|From the Paleolithic to Genghis Khan
| Archaeologists have found
evidence for human occupation of Mongolia starting in the Lower Paleolithic
(perhaps 500,000 years ago). *
The area has shown evidence
of human occupation ever since.
Before Genghis Khan, the Mongolian nomads followed a typical pattern
of nomadic peoples, alternating between vast empires and small-scale
tribal organization. The first empire was built by the Hunnu, a
proto-Mongolian tribe. The Hunnu Empire (3rd century BCE-1st century
CE) played a major role in shaping the social and political structures
of Central Asian nomadic tribes.
|Neolithic tools, from
the collection of the National Museum of Mongolian History.
|The Hunnu established a strong military-administrative
structure, hereditary rule, and the division of the army and the population
into units of tens, hundreds, and thousands. They conquered various
neighboring nomadic tribes, and at the zenith of their power they
held a vast territory stretching from Turkestan to Mongolia and Siberia.
|In 93 CE the Xianbei, an ancient Mongolian
nomadic tribe, defeated the Hunnu, replacing the empire with its own
leadership. Several states followed in succession: Toba, Jujan, Altai
Turk, Uighur, Kirgiz, Khitan, and Jurchid.*
By 1162, the
year of Genghis Khan's birth, the Mongolian tribes had fought so many
futile battles against external enemies that the economy collapsed
and the population sank into poverty, fear, and uncertainty.
The ancestors of present-day Mongolians lived around the rivers
Onon, Herlen, Tuul, and Orhon in felt tents, or gers; they
were nomads and hunters much like modern Mongolian nomads, seasonally
moving from one place to another to find better pastures. They drank
airag or fermented mare's milk, and ate animal meat, dairy
products, wild berries, and some vegetation. A Chinese writer at
the time of the Jurchid Empire wrote,
pottery, from the collection of the National Museum of Mongolian History.
are strong and warlike, they can see at night. They make armor from
fish scales in order to protect themselves from stray arrows . . .
They are eight feet tall, hunt and eat the flesh of wild deer."*
|The nomads were organized into tribes,
clusters of families whose men descended from the same leader. Each
tribe lived in its own region and had a council headed by an elected
leader, or khan. His kin formed an elite, or incipient aristocracy
that changed depending on the leadership. A man became a leader through
his charismatic personality, as well as his family's high status.
Thus any son could inherit leadership from his father, not just the
While some nomadic societies are egalitarian,
Mongolian tribes were not. There was always an aristocratic branch
or a hierarchy of families within a tribe.