Located in Northeast Asia between the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China, landlocked Mongolia covers an area of roughly 1.6 million square kilometers. Vast steppe regions, mountain areas, and desert areas dominate the country’s physical geography, and its continental climate yields long cold winters and brief summers. These basic ecological features have provided the foundation for past and present understandings of the history and culture of the area’s peoples. Given the country’s considerable size, its population is relatively small at approximately 2.5 million people. Fully 80% of the population is considered to be Khalkha Mongolian, with the second largest group, the Kazakhs, represented in much smaller numbers at 6%. Peoples identified as being of Mongolian descent, however, live beyond the country’s political borders in neighboring regions to the north and south. Mongolian populations have been fluid, contracting and expanding across the region and varying with the time period under consideration: the pre-Mongol Empire, the Mongolian Empire, the Manchu-Qing period, or modern Mongolia. This situation is recognized by most anthropological work, which predominantly examines mobile pastoralism, genetic origins, cosmology and religion, social organization, and post-socialist transformations within a broad framework that does not necessarily limit itself to the borders of the modern Mongolian state.
With the establishment of the Communist-based Mongolian People’s Republic in 1924, Russian and Mongolian scholars trained in the Soviet tradition of ethnology dominated research throughout much of the 20th century. Anthropologists from the West gained greater access to research with the country’s transition to a democratic system of government during the 1990s. Many research teams now conduct multiparty cooperative research with international teams such as the Joint Mongolian-Russian-American archaeological expeditions. Although a significant amount of research from scholars around the world has been conducted since this period, much of this work remains unpublished or available only in journal articles and online materials. Popular perceptions of Mongolia and its peoples have arguably been shaped by the country’s most well-known historical figure, Chinggis (Genghis) Khan, and by the early expeditions into the region by explorers best exemplified by Roy Chapman Andrews (1884-1960). Andrews’s expeditions in Central Asia for the American Museum of Natural History provided a wealth of archaeological and ethnographic data that still contribute to ongoing research.
Early anthropological work sought to identify and describe the various groups in the area, emphasizing cultural traits that would, on the one hand, distinguish these groups from each other and from the more sedentary peoples around them and, on the other, enable anthropologists to hypothesize their origins and the possibility of common ancestors. Archaeologists continue to examine material artifacts to help them uncover the different ethnic identities present on the Central and Inner Asian steppes. Physical and biological anthropologists, using genetic and morphological studies, are reassessing evolutionary frameworks for the earliest migrations of modern humans and later migration patterns and development within Asia and the Americas, underscoring the need for more complex understandings of migration. Language has also been used as a marker for differentiating the peoples of the steppe region. Placed within the Altaic language family, the Mongolic languages and their similarities in general structure, agglutination, and vowel harmony have been considered as evidence of the origins of and links between Altaic peoples and also been used to posit theories about shared ancestors or waves of migratory groups. Anthropological inquiries into the peoples of Mongolia have been prompted not only by questions about the population’s genetic history but also by historical and contemporary research into the relationships between the area’s ecology and its peoples, especially their social practices. Research on Mongolian populations have also focused on the role of borders and boundaries, challenged stereotypes and assumptions held about pastoral peoples both within the discipline and in public perceptions, examined the relationship between ecology and social organization, and highlighted the sociopolitical dimensions of cultural change (particularly during recent years with the impact and aftermath of the socialist transformation).
One of the most well-known scholars associated with anthropological work in the region is Owen Lattimore (1900-1989). In his examination of the origins of differentiation between Inner Asian peoples, Lattimore questioned the barbarian-civilized dichotomy. This dichotomy was based partially on historical and archaeological data on Neolithic groups that were used to rank them in accordance with their perceived level of “advancement.” Lattimore preferred a theory that explained divergent political formations (the rise of the state) and economic strategies (the rise of irrigation and rice culture) based on ecological differences in the region. In his Inner Asian Frontiers of China, Lattimore presented the idea of “frontier zones” as an analytical framework for describing the peoples and their relations in the area. When described as zones, the permeable and fluid nature of interactions and relationships in these areas is underscored. Lattimore’s work opened avenues for later scholars due to its emphasis on cultural exchange in opposition to a presumption of unilineal acculturative forces as others scholars had suggested up to that point. More recent work addresses the legacy of the primitive/barbarian typology as well as ideas of “peripheralness” that continue to have strong social, economic, and political impacts for the peoples in this region. This work included, but was not limited to, issues of identity, processes related to urbanization, and development.
Archaeological evidence demonstrates that mobile herding has taken place across Mongolia’s grasslands for at least 2,000 years. Pastoralists in Mongolia practice a complex form of pastoralism involving the herding of several different kinds of livestock across seasonal pastures. Our understandings of a mobile pastoral lifestyle in the region are based largely on which historical period these studies examined, where comparisons of the given situation were often made to an idealized form of pastoralism prior to the advent of new systems. Pastoralism is often treated as belonging on a spectrum where one end is the ideal pure form (complete mobility), the middle is a combination of different strategies (seasonal pasturing and some agricultural activities), and the other end is total sedentarization of herders (with acculturative forces often given as the cause). Emphasis is frequently placed on the impact of political systems on the demography of these populations and on the ecology of the area. Ecologically based and so-called culturally based arguments present pastoral and sedentary lifestyles as antithetical to one another rather than recognizing possibilities for diversity within these strategies. One recent line of research suggests that these systems’ effects, although varied and of differing time depths, demonstrate the flexibility and compatibility of mobile pastoralism with a variety of political and economic systems. As such, mobile pastoralism should be considered as a strategy fully compatible with circumstances on the steppes today.
Debates over the processes and impact of sedentarization and acculturation coexist with debates over colonization and modernization in the entire region. Colonization by the Japanese in northern China and the political and cultural domination of Mongolia by the Soviet Union contributed to population movements that affected not only the ecology but also the structure of people’s lives. Descriptions of Mongolian social structure as it existed during the pre-Communist period focused on patrilineal descent and patron-client relationships as dominant forms of social organization. During the Communist period in Mongolia, kinship structure as the basis of social organization became less significant. As production teams of nonkin established by the government became more integrated, relations with kin outside became less important in terms of pastoral production. Kinship ties remained important to procure goods and services unavailable in rural areas so as to ensure the survival of the household. Within the household unit, its operations, division of labor, and ordering of space remained much the same. During the post-Soviet era of privatization, social relationships have changed and scholars are placing greater emphasis on the use of networks to describe social relations within and between pastoral groups, focusing on local ideas of herding groups (ail) to examine relationships between kin and relations based on economic interaction, on use of pasturelands, and on friendship. Structural reforms put in place after the fall of communism also created new conditions that prompted a reevaluation of pastoralism in the area. Recent work focuses on indigenous notions of land use and their interplay with political and legal frameworks and on the larger issue of sustainable pastoral development. Anthropologists have pointed to the incompatibility of notions of land privatization with traditional notions of land ownership described by one scholar as “custodial.” Current land law in Mongolia supports public ownership of pastureland. Continuing challenges to pastoral lifestyles have spurred anthropologists to examine both local and global dimensions of political economy and how these often adversely affect cultural norms and values.
Research on religion in Mongolia tends to focus on shamanism, Buddhism, or a specific combination of Buddhist and shamanistic traditions. Shamanism or traces of shamanistic traditions are found throughout Turkic, Mongolian, and Siberian peoples, and researchers have emphasized a general similarity of features within the shamanistic practices in the area (part of a larger academic debate over the universality of shamanistic traditions). This amalgamation of Buddhism and shamanistic traditions is of particular interest to regional scholars interested in placing shamanism in relation to what they see as later traditions—Buddhism, Islam, and (to a lesser extent) Christianity. Research has shown a general resurgence of interest with the change in government. Mongolian concepts about nature are described as an active relationship where nature is conceived as complementary to, and not subordinate to, humans. Many objects in nature are considered to have spirits and relationships with these objects that are described in ways similar to those of human interactions. One example of shamanistic elements, whose survival during various periods may be linked partially to their incorporation into Buddhism, is the stone cairns (oboos) and rituals performed around them. They received much scholarly attention in part because these enactments highlight the relationship between humans and the spiritual world—one of responsibility to maintain a balance with nature. This relationship entails an obligation to spiritual authorities similar to that of secular authorities and the maintenance of good relations with the spiritual ones to ensure prosperity. In both social order and indigenous notions of land rights, we can observe these ongoing and often reformulated meanings.
In spite of the marked political, economic, and social transitions in Mongolian history, the preceding themes of religion, social relations, and pastoralism remain a significant part of ongoing research. The upheavals of the postsocialist transformation have reinvigorated the study of earlier models and well-established themes about the area and its peoples, revealing a richer and more complex set of processes that will continue to provide fertile ground for new research.
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- Humphrey, C., & Sneath, D. (1999). The end of nomadism? Society, state, and the environment in Inner Asia (Central Asia Book Series). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
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