Mongols Inhabit Steppes North of China Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Mongols, a nomadic people whose lifestyle involved raiding, grew in power and number, becoming a force that would eventually threaten China and other areas.

Summary of Event

The region known as the Western Steppes is a vast, almost treeless area in Central Asia. The steppes are approximately 1,200 miles (1,935 kilometers) wide and bordered on the west by the Altai Mountains and Tian Shan and in the east by the Khingan Mountains. At 3,000 to 5,000 feet (914 to 1524 meters) above sea level, the area is characterized by extreme temperature variations from dry, hot summers to cold, windy winters. There are few trees in the region except along waterways, but there is a long, grassy blanket of rolling hills. Rainfall amounts remain so small that farming is difficult without irrigation, but the grasslands provide perfect pastures for grazing animal herds.

The Mongols were the most numerous of the groups of nomadic people who occupied the steppes north of China during the Archaic period. The Mongols emerged in the area around Lake Baikal, to the north of present-day Mongolia. They consisted of a number of different tribes with similar heritages and language. Tribal membership was based solely on bloodline or kinship. Mongols frequently fought other nomadic people and sometimes assimilated groups they defeated. Tribal population rose and fell according to food availability, climatic conditions, and warfare, but the functional unit of Mongol life was a group of fifty to one hundred people.

Each tribe was divided into clans. Though the Mongols were a patrilineal society, with children taking the name of their father, clan membership was not based solely on heredity. Captives in war were sometimes adopted into a clan. The tribes were exogamous: People did not marry within their own clan but did marry into other tribes. Leadership of the tribe was not based solely on royal heredity; leaders were chosen from among the most prominent families because of their individual military or hunting skill. A man’s accomplishments during battle or his ability to provide food were far more important than birth status in determining his fitness to lead.

The environment shaped Mongol life. Tribes moved frequently, taking all of their possessions with them. Their movements depended on a number of factors, including weather, war, and the constant pursuit of fertile pasturelands. Like most nomadic peoples, the Mongols moved to take advantage of seasonal grazing opportunities for their herds. Tribes camped in the northern regions of the steppe during the summer and moved every few weeks to take advantage of new grasslands as the old ones were grazed down, and in the winter they moved south to a warmer climate.

The Mongols domesticated sheep, goats, horses, and cattle, on which they were dependent for survival. Sheep and cattle provided mutton and beef. Goat’s milk was made into cheese and a fermented drink called koumiss. Sheepskins and goatskins were tanned, and women pressed and oiled the fur into a feltlike material used to make the coverings for their tents. The same material was used to make clothing and blankets. Tools and weapons were made from animal horn and bone.

Mongols supplemented their food supplies by hunting with bow and arrow and fishing in areas with streams. Mongol men hunted large game including deer, rabbit, gazelle, antelope, and wolves. Women gathered local vegetation. In times of starvation, Mongols were forced to eat from their oxen and horse herds.

Mongol dwellings were well suited to their environment and lifestyle. The primary dwelling type was a tent called a yurt, maikhan, or ger. These tents, still used by present-day Mongolians, are semicircular dwellings constructed with rounded wooden stakes covered with heavy felt. The interiors were floored with carpets and rugs. Furniture was minimal. To welcome guests, the tent entrance always faced south, frequently adorned with colorful geometric shapes or animal patterns. The tents could be quickly dismantled and easily moved. A hole in the center of the roof allowed smoke from the fire to escape. Wooden fuel was used for cooking and warmth, when available; otherwise, dried dung worked well and was readily available.

The Mongols were among the world’s greatest horsemen. They first captured and tamed wild horses that ran in herds across the steppes. The horses pulled wagons and carts, essential to a nomadic lifestyle. Mongol horses were only fourteen to fifteen hands high, with broad chests and foreheads, but they were successfully bred for speed, stamina, and maneuverability. The steeds allowed their riders to speed close to their prey and make their kill at close range. Nomadic steppe tribes fought with one another over prime grasslands, animal herds, and later, manufactured goods. The Mongol horses were essential to Mongol military prowess.


Mongol life was built around raiding. While the earliest Mongol peoples only raided their nearby neighbors, by the medieval period their raids took them farther and farther afield, until they were raiding into Europe. Although they developed a concept of empire, with subject nations and peoples submitting to a central Mongol rulership, even at their most widespread, the Mongols retained an essentially nomadic and raiding mentality. Loyalty to the family, clan, and tribe overruled questions of political expediency.

The early Mongols developed into several groups or confederacies that had an enormous impact on world history. The Xiongnu created a vast Central Asian empire beginning in the fifth or fourth century b.c.e., and constituted the dominant enemy of the emerging Chinese empire under the Qin and Han Dynasties, until dissolving in 48 c.e. The descendants of the Xiongnu became the Huns that ravaged Europe in late antiquity. The Mongol Khitans became the Liao Dynasty, which ruled China from 907 to 1125 c.e. Other Mongol descendants included the Tatars and Buryats.

In the early 1200’s c.e., the Mongol tribes consolidated under Temüjin, more commonly known as Genghis Khan. Under his leadership, they invaded areas throughout Asia and Eastern Europe, having a profound impact on the future populations of Eurasia. Towns and cities were captured and plundered and thousands of people killed. Genghis Khan eventually controlled the regions that would become Russia, Iraq, Iran, Persia, China, Poland, Hungary, and Turkey. Mongolian domination of these regions altered Asian history for centuries to come.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bold, Bat-Ocher. Mongolian Nomadic Society: A Reconstruction of the “Medieval” History of Mongolia. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. Although the focus of this book is on a later period of Mongol history, it discusses the transition from the earlier, purely nomadic Mongol society to the culture of the Middle Ages in terms of social structure, economics, and religion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Christian, David. Inner Eurasia from Prehistory to the Mongol Empire. Vol. 1 in A History of Russia, Central Asia, and Mongolia. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998. Traces the history of Russia, Central Asia, and Mongolia from the Old Stone Age to the thirteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis-Kimball, Jeannine, Vladimir A. Bashilov, and Leonid T. Yablonsky. Nomads of the Eurasian Steppes in the Early Iron Age. Berkeley, Calif.: Zinat Press, 1995. Part 5 covers early nomads in Mongolia and the Late Neolithic, Afanasievo, Slab Grave, and Karasuk cultures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morgan, David. The Mongols. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1986. A fundamental history designed for the general reader. Includes maps, diagrams, a chronological list of Mongol events, dynastic tables, and a lengthy bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sinor, Denis. The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia: From the Earliest Times to the Rise of the Mongols. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. A history of Inner Asia from the Paleolithic to the rise of the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth century.

Categories: History