Hinterlands, Urban Centers, and Mobile Settings: The "New" Old World Archaeology from the Eurasian Steppe

Article excerpt


Archaeological studies of pastoral nomadic societies have been invigorated by recent collaborative research projects across the Eurasian steppe zone. This research contributes an important comparative perspective on processes of complex sociopolitical organization practiced among mobile groups. This essay employs a novel approach to understanding the organizational techniques and methods of finance that supported large-scale imperial polities of eastern Eurasia, specifically those centered on the Mongolian steppe. Using full-coverage survey data from the northern Mongolian valley of Egiin Gol, we present the results of diachronic spatial and environmental analyses in order to evaluate current models for nomadic political economy. We argue that eastern Eurasian subsistence economics are best understood not as a single "type" of production but as a productive process based on multiresource capacities (agro-pastoral, hunting, gathering, fishing) and the flexibility to readily adjust resource emphasis, degree of mobility, and specialization relative to a changeable environment. We offer a revised model for eastern steppe political integration emphasizing the spatial management of political relationships within a mobile setting. Our essay concludes with a brief overview of the potential for Eurasian steppe archaeology to contribute novel comparative insights for anthropologists studying the diversities and commonalities of complex social organization. Keywords: pastoralism, nomadism, Mongolia, Eurasia, political economy, social complexity, urbanism.

"Without pasture there are no herds, without herds there is no food, and without food there are no people" is a Mongolian proverb, the significance of which the two of us came to understand during the spring of 1993 by way of acquaintance with the herder, Tumen, of Bayankhongor Province. (1) As is common at this time of year, Tumen's sheep and goats were emerging famished from a harsh steppe winter and were dependent on the first spring grasses to replenish their strength. In the next few days, unseasonable and unpredictable snowstorms, called zud, began to blow across the southwestern provinces of Mongolia, icing and destroying the delicate new pasture. Tumen's weakest animals began dying after a day and a half without access to grazing, and by the end of the week most local herders had lost significant portions of their herds and their livelihood. This was only the first of several spring zud episodes that were to sweep through Mongolia during the 1990s and that would eventually lead to large-scale international assistance to the country in 1999 and 2000.

Mongol folk sayings tend to reflect the experience of a highly specialized pastoral way of life that is still common on the Mongolian steppe today. Anatoly Khazanov (1994) has argued that groups inhabiting marginal environments and devoting a majority of subsistence effort to mobile and extensive herding are often unable to maintain a balance between available pasture, herd numbers, and human population due to unpredictable variability in the environment. Zud, epizootic diseases, steppe fires, and drought require that a system of pastoral specialization be supplemented and buffered against productive risk, and though evidence suggests that extended families might survive on herd animals alone, diversification strategies are a more plausible--and probably necessary--form of subsistence management. Archaeological studies from Mongolia and Siberia have hypothesized that early steppe economies were most likely based on multiresource nomadism (Salzman 1972: 67) during the second and first millennium B.C., including various forms of livestock herding, agricultural production, hunting, fishing, and gathering of wild fruits and vegetables (Grishin 1981: 196). These same intermixed subsistence activities have been documented ethnographically for the Siberia-Mongolia region (Erdenebaatar 2000; Vainshtein 1980). …


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