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.