Mongolia’s ancestral lifestyle and archaeological artefacts threatened by climate change

Mongolia’s “persistent” snow cover is threatened by climate change — and with it, so is the traditional Mongolian lifestyle. Image credits: Taylor et al, 2019.

Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country in the world. Its terrain alternates between mountains and rolling plateaus, with tundra and green plains in between. Many Mongolians also maintain a pastoral lifestyle, for which the mountainous zones provide crucial support.

For the reindeer-herding Tsaatan people, “eternal ice” (the so-called munkh mus) offers much-needed support to cool down the herded mammals and provide them shelter from pestering insects. But now, the ice is starting to melt for the first time in known memory.

The authors of a new study surveyed the Ulaan Taiga Special Protected Area of Mongolia to investigate the potential for cultural artifacts to be revealed by the ice melt. They assumed that the ice might be melting, and wanted to see whether it would reveal any archaeological structures. Both on foot and on horseback, they investigated several such patches, and also interviewed 8 local families about their lifestyle and these recent changes.

The survey showed that the melting of ice does reveal a number of wooden artifacts. These objects are well-preserved by the ice, but quickly start to decay once they are exposed to the elements. This confirmed the initial theory, that the melting ice is affecting the archaeological record.

“These accumulations of ice and snow freeze objects that have fallen inside, preserving them to create one of our only archaeological datasets from this key region,” says lead author, William Taylor of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the University of Colorado-Boulder.

This might yield a short-term positive effect, as researchers could access these objects with relative ease, studying them and learning more about the past of the local populations. But most of these objects would be destroyed, their information forever gone with them.

Then, researchers came to another startling conclusion.

A domestic reindeer saddled for riding outside a Tsaatan summer camp in Khuvsgul province, northern Mongolia. Image credits: Julia Clark.

Sadly, the loss of ice might not only be a problem for old material, but also for modern herders. Reindeer rely on the ice to protect them from insects, which can be more than just a nuisance — they can carry dangerous pathogens. Reindeer also use ice for thermal regulation, and without it, might struggle to keep a healthy body temperature. Not having access to this ice brings a great vulnerability for the reindeer and subsequently, for the farmers relying on them.

“Access to ice patches has been critical for the health and welfare of these animals in so many ways,” says Jocelyn Whitworth, a veterinary researcher and study co-author. “Losing the ice compromises reindeer health and hygiene and leaves them more exposed to disease, and impacts the well-being of the people who depend on the reindeer.”

The economy of Mongolia has traditionally been based on agriculture and livestock, and these activities are still important for the country — even more so for the herding populations. Any disruption to the fragile ecology of northern Mongolia could lead to a chain of cascading effects on the country.

By now, it should probably go without saying that this melting of ice is triggered by global heating. Mongolia is warming faster than the planetary average, and temperatures are rising to the point where “eternal snow” is no longer eternal.

This study shows acute the urgent threat is in Inner Asia: melting ice is threatening both reindeer herding as a way of life, and the region’s cultural heritage and economic sustainability. It’s yet another reminder that climate change affects everyone on this planet.

The study “Investigating reindeer pastoralism and exploitation of high mountain zones in northern Mongolia through ice patch archaeology” has been published in the journal PLoS ONE.

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