Emergent Complexity on the Mongolian Steppe: Mobility, Territoriality, and the Development of Early Nomadic Polities

Jean-Luc Houle

PhD Thesis 2010

It is now well recognized that mobile herding subsistence patterns do not preclude the development of complex social organization, but debate continues over whether the development of such societies depends upon and requires interaction with already existing agricultural state-level societies. This is known as the 'dependency' hypothesis. In the Mongolian case this debate centers on the Iron Age Xiongnu (ca. 209 BCE to 93 CE) and whether this polity of mobile herders resulted from indigenous political processes or from the influence of or interaction with sedentary agricultural neighbors to their south. In order to evaluate this, a number of concrete lines of inquiry are investigated in the present study through regional archaeological survey and small-scale excavations of fourteen Late Bronze Age (mid-second to mid-first millennia BCE) domestic contexts in a remote region far from the direct intersection with centers of power such as China, but where numerous monumental structures suggest complex social organizations, so as to investigate the early development of societal complexity in Mongolia and systematically and empirically evaluate the core variables and problematic aspects related to the development of 'nomadic' polities (i.e. those stated in the dependency hypothesis), namely demography, subsistence, mobility, and political economy in relation to higher degrees of sociopolitical organizations. Results of the present study upend some of the ideas tied to the dependency hypothesis and suggest that while clear social hierarchies have not been identified within domestic contexts there does seem to be some level of social differentiation during the Late Bronze Age. Based on this evidence and the evidence from the impressive ritual and funerary monumental landscape, it is suggested that this period may represent the first stage in the emergence of political organization operating beyond the descent group and that relatively complex forms of sociopolitical organization among mobile pastoralists can and did indeed develop in remote regions far from the direct intersection with powerful sedentary agricultural state-level societies. Accordingly, it is also suggested that some of the foundations of Early Iron Age complex sociopolitical organization in central Mongolia were already being laid locally during the preceding Late Bronze Age.