As a nomadic pastoral culture, Mongols raised five main domestic animals: horses, sheep, camels, cattle and goats, in their order of relative importance. While we’ll cover horses here as part of the Mongol culture, their importance in war and conquest will be covered in another article.
What animals the Mongols raised depended on where they were located on the great steppes of Central Asia. If a particular Mongol clan lived close to the higher elevations, they might herd yaks rather than cattle, as yaks are hardier animals. They might also choose different breeds of sheep and goats. If they lived closer to desert conditions, then they could raise camels instead of cattle. Climate conditions and local geography mattered greatly as the Mongols depended on their animals for everything. Their animals provided food, both meat and milk, wool and leather to make their clothing and dwellings, transportation, enjoyment and a medium of exchange for bride price and bartering.
Horses provided the Mongols with meat, milk, transportation, a spiritual connection and alcohol. As the most important animal, Mongols delighted in their horses, riding them to hunt, to travel and to war. The Central Asian steppes produced a small, fast and sturdy horse, fairly self-sufficient and able to dig through snow to get to grass. Mongolian ponies resemble the earliest wild horse, Prezwalski’s horse. Horses, besides all their other uses, performed a spiritual role for the Mongols as well. They sprinkled airag on the ground as an offering to the gods, and when a warrior died, his favorite horses were sacrificed to carry him to the afterworld. A Mongol’s favorite meat was horsemeat, but they didn’t eat it often to spare the herds. When traveling, and food ran low, a Mongol could drink both blood and milk from his mare. Mongols horses could travel long distances without tiring.
Sheep and Goats
Sheep and goats provided the Mongols with milk, meat, wool and fuel, as their dried dung was used in fires. Sheep’s wool was turned into clothing, blankets, walls for the gers and mattresses. Mutton was the most common meat for the Mongols as it provided both fat and protein, necessary in the cold climate of the steppes. Mongol sheep were also sturdy, capable animals. In spring, sheep were sheared and the wool felted to provide insulation for the gers and warm clothing for the people.
Camels supplied milk and transportation and were used to carry gers or supplies, carrying up to 50 pounds per camel. Camels are awkward, but sturdy and able to go without water. Mongols used camel hair in their textiles.
Mongol cattle were beasts of burden in the form of oxen. Cows provided milk and meat, but the meat had the lowest fat content, so it wasn’t preferred. The cows could be milked, then put out to graze and were able to wander back by themselves in the afternoon, a handy trait.