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)
  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.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous1/3/12 05:12

    Remaining imagery of the dwindling healthy native herders. Most have been conditioned into the insanity of humanity. What insanity is that you ask? Try the eating habits of modern humans with crowded teeth. You know, the civilized modern humans missing wisdom teeth due to smaller jaws and skulls. The balding, grey haired, glasses wearing humans. The 'experts' and 'professionals' trained well in the art of administering synthetic compounds to be ingested for symptoms that arise because we devour garbage. Never mind that these trained experts are falling apart. Ignore the fact that they look hideous. Just continue trusting them implicitly. Follow their lead by cooking all of your food thoroughly. Swallow isolated non-bio-available vitamins & antibiotics regularly. Lastly, be sure to always wash with antibacterial soap and wipe hands daily with Lysol handi-wipes. And for the love of all that is scientific, keep your windows closed to avoid 'catching' a cold.