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Human Agency and Resilience to Holocene Desertification in the Eastern Mongolian Gobi
 
 
 
 

Human Agency and Resilience to Holocene Desertification in the Eastern Mongolian Gobi

 
Prof. Arlene Rosen
 
University of Texas at Austin, USA
 
 

The archaeology of the eastern Mongolian Gobi Desert provides us with excellent examples of the adaptability of human societies to rapidly changing environments. Researchers once believed prehistoric populations in dryland regions were at the mercy of increasing desertification throughout the Holocene. They assumed these societies were compelled to turn to pastoralism in response to desertification, and subsequently, herding economies themselves intensified landscape degradation. However, new research in the Mongolian Gobi Desert indicates a different trajectory of human interaction with this desert steppe environment. Here the progression from forager to herder reveals adaptability, resilience and a sustainable existence over the course of millennia.

Our research in the eastern Gobi Desert of southern Mongolia demonstrates that since the retreat of the Pleistocene 11,700 years ago, the landscape and vegetation of the region has profoundly changed. In the Middle Holocene, lakes and wetlands punctuated the landscape. These ultimately disappeared due to temperature shifts and southward movement of the East Asian Monsoon. Wetland patches are critically important to mobile foragers in semi-arid environments. They provide year-round natural “stores” of plant and animal resources and often, seasonal migrations are tethered around these lush mosaic environments. New geoarchaeological and phytolith research at Zaraa Uul, Sukhbaatar Province, Mongolia shows that former Pleistocene lakebeds supported small freshwater ponds and wetlands during the Middle Holocene. These marshes formed a rich environment for hunter/gatherers who found reliable sources of grass seeds, rhizomes of sedges, and a variety of animals concentrated near these water sources. The reliably resource-rich points on the semi-arid landscape minimized subsistence risk, and facilitated movement of hunter-gatherers throughout this region of the otherwise inhospitable Gobi Desert, up until the period of time when pastoralists began to dominate this landscape, ca. 3500 years ago.

The entrance of pastoralists to the region coincided with the disappearance of the former wetlands, and the beginning of true desertification. Geoarchaeological and phytolith research at the Ikh Nart Nature Reserve, Dornogobi Province, suggests that the herders and their sheep/goats and cattle introduced the lusher Stipa grass varieties and shrubs from more northerly steppe zones, thus contributing to the “improvement” of the vegetation communities despite the retreat of the East Asian Monsoons and increasing range of the dryland zones. This allowed a sustainable existence in this region, and increasing social complexity. These findings are in profound contrast to assumptions that pastoralists contribute to the degradation of dryland environments.

The extended abstract and supplementary material