Unraveling nomadic pastoralism in Mongolia in the Bronze Age

Last Thursday, July 22ndNational Geographic History published an article featuring one of the projects in which we collaborate. It is an exciting initiative between the National Museum of Mongolia and the University of La Laguna (Tenerife, Spain) to investigate Bronze Age nomadic societies and pastoralism in Mongolia. The project is funded by the Fundación Palarq and it expands the Western Mongolia Archaeological Project, a long-lasting research program by the Western Kentucky University (USA), with additional participation of researchers from the Milà i Fontanals Institution for Humanities Research (IMF-CSIC) in Barcelona, and the Oulu University in Finland. 

Picture of Natalia Egüez extracting soil
Fig. 1. Natalia Égüez, PI of the Palarq-funded project, extracts a soil micromorphology block (credit: Western Mongolia Archaeological Project, WKU 2019)

The Bronze Age (3000-700 BC) was a period of great interaction and important transformations in Mongolia as attested, for example, with the domestication of horses or the beginning of livestock breeding through pastoralism. The first ceremonial funerary complexes, called Deer Stone Khirigsuur (DSK), emerged during this period, which suggests a level of socio-political complexity in the Eurasian steppes that was unknown to this day. These funerary monuments also contain Horse Head Mounds and stone circle structures. When excavated, they provide an invaluable source of archaeological evidence of the past nomadic pastoralism lifestyle, as different domestic animal remains are recovered (i.e. horse heads and hoofs or burnt fragments of cattle, sheep and goat). Even today, local herders lay their favorite horse skulls on the surface of very prominent khirigsuurs without really knowing the reason – it is a deeply rooted family tradition! 

Picture of pedestrian surveys
Fig. 2. Pedestrian surveys in the steppe (credit: Western Mongolia Archaeological Project, WKU 2018; author: N. Égüez)

Many questions remain unanswered about the DSK culture: were these structures built at once, with the help of large human and animal networks? Or were they built across generations with local resources? What size did the communities who built these structures have? Where did they live, and how? This research will help shed light on these questions, as well as on the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age (700-300 BC), a period of great socioeconomic change with the appearance of growing social inequality and the first nomadic empires. 

Picture of a Deer Stone Khirigsuur
Fig. 3. Deer Stone Khirigsuur complex with central mound, Horse Head mounds and circle stones. Note the vans and team of the Western Mongolia Archaeological Project for scale reference (credit: Western Mongolia Archaeological Project, WKU 2019, author: N. Égüez) 

As a multidisciplinary project, this research integrates methodologies such as achaeobotany, sediment micromorphology and biogenic stable isotopes of different lipidic components of soils and pottery fragments. This geo-ethnoarchaeological and biomolecular perspective has a special focus on domestic contexts, which had been overlooked in many studies. This approach has an amazing potential for the archaeology of pastoralism, which has traditionally faced challenges for obtaining archaeological evidence from these nomadic communities due to its seasonal migrations and the lack of long-term habitat occupation. 

The GIAP’s involvement will include Francesc C. Conesa and Arnau Garcia-Molsosa carrying out remote sensing and spatial analyses to understand how Bronze Age communities constructed their cultural landscapes. The team will use multi-temporal and multi-source satellite and drone imagery, combined with regional ground-truth surveys.  

Read the full article (in Spanish): 


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