Book Review

Book Review

in Sibirica
Shelly Volsche Boise State University, USA

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Nomadic Pastoralism among the Mongol Herders: Multispecies and Spatial Ethnography in Mongolia and Transbaikalia Charlotte Marchina Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2021, 178pp., 34 figures (incl. maps), 14 photographs (B+W). ($101.03 / €89). ISBN: 978-94-6372-142-4.

Nomadic Pastoralism among the Mongol Herders: Multispecies and Spatial Ethnography in Mongolia and Transbaikalia Charlotte Marchina Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2021, 178pp., 34 figures (incl. maps), 14 photographs (B+W). ($101.03 / €89). ISBN: 978-94-6372-142-4.

As an anthropologist interested in human-animal interactions, I am always seeking to expand our understanding of multispecies relationships beyond the cultural West. Charlotte Marchina's Nomadic Pastoralism among the Mongol Herders: Multispecies and Spatial Ethnography in Mongolia and Transbaikalia does that with clarity of prose, richness of description, and reflexivity that can be incredibly difficult when discussing our relationships with other species. Based on more than twenty months of fieldwork between 2008 and 2013 (with brief returns to Aga in 2016 and Mongolia in 2016 and 2018), Marchina's thoughtful, place-based ethnography documents the connections of Mongolian and Buryat herders with their land and animals, as influenced by broader climate and politics. In the introduction, careful comparative descriptions orient readers to the sociohistorical context of the peoples, practices, and languages of the region. The importance of being “Mongolian” versus being a Mongol is clarified, as Marchina documents the liminality of the Buryat — “neither Russian nor Mongolian, not even really Buryats. Real Buryats, they told me, can only be found in China” (19). This theme of in-betweenness is recurrent throughout the book with its aim “to show the elements of a Mongolian continuum, despite the fact that they are inscribed in different historical and political trajectories, and to question what politics does to this triadic human-animal-environment relationship” (27).

Chapter 1, “Nomad's land, no man's land?,” details the importance of place, kin, and livestock. The cyclical nature of seasonal migration is anchored to the region (mountain, desert, or steppe), making it susceptible to climatic conditions and changes in land distribution. Marchina considers the impact of these changes along with tensions related to collective farms and cooperatives, the complexities of private versus common use land, and the further reduction of space by zuds, catastrophic climatic changes. In the last pages of the chapter, she acutely connects these challenges to “The Tragedy of the Commons (Hardin),” while arguing that the “Benefit of the Commons (Berkes et al.)” may be more accurate to the herders who suffer increased sedentarization and loss of livestock as a result of tensions related to land privatization.

Chapter 2, “To hold on and belong to one's land,” opens by defining nutag (Mongolian; nyutag, Buryat). Roughly translated as “homeland,” the nutag anchors herders to their homeland and is interpreted and used to explain the connection and behavior of the herders, their land, and their animals. Nutag also explains the wandering tendencies of livestock and other animals, such as the attempts of newly acquired horses or dogs to return to their previous owners. More than a place, the nutag also denotes the network of relationships among the herders. This ancient association remains visible in the soil with the increased use of motor vehicles and other forms of mechanization, resolving in an acceptance that the benefits of vehicles to herders outweigh the costs to the land. This chapter closes with discussions of the oovo (“pile” in Mongolian), which is greatly important in the ritual connection of herders, land, and horses as oovo are often marked with the skulls of “beloved” horses.

Chapter 3, “Spaces of species,” illustrates the varying levels of autonomy versus control exerted on the “five muzzles” (camels, horses, cattle, sheep, and goats). Details also include placement and acceptance of dogs (and occasionally cats) within the encampment. Although all animals have some freedom of movement, the extent to which animals are autonomous is dependent upon season, location, age, breeding/lactation status, and species. As Marchina documents, decreasing mobility of herders results in more permanent structures for summer and winter, leading to spaces specifically designated for each species. Likewise, Russian auxiliaries are increasingly separated from the household, an analogy for the fences used in Buryat encampments which are notably absent among Mongolians. This chapter closes by expressing the limits of the encampment, both literal and metaphorical.

Chapter 4, “Animals and territories,” opens with a rich description of the training and function of dogs as a “sort of living boundary (139)” for encampments. Marchina then moves to discussions of breeds as further exploration of metaphorical boundaries between east and west and local and foreign. Despite policy efforts to enhance the heartiness and production of livestock through hybridization, in Mongolia, the focus remains on the importance of “Mongolian” as a breed in nearly all livestock species. Through the term erliiz (Mongolian for an animal or human “hybrid”), Marchina contemplates the value placed upon livestock in contrast with the denotation of lost “Mongolness” in humans. Comparatively, the Buryat, erlüüze (often of Russian and Buryat descent) are often “unanimously judged to be more beautiful and intelligent than people with two Russians or two Buryats parents (151).”

A point of interest for me was the consistent use of the term “it” when referring to nonhumans within the book. This seems to contrast starkly against the rich descriptions of autonomy, intelligence, and even kinship placed upon livestock and other species. In an ethnography where goats are described as “cunning,” and dogs become human family members during reincarnation, it is almost jarring to see other species repeatedly referred to as “it.” At the same time, this seems appropriate given that, despite the reincarnation cycle, dogs are also relegated to the outdoors except for when they are puppies in need of extra care.

From the Acknowledgements to the end of the conclusion, Nomadic Pastoralism among the Mongol Herders is a well-written, richly illustrated ethnography. The One Health perspective takes an interconnected, collaborative, and transdisciplinary approach to physical, behavioral, and ecological health to obtain optimal outcomes for humans, plants, animals, and their ecosystems. The triadic relationships described by Marchina resonate with this paradigm while also providing valuable insights on the climatic and political pressures imposed on the indigenous practices of the region. Maps, photographs, and drawings further illuminate the reader on this triad. Whether reading to expand one's own knowledge or as an ethnographic accompaniment to an environmental or cultural anthropology course assignments, Marchina's offering is an important and thoughtful read which I highly recommend.

Shelly Volsche

Boise State University

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