Human Geography


The ethnic identity of ancient populations of the Mongolian Altai, in general, and of mountainous Bayan Ölgiy, in particular, is not known. Research indicates that the populations of the Bronze and Early Iron Ages were anthropologically mixed. Surface monuments and petroglyphs characteristic of those periods indicate a population that must have been close to, if not identical with, that attested in Tuva, the southern Altai Republic, and possibly with that in northernmost China and northeastern Kazakhstan. In a period previous to the political boundaries of organized states, the Altai ridge and the adjacent Sayan uplands served less as boundaries than as resources for good pasture land for all populations. While it is possible to name certain ancient cultures that appear to be attested in the Mongolian Altai, those names are all taken from archaeological sites found in other regions, e.g. the Bronze Age Karasuk Culture or the Early Iron Age Pazyryk Culture . Only with Turkic–Uighur hegemony across the Altai-Sayan and northern Mongolian regions between the sixth and tenth centuries can we speak of recognizable political entities. However, to what extent the Turkic and Uighur polity reflected ethnic uniformity or variations in the population is unclear.

Economic Life

Archaeological evidence and evidence from petroglyphs suggests that early in the Bronze Age, the inhabitants of the Altai Mountains depended primarily on hunting and fishing, only gradually shifting to a greater dependency on the herding of small and large animals. These included sheep and goats, horses, cattle and, at higher elevations, yak. Bactrian camels seem to have entered the life of the herders in this part of Mongolia only at the end of the Bronze Age. By approximately 3000 years before the present, quasi-sedentary pastoralism was gradually replaced by semi-nomadic, horse-dependent herding involving periodic movement up the long valleys leading to the rich grasslands of higher elevations and then, in cold months, down to the protection offered by lower elevations. The felt dwelling now known as a gher was probably developed with the emergence of a more mobile life-style. Imagery from Bronze Age petroglyphs indicates that, like gher of the present day, ancient gher could be collapsed, placed on the backs of yak or camels together with all the family’s worldly goods, and transported to other pastures. Petroglyphs also suggest that in the past, as today, herders returned every winter to solid, snug dwellings where they and their small animals could find shelter from the wind and cold


It is impossible to name the religious beliefs followed by ancient Altai populations, but the ceremonial and ritual structures throughout the region indicate persistent and significant rituals relating to death and the afterlife. The khirigsuur, mounds, and burial mounds of the Bronze and Early Iron Ages indicate a belief in the need to evoke cosmic order on earth, especially at the point of death. Directionality was an important factor in that belief system as were particular ridges, sacred mountains and rivers. The burials of the Early Nomads suggest that the realm of the dead was conceived as being essentially like the earthly realm, requiring similar worldly goods. Standing stones appear to have had an anthropomorphic significance, but whether they referred to mythic ancestors or known dead is unclear. Their locations indicate a deep concern for rivers as places of passage, perhaps to the realm of the ancestors. Whatever their meaning, directionality with its mythic references was clearly involved. Deer stones suggest a reverence either for ancestors or a desire to memorialize a respected departed member of the community. Enclosures and image stones of the Turkic period clearly reflect traditions of memorializing the dead; but the relationship of those images to the direction east would indicate a particular importance—perhaps the hope of renewal?—associated with that quadrant.