The Human Herds

by Nathan Hamm on 5/6/2005

I’m nearly finished with Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (which is, again, quite excellent) and thoughts on the book as a whole are sure to follow. After uniting the Mongol tribes, Temujin refused to submit to being a Jurched vassal as his predecessor did. He moved his armies south into the lands to the south, found a way to use the peasants they encountered as a weapon in much the same way steppe warriors used each others’ herds as weapons.

For the Mongols, the lifestyle of the peasant seemed incomprehensible. The Jurched territory was filled with so many people and yet so few animals; this was a stark contrast to Mongolia, where there were normally finve to ten animals for each human. To the Mongols, the farmers’ fields were just grasslands, as were the gardens, and the peasants were like grazing animals rather than real humans who ate meat. The Mongols referred to these grass-eating people with the same terminology that they used for cows and goats. The masses of peasants were just so many herds, and when the soldiers went out to round up their people or to drive them away, they did so with the same terminology, precision, and emotion used in rounding up yaks.

Traditional armies of the era treated villages as resources to be looted and the peasants as a nuisance to be raped, killed, or disposed of in any convenient way. By contrast, the Mongols, who were always low in numbers compared with the place they invaded, put the massive number of people to strategic uses. The Mongol warriors modified the traditional steppe strategy of rounding up the enemy’s herds and stampeding them toward their owners’ battle lines or homes, thereby creating great confusion before the soldiers raced in to attack. In the Jurched campaign, the Mongols adapted this tactic to the herds of the peasant farmers. The Mongol army divided into small units that attacked undefended villages, set them afire, and chased out the residents. Thre frightened peasants fled in all directions. They clogged the highways and made it difficult for the Jurched supply convoys to move. In the Jurched campaign, more than a million refugees fled the countryside in desperation and poured into the cities; they ate up huge stores of food, and caused chaos wherever they went.

Instead of being followed by mobs of refugees as was the typical armies of the time, the Mongols were preceded by them, and the Mongols also used the displaced peasants in a more direct way as shields and as living battering rams against the city gates. The Mongols showed little concern for the loss of enemy life so long as it preserved Mongol life. As the captives fell in the battle, their bodies helped to fill in the moats and form pathways over defensive holes and structures made by the enemies. Trapped inside their cities, the Jurched and their subjects starved; and in one city after another, they resorted to cannibalism. Discontent grew, and urban mutinies and peasant rebellions broke out against the Jurched officials, who proved unable to protect, feed, or manage the massive numbers of refugees. In the worst such rebellion, the Jurched army ended up killing some thirty thousand of their own peasants.

I think I’ve mentioned in the past that I, from time to time, encountered an Uzbek cultural fascination of Kazakh culture. Not like Uzbeks were jealous or anything, but there was a subtle nod to the authenticity and purity of the lifestyle of Kazakh steppe dwellers. Kazakhs were often seen as strong people who can hold their liquor. A friend was once told that Kazakhs are strong because they eat meat all the time rather than, as the Mongols might have put it, “grass.” I’m not sure if Kazakhs viewed Uzbeks as soft farmers, but it’s interesting that somewhat similar views of the advantages of steppe life over farming still lives on in little ways.


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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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