitals (except in limited circumstances, like emergencies when you don't have yours with you) to the extent that when you walk on the unit at the start of shift, you can probably just pick a stethoscope up off a countertop (and of course wipe it down with alcohol before use). Yet I bet less than 1 in 1000 HCPs (health care professionals) could tell you anything about the history of the device. Luckily we have M. Donald Blaufox's An Ear to the Chest... and Wikipedia...
With its dubious cartoon cover and the little logo in the upper left hand corner, you would be forgiven for mistaking this for a DK Eyewitness book. But it's more serious than that. The author is a professor of medicine in NYC and has been collecting auscultation antiques. The book has 12 pages of references for 80 pages of text and photos. And there is a separate 55-page appendix of the doctor's collection with its own set of references.

If you don't have the cash to shell out for this book right now, you can simply head on over to the Wikipedia article on the stethoscope. The book and the article basically agree about the general outline of the stethoscope's development, with Blaufox giving us excruciating details of the failed designs and 19th debates over who invented what first that took place in the letters pages of journals like The Lancet.

influenza and technology

It's interesting to note that from the 1920s to the invention of electronics, the only real developments in stethoscope design came in materials. But what's even more interesting is that, prior to the Bowles-Sprague model of the 1920s, there wasn't much development in design going back to the start of the 20th century, the pre-WWI era. Between the 19th century and the 1920s, we had a world war and a massive world-wide outbreak of respiratory illness in the form of the Spanish Flu. Yet, no real developments in the primary instrument at doctors' disposal for assessing the heart and lungs. I don't really have an explanation for this, but I think it is odd.

Nice photos of antique stethoscopes can be seen at Phisick Medical Antiques and more books on antique medical devices here.

Nanook of the North review

Growing up, my mother frequently called me "Nanook of the North" when I was outside playing in the snow. I thought it was a made-up term until she recently rented this documentary, which she had seen in an anthropology class as an undergraduate.
Nanook's wife

Nanook was an Inuit who lived in the early 20th century on the Hudson Bay, not too far from where we are now as a matter of fact. Nanook of the North follows him and his family as they go about their daily lives--fishing in the ice, killing seals, building igloos, trading furs, dog-sledding across the icey expanse...

The film was early enough that this is a "silent movie" documentary. Nevertheless, it is riveting. The lives of these people were active and demanding, but they do not appear to be in discomfort or emotional distress. In fact, they seem quite happy and jolly. And the techniques and tools they employee seem quite sophisticated considering their dearth of resources.

There isn't too much else to say. People who will enjoy this film know who they are. Thumbs up!

TMZ has a nurse category!

What is one of the most despicable institutions in the US? Celebrity gossip show TMZ. Could there be anything more screwed up than taking pleasure in the misfortunes of people you idolize for the wrong reasons?

It turns out they have a category on their blog called "nurse!" This way, you can follow, specifically, what is going in celebrity health care.

Heather Locklear in ICU!

In recent news, Heather Locklear was admitted to an ICU. It sounds like she was probably downgradable to a med-surg unit, but was getting one-on-one care in the ICU. I guess this is what celebrities get.

Nurses and doctors together?

Returning for a second look at Razib's Classicists are smart! (yeah, Classics!) post, we can take a looksee at the health care professions. If you aren't ready to be dismayed, stop reading.

Aside from gym teachers, social workers are about the bottom of the barrel as far as GRE test scores go. Nurses, nutritionists, and counselors are doing a little better, but in terms of the overall spread of grad students, they are below average.

Medicine may be plotted, but I can't find it. I would assume this is because doctors take MCATs, but I believe those pursuing an MMS take GREs, so who knows... Anyhow, as you can see, physiology and pathology are right about in the middle, while biochemistry is between the middle and the outer realm of physicists and engineers. I would guess doctors would average a little lower than biochemistry.

The point of this is about degree creep.

While doctors aren't physicists, they also score well above those pursuing MSNs and PhD in nursing. This is why I wiggle and get uncomfortable when nursing managers and nursing academics complain that they need advanced degrees in order for the medical staff to take nursing seriously. Your average advanced degree nurse is simply not as smart as your average doctor. Doctors know this, and pointing to some letters after a name is not going to change that.

nursing is a diverse field, though

In fact, I would guess that most doctors think advanced degree nurses are just a cut above RNs. That's definitely not true. In my experience, nursing has much more diversity in terms of academic ability within its ranks than other jobs. In any given nursing school, it will not be uncommon to find a student who maybe could have majored in biochem and gone to med school alongside students who are struggling with the basic math needed for dose calculations. If those lower end students make it through to get certified, they aren't going on to grad school, but they are influencing the perception of nursing in the world at large.

GRE: Taubes vs. Guyenet

In the interest of nothing except the pleasure of kicking the wasp's nest, I refer you to Razib's post Classicists are smart!, which provides us with the following schematic of GRE test scores (click to enlarge).

What it plots are the average verbal and math components of the GRE for a variety of subjects. If you are applying to grad school in physics, you are likely to be in the upper right hand quadrant--good verbal and math scores.

I've marked the fields of Taubes and Guyenet on the plot in green and pink. Green is neuroscience. As you can see, Guyenet is likely to be smart. However, the two pink circles are aerospace engineering (which Taubes studied at Stanford) and History of Science (which he's basically been engaged in during his professional life). As you can see, Taubes is likely to be smarter, or perhaps more likely to be smart, depending on your perspective.

Actually, this doesn't come as any surprise to me. While I suspect Guyenet will come out on top in the insulin-obesity wars, I think, taken as a whole, Good Calories, Bad Calories is more "genius-y" feeling than Food Reward Theory. This probably demonstrates that Taubes is a very smart guy who has been working in journalism too long, while Guyenet is fresh off his PhD work.

How ancestral Mongolian pastoralism, part trois

Previously, I asked, "how ancestral Mongolian pastoralism?" The question is interesting, I think, because conceptualizing nomadic herding as akin to ancestral cultural patterns potentially puts those patterns in a different light. If modern hunter-gatherers can shed light on ancestral life, yet with the proviso that they have been pushed to the least habitable environments, have contact with modern people, etc, then Mongolian herders can also shed light on ancestral life with similar provisos.

With that in mind, having read a little about Mongolian nomads now, can I find any similarities between Mongolian herders and ancestral peoples?

nomadic herding itself

Nomadic herding is, conceptually, only a step removed from following herds of nomadic animals. In essence, nomadic herding in Mongolia is insurance against the vagaries that climate could play on the food source. If Mongolians simply followed herd animals rather herding and husbanding, a dzud could potentially wipe out all the animals. Winter is hard enough to get through as it is, even with modern haying and other agriculture enhancements. Mongolia would probably be inhospitable to hunter-gatherers, or perhaps simply support a much smaller population of humans.

I am not under any delusion that herding is like hunting-gathering. However, I think herding must be more like hunting-gathering than crop farming or ranching is. Moreover, the type of herding traditionally done in Mongolia is more like hunting-gathering than, say, the pastoralism of raising sheep in the Middle East, Greece, or Scotland. Why? In areas where sheep herding exists in close proximity with crop farming, an essentially sedentary type of symbiosis develops--herding is reduced to a niche component of the larger economy rather than defining the community lifestyle.

Now, I am aware from the reading I've done so far that Mongolian nomads traded for flour, grain alcohol, etc, and that in parts of Mongolia where the conditions warrant some farming has always been done (though usually by Chinese immigrants rather than Mongolians). So there is a question about independence from farming. Yet, certainly a nomad who trades through a traveling merchant intermediary is more insulated from farming than a herder who goes into a town market to sell to and buy from crop farmers.


Nomadic herding not only puts a constraint on the quantity of objects that are practical to keep, it creates a cultural milieu in which acquisitiveness as a psychological characteristic is constrained. The result is, I would guess, a psychological profile closer to ancestral patterns, in which most resources are devoted to food, work, and the environment rather than, say, Symposiums. In environment, I would include the Mongolians' traditional veneration of the horse. And in food, I would include highly culturally indicative practices such as tea service. The important point is that the whole mode of living is organized around subsistence with only a thin veneer of culture above subsistence activities.


Several sources have indicated that women enjoyed more freedom under traditional Mongolian society than we would expect, and definitely more than that enjoyed by the women of other East Asian cultures. The latter I can believe, but the ultimate extent of Mongolian women's sexual freedom is, I think, suspect. Most of the books available to me were written in the 1960s to early 1990s. I think we may be in Mead and Coming of Age territory here with observation bias on the part of anthropologists and historians. Even reports of Mongolians from this time are suspect for the Soviet-influenced ideology.

To know more about the sexual and property freedoms of Mongolian women, I would need to read more in primary source history related to the pre- and early- Mongolian Imperial period. I checked out a report by some missionaries from that era, but I put it back on the shelf when I read that the Mongolians were ravenous eaters of human flesh. Yeah, right, missionaries.

One thing that is believable is that gender duties were, in some sense, parallel or overlapping if not exactly shared. Horses were cared for by men and sheep by women, women stood in for men's duties when men were not around, etc.


The traditional Mongolian nomadic herder diet is both more Paleo and less Paleo than any simple western LC diet. As I posted here and here, the Mongolian diet is essentially meat supplemented with a lot (a lot!) of dairy products, and occasional flour items such as breads or pastas thrown into stews. Very few vegetables if any. No fruit. Trace refined sugar. Caffeine from tea. Alcohol periodically.

The quite copious amounts of dairy and the bread-when-you-can-get-it disqualify the Mongolian herder diet as Paleo. However, the Mongolian rejection of foul, fish, and pork is, I would venture to guess, more Paleo than many Paleo dieters and more Paleo than many modern hunter-gatherers as well. If people gravitated toward large game kills in early times, they would have been eating herd animals rather than fish or foul or pork (unless paleolithic ancestors of boars were like this). And herded animals likely have fat constituted closely to that of wild animals.

You could think of Mongolian nomadic herding diet as somewhat like the North American plains Indians who followed herds of buffalo. I suspect they didn't waste much time with foul, either, unless they could get it without much trouble. Although I don't really know that.


If my thoughts in this post are all very speculative, here they are even more so. As I have said in the past, I think we will find that dogs are different and bear a special relationship to humans. That said, the way in which Mongolians interact with dogs is, I suspect, closer to the earliest patterns of human-dog interaction. Mongolians keep dogs to protect their herds. Mongolians do not use working dogs to herd, nor do they engage in coursing, for example. My guess is that this is more like the original ways that humans engaged with domesticated dogs. The human-dog team needed for the type of herding done by Border Collies is a "sociotechnological" development. Breeding and training need time to develop and a certain amount of leisure. Keeping a dog to bark at or fight strange people and strange animals is very low on the sociotechnological scale.


In the end, I have to give a tip o' the hat to David Sneath, who pointed out in one essay that Mongolians tribal structures have constrained and controlled nomadic herding going back to the time before Genghis Khan. As he points out, the Mongolian lifestyle is one that hasn't changed much for centuries, but at the same time this is because it has been oriented towards a hierarchical organizing force--whether Khans, Manchus, or Communists--for centuries as well.

In the end, I think we must admit that nomadic herding has less in common with ancestral patterns than what one might guess, but that there are interesting facets of the lifestyle as well. I think it is pretty clear that living a hunting-gathering lifestyle is not possible when interacting with or living in modern societies. However, I would venture that Mongolian nomadic herding may be as close as one can get to ancestral patterns while living in and interacting with the world made by Neolithic and post-Neolithic sociotechnologies.

Scramfribled eggs

I couldn't decide if I wanted fried eggs or scrambled eggs. The solution? Both.

I tried to make scrambled eggs, but separate out two yolks and drop them in the pan with the other beaten eggs.

This didn't really turn out well. In order to cook correctly, scrambled eggs can't be too deep in the pan, otherwise the bottom burns before the top has ceased being runny. The only solution is to move them around in the pan so that the liquid keeps running onto the skillet. But you can't do that with the yolks in there.

The only way this might work, as I see it, is to make Julia Child's filled omlettes and use egg yolk as the filling. Use a large pan on high heat, put in the beaten eggs, which will cook in seconds, then, as you are moving the pan to roll up the omlette, drop in some yolks, which should hopefully cook just a little before you remove them from the pan.

These aren't the eggs you're looking for

I found these in the grocery store the other day: vegetarian fed eggs! Ack! You'd have to be waist-deep in it to buy eggs and prioritize vegetarian feed. The yolks a very pale yellow. Here, photo next to the eggs I normally buy, locally produced and sold really free-range eggs with recycled egg carton.

How ancestral Mongolian pastoralism, part deux

Previously, I asked "How ancestral is Mongolian pastoralism?"

The essay by Sneath listed below creates an interesting dichotomy between the Mongolian practices at the level of the individual family and those at the level of the tribal and governmental hierarchy. Basically, he describes a relatively unchanging sphere of day to day life interacting with a dynamic sphere of organization that has gone through several revolutions but leaves the first sphere unchanged. Basically, he says that whether the organizing principle is the Manchu dynasty or Communist collectives, it deals with nomadic herders on their own terms. BUT, he is also quite clear that our romantic notion of Mongolian nomads is not right and that the nomads have been living with systems of hierarchies that constrain their freedom since before the time of Genghis Khan.

"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." (LOC, 75)

"Every Mongol family in the countryside used to keep dogs, which were large and fierce because their chief duty was to guard the flocks against wolves; but they were also a danger to travelers. I have had them jump to saddle height to attack me, even when I was riding a camel." (Lattimore, 140)

"Finally, there are the dogs, which are exceptionally ferocious. The traveller arriving at a settlement is wise to stay inside the car until the villagers have come out and driven them off." (Bitsch, 50)

Bitsch, J. (1962) Mongolia, Unknown Land (Trans. R. Spink) New York: Dutton.
Lattimore, O. (1962) Nomads and Commissars. New York: Oxford U Press.
LOC Federal Research Division. (1991) Mongolia: A Country Study. (Ed. L.R. Mortimer) Washington: Library of Congress.
Sneath, D. (1999) "Mobility, Technology, and Decollectivization of Pastoralism in Mongolia" in Mongolia in the Twentieth Century: Landlocked Cosmopolitan (Ed. Kotkin & Elleman). New York: ME Sharpe.

Mongolian nomadic history

updated January 22, 2012:

This post is not a proper essay but a collection of facts, anecdotes, and quotations from a number of books through which I combed, looking for information on the development of Mongolian nomadic life. The political history of Mongolia can be read quite easily in Wikipedia, but, although Mongolia politics has been tangled up with nomadic life, there is very little there about the modern history of nomadic life per se.

One thing to keep in mind is that nomadic herders of Mongolia are not all Tsaatan/Dukha peoples. Although these reindeer herders of Mongolia's northwest are featured prominently on the web if one searches for Mongolian herders, they are actually a minority group within Mongolia. Only 40-50 Tsaatan families remain, but Wikipedia estimates that 30% of the Mongolian population still lives as herders. Reindeer are not typical of Mongolian nomadic herding, modern or historical, and the Tsaatan language, Tuvan, is only a linguistic cousin of Mongolian. The Tsaatan are related to reindeer herders in the neighboring country of Tuva, and in fact were not granted Mongolian citizenship until 1955 (Mongush, 2003).

The books available to me indicate that the origins of the historic peoples that preceded Genghis Khan are not known, although these were written before modern genetics. But these people lived truly nomadic lifestyles, moving not only short distances to find new pastures for their herds but also long distances, say from the eastern steppe to Russia, probably in search of more hospitable terrain:

"Until modern times, Mongolia was commonly thought of as a country of endless plains and prairies, over which the native nomads wandered with their herds, ever ready to answer the call of their military leaders to invade the neighboring regions. Even today most people are surprised to learn that Mongolia possesses vast mountainous and hilly areas and that it has a region where numerous lakes echo the beauties of Switzerland. Most surprising of all to the uninformed is the fact that the great steppes in the eastern part of Mongolia occupy no more than 10 per cent of the entire area of the country. The existence of endless prairie lands is a myth." (Petrov, 11)

This nomadic lifestyle existed until the 17th century when the Manchu domination of Mongolia constrained the movement of tribes, although as late as the 18th century some minimal large-scale moves occurred. It was in the 18th century that Mongolia became divided into Inner and Outer regions, of which the Outer became what we know as Mongolia today. The end of the antique style of Mongolian nomadism could be marked at 1778, when the Mongolian city of Urga (now Ulaanbaatar) ceased to be nomadic itself. Prior to 1778, the entire city changed location periodically when the surrounding countryside became depleted (Bawden, 11). The social system developed under the Manchus is the starting point for the modern history of Mongolian nomadic herding...

herding life til 1920

In 1691, the Manchus reduced the khans, who had previously been nomadic with their tribes and who individually conducted international affairs, to the level of feudal nobles and established a system of outposts, relay stations, and military bases both at the edges of Mongolia and internally. Officially, the Chinese Emperor appointed the Mongolian nobles, who in turn let herders pasture on his land; the herders in return paid tribute/taxes to the noble, but for use of water and grazing, not as land-rent. A similar system was set up with land belonging to Buddhist monasteries. The country was divided into a variety of administrative subunits, such as aimags, and herders were not supposed to graze herds on of the land of other nobles, while nomadic movements were restricted by the new borders. (Bawden, 12-13, 81-81, 88-92, 107-110; Sneath, 230)

This system stayed in place until the Mongols achieved independence in 1911. As J.Sambuu writes in his autobiography: "Following the old calendar, in the 20th year of Emperor Guangxu's reign, in the female blue sheep year, or on June 27, 1895, I was born to Lodong Jamsrang, a serf of the deputy taij Chimeddavaa, of the Gobi Tushee Gun banner of the Tusheet Khan aimag" (Sambuu, 25). (Those interested in a detailed personalized account of life pre-1911 should read Sambuu's autobiography.)

Many people, though not tied to the land like European farmers, lived essentially as serfs. It was not uncommon for animals of different owners to be combined into herds (see below). Herders had to either care for the animals of nobles or pay tribute, and they were often in debt to Chinese lenders, one of whom is reported to have collected 70,000 horses and 500,000 sheep yearly in loan repayment (Lattimore, 48, 55). In chapter 4 of Sambuu's autobiography, there is a very descriptive account of Chinese attempting to collect debt payments. In this case, the debt was owed by a minor Mongolian official, who tried to raise money from underlings, one of whom refused: "Buted was accused of rebelling against the state and was beaten with a cudgel until his bones showed" (Sambuu, 44). Buted was then whipped with sharpened reeds and thrown, bound, into prison where his untreated wounds festered and the ropes agitated them.
Woman being punished for adultery? circa 1913*

People's lives were organized around the social division of work: "The female sphere includes milking, preparing food products (such as cheeses, yogurt, and blood sausage), cooking, the making, repairing, and washing of clothes, child care, cleaning the ger, making tea, and looking after animals close to the encampment. Women and children also usually collect the dried dung that is used for fuel...
"Tasks that are traditionally associated with males include all the activities concerned with herding animals some distance from the encampment, and finding them if they stray. Apart from this men and boys are also generally expected to undertake the killing, skinning, and castration of livestock, harnessing animals, and loading gers onto carts along with other heavy goods, repairing ger frames, carts, saddles, and harnesses.
"Other pastoral tasks... include lassoing and breaking horses, cutting and transporting hay, and making and repairing enclosures and animal sheds... penning and counting livestock, shearing sheep, and the combing out of cashmere from goat fleece. A typical encampment will include all the equipment needed for everyday pastoral life..." (Sneath, 224-225)

"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 a horse..." (LOC, 77)

Although some sources speak exclusively of "cattle," I think this should often be seen as a generic term (like "corn"), as in many places, sheep were the primary focus of herding...

"Broadly speaking, the northeastern plains are the best pasture for cows... The Gobi territory is the homeland of the camel...
"In the northwest, a difference of 500 to 1000 feet in altitude can be critical in determining between cow pasture and yak pasture... a yak-cow cross, the khainag...does well on both the higher and the lower pastures [this is the same animal as the zomo of Tibet, which can be seen in the interesting documentary Himalayan Herders]...
"Horses, sheep, goats are the universal animals, found in every part of Mongolia...Goats are traditionally the least-valued livestock [because] Mongols like fat meat...
"There are several breeds of Mongolian sheep...It is the only animal that supplies all the basic needs: food, clothing, housing, fuel." (Lattimore, 42-44)

"Sheep provide milk, which is processed into butter, cheese, 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 teh 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." (LOC, 78)

The difficult logistics of herding together the 5 different types of animals (cattle, horses, sheep, goats, camels) led to an organic form of cooperative in which, e.g., one family would accept the sheep of another and give their cows in return (Lattimore, 47-48). "The basic unit in Mongolian pastoralism is the a herding camp, composed of two to six households, that manages its flocks as a single integrated economic unit. In the past, members of a herding camp were usually patrilineal kinsmen. Membership of the herding camp was reconstituted on a year-to-year basis..." (LOC, 78)

In addition to the nobles and common herders, a third major division of the population was Buddhist monks. Mongolian Buddhism was essentially a branch of Tibetan Buddhism. The origin of this connection goes back to the Mongolian Empire, when Tibet was under the Mongolian khans: the original Dalai Lama was appointed by a khan in return for religious sanction of the khan's authority (LOC, 100). Thereafter, Buddhism spread throughout Mongolia and Buddhist monasteries were built in locations where people gathered for rituals carried out by the traditional Mongolian shamans, who were eventually displaced by Buddhism (LOC, 100).

The Buddhist lamas did not herd, but lived in monasteries or temples. They received money, animals, or labor (in the form of herding the lamas' animals) in return for religious and medical services, and controlled 20% of Mongolia's wealth by the early 20th century (LOC, 101). "Perhaps one hundred thousand men and boys, a quarter of the male population or more, were lamas, living either in [monasteries] or at home, or roaming the countryside performing religious ceremonies for people who needed them, telling fortunes, exorcising the demons which had brought sickness or death into a family, and spreading rumour and gossip." (Bawden, 244)

1911 to the revolution

In 1911, Outer Mongolia declared its independence from China under the leadership of one of the remaining khans, and the details were hammered out by negotiations between Russia and China. The country stayed under a Buddhist-theocratic khan-ate government during the Russian revolution of 1917, and the White Russian Baron von Ungern-Sternberg helped the Mongolians fight off a force of invading Chinese. However, revolutionary elements inside Mongolia, supported by the Comintern (the Communist International), took power and the Mongolian People's Republic was founded in 1924.
Grand Lama of Mongolia circa 1913**

revolution and herding

Until the late 1920s, Mongolian communism took relatively predictable but benign steps such as legislating away the privileges granted to nobles. But in 1929, the government began a purge--directed by the Comintern (Bawden, 297-299)--including the execution of high-ranking Buddhist monks and prominent family heads, forced secularization of lower-ranking Buddhists, and the confiscation of property and herds belonging to former nobles and the Buddhist monasteries (LOC, 44-45). "Before collectivization, half of Mongolia's livestock belonged to 7.8 per cent of the total population, a group composed of the nobility and the priestly class." (Petrov, 89)

Herders were also effected. Although there had been traditional forms of herder cooperatives (see above), the estates, property, and herd animals of the nobility were confiscated, as well as the herds of lamas, all of which were used to establish collective farms. The result of this collectivization was a loss of about 1/3 of Mongolia's herd animals (about 7,000,000): some starved or froze due to neglect in the collectives, while others were slaughtered by families and lamas attempting to reduce their herds in order to fall into lower tax brackets, while yet others were taken into China by the approximately 1% of the population that emigrated there during the purge. (Bawden, 301-303,303-314)

In 1932, the communists realized they had made a mistake and retreated from their forced collectivization program, including giving up on agricultural communes and re-instituting private enterprise, and by the early 1940s, herd sizes had recuperated from their former losses (LOC, 47).

(However, the pressure on Buddhist monks was not let up: arrests and executions continued as well as the closing of monasteries (LOC 48). Almost 800 monasteries and temples were eventually reduced to just one, Gandang in Ulaanbaatar, as of 1962, with the result that traditional Mongolian architecture cannot be studied today (Lattimore, 146). (The Buddhist purges in Mongolia were paralleled by religious purges in the Soviet Union at the same time (Forsyth, 330-334), suggesting that the Comintern or Soviet Union was promoting them in Mongolia. See also LOC 102-104.)

collectivized herding

Collectivization of herding made a comeback in the 1950s. With Soviet support, the government expanded the number of herding collectives, called negdels, which controlled only 0.5 % of livestock herds in 1950, but 73.8% of livestock herds in 1959. The government also expanded state farms and other corporatized agricultural institutions, and promoted crop farming: whereas in 1940, 99% of agricultural output was in livestock, by 1970 livestock had dropped to about 80%. To improve productivity, the government promoted increased mechanization, scientific animal breeding, and improved veterinary services. Government plans moved towards increased sedentarism in the form of converting herding-style habits to ranching-style habits (although plans were hampered by a series of winter herd die-offs in the '70s and '80s). (LOC, 48-56; 127-134)

"During the state socialist era Mongolian pastoralists were organized into about 310 collectives (negdel) or state farms, each located in a district (sum). Although about fifty state farms carried out large scale crop production, almost all of the other districts were primarily pastoral, organizing seasonal movement and raising livestock in line with state planning. The sum usually included a central settlement with a few hundred households and a large area of grassland. Several hundred pastoral households kept the collective or state livestock, as well as a smaller number of their own domestic animals. Most of these herding families lived in gers and moved to different seasonal pastures in an annual cycle. They were organized into production brigades and instructed which pastures to go to and when. The collective required households to supply a quota of animal products from the collective livestock..." (Sneath, 225; see also LOC 88-90)

Bitsch describes a negdel he visited in 1960:

"About sixty miles from Ulan Bator we arrived at Edensummon, a cooperative where 600 families--about 2000 persons altogether--were concentrated in an area of about 1,250,000 acres. It was fifty miles from one end of the coop to the other, and on this vast expanse f steppe were no fewer than 5000 horses, 400 camels, 6000 head of cattle (including 1000 yaks), 30,000 sheep, and 5 goats.
"All these animals were jointly owned, but each family may also own up to fifty animals privately. Usually, they have about twenty-five.
"They had just begun to develop arable farming... In the past the Mongolians probably ate fewer vegetables than, say, the Bushmen of the kalahari; but the public health authorities are intent on instituting a healthier diet. The milk production is not very impressive; whereas a Danish cow may yield up to nine gallons a day, a Mongolian cow gives only a hundred gallons a year. But such a comparison is unfair as cattle farming in Denmark and in Mongolia is carried on under very different conditions." (Bitsch, 104-105)

Soviet-Realist style painting of state collective farm, 1950s***

By the latter 20th century, in many ways, the lifestyle of herders was not changed significantly from earlier times. See, for example, my previous post on the reindeer herders circa 1960. Also...

"Sheep and goats comprise most of the livestock in Mongolia [in 1970], but the Mongols also raise substantial numbers of cattle, horses, and camels. In the high-altitude Khubsugul area of northwestern Mongolia, yaks are raised, and in this same region some attention is being given to the raising and breeding of reindeer." (Petrov, 93)

"Many older nomads still [in 1970] prefer the crowded warmth of a yurt on a cold winter's night to a modern house. At sundown, the tent will suddenly be filled to capacity, not only by the members of the family and their guests, but also with calves, lambs, baby yaks, even full-grown pregnant sheep. Ordinarily quite comfortable because of the open fire, the yurt can become even warmer due to the breathing and the body heat of half a dozen human beings and as many animals. It is so comfortable and warm inside a yurt on such a night that it is the custom to sleep naked on piles of clothing and furs, although fur coats are used for covers when strong winds find their way through the seams of the felt and drop the temperatures inside..." (Petrov, 110)

privatization of herding collectives

In 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mongolia passed a Privatization Law, and began auctioning state-owned business to private citizens. The agriculture sector of the economy still employed about 30% of the workforce, and herding/ranching accounted for 73% of the agriculture sector. While the government managers wanted to maintain the negdels as large farms, they were fought by the Union of Individual Herdsmen, resulting in complete privatization. All small businesses, livestock, agriculture, and farm coops were to be auctioned, and, by the mid-1990s, 90% of the country's livestock was privately owned. Privatization did create some problems, however, as some previously government-run services such as animal shelters, veterinarians, public schools, and health care were not continued under privatization. Individual herders' products were arranged to be purchased by commodity exchanges that were organized in 1991. (Boone et al, 116, 122-123)
1992 elections, Khovsgol province ****

By the late 1990s, however, many of the exchanges and other privatized businesses related to herding had gone bankrupt, and the prices of products desired by herders had increased more than the value of livestock products, resulting in a relative loss of income for herders. In addition, the loss of Soviet-subsidized oil led to an increase in the cost of transportation, shipping, and the use of mechanized farm machinery, all resulting in less access to services such as medicine and education, as well as reduced ability to travel long distances in search of new pasture land. The overall effect was to make individual herders more subsistent on their herds. Sneath points out that this technological regression is not, however, a return to pre-revolutionary modes of living since some traditional practices, such as the cooperative livestock exchange, have not been revived since privatization. (Sneath, 224-232)

There is a breakdown of the Mongolian meat industry at this time [late 1990s]:
"Mongolia had 32.9 million head of livestock, valued at MNT 700 billion in 1998, or 14.7 million sheep, 11.1 million goat, 3.7 million cattle and 3.1 million horse with goat increasing sharply in number. This is more than 13 heads of animal per person (2.4 million people population).
"The price of live sheep has fallen by 35% to US$10.-(MNT 10,000.-) a head.
"Domestic consumption of meat in Mongolia centers on mutton and beef.
"Mongolia's meat exports amounted only to 7,100 tons in 1997.
"Small livestock are slaughtered by herders themselves at home. This creates problems of food hygiene, product distribution and business efficiency." (Hara)

international attention and assistance

Today, Mongolian pastoral nomadic herders still make up a significant portion of the population, but also face problems related to health, education, and development. Over 30% of the population in Mongolia lives below the poverty line, and less than 50% of rural people have access to improved water and sanitation. Mongolia and Mongolian herders have become a focus of international organizations.
Yurt city outside Ulaanbaatar

The World Bank in Mongolia has instituted a Sustainable Livelihoods Project:
"Mongolia’s economy has grown rapidly due to the growth of the commodities sector; however, it remains highly vulnerable to shocks. In 2010, the dzud (harsh winter) depleted over 20 percent of livestock. Similarly in 1999 and 2001, weather extremes caused the loss of 30 percent of livestock...
"...many rural residents still lack access to services like credit lines that could reduce vulnerability and build economic assets."Such issues prompt migration to urban centers, in particular to Ulaanbaatar, where slum ger (nomadic tents) areas on the urban fringe bring additional development challenges."

In conjunction with the World Bank, the Mongolian government has sought to help insure herders against large livestock die-offs [PDF].

IAFD has tried an inter-herder loan program in which animals are distributed from richer to poorer herding families, a program somewhat like the old cooperative system: "The loan recovery in Arhangai was 100 per cent during the first two years but than declined, particularly following heavy losses of animals due to (a) the harsh winter conditions, (b) extreme drought, and (c) the insufficient compensation paid to herders by the insurance scheme proposed at the design stage. In Arhangai, only 28.6 per cent of those who initially received the loans are still repaying regularly while in Huvsgul, where the weather conditions are less extreme than in Arhangai, the figure is higher (55.4 per cent)." (IAFD [PDF])

The World Conservation Society enlists herders to help control poaching.

The recently formed Global Agriculture and Food Security Program is working with the Mongolian National Livestock Programme.

In addition to these NGOs, some smaller non-for-profits have also begun working with herders. In particular, the Tsaatan reindeer herders of northwestern Mongolia have attracted the attention of organizations like Itgel, which seeks to preserve the environmental basis of the Tsaatan lifestyle, and Nomadicare, which seeks to fill health needs of the reindeer herders as well as document and preserve their indigenous health care practices.
Nomadicare giving vitamins to reindeer herders

further reading

Of the sources I have access to, the Library of Congress' country study of Mongolia is the most informative by far. Even though it is not up to date, it provides an excellent background to the current situation.

Sneath's article is the most up-to-date source I found, and it does a good job of putting current privatized herding in historical perspective. He has also written some books on Mongolia that I haven't seen.

Sambuu's autobiography provides vivid descriptions of pre-revolutionary life, and Bitsch's travelogue is the most literary, providing a nice cross-section of both urban and rural life in 1960s Mongolia.

notes & references

† The ger is another name for a yurt, the traditional Mongolian tent that can be collapsed and moved easily.
* This photo by Albert Kahn taken in 1913: he said it was of a woman being punished for adultery. The author of Dawn of the Color Photograph comments that this is unlikely since Mongolians at this time didn't put much emphasis on sexual continence. This idea that Mongolian nomads had a sort of "free-love" is repeated in several places, but I am skeptical: any society with patrilineal descent and property inheritance is going to be interested in sexual continence.
** This photo by Albert Kahn taken in 1913 is supposedly of Mongolia's highest-ranking Buddhist lama at the time. Note that the pre-revolutionary independent Mongolia was a Buddhist-theocratic government under the khan.
*** For more about the painter, Odon, see chapter XIV of Bitsch 1962.
**** Image of Democratic Party headquarters during the 1992 parliamentary elections: appears to be in a yurt.
‡ Recent economic hardships have caused many rural Mongols to move to urban areas, especially Ulaanbaatar, where there is inadequate housing. As a result, tent-cities of yurts have popped on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar.
  1. Mongush, M. (2003) "The Tuvans of Mongolia: Peculiarities of Contemporary Ethnic Development". Inner Asia, 5(2), 163-176.
  2. Bawden, C.R. (1968) The Modern History of Mongolia. London: Praeger.
  3. Bitsch, J. (1962) Mongolia, Unknown Land (Trans. R. Spink) New York: Dutton. (author also listed as Bisch, J.)
  4. Boone et al. (1997) "Mongolia's Transition to a Democratic Market System" in Economies in Transition: Comparing Asia and Eastern Europe (Ed. Woo, Parker, Sachs). Cambridge: MIT Press.
  5. Forsyth, J. (1992) A History of the Peoples of Siberia. New York: Cambridge U Press.
  6. Hara, K. (2000) http://www.harajp.net/en/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=48&Itemid=37
  7. Lattimore, O. (1962) Nomads and Commissars. New York: Oxford U Press.
  8. LOC Federal Research Division. (1991) Mongolia: A Country Study. (Ed. L.R. Mortimer) Washington: Library of Congress.
  9. Okuefuna, D. (2008) Dawn of the Color Photograph. Princeton: Princeton U Press.
  10. Petrov, V. (1970) Mongolia: A Profile. New York: Praeger.
  11. Sambuu, J. (2010) Herdsman to Statesman. (Trans. M. Rossabi) New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
  12. Sneath, D. (1999) "Mobility, Technology, and Decollectivization of Pastoralism in Mongolia" in Mongolia in the Twentieth Century: Landlocked Cosmopolitan (Ed. Kotkin & Elleman). New York: ME Sharpe.

Mongolian food, part deux

"Traditionally, Mongols not only preferred a diet of meat and milk, but they despised, and refused to eat, vegetables, justifying this with the proverb 'meat for men, leaves for animals.' Mongols did not eat fish." (LOC, 76)

Actually, in addition to fish, Mongols traditionally did not eat foul or pork, either. All three--fish, foul, and pork--require being tied down to geographic localities.

"...a large wooden barrel. The barrel contains airak, which is fermented mare's milk. The women add fresh milk to the barrel daily, and it is considered good manners to help them in their work by stirring the mixture whenever one goes in or out.
"The guest is served tea with a thin, smelly cheese. As a special treat, he may be offered a single lump of sugar or caramel. The consumption of sugar is scarcely more than 4 or 5 lbs to the yurt per annum, sugar being the only luxury." (Bitsch, 41)
In another source, the average yurt is said to contain a large nuclear family of 4 to perhaps 8 people. This would make annual sugar consumption about 1 lbs per person in 1962. In comparison, annual sugar consumption in the United States was 119 lbs per person in 1970 and 142 lbs per person in 2003.
"The airak will then be placed on the table. The taste is rather like that of buttermilk, and it is served in pint-sized bowls...
"Airak and other products of mare's milk form an important part of the national diet. Bread is hardly known in the country, as hardly any cereals are grown. Otherwise, the food consists of various types of meat, offal being considered a special delicacy.
"A banquet to which I was invited was served in a large enamelled basin, which was placed in the middle of the table. In it were liver, kidneys, stuffed intestines, and many other good things. I produced my sheath-knife, cut off a lump of leaf-fat, and ate it with my fingers in the proper way... The host looked after me well. He extracted something indeterminate which he held out to me. I guessed what it was: with Arabs and many other Oriental peoples the genitals of animals are much-coveted tidbits..." (Bitsch, 41-42)

  1. Bitsch, J. (1962) Mongolia, Unknown Land (Trans. R. Spink) New York: Dutton.
  2. LOC Federal Research Division. (1991) Mongolia: A Country Study. (Ed. L.R. Mortimer) Washington: Library of Congress.

#Babe #greatmovie

Twitter help pages direct you to this New Yorker article on hashtags, which mentions the chorus of mice in the movie Babe. I had completely forgotten about Babe! I love that movie!

Tsaatan Dukha circa 1960?

I found this book called Mongolia, Unknown Land by a Dane named Jorgen Bitsch. It chronicles his travels through Mongolia in 1960. Chapter XIX is called "Last of the Tsatang" and is about his journey to meet a remote reindeer-herding people who speak a separate language. Many of the names in his book are phonetic transliterations; Ulaanbaatar is "Ulan Bator" and Lake Khövsgöl (or Hovsgol) is "Lake Khobsugol". I'm thinking that "Tsatang" is what we would spell Tsaatan today, although I can't be sure. These "Tsatang" live near the "Grong" River and the nearest city is "Ulan-All." I can't identify either of these landmarks on a map, nor do they come up in Google. If the Tsatang are a different people than the Tsaatan, they must surely be related--perhaps another reindeer-herding people that has disappeared since 1960?

updated 1/21/2012:
I am pretty certain now that these "Tsatang" are Tsaatan people. Tsaatan are Tuvans, whose territory was divided when the current Mongolian borders were created. The Tuvans were repeated expelled when they tried to roam in their Mongolian territories until they were given Mongolian citizenship in 1955. They continue to use tee-pees today, and the city "Muren" must be Mörön.

Images should enlarge so that the text is readable...
Lake Hovsgol in winter, 1960

Mongolian food and hunting

There is, or was, a Mongolian restaurant in the Washington, DC, area that I went to many years ago. My memory of it is not too great except that we had a large circular loaf of bread that was heavy and covered in sesame and I didn't enjoy it too much. I also made at home in the late '90s something I recall being called "Mongolian hotpot," although I don't know where the recipe came from. I remember freezing a variety of meats and then slicing them, frozen, into very thin pieces. These were served, raw, and dipped individually into a pot of simmering broth in the middle of the table with chopsticks.

Here, some excerpts related to food from books I'm reading:


"Peope in our country were accumstomed to economizing on meat [in the early 1900s] so they ate meat the first month of winter until the middle of the last month of spring. In the intervening period, they ate white food [i.e., milk products]. In the winter and spring seasons, the children ate the shank, tongue, throats, and chins of the lambs and goats, which made the best food. Primarily in winter time, blood was drained from the cattle's stomachs, livers, and lungs and was mixed to make a kind of black pudding of blood and offal encased in animal intestines and then frozen. The blood of horses or cows was used mainly for this pudding to which one could take a dislike. Now and again flour was added to it which, I thought, made it much better. For many people, flour and rice were very rare--in fact, flout was not regularly available. Strong, yellow husks of rice were used a little. Generally, meat was scarce, so milk, milk products, airagh [fermented milk], and yogurt had been necessities for a long time..." (Sambuu, 26)

"My clothes were prepared in a hurry and though last time I was sent off to work with no provisions, this time I had fried bread and curds and cream so I wouldn't be hungry." (Sambuu, 49)

"Preparations for the wedding feast in the new ger were devoted to boiling a whole sheep for the assembled guests to enjoy. The guests and relatives said that the bride and groom must eat the head and the back... There was airagh and vodka and snacks in the new ger..." (Sambuu, 69)

"On pleasant summer evenings, I sat cross-legged outside felt-covered tents and drank numerous cups of Mongolian brick tea, which is brewed in a huge bowl and mixed with beaten eggs, butter, and milk and seasoned with plenty of salt--as unpalatable to the uninitiated as it sounds. But I remember too the delicious mare's milk offered to me..." (Petrov, 4-5)

"The Mongols, who rely mainly on their cattle and sheep for food, have a diet consisting mainly of meat and milk products. They consume large quantities of tea, but tea, as the Mongols make it, is a food rather than a drink. Mongolian tea is prepared by brewing Chinese green tea, to which is added a large quantity of fresh milk, salt, and butter, or, quite often, mutton fat. Since salt is used instead of sugar, this concoction tastes more like a tea soup than like regular tea.
"When a guest is received in a Mongolian household, he is offered tea to drink while the mutton is being cooked. The mutton is served in large slices, which taste different from mutton in Western countries because the Mongols use little, if any, salt. The meat course is followed by a broth, and the meal is concluded with kumys--fermented mare's milk, the most famous drink of the Mongols." (Petrov, 111-112)

also see:


"Hunting is one of the oldest occupations of the Mongols. The country [as of 1970] is rich in wild birds and animals, particularly fur-bearing animals such as sable, ermine, otter, squirrel, and lynx, which inhabit the northern and western mountain regions. The steppes and mixed forest-steppe zones abound in tarbagan... Fishing is still in a primitive stage in Mongolia..." (Petrov, 84-85)

"The hunting of wild animals is mainly for the purpose of obtaining furs and food, but the hunting of the wolf is a matter of honor with the Mongols. The wolf is widespread in Mongolia. It is the scourge of the herdsman... Wolf hunting with whips has developed into a sport in the Gobi region... At this critical moment, the hunter swings the whip [from horseback], and, if his aim is good, hits the [wolf] between the eyes with the end of the whip, to which is attached a piece of lead...
"Another form of hunting highly developed in Mongolia is falconry...
"The animals most prized for their skins in Mongolia are the tarbagans, whose furs are of great commercial value... The Mongols are partial to the meat, which is tender and tastes somewhat like pork. Tarbagan fat is a valuable by-product. It resembles the fat of seals, in that it will not freeze, even the coldest Mongolian weather." (Petrov, 135-137)

  1. Petrov, V. (1970) Mongolia: A Profile. New York: Praeger.
  2. Sambuu, J. (2010) Herdsman to Statesman. (Trans. M. Rossabi) New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Barefoot running on the steppe

From Herdsman to Statesman:

"In the warm summer, it was difficult to herd [the] sheep in the stony desert pastures of the steppe because many of the flocks went to distant areas, and I had to run after them, barefoot... Running barefoot long distances over the black earth at first cracked the bottom of my feet and made them sore, but in due course they became hardened and tough. 'Learn toughness, not rights' I had heard my mother say from time to time..."

How ancestral is Mongolian pastoralism?

Obviously, anthropologists classify the nomadic pastoralism of Mongolian peoples differently from the hunter-gatherer groups that characterize the ancestral milieu of the Paleolithic.

However, in some ways, nomadic pastoralism has more in common with hunting-gathering than with sedentary pastoralism. Although contemporary Mongolians are living in a partially modernized state and trade and purchase for modern goods and foodstuffs, my impression from an initial shallow reading of Mongolian history is that the steppe lifestyle was fairly unchanged from its introduction up until the 20th century and that today's nomads still have quite a few similarities with their forebears. Their nomadic pastoralism did not always include the raising of domesticated animals for food. They continued to hunt. The Tsaatan reindeer herders do not eat the reindeer except in extremity, and I imagine the reindeer are only partially domesticated. The extent to which they gathered was severely limited by the climate. The accumulation of belongings must be very restricted for nomads, more akin to hunter-gatherers I would imagine than sedentary pastoralists/agriculturists.

Although there are people in cold climates that are more pure in hunting-gathering, I wonder how difficult, in the pre-modern world, it really would have been for Mongolian nomadic pastoralists to convert to a model based more purely on hunting? Would they have been able to more or less maintain their lifestyle?

I think the interesting question here is not so much about how food is obtained as about population density. The Mongolian steppe peoples maintained a very low population density. In terms of the number of available calories the steppe could provide in animals, I wonder if the population was comparable to the density maintained in hunter-gatherer groups.

If you see Mongolian nomads as more akin to hunter-gatherer groups than to farming/ranching agriculturalists, the history of the Mongol peoples really changes your view of ancestral man.

Better Off review

On my recent cruise, I met someone from St. Louis, Missouri, and the meeting sparked my memory of reading Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology by Eric Brende. Brende was a Yale and MIT student who rejected technology and went to live with an Amish-type community for a year before moving to St. Louis. Better Off is the story of that experience.
So why am I writing about this book on this blog? I think it has relevance to those interested in paleo/ancestral health.

I'm aware that most of the ancestral health community is not anti-technology. If anything, the Paleo crowd seems to be especially pro-science and pro-technology. For example, John Durant's tagline, "how to live wild in the modern world," is pretty much a repudiation of Brende's back-to-the-farm-life philosophy. Some people might even accuse Brende of advocating "paleo reenactment."

And then there's the fact that the type of agrarianism Brende explores in this book as an alternative to modern life is most definitely not Paleo and is based around grain cultivation.

However, it's also true that many Paleo practitioners count Joel Salatin, a farmer, as one of their heroes. And agrarianism has some rhythms of life (up and to bed with the sun, more walking and manual labor, etc) parallel with hunter-gatherer life.

Aside from these considerations, Brende makes one specific point in Better Off that I thought was interesting and deserved repeating. His concern throughout his Year of Living Amishly is to determine just how little people need to get by. He counts his community's single most important pieces of "technology" to be its horses. Horses are used in his community primarily for turning grindstones grain and for traversing the long distances between homes created by the large-scale farming. Yet, he determines that the horses also use a significant portion of the community's cultivated grain. He suggests that the horse is actually the solution to its own problem, and that farm sizes and farm labor could be significantly reduced by simply getting rid of the horses. This is an interesting observation related to population density, which is ultimately what the rise of agriculture was about.

Regardless of what you think about the relationship of technology to ancestral health issues, you may find Better Off a good read. Brende tells his story well and earnestly. As of 2008, he was still living in St. Louis with his family and living his low-tech, low-cost lifestyle:

Brende's biggest income nowadays comes from Hermann Handmade Soap, which he makes — from his in-laws' family recipe — and his wife sells at Soulard Farmers Market. For several years soap sales doubled annually. Now the Brendes have to decide how far they want to go with the soap business. Sometimes Brende sounds like any other businessman who would like to grow — he plans to add several new products, including natural laundry detergent. But because he's "opposed to encouraging more Internet shopping," he says he has no plans to begin a website, which many would consider a must for any entrepreneur. In the summer Brende operates St. Louis Rickshaw, pedaling tourists to sites in downtown, Soulard, Lafayette Square, McKinley Heights and Benton Park. He likes the work, especially the exercise, although he could do without the occasional abusive drunk. But he admits that the money side of the rickshaw business is almost a wash. "The problem is that my rickshaw is a prototype, so it has a lot of mechanical problems," he says. "I spend a lot of time replacing parts and doing maintenance. I'm a little bit ahead of breaking even, maybe a thousand dollars a year, but it's close." For Brende, career slashing serves a larger goal of simplicity. Pace the March Wall Street Journal piece, Brende doesn't insist on a "distinct career path." Instead of identifying himself by any one of his occupations or even as a career slasher, he calls himself simply a "householder." Growing the soap business past a certain point would "betray my entire reason for living," he says. It also might put an end to one of his other fulfilling jobs — like tutoring home-schooled kids in music (he paid part of his way through Yale playing piano in bars).

Bachelor cooking disaster

Tonight's dinner was shrimp wrapped in fresh basil wrapped in bacon with soup of curried butternut squash.

The recipe called for the shrimp to be skewerred on wood picks. I didn't have picks. What do you do? Of course, you assume that the picks are superfluous!!

As you can see, the bacon started to come undone on the grill. Ultimately, while the shrimp was cooked adequately, the bacon was unevenly finished, ranging from burned to slightly undercooked. Luckily, I wasn't entertaining. (h/t Steven Raichlen for shrimp and Silver Palate for soup.)

Duck and sauerkraut

Dinner this night: roast duckling with sauerkraut stuffing, and sweet potato, beet greens, and a Gewürztraminer. The duck was "farm raised."

It turned out to be something of a disappointment. The sauerkraut dressing recipe is in an older edition of the Joy of Cooking if you want. It includes kraut, apple, currants, onion, garlic... I left out the brown sugar. The recipe for roast duck in the Joy of Cooking says that, if you don't want a stuffing, you should at least stuff the duck with a cubed potato to absorb malsavory (is that a word?... malgustory?) flavors. Instead the kraut absorbed them. It wasn't terrible, but it had an off flavor that was absent form the duck. The duck per se was quite good, with crispiness and tender fat, etc. But the stuffing was just not right. I'm tempted to throw out the drippings next time, but otherwise, how do you get duck fat?

If this is real, it's freakin' amazing

Check it out

Paul Jaminet on obesity's Higgs boson

In physics, it's accepted to create a model and hypothesize something never observed in nature in order to make nature fit the model. The Higgs boson is a famous example. Planets are also hypothesized to exist based on "shadows" in gravity.

Now Paul Jaminet of Perfect Health Diet hypothesizes never before observed* functions of the nervous system in order to fit the body to his theory of obesity. In a January 5 post, he suggests that the body regulates food cravings and energy partition based largely on its lean mass. In order to do this, it would have to monitor lean mass somehow. And since we don't know of any way that the body does this, and since, according to Jaminet, hormones are inadequate for this purpose, the body must get feedback about lean mass through the nerves. Specifically, Jaminet writes " there are no known hormones for this and I think it’s obvious that hormones could not do the job. So it must be via nerves, by process of exclusion." So nervous system feedback is the Higgs boson of obesity--a hypothesized physiological function waiting to be found in order to confirm a theory of obesity.

To be honest, I haven't read PHD, so I can't speak to it. But since Jaminet is rolling out his theory of obesity now on his blog, I assume it isn't central to the diet. But I agree I should read the book now. Nonetheless, here are some thoughts on obesity's Higgs boson...

theoretical problems

Terminological deficit: "quantity and quality of lean tissue". In order to make this theory whole, Jaminet needs to define what he means by his remarks on lean mass. What constitutes lean mass? Only skeletal muscle? What about internal organs? What about bones? What does quality mean? Since Jaminet's post uses Tara Parker-Pope's article as a starting point, is he implying that quality means Type II muscle fibers, instead of the Type I fibers that the article says the body defers to under weight loss conditions? And what about quantity? Is he suggesting that the nervous system reports on absolute quantity or only relative changes in anabolism and catabolism?

If lean mass is that important, getting hungry only after muscle wasting is not good. Jaminet proposes a theory that makes lean mass a priori very important. As opposed to the hormonal systems, neurons are very fast. If lean mass is so important, why would the body develop a fast system that up-regulates hunger in response to muscle wasting? Muscle wasting = already too late. This would be like if your reaction to touching a hot stove kicked in only after you were on your way to second-degree burns.

How would the body distinguish between relative and absolute muscle mass vis-a-vis work? I don't mean mechanistically, I mean conceptually. In other words, a strong massive man who loses weight is still, after some muscle wasting, able to perform much more work than a mousey thin woman with stable muscle mass. Would it really be in a body's interest to drive the man to eat more? (Remember that in evolutionary terms, hunger=drive to kill a mammoth, or at least run down antelope, not drive to grab bag o'chips from kitchen.) Is the body so dumb that it can't distinguish?

If muscle wasting is that important, why does the body prefer burning muscle before fat? As you probably know if you read about Atkins or ketogenic diets, the body's fat-burning mechanisms don't really get ramped up until starvation is established. Before that, the body preferentially catabolizes muscle. If lean mass was--a priori--so important, doesn't it seem likely that the body would preferentially burn fat stores?

If the body does monitor lean mass, why not with hormones? Jaminet says that hormones aren't accurate enough to monitor lean mass, but why, when hormones are sufficient to monitor fat mass?

observational problems

Let's briefly review the A&P of the nervous system. The brain is connected to the body via the peripheral nervous system (PNS). Much of the PNS is related to the brain's effects on the body: moving your hand, fight or flight, breathing, etc. Some of it is related to feedback from the body: the senses, pain, heat, etc.

Much sensory input is from specialized and localized nerves. For example, taste is found only in the oral-nasal space of the head. You can't taste with your toes.

Even the sensory input that is less specialized is still localized. You can feel pain with your toes, but only if a needle is sticking your toes. If the needle is sticking your thigh, you can't feel pain with the toes.

This makes the nervous system much different from hormones, which think globally, even when they act locally. For example, insulin production, although occurring in the pancreas, is regulated by sampling global blood sugar. Leptin, produced in adipose tissue, regulates energy input for the whole organism.

The nervous system is also different from hormones in being confined to tracts of neurons. When you want to move your arm, only certain neurons will do the trick, whereas if you want to run away from a tiger, your adrenals will dump on all your tissues.

One of the characteristics of neuronal tracts is that they can be mapped, which is why a nice chart like the one above is possible. Hormones can hide out because we don't necessarily know how to chart them or where to look for them if we don't know they exist. This is why Leptin wasn't discovered until 1994. But the PNS starts or ends in the brain/spinal chord.

Although there are some lesser known aspects of the nervous system, such as the enteric nervous system (which you might not even cover in A&P), the PNS is pretty well mapped out and explained by physiologists, just because it can be mapped out. Even brain tracts are mapped onto the PNS. For example, achey pain and the Paleospinothalamic tract.

If there is a completely formerly unrealized function to the nervous system, such as monitoring of lean mass, it is problematic that the nervous system is, by odds, more thoroughly described than the hormonal system. Although there are some aspects, such as proprioception and delayed onset muscle soreness, that are a little bit outside our normal nociception, the idea that there are whole functional categories that we don't know about is unlikely.

In addition to physiological considerations, there are questions from pathophysiology, too. For example, if satiety is connected to the "quantity and quality of lean tissue," wouldn't people with degenerative diseases like muscular dystrophy be in a state of constant hunger, or least more frequently hungry and less satisfied by food? Or what about rhabdomyolisis? Wouldn't people in rhabdo be observed to have increased appetites?

And what of brain lesions? If lean mass is monitored by the nervous system, then there are tracts in the brain that relate this somatosensory information to satiety. And that means that it should be possible to induce decreased satiety through lesions. Is there any evidence of this?

Finally, it seems like bodybuilding would have definite effects on satiety. Either bodybuilders, by constantly breaking down muscle, would be in a satiety deficit, or, by constantly rebuilding muscle and by virtue of their mass, would be in a constant satiety surfeit. As far as I know from experience and reading, although bodybuilders may have cravings for things they won't let themselves eat, they aren't constantly hungry. And it seems very unlikely to me that their cravings are due to malnutrition considering the amount of supplementation and the fact of anabolism.

methodological** problems

Jaminet writes in the comments section "Evidence – it’s clear to me from personal experience that the brain does sense tissue quality." I.e., evidence=anecdote. I'm all for self-experimentation a la n=1 philosophy. However, it's not science. Proposing new, undiscovered territory in physiology on the basis of "personal experience" is somewhere between audacious and foolish.

indirect evidence of obesity's Higgs boson

Like the Higgs boson, the way to test Jaminet's theory is to look for the hypothesized, the nervous function related to monitoring lean mass. This is the equivalent of building the LHC. But there is an indirect and much easier way to see if there is anything in this theory.

If Jaminet is correct, it seems to me that the weight-loss-induced-hormonal changes that correlate with weight-loss-induced-hunger and weight-loss-induced-caloric-efficiency, mentioned in Parker-Pope's article, should be absent in people who have lost weight on the PHD. So a relatively simple study could be performed comparing the hormonal profiles of PHD dieters with those of other types. The null hypothesis would be lack of difference in hormonal response to weight loss. If we can accept the hypothesis, then the likelihood of monitoring by lean mass very low.

* As far as I know. I could, of course, be wrong. But Jaminet doesn't seem to know of these nervous functions, either.
** Although it's now January 7 (one day after Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, the 12th day of Christmas), the Chritmas tree is still up. As I'm writing this, I'm enjoying the lights and one... two glasses of post-prandial port (following pre-prandial martini and prandial Tutidi) and was racking my brain trying to think how to categorize this: I was about to write "science-y problems". I hope the rest of this post isn't unintelligible. My apologies if it is.

Images of positive Allen test due to lack of collateral circulation

I've decided to try to write a publishable peer-review article. In the course of doing initial online research, I came across this case study from Circulation:
A 27-year-old surgical resident from South America noticed occasional tingling in her right hand on awakening. She performed a modified Allen test on her own hands and noticed a subtle line of demarcation on the palm of her right hand accompanied by induction of similar tingling sensations. The demarcation was not seen on the left hand. We suspected an incomplete palmar arch, and to better demonstrate these findings, we wrapped the patient’s right hand with a latex bandage to exsanguinate the extremity. Assistants applied pressure to both the radial and ulnar arteries at the wrist as the latex bandage was removed...
After performing this Allen Test, the assistants were able to obtain the following results. Normally there is an anastamosis between the medial and lateral circulation called the Palmar Arch. Apparently, this subject's Palmar Arch was poorly developed!

I had never seen a positive Allen Test before.

The Fat Trap - NYTimes on fat loss

The NYTimes has a long article on the sciene of weight loss. Much of it covers similar issues as Gina Kolata's Rethinking Thin, in addressing research that shows that the calorie-in-calorie-out model of weight loss is too simplistic as a model.