The horse - and camel - based cultures of the great Central Asian steppes and deserts that had become so important in the geopolitical world of Asia produced a remarkable cultural variant, known generically as the Mongolians, but who consisted of tribes of various names. They mastered a particularly extreme landscape and in the process served not only as intermediaries between China and the rest of Asia, but also occasionally as its rulers.
Mongolia is a vast area punctuated by continuous mountain chains across the entire territory. The southern part is desert. The rest is grassland and mountain forests. But because the high altitude produces an air that is dry, there is little snow accumulation even during winter, and this allows horses year-round grazing, which was not possible further to the west. In other words, of the 4,500 kilometers of steppe between Europe and East Asia, Mongolia alone could sustain a horse-purist culture. So, unlike the Scythians, the Mongolians did not supplement their diet with the products of agriculture, nor did they tend cattle or sheep, and nor did they develop domestic crafl:s such as weaving, woodworking, pottery making, or even metallurgy. All equipment and possessions of this sort traditionally came from trading or warfare.
Despite their difierence with their steppe neighbors, the Mongolians remained shaman-istic to the core. They were organized into clans that vied with each other for power, but that also functioned together, until modern times, under a system known as a khanate. It is equivalent to a chiefdom, but is built on a system of annual meetings where participants express allegiance to one another and determine the course of upcoming political or military actions.
Unlike the Scythians, the Mongolians did not supplement their diet with the products of agriculture, nor did they tend cattle or sheep, and nor did they develop domestic crafts such as weaving, woodworking, pottery making, or even metallurgy. All equipment and possessions of this sort traditionally came from trading or warfare. Despite their difierence with their northern neighbors, the Mongolians remained shamanistic to the core. They were organized into clans, who vied with each other for power, but who also functioned together, until modern times, under a system known as a khanate. It is equivalent to a chiefdom, but works on the annual meeting of the clans to express allegiance to one another and determine the course of the upcoming political or military action.
With the emergence of Mongolian cultures, the eastern steppe in which they lived became the site of various contestations by Turkish-speaking cultures, such as the Uigurs, as well as by the Jurchen (Manchu). Between 550 and 850 the Turks predominated, but they were driven out by the Mongolians. The Turks left and eventually took over Anatolia (Turkey). In 1115, the Jurchen overran the Mongolians and created the Jin Dynasty, but in 1130 the Mongolians drove the Jurchen out and in 1135 Kubla Khan unified the Mongolians and established his empire that connected China to Europe. His capital was Karakorum, and his Chinese capital was Dadu (“Great Capital”) or Khanbaliq, the site of modern-day Bejing. The empire eventually collapsed. Over time, the Inner Asian steppe became increasingly depopulated, leaving the Mongolians as the last remnant of a once significant cultural horizon.
Though horse herds belonged to either men or women, the care of the horses was a male obligation. A Mongolian man was deeply identified with his personal horse. The proportions, color, gait, and brand (tamaga) of the animal was held to reveal his very nature. Herds were also thought to possess a mystical unity passed down through a stallion. Knowing this, the Mongols chose and trained their riding horses with extraordinary care.8 When a woman married, horses from her parents’ herds were part of the dowry and carried the tamaga of her father. Over time, however, they would be absorbed into the husband’s herd and rebranded. Branding was subject to a complex set of rules—not to mention spiritual implications and taboos. As these large amalgamated herds continually moved from pasture to pasture, thieving was comparatively easy. Branding protected against this, but just as importantly, it guaranteed the origin and authenticity of a horse. The branding irons that were handed down from generation to generation were surrounded by powerful rituals. Only authorized people could touch them without incurring supernatural punishment, and when they were not in use, sacred lamps burned before them day and night.9
Whereas other societies with more limited amounts of pasturelands produced hay for the winter and stored it in barns, the Mongolians never practiced this sort of preservation, which would have allowed them to become sedentary.