Country Listing

Mongolia Table of Contents


Pastoralism in Practice

Mongols herd sheep, horses, cattle, goats, camels, and yaks. Although horses are the most valued animal, Mongols actually depend on sheep for their basic livelihood. Horses are the focus of an elaborate cultural complex, in which the care of horses is a male prerogative, whereas tending and milking sheep is a female task. In Mongolian epics, the second lead is always the horse, which gives sound advice to the hero. In Mongolian chess, the most powerful piece is called the horse, rather than the queen. The national musical instrument is a bowed string instrument with a carved horse's head, called a morin huur, which, according to legend, was invented by a rider who used the rib bones and the mane of his favorite horse to make an instrument to express his sorrow at its death. Fermented mare's milk, ayrag, is the national drink; it is considered to have special nutritional and tonic qualities. State-owned mines and factories maintain special herds of horses to provide their workers with the ayrag they are thought to require to maintain their health.

Sheep provide milk, which is processed into butter, cheeses, and other dairy products; mutton, wool, and hide for clothes and tents; and dung for cooking and heating. Sheep can be herded on foot, with one person and a few dogs responsible for a flock. Mongolian dogs, which are famous for their ferocity and hostility to strangers, do not help herd sheep as Western sheepdogs do, but they protect the flocks from wolves or other predators. Sheep are driven back to the camp every night, both for their protection and to provide a concentrated and convenient supply of dung. The sheep are led out to pasture each day, ideally moving out from the camp in a spiral until fresh pasture is so far away that it is more convenient to move the camp.

Each species of animal is herded separately, and herders must balance, therefore, the expected benefit from each type of animal against the cost of providing human labor to watch each separate herd and to move to the precise environment to which each animal is best suited. Sheep are basic, horses something of a luxury item, and other species are added to the camp inventory as labor power and environmental considerations dictate. The demands on human labor mean that a single household is not the optimal unit for herding. The basic unit in Mongol pastoralism is a herding camp, composed of two to six households, that manages its flocks as a single integrated economic unit. In the past, the members of a herding camp were usually, though not necessarily, patrilineal kinsmen. Membership of the herding camp was reconstituted on a year-to-year basis, with some households remaining in the same camp, others leaving to join different camps, and some camps dividing if their human and animal populations grew too large for effective operation. Under collectivization, herding camps remained the basic unit of pastoral production.

Data as of June 1989