Anthropology

Contemporary Mongolia: Nomadic Pastoralists, their Livestock, and their Landscape

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Fig. 1 Traditional Mongolian ger  

In 2004, former Carnegie Museum of Natural History anthropologist Sandra Olsen was fortunate to be one of ten American academic delegates selected to participate in a four-week expedition to Mongolia, organized by the University of Pittsburgh's Asian Studies Center and the Honors College. The program, Contemporary Mongolia, was funded by the Fulbright-Hayes Committee of the US Department of Education to encourage the development of educational programs and to disseminate educational materials on Mongolia.

Following up on this program, Olsen developed an ethnographic exhibit entitled Mongolia Today exhibited in the Special Exhibitions Gallery of Carnegie Museum of Natural History October 2004–January 2005. The exhibit featured a Mongolian ger, the nomads' portable felt house, clothing and furnishings, two videos, and photomurals of Mongolia and its people.

These web pages are designed to provide introductory information on Mongolian pastoralism for interested parties of all ages. Sandra Olsen wishes to thank the Fulbright-Hayes Committee of the US Department of Education, the University of Pittsburgh Asian Studies Center, and the University of Pittsburgh Honors College for the incredible opportunity to learn more about this fascinating nation and its people.

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Fig. 2 Car with disassembled ger mounted on its roof  

1. Introduction

Throughout the Mongolian countryside, the population is mostly nomadic, living in a type of transportable home known as a ger (Fig. 1). About 46% of the population of the country practices nomadic pastoralism. This is an economy that is ideally suited to the landscape and climate of Mongolia and one that has persisted at least since the Bronze Age. Although in recent years a few modern inventions, such as trucks and cars (Fig. 2), motorcycles, solar panels, and satellite dishes, have been added, the core patterns of nomadic pastoralism have been consistent and recognizable over at least three millennia (Fig. 3). This economic pattern can be contrasted with those of hunting and fishing cultures to the north in Siberia and more agrarian cultures to the south in China.

It is important to understand that there is no single, uniform way of adapting to the Mongolian environment, nor one type of nomadic pastoralism. Specific groups and cultures tend to practice livestock herding that is well adapted to the ecological challenges of their own region and concordant with their own history and belief system.

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Fig. 3 Summer camp in the central Mongolian steppe  

Several factors influence the specific details of livestock herding in any given region.

 

  • Mongolia is a vast country with different types of landscape, including mountains, steppes, deserts, lakes, and river valleys. Soils, vegetation, and local climate influence herd composition and migration patterns. Different types of livestock are better suited to particular ecological conditions.
  • There are different cultures in Mongolia with separate histories stretching back millennia. These cultural distinctions influence preferences of livestock species and how they are utilized.
  • External influences have changed lifestyles of people in different regions to a varying extent.
  • The cultures of Mongolia are not stagnant, but continue to be dynamic and evolve and adapt to changing circumstances through time.
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    It is this complex relationship among the humans, their livestock, and their landscape that will be discussed in this website.

     

    1. Introduction 
    2. People and Landscape 
    3. Livestock Herding  
    4. Characteristics of Livestock: Horses, Sheep, Goats 
    5. Characteristics of Livestock: Cattle and Yaks, Camels, Reindeer  
    6. Sharing the Labor 
    7. Suggested Reading  

     

    Click to return to Sandi Olsen's research page