Holocene vegetation cycles, land-use, and human adaptations to desertification in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia

  • Arlene M. RosenEmail author
  • Thomas C. Hart
  • Jennifer Farquhar
  • Joan S. Schneider
  • Tserendagva Yadmaa
Original Article


Since the end of the Pleistocene some 11,700 years ago, the landscape and vegetation of the Mongolian Gobi Desert has been profoundly changing, punctuated by the appearance of lakes, wetlands, and finally aridification. Vegetation communities have responded to these changes according to temperature shifts and northward to southward movements of the edges of East Asian monsoonal systems. Human groups have lived, foraged, and traveled through the landscape of the Gobi for millennia, adapting their technologies and systems of plant and animal use with the dramatic changes of flora and fauna, and likely contributed to the character of the vegetation communities in the region today. Pastoral nomads living in semi-arid regions are sometimes implicated as contributors to desertification. However, our research at the Ikh Nart Nature Reserve, Dornogovi Province, Mongolia has yielded geoarchaeological and phytolith data which show the opposite effect. Changing landscape and vegetation patterns from the Middle to Late Holocene suggest that early pastoralists might have contributed to a shift away from halophytic desert vegetation, and an increase in semi-arid desert-steppe grasses. We suggest that the halophytic succulents growing around saline ponds during the Mid-Holocene wet phase, were replaced by Stipa and other steppic grasses after pastoralists entered the region, increasing hillslope erosion which covered the saline sediments of the valley floor, and encouraged the growth of grass seeds carried in the dung of herd animals.


Early pastoralism Mongolian prehistory Gobi Desert Desertification Phytoliths Early Bronze Age 



We would very much like to thank John (Mac) Marston, Chantel White, and Alan Farahani, who invited A. Rosen to present an earlier version of this paper at the 2017 Fryxell Award Symposium at the Society for American Archaeology Meetings in honor of the formidable contributions of Naomi Miller to the field of Archaeobotany. Naomi Miller continues to be an inspiration in her creativity and impeccable research program. We also owe a great debt of gratitude to our Mongolian friends and colleagues without whom we would not have been able to carry out our continuing research. Many thanks to Selenge Tuvdendorj our logistics manager, Dalantai Sarantuya, Olzbayar Gankhuyag and Turbat Rentsendorj for their excavation skills, and Amgalanbaatar Sukh, Director of Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve. We also thank the Mongolian Academy of Sciences for providing much support with personnel and equipment, and the Center for History and Archaeology, Mongolian Conservation Coalition, the Earth Watch Institute, Denver Zoological Foundation, Anza Borrego Foundation, and the Mongolian-American Trust for Mutual Understanding for funding and support in the field.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Arlene M. Rosen
    • 1
    Email author
  • Thomas C. Hart
    • 2
  • Jennifer Farquhar
    • 3
  • Joan S. Schneider
    • 4
  • Tserendagva Yadmaa
    • 5
  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of Texas at AustinAustinUSA
  2. 2.Department of AnthropologyFranklin and Marshall CollegeLancasterUSA
  3. 3.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of PittsburghPittsburghUSA
  4. 4.California State ParksRiversideUSA
  5. 5.Institute of History and Archaeology, Mongolian Academy of SciencesUlaanbaatar 51Mongolia

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