CSU, Chico News

Reindeer-Herder Research Unearths New Insights

Date: 10-27-2014

Sarah Langford
Public Affairs
Matthew O’Brien, Professor
Department of Anthropology

A California State University, Chico professor’s work in Mongolia is shedding new light on prehistoric people.

Professor Matthew O’Brien, who joined the Department of Anthropology in August, is part of a research team studying one of the few remaining nomadic peoples left in the world: the reindeer-herding Dukha of northern Mongolia. Using time-lapse photography and photographic mapping, O’Brien and his cohorts are studying the group’s movement patterns to develop a spatial theory of human behavior that can be applied to patterns in archaeological evidence.

The study of living people to improve the interpretation of the archaeological record is known as ethnoarchaeology. O’Brien’s project differs somewhat from traditional spatial ethnoarchaeology: Instead of mapping material remains, he is mapping human behavior directly through the use of photography.

“The big issue we have in archeology is that we find these patterns in the types of artifacts as well as features, and they tend to be clustered together,” O’Brien said. “They should be telling us a story, but we don’t know how to interpret them. Take stone tools found in clusters near a hearth. Why are they there? Why do we find pots in certain parts of a site? We can assume people were cooking there, but we don’t know for sure.”

In 2012, while he was at his last institution, the University of New Mexico, O’Brien teamed up with University of Wyoming professor Todd Surovell to begin studying the Dukha. As the southernmost reindeer-herding people in the world, the Dukha pack their belongings onto reindeer and move camp eight to 12 times per year. They live in conical lodges called “ortz,” which resemble the teepees that were used by Native Americans. (A third researcher, Dashtseveg Tumen of the National University of Mongolia, rounds out the team.)

That summer, O’Brien and Surovell spent six weeks in Mongolia learning the Dukha’s language and testing their research methods. To capture patterns of movement, they took photos of the reindeer herders every two minutes from a variety of angles. In the evenings, they showed the photographs to their subjects.

Following the trip, the team used their data to produce videos and maps of the Dukha’s behavior showing the spatial distribution of individuals, dogs and livestock. In addition to spatial location, their fieldwork also collected data on genders, ages, activities and equipment in exterior spaces.

“That first trip was really about trial and error,” he said. “Do our techniques and technology work? We had to gain permission of the people. Now, they’ve incorporated themselves into our work, and help us find camera locations.”

In August, the National Science Foundation’s Arctic Social Science Program accepted the team's two-year proposal to continue their study. The new grant allows the purchase of a second camera, which will help the researchers gather data from a second camera angle.

According to O’Brien, few nomadic people remain in the world. Many have been forced onto reservations, and the majority live near the equator or tropical band, an environment with few similarities to the United States.

“Tropical people lack the imperative to move based on seasons,” O’Brien said. “Studying a highly mobile group in a temperate climate is more analogous to North America, although you still can’t make a one-to-one correlation.”

As descendants of the Tuvans in Russia, the Dukha have been practicing their way of life for more than 3,000 years, O’Brien said. Their culture has changed dramatically since the Soviet era, when they were brought into socialism. In recent years, the group has returned to a more traditional lifestyle, but their historic way of life is fading. For the CSU, Chico professor and his research team, capturing this information is a unique and important opportunity.

“This is the first time we’re aware of anyone doing this at this scale,” he said. “We’ve switched to a study of where people are, which is new. We’ll study the Dukha and eventually we'd like to apply this to other groups in the world to see if their patterns are an anomaly or a generalized pattern of behavior.”

Surovell is currently in Mongolia capturing the Dukha’s movement patterns during fall. In May, he’ll be joined by O’Brien to study the group in spring. After a final trip in January 2016, the team will have data reflecting all four seasons.

“We would expect to see in winter that people are more tethered to the hearth and the fire, etc., but we need data to prove it,” O’Brien said. “Our research is taking the guesswork out of what we’ve assumed for so long in archaeology.”

More information about O’Brien’s research of the Dukha can be found here. Learn more about CSU, Chico’s Department of Anthropology at www.csuchico.edu/anth.


Top photo: With little firewood available in the high alpine tundra, the Dukha use reindeer to pack in wood from three miles away.

Bottom photo: Dukha women prepare blood sausage from a reindeer.