The Mongolian nomads: an anthropological alternative?

The Mongolian nomads: an anthropological alternative?

Mongolia is a myth, a myth it does not have the privilege of being endowed with. What a number of pictures are jostling each other and naturally, overlapping… Many certainties that would not have to be verified any longer assert themselves. One more than the others: the obvious fact of an eternal mobility. So much so that it is common to come across today a popular sacrifice of rejecting the very term of « nomadism » for a « mobile system». Wouldnt it just be a matter of taking a superfluous « -ism » off our vocabulary… But this choice of terms makes sense and conjures up metaphors. In the belief of figuring out an essential reality more effectively in mobility, it in fact turns away from the latter in favour of an appearance imposed by a captive look of its routines and its sedentary constraints.

The nomadic pastoralism, the Mongolians' being exemplary, is neither passive wandering nor obedience to some supernatural instinct. It is the lifestyle of men and women who, like anywhere else, try to earn their livelihood by working. What could seem as a simple answer to extreme conditions, if not like an evasion of them, constitutes an original strategy, as rich and complex in its techniques as in its values.

In the steppes of North Asia, man in his quest for existance managed to control his fate, into an infinite number of compromises between himself and nature, and himself and his fellow men.

The steppe itself provides a big setting, stretching from the Black Sea to the Pacific Ocean, whose northern and southern boundaries merge into tundras or deserts. Between the two is an entanglement of forests and prairies, with an ultra continental climate, known particularly for its permanent unpredictability and irregularities. The breaks are frequent, violent. This dry and cold climate only allows weak and irregular harvests. Moreover, heat and humidity are far from being related, a correlation put forward only by shortsighted means. There is always a possibility of spring droughts or late and deadly snowstorms occurring during some weeks or even some days of interval, enough to destabilize a whole year.

Where the neolithic has seen the practice of agriculture and breeding, even fishing cohabit, the bronze age initiates an evolution in the direction of a more and more exclusive pastoralism: striking a balance between energy spent and energy that one gets from work, breeding provides a flexible and efficient response. Weak and fluctuating agricultural yields are hardly compatible with the maintenance on one and the same land. Managing a sprawling pastoral space on which the herds exert only a tolerable pressure is consequently imperative. The livestock, on the other hand, could be dispersed and displaced as much for finding its food as escaping from an ever-threatening calamity. Source of varied products, it is also perhaps a protective buffer capable of wiping out calamities.

Where the agrarian and sedentary cultures are part of an accumulation logic, the nomadic breeders implement a dispersion principle, alternating grazing and encampments according to the seasons, but also associating several species with complementary behaviours and needs in their livestock. From one region to another, the forms and scope of nomadizations are different, but nomadic mobility is neither an end in itself, nor a blind belief in the movement. The mobility is only a tool for dissipation, matching the needs of men and flock with the resource availabilities and reality. These alternations and diversity enable man to escape from the fate of new migrations. Paradoxically, the nomadic mobility, tool for carrying out the dispersion, is an essential means for not having to quit a familiar place, shaped by a constantly recurring domestication.

This pastoralism, which owes a lot to the inevitability that water requirements impose on it, is a system mainly made up of small groups of population making a living out of the flocks of limited size, scattered over the entire stretch of pastures that these groups have the strength to control.

The repetition of annual cycles, use of the same wintering sites could be nothing but illusions. Within a few days, a herd could be decimated, even wiped out, by a prolonged drought, by a series of storms, famine, disease, predators. Even prosperity with its increasing water and food requirements of a bigger livestock challenges the fragile balance of the pastures.

A nomadic system spread out in small groups also means that these groups remain weak, at the mercy of even minute changes in the balance of power between neighbours. If the overly fluctuating value of the pastures makes ownership unthinkable, a right is established, first based on that of the first occupant. But this right is dependent on the strength of the person who exercises it. So the ecologically and technically optimal nomadic dispersion has its own uncertainties. Heavy with competititons and tensions, it calls for complex social strategies. Wih this fragility, some alliances are set up, are renewed, get muddled up. A form of inheritence sees the inheritors assume their independance as and when they attain adulthood.

Sme of these alliances are therefore built on blood ties and marriage bonds, others on neighbourhood and mutual interest solidarities. The power, far from conceiving a huge volume of accumulated resources, relies on the art of controlling and organizing these networks of relationships which, starting from each scattered household ends up in the periphery of the nomadic world. From time to time, with the tensions getting worse, there is no other way out than bigger defensive regroupings. The latter, by the force of things, cannot lay claims on continuance: prolonging the conurbation of men and concentration of flocks over a limited space would in fact be suicidal. There are nonetheless critical moments in setting up the social order. It is at this occasion that lignages compel their primacy and assert their legitimity. This aristocracy, however, is not a caste or an order. Anyone who belongs to this society is first of all breeders and nomadic.

Every now and then, this superiority of a moment, that can target nothing but the return of the society to its dissipation, gives birth to a more ambitious enterprise. It is then, at the price of maybe misuse of terms, that one speaks of a nomadic « empire », one of these « empires of steppes » one after another in the heart of Central Asia for a period close to two millenniums. But these empires are based on an essential contradiction: born out of the needs of regulation of the nomadic pastoral society in dispersion, and obeying its conditions, they cannot hope to find in it the resources and the means of their own continuity. The weakness and irregularity of the surplus derived from the pastoral economy are in fact incompatible with the permanent and prolonged maintenance of the institutions pertaining to an actually embryonic State: an administration, an army, an imperial court, etc. Also, quite a lot of enterprises could remain short-lived and return to the steppe as soon as their first goal is reached.

The solution to this dilemma depends on the fact that the nomadic societies and cultures are far from living in autarchy. The external world is very much present in the life of the steppe, and the neighbours are not ignorant of it. Trade relations are formed, furs and animals, especially horses are exchanged against fabric, luxury items, even cereals, but also nobiliary or ceremonial titles providing a base for argument in the nomadic political struggles. As if these exchanges were not anymore enough or breaking off, the razzia and the conquest then follow or join them. One must go further: in the history of China, frequently split between North and South, a particular place comes back to the dynasties that China took possession of, but which are nonetheless echos of this complex cohabitation and confrontation. From the time of coming out of antiquity until the middle of modern times, from the Tabgach dynasty of North Wei (386 - 534), one of the main initiators to Bhuddhism in North China, and until Mandchou Empire of the Qing (1644 - 1912), including the Kitan Liao (916-1125) and the Mongols Yuan (1279- 1368), China has experienced a series of long periods during which it is more in terms of interpenetration than proximity that its relationships with the nomadic people should be perceived.

With forest and pasture spaces pertaining to nomadic people, thus joins a historical space to which their tradition links them intimately, inhabited by sedentary people, indeed, but which has nothing of an exotic background for them.

This history is filled with numerous paradoxes, one of the most striking one being this « power of weakness » which in the last analysis sets up enormous enterprises of the nomadic history on the dispersion of small homes, often sensitive to minute fluctuations. More still, it brings to light this range of symmetries that makes an alternative of major anthropological scale out of a society and a culture based on dispersion, with a model set up on accumulation provided by the sedentary agrarian cultures and their inheritors. For a long time represented as a primitive « barbarious » state, the nomadic pastoralism is still overly conceived and defined by its «shortcomings», « deficiencies» or « gaps» compared to a « normal » and « universal » order of human development, whose prototype is provided by the sedentary agrarian, agro-industrial then urban and industrial societies' model, from now onwards the most advanced « post-industrial» one. For such a vision, other models of human activity and organization could only reveal their inadequacies. But, if it is now more current than before to set up major scientific ambition of a universality of the interpretations of the real, the latter couldn't be shortened, amputated from what would remain inexorably rejected or maintained in the bizarre, exotic or atypical. The nomadic pastoralism offers a huge laboratory from this point of view, a widely open site. It is upto the specialists of the numerous disciplines concerned to pool in their efforts more than ever before.