Among the five kinds of animals Mongolian herders breed (i.e. horses Equus caballus Linnaeus, 1758, camels Camelus bactrianus Linnaeus, 1758, cattle Bos taurus Linnaeus, 1758, Bos grunniens Linnaeus, 1766, and their hybrids, sheep Ovis aries Linnaeus, 1758, and goats Capra hircus Linnaeus, 1758), the horse holds a particular status, perceivable in the slaughtering techniques used and the way its skull is treated after death. Leaving horse skulls in high places (i.e. trees, mountains, and ovoos − stone cairns erected in homage to the master spirits of a place) is a common, though poorly understood, practice. This article studies the modalities of these horse skull repositories within an interdisciplinary approach, combining social anthropology and osteology. The study of the choice of place for the skulls and their associated objects highlights the differentiation processes among the horses as individuals, in relation to their lifetime status. This relation between human and horses unfolds into the landscape, which is invested with numerous ovoo cairns and horse skulls; a reminder that these spaces are shared between humans, horses and invisible entities. In the absence of private land ownership on the Mongolian steppe and in the interest of a balanced coexistence with all the inhabitants of this shared land, we show that the horse skull repositories subtly combine honour to individual horses, respect to the master spirits of the land, and discrete appropriation of territory by herders.
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29 December 2017
The skull on the hill. Anthropological and osteological investigation of contemporary horse skull ritual practices in central Mongolia (Arkhangai province)
Vol. 52 • No. 2
Vol. 52 • No. 2