Early Nomadic Polities on the Mongolian Steppe


A review of Emergent Complexity on the Mongolian Steppe: Mobility, Territoriality, and the Development of Early Nomadic Polities, by Jean-Luc Houle.

Historians of Asia have been baffled by the rise of nomadic polities in the steppe region since the time of Sima Qian, who assigned Chinese ancestors to these formidable foes, in order to make sense of their history. Recent scholars have favored more subtle ways of correlating the fates of the steppe and China. The steppe polities, many believe, developed in response to their sedentary neighbors in the south. Thomas Barfield proposed perhaps the most eloquent case for this theory in The Perilous Frontier (1989), which explains 2000 years of Chinese-Nomadic relations as cyclical rises and falls. Jean-Luc Houle, while conceding that “it is possible that ‘real’ chiefship arose only after confrontation with powerful external polities such as early imperial China” (p.190), makes a forceful argument on archaeological basis against what he terms the “dependency hypothesis”.

His field of experiment lies in the Khanuy river valley in the heart of Mongolia in the Late Bronze Age, where an international archaeological project has been conducted under the direction of Francis Allard (Indiana University of Pennsylvania) since 2001. After introducing the theoretical background of the dissertation, Houle briefly describes the climate and environment of the research region, which he argues is largely similar to that of the Late Bronze Age. It is therefore possible to make use of ethnographical sources acquired in the fieldwork to corroborate and support the sometimes less-than-abundant archaeological finds. Prior to Houle’s survey and excavation, mammoth burials known as khirigsuurs have long been known in this area, along with the less conspicuous slab burials and intricately anthropomorphic deer stones. Much ink has been spilled on these monumental structures. But general agreement has not yet been reached on their functions and the social structure underlying their construction.

Houle’s strategy to address these problems is to dig deeper, quite literally. His ground-breaking survey of this region is one of the few earliest attempts (along with perhaps that of William Honeychurch and others in Egiin Gol Valley in Northern Mongolia) to look beyond and beneath monumental structures for the much less noticed settlement patterns. The area studied is divided into four topographical regions, two of which are shown by survey work to have been more heavily occupied. Houle’s fieldwork centered on two zones, A and B, each measuring about 20 square kilometers (and each encompassing parts of the four typographical regions). Zone A is close to major khirigsuurs whereas Zone B is far from one. A comparison of these two regions should conceivably allow the possibility of examining the relations between monumental structures and settlement patterns and if or not proximity to the supposed monumental center mattered. After extensively surveying the area by shovel probing, many settlement sites were identified. Of these areas, 8 areas in Zone A (5 along foothills, 3 along the Khanuy river) and 6 areas in Zone B (4 along foothills, 2 along the Khanuy river) were excavated. Materials recovered from these excavations form the database for the author’s analysis.

Chapter 3 is an examination of the settlement patterns and centrality of the sites identified in the survey. In both Zones A and B, settlements were found in foothills and by the Khanuy river and barely in between. Curiously, these two regions correspond to the territories for winter and summer campsites of current Mongolian nomads. The supposed summer and winter sites do not differ greatly in terms of altitude and are not too far apart. Such settlement pattern suggests horizontal migrations with quite limited mobility. By comparing these findings with ethnographical data, the author also provides a demographical estimate. More interesting, however, is the analysis of an area-sherd density index which indicates the density of population in different areas. This in turn reveals that foothills (presumably winter campsites) were settled much longer than river side areas (summer campsites) and also with more people by temporal influx. Such influx might have been triggered by the construction of the massive khirigsuurs in the fall. Perhaps also because of the existence of khirigsuurs, Zone A, which is closer to these monumental structures, demonstrated a density-area index twice as high as Zone B. The centrality of monuments is thus apparent.

Houle goes on to describe his test excavations. In each of the 14 areas, 8 squares of 2 meter by 2 meter units were excavated. He used “both strategically placed units as well as arbitrarily located units” (p.82) in his excavations. Chapter 4 consists of a detailed catalog of results from these excavations. The botanical and faunal analyses of this catalog form the basis of Chapter 5. In sharp contrast to the relative meager plant specimens which in all likelihood were neither domesticated nor cultivated, faunal remains featured very prominently in these sites. These faunal remains are particularly important because they are “to date the only fauna recovered from non-mortuary contexts for this period in Mongolia” (p.118). Different from the context of khirigsuurs, where horse remains feature predominantly, in these settlement sites they “only make up about 21% of the recovered faunal material” (p.126). This observation indicates the importance of settlement research as a corrective to the picture acquired solely from works on monumental structures. Unhindered by the very limited sample number (8), Houle aptly uses statistics to prove that since all eight horses died when they were 2 to 3 years old (thus possessing most of their meat), it is statistically impossible that these samples would be from a wild stock in a hunting society where a random display of different age group is to be expected. Thus, nomads living in Late Bronze Age Mongolia most likely herded horses for meat. The other important domesticated animals were sheep and goat. Cattle were much less important and probably “imported”. Herding, instead of agriculture or hunting, was the major mode of food production.

The author further investigates social differentiation in Chapter 6 in two aspects: status and economy. While few meaningful metal evidence is present, animal types (the existence of the supposedly foreign species of cow in certain sites) and numbers (and particularly the proportion of different types of animals in different sites); imported goods (jade, turquoise etc.); ceramic types (decoration and size) all could serve as important indicators of social status. These same groups of materials, examined from a different perspective, also afford insights into the economic specialization. Since metallurgy and agriculture were both virtually non-existent, ceramics and lithics are the most important “productions”. Regarding ceramics, three indexes – paste coarseness, firing atmosphere (determined by examining color of ceramics – result of oxidation) and wall thickness – are examined. The lack of homogeneity in all three aspects argues against the existence of mass production. The lithic remains alone could barely produce any meaningful conclusions due to its small sample. However, when it is combined with information seen in other materials, patterns do emerge. For example, site SP07E-SOV in Zone B has a higher percentage of lithic tools, a rich array of ceramics (especially a ceramic fragment of “foreign” type), but very few faunal discoveries. Underlying such discrepancy, as the author shrewdly observes, is the possibility of economic specialization.

In the last part of the dissertation, the self-sufficiency and stability of pastoral economy is emphasized – a further argument against the “dependency hypothesis”.  Interestingly, Houle proposes to link the emerging (yet still limited) social complexity with the monumental architectures of khirigsuurs and sees the ritual activity involved in the construction and use of khirigsuurs rather than hierarchical economy as the structuring force in this society. This important and fresh insight points to a different direction towards more social complexity than previously conceived. As a fundamental contribution to our knowledge of the nomadic world in Late Bronze Age Mongolia, this dissertation also provides crucial evidence for the argument of an indigenous path to further concentration of power and birth of larger polities – eventually leading to Xiongnu and Scythian Empires described by classical writers of China and Greece – in the Iron Age Eurasia.

Xin Wen
PhD Candidate
Inner Asian and Altaic Studies
Harvard University

Primary Sources

The author’s own ground survey, test probes and test excavations in the Khanuy River Valley area in People’s Republic of Mongolia.

Dissertation Information

University of Pittsburgh. 2010. 223 pp. Primary Advisors: Robert D. Drennan and Katheryn M. Linduff.


Image: A Mongolian Yurt by P.Lechien, Wikimedia Commons.

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