CNH: Pluvials, Droughts, Energetics, and the Mongol Empire

This interdisciplinary research project will focus on the role of energy and water in the rise and fall of the Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous land empire in the history of the world. The success of the Mongol Empire is a historical enigma. At its peak in the late 13th century, the empire controlled areas from the Hungarian grasslands to southern Asia and Persia. Powered by domesticated livestock, the Mongol Empire grew at the expense of farmers in Eastern Europe, Persia, and China. What environmental factors contributed to the rise of the Mongols? What factors influenced the disintegration of the empire by 1300? Energy is considered as critical for human and natural systems to function, yet few studies have examined the role of energy in the success and failure of past societies. As modern energy sources become increasingly taxed, examples of how past societies adapted to changing energy sources is critical. In a similar way, as societies become rapidly urbanized, freshwater will be threatened. Water allows biological systems to capture solar energy and humans to capture, transform, and allocate this energy through their development of social and political systems. This project will combine archaeological and historical data from the Mongol Empire with tree-ring records of past climate, modeled estimates of grassland productivity and livestock abundance, and lake sediment records of water quality to illuminate the role of energy and water in the history of the Mongol Empire. The investigators will focus on the Orkhon Valley, the seat of the Mongol Empire, where recent environmental and archeological discoveries allow detailed descriptions of past human and environmental conditions for the first time. The researchers hypothesize that the arc of the Mongol Empire was influenced by the energy available to nomadic pastoralists for building a mobile military and governmental force sufficient to conquer and govern a significant portion of Asia and Eastern Europe. They also will investigate whether the contraction of the empire was related to drought, declining grassland productivity, and poor water quality associated with rapid urbanization and climate change.

This project will enhance basic understanding on multiple topics, including the role of water and energy in human and natural systems, the change in climate from the warm Medieval Climate Anomaly to the cold Little Ice Age, the application of lake sediment data for understanding impacts of livestock on water quality, and relationships between climate variation and ecosystem health. Understanding the role of water and energy in the evolution of a historical society of international renown will help advance consideration of current perspectives on modern systems and their dependence on energy and water sources. Tree-ring records developed through this project will allow hundreds of wooden artifacts to be dated, thereby providing an annual history of events at Karakorum, the ancient capital of the Mongol Empire. This project also will provide education and training opportunities for undergraduate students, graduate students, and post-doctoral fellows in an international collaborative context. This project is supported by the NSF Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) Program and the NSF Office of International Science and Engineering.