Some 800 years ago, ancestors of modern Mongolians conquered the world on horseback. Researchers are investigating whether a spell of unusually mild weather helped propel them by making them rich in livestock. The study may also shed light on whether today’s changing climate will help or hurt the central Asian steppe, where riding and herding are still mainstays. READ THE FULL SCIENTIFIC STORY or WATCH A VIDEO
Today, livestock still form the backbone of the economy, with all members of rural families tending herds full time.
Mongolia is growing fast but is still the world’s most sparsely populated nation, with 3 million people—and 40 million domestic animals, including sheep, goats, cattle, yaks and camels. All-important horses provide transport, meat, hides and dairy products. The animals’ numbers may already exceed the land’s long-term carrying capacity.
In the countryside, every boy learns to ride, starting in early childhood. This man dropped in on a research camp one day for chat and a break from herding his animals.
High on a landlocked plateau, Mongolia is generally cold and arid, and supplies of both grass and water can be tenuous. This huge lake is shrunken from drought and bordered by quicksand; its waters are highly salty, unfit for human or animal consumption.
Surface water is not always dependable—or clean—so people in settlements rely on communal wells. This girl in the little town of Ugii Nur fills jugs for a small fee.
Herders have watered animals for centuries at smaller freshwater lakes. Yearly layers of sediment at their bottoms may contain clues to past numbers of livestock. Here, a West Virginia University graduate student samples mud in preparation for a wider future campaign of lake analysis.
To find study sites in a land almost absent of roads or written place names, the research team constantly visits locals for advice. Most are nomadic herders living in gers—round tents covered with felt made of sheep’s wool.
The Erdenebileg family welcomed scientists into their home with food and drink. The can at center holds mare’s milk, a daily staple for both Genghis Khan’s armies and Mongolians today.
Near one lake, Mongolian ecologist Byambasuren Oyunsanaa censuses steppe plants. Combined with data on grazing intensity, weather and other factors, this helps the team understand how much grass—and thus how many animals—could potentially be produced for the old Mongol military, as well as for the modern economy.
North of the onetime capital of Karakorum, ancient trees in the Khangai Mountains hold records of past climates. Clinging to a bare, dry rock plain left by the eruption of the Khorgo volcano some 8,000 years ago, trees grow very slowly here, live to exceptional ages and leave dead trunks that survive for centuries. Some predate Genghis Khan by nearly 1,000 years.
Project co-leader Neil Pederson of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory samples dead trees by chainsawing out cross sections. The researchers prefer trunks that have fallen over, which are probably even older than those still standing.
Rings are clearly visible in well-preserved specimens. Taken back to the lab, polished, and inspected under a microscope, they can be dated year by year. The oldest tree found at the Khorgo lava field so far sprouted in the early 300s.
Living trees are harmlessly sampled using a corkscrew-like tool that extracts a straw-size core. Samples from still-growing trees, combined with modern weather records, allow researchers to calibrate the amount of rainfall represented by ancient rings found in dead trees.
Team co-leader Amy Hessl of West Virginia University scouts new sites from atop a lava pillar.
Back on the road in the grasslands below, an animist shrine known as an ovoo watches over pastures shortly after dawn. The spear points to the life-giving sky; four horse skulls at the base point to the cardinal directions of the land. Ancient traditions run deep here.
Many daily activities, like this pool game at a roadside stop, routinely take place in the open.
Further on, pilgrims spin prayer wheels at the revered Erdene Zuu Buddhist monastery, built in the 1500s with bricks and stones salvaged from the nearby 13th-century Mongol capital of Karakorum. The city sprang up at the start of the empire, and went straight into decline after only a few decades.
About the only intact remnant of Karakorum is this stone turtle, one of four that marked the city’s corners. The metropolis may have crashed due in part to worsening climate, and overuse of land by its suddenly concentrated inhabitants. Its fate could hold lessons for today.
Ulan Bator, the modern capital, is now home to more than a third of Mongolians, and more flood in from the countryside every day to join the modern economy—the story of many 21st century cities in the developing world.
Either by choice or necessity, many new arrivals in Ulan Bator stick to old ways, living in “ger districts.” Their tents are obviously far more crowded here than in their original setting.
Western-style department stores and supermarkets are still practically unheard of, but processed foods and imported goods are pretty much everywhere, sold in small shops like this one.
In the capital, generations of a family reconnect with nature by feeding pigeons in the main courtyard of Gandantegchinlen monastery, where both birds and humans flock daily.
For many centuries, grass was in a sense the fossil fuel of Mongolia—converted into livestock, the stuff that provided food, transport and housing. A fill-up at a brand-new gas station shows things are now changing dramatically.
Some things never change. Javzanpagma Sunduisuren and granddaughter Byambasuren, around lunchtime in a café run by their extended family. To entertain guests, Byambasuren, age 3, had just recited from memory several long traditional poems handed down from elders.