How did the Mongolian empire feed its marauding horsemen?

Reconstruction of a Mongol warrior from Genghis Khan: The Exhibition. Photo: William Cho CC BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons

Marauding horsemen who emerged from the Mongol Empire conquered vast swathes of territory, but how did they keep their people and armies fed?

Mongolian empires, such as the Xiongnu and later Mongol Empire of the Khans, are some of the most renowned imperial entities in history.

They have been portrayed as highly mobile, predatory horseback riders with a specialized dairy and meat-based economy.

It is an image that has been perpetuated in cinema, novels, and documentaries alike.

Such stereotypes likely arose from exaggerated accounts by neighboring adversaries, starting with the Han, who fought against the Xiongnu.

However, such views have persisted and now pervade academic evaluations of the economic basis of these ancient peoples, according to researchers.

Archaeologists and historians have long maintained that the Mongol Empire was able to expand because of its highly specialized horse-facilitated form of mobile pastoralism.

Sampling for biomolecular analysis in the National University of Mongolia’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology. Photo: © Shevan Wilkin

Fresh research challenges this popular notion of a completely nomadic prehistoric population, linking grain cultivation with the success of the Xiongnu Empire, which existed from about 2200 years ago until about 1850 years ago. The research also showed that grain consumption continued during the Mongol Empire of the Khans, which existed from about 800 years ago until 600 years ago.

The findings are based on the examination of stable isotopes from bone collagen and dental enamel from ancient Mongolians.

The historic economies of Mongolia are among the least understood of any region in the world.

The region’s persistent, extreme winds whisk away signs of human activity and prevent the buildup of sediment which archaeologists rely on to preserve the past.

Today, crop cultivation comprises only a small percent of Mongolia’s food production, and many scholars have argued that Mongolia presents a unique example of dense human populations and hierarchical political systems forming without intensive farming or stockpiling grains.

The current study, led by Dr Shevan Wilkin of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, provides the first detailed glimpse into the diets and lives of ancient Mongolians, underscoring the importance of millets during the formation of the earliest empires on the steppe.

Collaborating with archaeologists from the National University of Mongolia and the Institute of Archaeology in Ulaanbaatar, Dr Wilkin and her colleagues sampled portions of teeth and rib bones from 137 previously excavated individuals.

The skeletal fragments were brought back to the Stable Isotope Laboratory in Jena, Germany, where researchers extracted bone collagen and dental enamel to examine the ratios of stable nitrogen and carbon isotopes within.

With these ratios in hand, scientists were able to reconstruct the diets of people who lived, ate, and died from hundreds to thousands of years ago.

Researchers tracked the trends in diet through the millennia, creating a “dietscape” which clearly showed significant differences between the diets of earlier Bronze Age peoples and those who lived during the Xiongnu and Mongol Empires.

A typical Bronze Age Mongolian diet was based on milk and meat, and was likely supplemented with small amounts of naturally available plants.

Later, during the Xiongnu Empire, human populations displayed a larger range of carbon values, showing that some people remained on the diet common in the Bronze Age, but that many others consumed a high amount of millet-based foods. Millets are small-seeded grasses, which are now widely grown around the world as cereal crops.

Interestingly, those living near the imperial heartlands appear to have been consuming more millet-based foods than those further afield, which suggests imperial support for agricultural efforts in the more central political regions.

Cultivated land in northern Mongolia. Photo: © Alicia Ventresca Miller

The study, reported in the journal Scientific Reports, also shows an increase in grain consumption and increasing dietary diversity through time, leading up to the well-known Mongolian Empire of the Khans.

The new discoveries show that the development of the earliest empires in Mongolia, like in other parts of the world, was tied to a diverse economy that included the local or regional production of grain.

Patrick Roberts, a senior author of the study and head of the institute’s Stable Isotope Laboratory, said: “These regimes were like most empires, in that they directed intricate political networks and sought to amass a stable surplus – in this case a primarily pastoral one that was augmented by other resources like millet.”

“In this regard,” adds Nicole Boivin, another senior author of the study and director at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, “this study helps us to understand the economic foundations of some of the most famous of the Old World’s early empires.”

The view that everyone in Mongolian history was a nomadic herder has skewed discussions concerning social development in this part of the world.

Dr Wilkin notes that “setting aside our preconceived ideas of what prehistory looked like and examining the archaeological record with modern scientific approaches is forcing us to rewrite entire sections of humanity’s past.”

Dr Spengler, the director of the archaeobotany labs at the institute, emphasizes the importance of this discovery, noting that “this study pulls the veil of myth and lore off of the real people who lived in Mongolia millennia ago and lets us peek into their lives.”

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