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

5. Characteristics of Livestock

Cattle and Yaks

As with the livestock mentioned on the previous page, cattle (Bos taurus) and yaks (Bos grunniens) are usually raised together (Fig. 23). There are few historical records pertaining specifically to yaks, because the chroniclers usually failed to differentiate between yaks and cattle in their accounts. Although they are different species, the two can interbreed, but the third generation is usually sterile. The hybrid is extremely strong, like an ox, and is preferred for pulling heavy wagons up mountains (Fig. 24).


Fig. 23 Cattle and yak herd 


 Fig. 24 Yak-cow hybrid  

The yak (Fig. 25) thrives at higher elevations, and large numbers are found in the Khangai Mountains of central Mongolia. It is capable of sustaining itself on the sparsest of herbage at elevations up to 6,000 m. The yak is adapted to life in the mountains by having a heavy coat, strong legs, a large lung capacity, the ability to climb like a goat, and small but plentiful red blood cells designed to carry the maximum amount of oxygen. Because of itsstrength and adaptation to high altitudes, it makes an ideal pack animal. It can travel 20-30 km per day with loads of up to 60 kg, earning yaks the nickname of "ships of the plateau."


Fig. 25 Grazing yak near Khovd 

Today, domestic yaks range from Afghanistan to China, Russia, and Mongolia. Virtually nothing is known about when or where yaks were domesticated. However, the distribution of the wild yak provides some clues to the likely source for the domestic herds. The wild yak still exists in the high Tibetan plateau and adjacent highlands, including Tibet and Gansu Province, in China, and Ladakh, India. It once existed in Nepal, as well. Domestic yaks were mentioned in the Western Zhou Dynasty, about 850 BC, but the date for the inception of domestication was probably considerably earlier.

Beef is second in preference only to mutton. Yak meat is extremely tasty and is often dried to preserve it. Both cattle and yaks are milked, and butter, curds, and cheese are made from their milk.

Cow milk is the favorite of all the kinds of milk from livestock species in the region. If airag (fermented mare's milk) is not available, sour cow's milk may be drunk. There is a record of cow milk being fermented as far back as the 13th century, but certainly it was much earlier.

Yak hair is combed and cut so that it can be spun into a soft yarn for knitting hats, gloves, and socks. Cowhide is used for ger floor coverings, ropes, rugs, sacks, etc. Leather is used for floor coverings, ropes, sacks, and various utensils. Dung is extremely important for fuel, to insulate winter and spring stalls, and to construct windbreak walls in the spring.

Both cattle and yaks are used for pack animals and for draft. The hybrid of a yak and a cow is the strongest of all of these bovids.


Fig. 26 Bactrian camel in the Gobi 


The Gobi is the land of the camel because the vegetation is sparse and salt-loving and the climate is so dry (Fig. 26). The Bactrian, or two-humped, camel (Camelus bactrianus) is indigenous to the Gobi, and wild herds currently total about 350 individuals in the Great Gobi Reserve in southern Mongolia (Hare 1998) and 660 in northwest China. Today they exist only on nature preserves where there are attempts to maintain and protect the herds. One of the wild camel preserves is remarkably located in the Lop Nor region of Xinjiang Autonomous Region of NW China, an area that saw 45 years of nuclear testing. Despite this, the wild camel has survived and continues to breed there.

The history of the domestication of camels is poorly known, but recent DNA analysis suggests that both the Bactrian and Dromedary domestic camels came from the wild Bactrian camel. Some say it was domesticated 5,000-6,000 years ago in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China, but that is still very much open to debate. A more likely origin for camel domestication is Iran or Turkmenistan, where their images turn up painted on pottery 5,000-4,500 years ago and in ceramic wagon models dating 4,500-3,600 years ago (Bulliet 1990). The latter, from Turkmenistan, implies that the animals were already used for draft by then and hence had probably been domesticated for some time.

Camels are very valuable for riding and carrying loads. Over a four-day period, a camel can carry 170-270 kg at a rate of about 47 km per day and 4 km an hour.

Camel hair is a highly valued product, that is spun into a soft yarn and woven or knitted into a variety of types of clothing. The camel sheds its thick winter coat quickly in June, giving it a very shaggy look until it has fallen off completely by July. Their hides, sinew, and bones are also used for making various articles.

Because they are so valuable, a camel will be killed and eaten only when it is necessary. Their milk is fermented, like mare's milk, for consumption.


Fig. 27 Reindeer at Lake Hovsgol 


Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) (=caribou in North America) are circumpolar, but the southern border of the range of reindeer dips down into northern Mongolia (Fig. 27). Reindeer are notable in the fact that they are the only deer species in which both the females and males have antlers. Female antlers are smaller than those of the older adult males, but equivalent to those of the young males. Reindeer eat lichens and a variety of plants that are unique to the tundra.

The Tsaatan people who live on the northern border of Mongolia in the mountains and forests around Lake Hovsgol are reindeer herders. The Tsaatan exploit the reindeer antlers, skin, milk, and meat. Their herds are useful for their ability to be ridden, pull sleighs, and carry small packs. Cheese is made from their milk. The Tsaatan only slaughter their reindeer when necessary, since they are so useful alive. The meat is often cut into strips and hung from the tipi frame to dry for preservation.

Although it is not possible to say where reindeer domestication began, the Tsaatan seem to practice a very traditional and ancient form of reindeer herding. The Smithsonian is currently conducting research in this region, in order to better understand ancient and modern reindeer domestication. Dr. William Fitzhugh is pursuing archaeology of this area of Mongolia and botanist Paula DePriest is studying the reindeer's effect on lichens (Milius 2003).


  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  


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