Stones Help Trace Origin of Mongolian Nomads

By Guy Gugliotta, Washington Post, Monday 12 August 2002; Page A07

Sometime around 1000 B.C., a Mongolian tribesman climbed on the back of a horse and surveyed the windblown steppe that stretched as far as the eye could see. The weather was turning colder, and there wasn’t enough grass for his goats.

It was time to move.

From the moment that decision was made, a tradition was born. Horses—yesterday’s beasts of burden—became a means of escape. Soon they would become the tool of conquest, and the people of the steppe—whether Scythian, Hun or Mongol—would strike fear in the hearts of enemies all the way from Beijing to Central Europe.

With the fall of communism, Western archaeologists for the first time have had an extended opportunity to join their Asian colleagues in trying to illuminate the moment when Mongolia’s sedentary herdsmen became history’s most fabled horsemen.

It will be a long and difficult search, for nomadic peoples, by definition, do not leave much behind. And when they move, they tend to fade into their new environment, perhaps to emerge later with a completely altered culture.

Archaeologists hope the deer stones of northern Mongolia and southern Siberia will provide a clue to the origins of Mongolian nomadism. There are several hundred of these slender granite monoliths spread about the steppe, some of them more than 15 feet tall.

They depict a Bronze Age warrior whose body is crisscrossed with drawings of elaborately horned deer with duckbill faces. The weapons and tools that the warrior carries fix the date of the deer stones’ creation between 1000 B.C. and 700 B.C.—the same moment when the Mongolians first rode horses.

About 1000 B.C. the climate got colder and wouldn’t tolerate herding in place any longer, said University of Oregon art historian Esther Jacobson-Tepfer. That’s when real mounted nomadism probably began. The deer stones belong to the beginning of this process.

Last month, as an ancient addition to its exhibition Modern Mongolia: Reclaiming Genghis Khan, the Smithsonian Institution unveiled a cast of the most famous of the deer stones.

It is from Ushkin Uver, near the Mongolian town of Muron, about 200 miles southwest of Irkutsk, in southern Siberia. It is the only stone with a full face, and it is one of the tallest. No deer stone or replica has ever before been exhibited in the United States.

The stones are not graves, but memorials, usually associated with burial mounds and horse graves, said William W. Fitzhugh, director of the Smithsonian’s Arctic Studies Center. They’re symbolic of powerful chiefs and warriors. The deer images, he suggested, may be tattoos.

Between the deer stones and A.D. 1209, when Genghis Khan set out to conquer the world, and almost did, much happened in Mongolia, and much of it had far-reaching effects on the rest of the known world.

Yet even today relatively little is known about Mongolia’s ancient and medieval past. The Cold War is partly to blame, for it kept Central Asia locked inside the communist world for most of the last century.

But the main cause is probably Mongolia itself, a remote, often gorgeous wilderness of desert, steppe, forest and mountains known as the land of the blue sky. Mongolia is twice as big as Texas, but with a population of 2.3 million it has about half as many people as metropolitan Dallas. It is one of the most sparsely populated nations on Earth.

From such an environment, the concept of Mongol hordes becomes almost a joke. The horsemen may have overrun everything before them, but like a wave sweeping over a beach, they either receded relatively quickly or were absorbed by the society they invaded.

Although the deer stones suggest a northern link to Arctic reindeer herders, Jacobson-Tepfer regards the carved animals as Mongolian forest elk. My theory is that the stones are a deliberate stylization joining deer and birds, relating both to the tree of life and transformation of souls, she said.

But the imagery did not travel well. The deer stone people all disappeared by the first century B.C., because they were swallowed up by other peoples, said Jacobson-Tepfer, the first Westerner to begin a systematic study of the stones. Picture a vast steppe region, with many nomadic groups, similar lifestyles, weapons and yurts, with different language groups mixing and merging. To trace the actual linkages will be difficult.

So while the Mongolians may have had the most powerful piece of military equipment around, said Mongolian studies specialist Christopher Atwood of Indiana University, they didn’t have enough people to take full advantage of it. It was a pattern repeated throughout history.

First came the Scythians, ferocious mounted archers who from 600 B.C. to 200 B.C. dominated the steppe from the Crimea to the gold mines of the Altai Mountains where northeastern Kazakhstan and Mongolia meet.

Their art was known for its animal imagery, including horned deer, but it doesn’t match the deer stones. The tradition may have rippled westward with the Scythians, Jacobson-Tepfer suggested, but as they went west, they lost it.

The Scythians spoke an Indo-European language and probably weren’t the deer stone people, but they were probably touched by the deer stone people and may have become custodians of their tradition.

Most probably what you had was an attractive and charismatic package of nomadic pastoralism and a dynamic horse culture, Atwood said. A small elite [of deer stone people] conquers the Scythians and then loses their language, and subsequently their culture.

The same thing happened about A.D. 100, when the Chinese, who had erected the Great Wall to keep the Mongolian Huns from invading, finally broke their power and drove them westward out of east Asia.

The Huns settled in the valley of the Volga River and emerged in the fourth and fifth centuries to spread havoc throughout Europe, bring the teetering Roman Empire to its knees and, under the leadership of their chieftain Attila, become known as the Scourge of God.

By the time they get to Europe, there’s almost nothing in their high culture that isn’t Roman or German, Atwood said. Like the Scythians before them, the Huns appeared to have lost their Mongolian roots even as they held sway over an enormous swath of the Eurasian landmass.

But recent research shows that there is a trail: Scholars looked at the Huns’ everyday pots, kettles and other common utensils, Atwood said. They could trace the design all the way from Budapest to Mongolia.

The Mongolians were like an Asian version of the Vikings, Fitzhugh said. The Vikings had ships and the Mongols had horses and could go wherever they wished and take whatever they wanted.

But there weren’t very many of them, Fitzhugh said, so they tended to be assimilated—in Persia they became Muslims, in China they became Chinese. Only in Mongolia did they maintain their identity.