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Why is Mongolia’s population so low even though it has so much land?

Admin | Published: 2020-08-10

Like other countries with low population density (Australia, Canada, Namibia, Iceland, etc), most of Mongolia’s land is unsuitable for growing crops. Canada and Iceland are too cold, Namibia and Australia are too dry, Mongolia is too cold and too dry. It’s mostly mountains, steppe, and desert. The average temperature over a whole year is -3 degrees Celsius.

Scruffy grass grazing animals can eat will grow in areas you can’t grow nutritious crops, so historically Mongols have kept animals to feed themselves, and their diet has been mostly meat and milk. This requires a lot of space to feed each person, because it takes many acres of grass to feed a goat or sheep enough to get the same number of calories as an acre of wheat. Mongols needed a lot of calories to be out in the cold chasing their herds.

Forest map of Mongolia

Starting in the 20th century, new technology made it easier to farm in Mongolia’s river valleys and easier to import food from outside the country. So the Mongolian population isn’t as limited by available food these days. The population has tripled since the 1960s, and will probably continue to go up.

Historically, population never exceeded 1 million on Mongolian steppes. That is, including nowadays Mongolia + Inner Mongolia of China + Oirat mongols of the West(today’s Xinjiang). In 16th and 17th century we hear so much about 40 and 4(40 tumen mongols and 4 oirats) regarding united mongol world. Tumen is a unit of 10000 and it can be roughly estimated into 400–500 thousands. Since the Oirats aka Western Mongols formed in in 15–16th centuries regarded as “young” political unity compared to 40 tumens aka the Eastern Mongols their population cannot possibly reach the same level to the latter. So not 1 million here, if yes only barely.

The reason is simple. Steppe capacity and production on Mongolian steppes could never support that much of human concentration. And for mongols whose diet circled around on dairy and meat products it required more livestock meaning more pasture lands for the livestock. But when the number of animals got too high, the ecosystem in steppes was self-regulatory. Once the balance was lost, different kinds of natural disasters would intervene. Thus cold winters, excessive snowfall in the spring aka “Dzud”, less rainfall in the summer and drought would bring disaster to the steppes killing off all the “extra” elements in the system. Then the ecological problem shifts into political one: tribes, clans and other social- political entities would fight for resources. That is why throughout the history different tribes and clans have moved out from Mongolian grasslands in every other direction mainly competing for pasture lands for their livestock, Khitans, Uighurs Turks and Jurchens are earlier examples. During Mongol period there have been many similar conflicts between tribes followed by migrations which made them settle and became sedentary societies. Just to mention some: Torghuut migration to Volka region, Khoshuut resettlement to Qinghai etc.

Also there are lesser factors that also played significant role for population decrease:

  • Spread of smallpox and other diseases (Last Khan of Chinggis lineage Ligden had died of smallpox)
  • Qianlong’s final conquest of Dzungaria aka Oirats. More than half of the population was annihialted. Some even argue up to 80! (only Oirats or Western Mongols)
  • Spread of Tibetan Buddhism which made 80% of the male population into lamas who had been forbidden to get married etc.

All in all, total population in pre-modern Mongolia counted around half a million. Only after the republic was founded in 1924 the population was on rise all due to western medicine and technology and Mongolia has reached its first million in early 60s since then its doubled tripled to our day which counts more than 3 million as of today.

Like other countries with low population density (Australia, Canada, Namibia, Iceland, etc), most of Mongolia’s land is unsuitable for growing crops. Canada and Iceland are too cold, Namibia and Australia are too dry, Mongolia is too cold and too dry. It’s mostly mountains, steppe, and desert. The average temperature over a whole year is -3 degrees Celsius.

Scruffy grass grazing animals can eat will grow in areas you can’t grow nutritious crops, so historically Mongols have kept animals to feed themselves, and their diet has been mostly meat and milk. This requires a lot of space to feed each person, because it takes many acres of grass to feed a goat or sheep enough to get the same number of calories as an acre of wheat. Mongols needed a lot of calories to be out in the cold chasing their herds.

Starting in the 20th century, new technology made it easier to farm in Mongolia’s river valleys and easier to import food from outside the country. So the Mongolian population isn’t as limited by available food these days. The population has tripled since the 1960s, and will probably continue to go up.


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