Today I had the great pleasure of attending a talk given at the Seattle Asian Art Museum by Professor Nicola Di Cosmo, a prominent historian not only of the Mongol Empire, but on the relationship between nomadic and agrarian empires throughout the history of East and Central Asia. Given his background, it should come as no surprise that his lecture, entitled The Mongol Empire between Ecology and History: Environmental Questions about the Rise of Chinggis Khan should bring these topics together.
The event began with an unexpected, but evocative performance by Mongolian musician Urtaa Gantulga, whose instrument the morin-khuur (or horse-headed fiddle) has been a central part of life on the steppe since before Mongol times. Thanks to him, the audience was immersed in the cultural world of the Mongols (and to join us, play the video of him below) before diving deeper into their historical origins with Professor Di Cosmo.
His question was simple: how did the Mongol empire originate, and why did it expand? Questions of this type are common in history, but it is rare that we can find a comprehensive answer. Throughout the 20th century, a major source of inquiry has been the relationship of the Mongols to their environment. As nomad pastoralists, they relied heavily on their livestock not only for food, but as mounts in their powerful cavalry manoeuvres.
From historian Owen Lattimore to Professor Di Cosmo himself, many have hypothesised that an environmental crisis precipitated warfare and scarcity, not only allowing Chinggis Khan to gather power, but also pushing his army out of Mongolia to support themselves.
Until recently, however, there was little local climate data for historians to draw on, and few written records to provide a clearer glimpse of the warfare that prevailed early in Chinggis Khan’s career. Thanks to scientific techniques such as dendrochronology (reading climate and growth data from tree rings), however, that information is becoming available.
What it shows is fascinating. There was indeed a period of adverse conditions, lasting for nearly 40 years, that fell at the end of the 12th century. Low temperatures and draught, resulting in poor grazing conditions, probably fuelled competition for scarce resources and contributed to conflicts in Mongolia (an endemic part of political life.) By the time Chinggis Khan had consolidated his political authority, however, between 1206 and 1210, the weather had improved.
Taking advantage of now abundant natural resources, he not only established a powerful military machine, but created a capital in the Orkhon Valley–Karakorum–of many thousands of residents. Thus, it was wealth, rather than its lack, that supported the early growth of the Mongol Empire.
If some aspects of Chinggis Khan’s rise–including his own charismatic presence and deft navigation of political strife–remain murky, then, we can at least assert that the Mongol Empire and its conquests were not the result of hardship or desperation. Instead, they were facilitated by a benevolent climate trend: rainy, warm, and productive.
What will you do with it, the next time you get good weather?