For many, nomads of the Eurasian steppe are "stoic" figures that are the product of a long life lived in isolation, always moving as the natural environment dictates. The distinctiveness of the pastoral nomadic historical and archaeological records, however, allows researchers to analyze general questions of political organization in relation to a wider range of variables. It is important from a comparative perspective to know how political strategies play out differently over conditions of rapid mobility, extensive territories, and low population density. The main questions addressed by this research project are how do steppe polities provide examples of alternative trajectories for development of political systems and what does this tell about the ways in which human societies do or do not adopt more complex forms of organization? Accordingly, the anthropological questions addressed by studies of steppe society need not be "pastoral" questions per se, but general questions on human organization that take into consideration individual and group mobility.

This project raises the question of what does community scale political development look like during the earliest stages of statehood among eastern steppe nomads? To address this question, the research will explore the "bottom-up" processes at play in the local acceptance, configuration, and enactment of political change that led up to the first regional scale polity of Mongolia - the Xiongnu state. Working in north central Mongolia, the project will use survey and excavation data to analyze exchange relationships as revealed by neutron activation analysis of local and nonlocal ceramics and trends in settlement patterns prior to and during the Xiongnu Period. The distinctiveness of the pastoral nomadic lifeway presents a fascinating case study for the transformation of political systems and holds promising lessons for other parts of the world including Mesopotamia, East Africa, and the Central Andes. As such, the current study will shed light on the capacity for political action by common households within a nomadic community and then ask how this perspective informs anthropological understanding of alternative trajectories for socio-political complexity.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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John E. Yellen
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Yale University
New Haven
United States
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