The nomads of Mongolia and surrounding areas are no strangers to travel, and are well acquainted with influence from overarching powers, but curiously, regardless of modern influences, contemporary pastoralism in Mongolia has maintained a high level of continuity with ancient practice (Bold 1996). Through the strong preservation of ancient customs, Mongolian pastoralists are an important resource for ethnographers and socio-cultural anthropologists, as well as archaeologists. As archaeologists strive to uncover more information about Mongolia’s past, ethnographic studies have become an increasingly important factor contributing to their research, since many modern Mongolians still continue to live a nomadic pastoralist lifestyle and maintain many of the traditions that their ancestors had. As archaeological research becomes increasingly region oriented, specific ethnographic information is needed in order to provide viable comparisons between archeological data and present day ethnic groups.
Luckily, ethnographic research within Mongolia has increased in recent times and helps to suppliment the older sources (Kradin 2005; Honeychurch 2008; Fijn 2011). Several important ethnographic studies includes those by Simukov, Vainshtein, Fernández-Giménez, and Fijn spans from 1934 through 2011 and each ethnographer provides research pertaining to a different aspect of Mongolian pastoralism, each reflecting the predominant socio-cultural views of the time periods in which they were written. Simukov, Vainshtein, Fernández-Giménez, and Fijn all provide data related to Mongolian pastoralism that that can be analyzed in the archaeological record. Integrating the results of both ethnographic and archaeological research can foster greater interdisciplinary discussion of the purpose, presence and prevalence of pastoralist communities in Mongolia, past through present.
Our story begins with …drum roll please… Andrei Dmitriyevich Simukov! This Russian geologist conducted ethnographic field work on pastoralists in Mongolia, which is wonderful; he has lots of great descriptions and charts…except, it’s published mostly in Russian and well, your authors can’t read Russian, so we will have to rely on the portions of his text that were translated into English.
Simukov’s articles in the journal “Contemporary Mongolia” published in 1935, provide detailed graphs relating to the nitty-gritty details of pastoralist practices according to region. This information is beneficial to archaeologists excavating within those specific regions, because they can compare the information they are finding about the past to modern practices through Simukov’s data. Simukov’s data specifically defines the amount of livestock per household as well as the number of times a household moved within a given year. Simukov also recognizes that environmental factors influence sustainability. A significant portion of his study is dedicated to the different "zones" of Mongolia from steppe to mountains. This is especially useful for researchers who may be unfamiliar with the Mongolian environment. His description gives insight into the challenges pastoralists must face in order to make responsible decisions, especially within particular regions. Although helpful, one must be wary of Simukov's neatly delineated categorizations.
Image: Finch, C. (ed). Mongolia’s wild heritage: Biological Diversity, Protected Areas, and Conservation in the Land of Chingis Khan. Boulder, CO: Avery Press, 1999. Accessed via: Susan Fox's blog post, Mongolia Monday: The 6 Ecosytems.
Simukov was interested in grouping people, regions, and practices into "types." For Simukov, there existed different types of people, who lived in different regions, and who practiced different types of pastoralism. He formats his writing very much according to these types with a detailed description following each type heading. Although Simukov’s method is immensely useful in demonstrating the scope of ethnic and cultural diversity, one should proceed with caution. Married women who live in Connecticut are not all the Stepford wives, with perfectly manicured nails and cookies baking in the oven, and Mongolian nomads are not all practicing cookie cutter methods of pastoralism. No one household follows the exact practices Simukov describes, and there is no guarantee that every household follows the same methods every year. On the whole, Simukov's research, particularly the raw data, not only provides detailed descriptions, but also leaves room for interpretation.
Another notable ethnographic study was conducted by ecologist María Fernández Giménez. Her study primarily focuses on communities in Bayan-Ovoo and Jinst Sums, Bayankhongor Aimag; Mongolia. She extensively addresses the different environments of Mongolia in her research integrating the discussion of environment into the lives of the pastoralists. As an ecologist, Fernández Giménez is interested in how people and the environment interact. This is a two-way street and she recognizes this by stating how people influence the environment and vice versa. Her approach is interdisciplinary, with fields ranging from anthropology to sociology. This interdisciplinary approach coupled with the use of direct quotations (albeit translated to English) from her interviews lends a personal quality as well as validity to her research.
Cultural diversity is implied through discussion of Simukov's types, but it is actually demonstrated through Fernández Gimenez’s interviews. She is also concerned with the cultural transference of knowledge to younger generations, which is useful to archaeologists interested in tracking cultural transmission through time.
Sevyan Vainshtein is a Russian anthropologist who discusses the economy of the nomadic pastoralists of Tuva, a region on the borders of Mongolia in Russia. Vainshtein’s goal was to provide an accurate and detailed field record documenting the economy of Inner Asian nomads. This particular topic is invaluable to archaeologists studying the generational transference of wealth amongst pastoralist communities in Mongolia. Vainshtein’s documentation may also be valuable to the debate concerning inequality among Inner Asian pastoralists addressed in recent literature by David Sneath and criticized by others such as, Nikolay Kradin and Peter Golden, but that is a subject for an entire blog post unto itself. Migrating back to the topic of ethnographers…
Sources written in English about Mongolian herders are limited, but ethnographers such as Natasha Fijn are contributing to this literature. In the recently released book, Living with Herds: Human Animal Coexistence in Mongolia (2011), Fijn notes she was unfortunately “unaware of any other work written in English that has examined the importance of herd animals, specifically ungulates, to nomadic pastoralist Mongolia” (2011: 17).
Fijn, Natasha. 2011. Living With Herds: Human-Animal Coexistence in Mongolia. Cambridge University Press. Image: Cambridge University Press.
Fijn conducted most of her ethnographic research in 2005 while living with Mongolian herders in the Bulgan province around the Khujerin River Valley and in Arkhangai province. She sought to observe the process of animal domestication within current hybrid communities focusing on social behaviors between humans and other animals (2011: 17). This dynamic approach to interpretation and theory is particularly interesting for archaeologists that have traditionally held the perspective of domestication as solely a one-way street and not necessarily an interaction or conversation of sorts between man and animal. Fijn's approach, like most anthropologists, is interdisciplinary, providing a more holistic understanding of life on the Mongolian steppe.
The graph below (see below to download) demonstrates the ethnographic evidence related to herd and population dynamics in Inner Asia. The graph is organized by country and region, including ethnographic studies from the Southern Gobi to the northern grassland steppe. The average household and herd sizes of various nomadic populations, as well as the frequency of their movement across the landscape are also noted.
Pastoralist Household and Herding Data by Region Based on Ethnographic Data. Data compiled for NSF-funded project, Agent-Based Dynamics of Social Complexity (BCS-0527471). Click here to Download Table.
Ethnographic research continues to assist archaeologists in understanding past societies through many avenues of research, from fieldwork to lab analysis and even computer simulation models. Yes-- even computer simulation models. Agent-based computer simulation models such as HouseholdsWorld (Cioffi-Revilla et al. 2007; Cioffi-Revilla et al. 2010; Rogers et al. 2012) alas do not provide an escape from reality as a video game would, but in fact provide something much more useful: comparable data. Computer simulation models utilize data from ethnographers, archaeologists, climatologists, paleo-biologists and many other scientists in order to create a simulated Mongolian social world, where various variables can be controlled in order to run experiments to examine how social and environmental factors are related to change and adaptation. In other words, every bit of research is important and key to understanding the entire picture!
-By Sarah Flores Ettinger and Samantha Linford. Editor: Meghan Mulkerin.
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