Warriors and Cattle-Breeders of the Great Steppe
It can be stated with confidence that the Mongol world has more than once faced the challenge of striking the balance between the society and nature. And no matter how much we appreciate today the wisdom of old traditions, whose ultimate goal was to restrict the anthropogenic impact on the environment, some curious historical facts can be easily found indicating that, in some situations, peoples fail to display common sense...
Highly instructive for our modern life with its rapid pace of development and intensified political and social-economic processes, which involve Mongolian-speaking peoples along with the rest of the world, can be the study of historical conditions that led to the formation of the nomad empires of Central Asia. The long-standing experience of multi-national communities and co-existing civilizations and their interaction with the environment is becoming a matter for scholarly enquiry.
It can be stated with confidence that the Mongol world has more than once faced the challenge of striking the balance between the society and nature. And no matter how much we appreciate today the wisdom of old traditions, whose ultimate goal was to restrict the anthropogenic impact on the environment, some curious historical facts can be easily found indicating that, in some situations, peoples fail to display common sense.
A good example is the mode of economy typical of the Great Steppe in the 12th century. Nearly all the sources testify that the economy of nomads was based on cattlebreeding, which has remained virtually intact over the centuries.
This mode of economy features predominantly extensive factors of development. At that time, there were practically no objective pre-conditions for uniting the Steppe’s nomadic community. Closed local groups of nomads scattered about the vast expanse of the great Gobi desert were obviously decentralized. Social interaction between them, based on the long-standing tradition of nomadic life, involved both strong centripetal and centrifugal processes.
The intensifying fight for domination in this region that took place among the Mongol tribes in the second half of the 12th century was, in fact, a fight for better economic conditions. This was a long-standing issue connected with allocation of large groups of people, pastures and cattle. The aggravating political situation and frequent skirmishes signaled an urgent need for making the economy, spontaneous until then, more regulated. It was not by accident that later Chinggis Khan had to introduce, along with the notion of “custom”, the notion of “law”.
With the optimal characteristics of nomadic economy in mind, we can evaluate the anthropogenic impact on the Great Steppe back in those times. Even if population density is assumed to be the lowest, the Great Steppe proves to have been overpopulated. Moreover, if the hypothesis stating that in the 12th century the hydrological regime of the Steppe was very favorable, the resulting higher birth rates could double the population. This process had its consequences — the arid soil failed to bear the pressure which was stronger than that predetermined by nature.
The growing human population had to seek for “outlets”. Indeed, according to L. N. Gumilev’s calculations, the nomadic community often “discharged” large groups of warriors who left the Steppe. These groups numbered dozens of thousands of warriors, and the process was continual. The “army contingent” was thus regularly renewed and increased, continuity in the war art was maintained, and the nomadic economy within the Steppe’s bounds was not in danger. It was this process that generated fairy-tales about Koshchey Bessmertny [an evil folk character who lives eternally] in the neighboring crop-growing countries.
Modern communities “going back” to their traditional economies should take into account this historical experience. Balance between man and nature should be maintained through natural regulation of the population not only of cattle heads but of people as well.
Research into the economic modes characteristic of Mongolian-speaking peoples of Central Asia was one of the aims of the Russian-Mongolian-Chinese expedition “Transformation of Nomadic Civilizations”(2000—2006). Future issues of SCIENCE First Hand will write about this expedition and the results it achieved in the total of eight months’ field season and over 20,000 kilometers made through China, Tibet, Mongolia, Buryatia and other regions.