Pastoral Adaptations in Northern Mongolia


A review of Modeling Late Prehistoric and Early Historic Pastoral Adaptations in Northern Mongolia’s Darkhad Depression, by Julia K. Clark.

Mongolia has long proved fertile ground for the anthropological study of the adoption of nomadic pastoralism. It is generally thought that pastoralism must have emerged in Mongolia between the Epipaleolithic and Late Bronze Age; however knowledge of prehistoric hunter-gatherers and the transition from hunting and gathering to herding is severely limited in this region. Contextualized archaeological evidence for these early nomadic group camps often remains scarce, a problem compounded by the fact that the small, dispersed, sites studied in this region often do not contain thick, well-stratified archaeological contexts. Similarly, another major obstacle in the way of this effort is the general lack of zooarchaeological and archaeobotanical data obtained from domestic occupations. In a dissertation composed of seven chapters, Julia K. Clark’s dissertation “Modeling late prehistoric and early historic pastoral adaptations in northern Mongolia’s Darkhad Depression” remedies this problem by offering an important contribution to our understanding of early multi-resource pastoral communities of northern Mongolia. She illustrates the role of monumental ritual landscapes, and regional exchange during the Bronze Age and Iron Age to the Xiongnu Period (ca. 2500 BCE – 200 CE) in northern Mongolia’s Darkhad Depression. Her ambitious research program uses multiple forms of analysis—GIS, predictive modeling, pedestrian survey, targeted excavation, experimental archaeology and ethnoarchaeology. This study fills a major gap in this important region of Mongolia that has received very little systematic study to date, and helps provide a unique window into the regional foundations that preceded the Xiongnu development within northeast Asia.

In Chapter One, the introduction presents key theoretical issues connected with the development of prehistoric pastoralism in the Eurasian steppes, the anthropological implications of undertaking more detailed study of these key transitions, and value of this in the context of comparative archaeological study. Clark offers several interrelated research questions central to her investigations: (1) What environmental and cultural factors influence habitation site location and seasonal mobility in the Darkhad Depression today? (p. 21). (2) Is there a spatial correlation between ritual monuments and earlier hunter- gatherer-fisher activity/occupation zones? With Bronze Age and Iron Age habitation? (p. 21). (3) Is there evidence for specialization or non-local artifacts within identifiable habitation zones? Does this vary chronologically? (p. 22). (4) What was the diachronic nature of subsistence practices? (p. 22).  (5) Is there a decline/absence of habitation in the Xiongnu period within the Darkhad Depression? (p. 22). To answer these questions, she outlines her hypotheses, data set, and methodology, as related to a diachronic study of early pastoral adaptations, domestic economies, ritual landscapes, and interactions between neighboring regions.

Chapter 2 discusses various approaches to modeling pastoral adaptation, particularly in northeast Asia. In her dissertation she utilizes (1) predictive site modeling and (2) a conceptual modeling for the adoption of pastoralism. She approaches these methods from a broad temporal and geographic span from the first introduction of domesticates into existing hunter-gatherer economies, through later empires that were built upon a pastoralist economic base. In this chapter, previous modeling approaches that have been applied specifically to Mongolia are summarized and evaluated. As a prerequisite for her own research, this chapter draws on many recent and long-cited classics on pastoralism such as Cribb’s conceptual model for multi-resource agro-pastoral orientations (Cribb 1991) and Michael Franchetti’s valuable work on pastoral landscapes in Kazakhstan (Frachetti 2008). Furthermore, she highlights recent agent-based approaches to look at nomadic pastoralism in Mongolia. To her, these models are important starting points for research that need to be appraised with systematic data collected through survey and test excavations.

In Chapters 3, Clark provides a detailed cultural-history and paleo-environmental background of the Northern Mongolian region. Throughout her dissertation, the author draws contrast to previous archaeological research already conducted in Central Mongolia’s Khanuy Valley and the ground-breaking Egiin Gol Survey Project. Together, a detailed understanding of the natural environment and cultural history helps us better recognize the constraints of the landscape and the adaptations between humans and their surroundings during the introduction and spread of pastoralism in this region. She then describes the archaeological cultures that inhabited Northern Mongolia from the early Pleistocene throughout prehistory including the Lake Baikal Area and the Minusinsk Basin that serve as the basis of her analyses.

Chapter 4 is composed of the methodology chapter in which Clark undertakes a regional survey in order to obtain a full picture of settlement occupation in this region. The Targan Nuur Archaeology Project survey was conducted in a 57 km2 study area systematically surveyed using 20-30 m transects and closely followed other survey projects previously conducted in Mongolia. High-resolution satellite imagery, a digital elevation model (DEM), and a simple predictive model were used to help locate landscape cues and current campsite locations in order to locate areas with high likelihood of archaeological material related to occupation. In total, four locations were randomly selected for limited test-excavations, each of which had been previously tested with shovel probes. The survey team recorded sites and collected and documented ceramic and other artifacts.

In addition to her archaeological fieldwork, The Targan Nuur Archaeology Project utilized experimental archaeology and ethnoarchaeology. Clark particularly excels at incorporating new methods into the study of this region, which might be problematic for other researchers utilizing a more limited tool set. The author and her colleagues conducted a series of ethnographic interviews with local herders living along the northern shore of Targan Nuur. Similarly, experimental archaeology was also employed to test the quality of the clays and firing methods available in the local area as well.

In Chapter 5, Clark skillfully synthesizes the analytical results and hypotheses proposed earlier in the dissertation, by focusing on an analysis of the archaeological remains recovered during the 2012 field season through pedestrian survey and targeted excavations. Key artifacts recovered include ceramics, lithics, and faunal remains. Pottery sherds indicate that this region was continually inhabited from the Pleistocene to the present. A spike in the number of ceramic sherds collected from the Late Bronze Age is indicative of an increase in the intensity of occupation at this time. The Late Bronze Age was followed by a reduction in the intensity of activity in the Xiongnu period. Similarly, the decoration identified on recovered sherds is quite simple, and likely required only a minimal investment of labor. There is little indication of the production of these wares, as no kilns or workshops have been located. Most of the stone tools and debitage collected during the field season are composed of a black or dark grey chert. The Khanuy Valley provides an interesting contrast for Clark here, as it generally lacks the lithic artifacts that are more prevalent in the Targan Nuur Region. Direct evidence for the subsistence economy is still in its infancy in this region, as flotation did not produce any botanical remains. As a result, the contribution of different plant species to human activities in the region is unknown. Because of the fragmentary nature of the faunal assemblage, only a relatively small proportion of bones were identified and include horses, cows/yaks, sheep/goat, deer, and rabbits/rodents.

Chapter 6 “Spatial Patterning” evaluates the utility of her predictive model and investigates the spatial patterning of both monuments and other activity areas within the survey boundaries. Overall, the predictive model was extremely successful in locating those areas most likely to contain artifact scatters. However, Clark noted that the predictive model has some limitations, which could be further improved in the future.  At present, the predictive model might be only capable of locating the camps of some seasons, and has been calibrated to look for certain ‘kinds’ of sites.

In regard to the spatial patterning of her survey, she also explored the relationship between early monument construction and habitation zones and how these appear to have changed over time. While there may have been some association between monument clusters of different eras, there are no clear, or at least detectable, examples of their re-use or alteration as no clear slab burials were found within the Targan Nuur Project Area. Late Bronze Age (LBA) monuments are the most widespread with many distinct clusters being found in all corners of the project area. The exact content or purpose of these monuments are not known, but they likely had a combination of territorial, ritual, and political implications.

Chapter 7 “Theoretical Implications of This Research Program” is the conclusion of Clark’s dissertation. The results of her research are analyzed in four levels- inter-regional comparison and interaction, diachronic economic shifts, and demography-each of which relates to multi-resource pastoralism. As the author points out in a summary of her major findings (pp. 168-186): 1. Important factors influencing contemporary habitation site location and seasonal mobility in this region include: proximity to kin networks, accessibility to natural resources and alternative economic opportunities, along with a consideration for topographical and climatic conditions. 2. While both ritual monuments and activity/occupation zones have been found, a clear spatial pattern has not emerged. Artifact scatters of different periods appear to be scattered within the project area as are the monuments. 3. A mixed hunting-gathering-herding orientation was an important subsistence strategy through time, however the balance of wild and domestic species in the subsistence strategies is unknown. 4. While non-local artifacts are likely present, the full extent to which artifacts are local or non- local is unknown. Specialization does not appear as most sites contain the same set of artifact classes in roughly similar proportions. 5. Less energy and resources were being put into the construction of the monumental landscape in northern Mongolia. Nevertheless, the early dates for the monuments in the Darkhad Depression suggest that they may have been experimenting with the use of monuments at a very early chronological stage.

This dissertation is well worth reading, and as such, clearly shows the immense potential of the Darkhad Depression data to contribute to theoretical and methodological studies of multi-resource pastoral economies and settlements worldwide. This work joins a growing list of recent graduate dissertations on Mongolia by a new generation of archaeologists. Her work demonstrates that agent-based modeling is often a useful method for hypothesizing potential pastoral practices, but that it is equally important to undertake in-depth analyses to truly recognize its associated cultural practices through space and time. The author’s work in the Darkhad Depression is a vivid example of what is possible in the archaeology of Mongolia, and narratives of this region will become further refined and benefit greatly from Clark’s pioneering efforts.

Tricia E. Owlett
Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures
Stanford Archaeology Center
Stanford University

References Cited:
Cribb, Roger. 1991. Nomads in Archaeology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Frachetti, Michael. 2008. Pastoralist Landscapes and Social Interaction in Bronze Age Eurasia. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Primary Sources
Primary archaeological and survey data from Northern Mongolia
Experimental Archaeology

Dissertation Information
University of Pittsburgh. 2014. 256 pp. Primary Advisor: Bryan K. Hanks

Image: Burial mound on a hill above Targan Nuur (Targan Lake) in northern Mongolia’s Darkhad Depression; photo taken by the author.

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