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Surprising relationships between mankind and wild animals
—Underlying strength of Mongolian nomads coexisting with golden eagles, snow leopards, and wolves—

Takuya Soma
Assistant Professor, Waseda Institute for Advanced Study, Waseda University

Archeologist V. Gordon Childe (1892–1957) once put forward his theory that agriculture brought stability to mankind for greater control of population growth, laying the foundation for a civilized society. Yet, only 1,407.84 million out of 14.89 billion hectares of land was arable, accounting for only 10.5% of the total land area (2013 statistics, U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAOSTAT)). Nonetheless, us humans have ventured into and survived extreme environments once called Anoekumene, such as scorching deserts, high mountains, and cold or arid areas. What strategies did humans adopt as it made various places into Ecumene, or habitable areas?

One of them was the bold effort to tame wild animals and even consuming their meat from time to time, a fact that is not well known. The nomads of the Altai Mountains in western Mongolia continue to coexist with wild animals to this day, clearly reflecting their meat-eating culture. Their lives illustrate the origins of humanity’s adaptability.

1. The eagle hunter who tames golden eagles

Figure 1: An elderly Kazakh eagle hunter

In Mongolian stock-farming society, five animals – sheep, goat, horse, cattle, and camel – are quite common. However, three other animals live with the nomads, which may be unexpected. One is the yak, a longhaired bovid found on plateaus. Another is the reindeer, familiar to us as Santa Claus' companion. Lastly, there is the golden eagle, the ferocious king of the sky. Together, they are sometimes called the "eight animals of Mongolia." The most notable is the golden eagle. The golden eagle is one of the strongest, largest predatory birds and has a wingspan of 2 meters or more, some of them living for over 50 years. Kazakh Mongolians in the northern part of the Altai Mountains still have a tradition of mounted hunting with tamed golden eagles (Figure 1). Eagle hunters target medium-sized, four-footed animals such as red foxes and Cossack foxes. They hunt prey for fur, which is crucial in the production of winter clothes, a necessity for getting through the extremely cold winter. Formerly, this mounted eagle hunting was widely practiced in the mountains of Central Asia, but today, it remains only in parts of the Altai and Tian Shan Mountains. Formed over the centuries, the bond between golden eagles and the Kazakh people has become a symbol of reverence and is depicted on provincial and national flags. In Kazakh society, the cry and flapping wings of domesticated golden eagles have been believed to be effective for mental disorders since ancient times. Demonstrated by their use of the raptor for what we call animal therapy today, the Kazakh people have been inseparable from the golden eagle.

2. The formidable snow leopard, the phantom of the mountains

Figure 2: An Altaic snow leopard photographed using a trap camera. It is estimated that some 500 to 1,000 snow leopards live throughout Mongolia.

In contrast to the hunting culture using golden eagles, which crosses boundaries between wild animals and humans, there is also a tradition of staying away from them. The most notorious of all in the Altai would be the snow leopard (Figure 2). In recent years, their population has been on the rise thanks to a protection policy. On the other hand, they have started to fear humans less and come to attack livestock frequently. In particular, they like to prey on horses that are 2-years-old or younger. This deals a hard blow to the nomads, but local Mongolians believe that they will be cursed if they kill a snow leopard. When they kill a snow leopard, they perform a ritual to send it off and pray so that spirits of the wilderness would not inflict harm on people. There are many variations to the ritual; one of them is to draw a line along the leopard's corpse lying on the ground and a circle around that to trap the animal. Another is to burn the hair off the pads on the leopard's paws and incise the pads lengthwise.

3. Wolves as a source of meat

Figure 3 The house of a nomad in the Sagsai village of the Bayan Ulgii Prefecture. The photo shows an approximately 2-week-old wolf pup that has been captured. It will be eaten when it is about 6 months old.

In Mongolia, aside from attachment for and awe or worship of wild animals, there is a widespread belief that the flesh of wild animals has medicinal effects and should be eaten regularly. Since wolves often cause harm to the lives of nomads on the steppe, they have become the target of extermination and often caught for food (Figure 3). Wolf meat is believed to ease pulmonary diseases and is highly valued by elderly people. In particular, it is said that if one makes and eats buuz (Mongolian steamed meat dumplings) with wolf meat, they would feel so warm that they would not be able to go to sleep. It is also believed that the weak would become big eaters, just like wolves, if they eat a wolf's stomach. The most interesting practice is to dissolve a wolf's brain tissue in hot water and let children drink the dissolved tissue. Nomads particularly prize a wolf's brain because they believe that this practice prevents children from having migraines. In addition to wolves, they also consider snow leopard meat as a universal remedy, protecting them from 72 kinds of sicknesses. There is an old saying that one can be immune to measles or chicken pox by consuming the meat, working particularly well for children. Legend also says that Mongolian sumo wrestlers used to eat such meat for nutrition and improved performance. Incidentally, Mongolians also enjoy eating Siberian marmots (tarbagan), which are prey for fierce, carnivorous animals. In summer, grilled Siberian marmots are a major treat. Their slightly brownish underarm meat is thought to be good for the pancreas. Of course, these eating habits and the pharmacological effects mentioned above are not based on modern medical evidence.

The daring lives and culture of Mongolians, who keep wild animals as their mates in addition to livestock and sometimes even eat their flesh, have expanded the sphere of life for humans. Their coexistence with various animals and meat-eating habits have enhanced mankind's adaptability to the environment and given it real strength to survive in polar regions and other extreme environments.

Takuya Soma
Assistant Professor, Waseda Institute for Advanced Study, Waseda University

[Profile]
Takuya Soma is an assistant professor at the Waseda Institute for Advanced Study and a doctor of agriculture. He completed his doctoral degree at Waseda University’s Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He was appointed to his current post after having served as an associate researcher at the Faculty of Organic Agricultural Science, the University of Kassel in Germany. His fields of expertise are geography, human ecology, and ecological anthropology.