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Why not make offerings to nature every time we take something from it?

Chris Baraniuk
Chris Baraniuk
6 min read
A cairn of stones, topped with some horse skulls and a stick flying blue and yellow prayer flags on a hillside.
Credit: William Taylor

In the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia, travellers sometimes stumble on stone cairns topped with horse skulls and sticks flying coloured prayer flags. People have clearly put these installations there on purpose. But to an outsider, their meaning may not be obvious.

They are, for want of a better word, offerings. To Mongolian herders, horses are very important animals that they raise and consume, more or less sustainably. An encampment might slaughter and eat one or two animals per year. While practically all of the horse is considered edible, the brain is never eaten, and skulls are often left on the special cairns, called “ovoos”.

It’s a ritualistic practice that has continued in one form or another in this part of the world for more than 3,000 years. But perhaps it could inspire broader offerings or paybacks to nature in our society.

A 2017 paper on the horse skull cairns explained that many herders view horses as superior animals that link people to the spirits ever-present in the landscape around them.

“They are marks of gratitude and honour, as much to their horses as to the invisible entities, whilst also constituting a form of territory appropriation,” the authors wrote.

Crucially, that appropriation, that claiming of territory, is not supposed to exceed certain limits imposed by the spiritual entities. The offerings, in a way, imply that some balance is maintained. (I should note here that, in general, Mongolia is not free of the environmental issues that come with agriculture.)

A pile of several sheep skulls, featuring large horns, on a snowy mountainside.
Sheep skulls melting out of the ice high in the Altai Mountains. Credit: William Taylor.

The archaeological record reveals that this practice dates back more than 3,000 years. And now a new study in Scientific Reports has described a potential new example of similar ritual offerings – this time involving sheep skulls.

On expeditions in the Altai Mountains, William Taylor at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History and colleagues discovered piles of skulls from wild Argali sheep dating to c.250 AD, which they argue could have been placed together intentionally, just like the horse skull ovoos.

“The skulls we found on the mountainside were much more recent than these first horse skulls, but may be a part of the same tradition,” says Taylor.

The skulls date from a time when Mongolians had largely transitioned from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to a more pastoral setup. Herding domestic livestock was a key part of who they were and what they did. But Taylor and his colleagues have found artefacts melted out of ice patches in the mountains that reveal how hunting wild animals was still important to these people.

For instance, the research team located the centuries-old remains of deer and ibex as well as the wild sheep, and they also recovered beautifully preserved weapons, including an arrow complete with sinew still tried around the arrowhead. It was dated to 800 BC.

“We tend to think of Mongolia's early cultures as living off domestic animals, but here we have this incredible, frozen animal graveyard that shows us that high-mountain hunting was a key to early ‘herding’ life,” Taylor says.

A wooden arrow shaft with sinew wrapped around the end, and a pointed arrowhead.
An arrow that is nearly 3,000 years old, recovered from melting ice in Mongolia. Credit: Peter Bittner.

The long-lasting practice of placing skull offerings on ovoos (from pre-herding times right up to the present day); and the fact that hunting remained important to early herders, hints that these Mongolians have long viewed themselves as maintaining a kind of equilibrium with the landscape around them.

Taylor says that, in many societies around the world, the idea of giving something back, or of paying respect to nature, is intrinsic to hunting.

“In Mongolia, this concept is such a central part of life, and our work shows that it has been that way for a very long time,” he explains.

This idea, of a transactional yet balanced relationship with nature, is widespread in indigenous cultures worldwide. A thought-provoking paper published last year in the journal Challenges discussed the concept in detail. (Side note: the authors included this line in their affiliations section: “We formally acknowledge Mother Earth as our senior author, with her own presence and voice.”)

Indigenous people, they explained, understand that damaging the natural world’s rhythms negatively affects people’s wellbeing.

“For example, for the Dene Peoples of Dakelh, British Columbia, Canada, everything is connected. The land, animals, plants, people, and universe are held together by a power (Yudughi) that connects everything. When this important connection is broken or displaced, then other systems get thrown out of line. This is one of the reasons why when we take something (e.g., harvesting ‘medicines’ from the land), we then need to replace it with something (i.e., a spiritual offering to the land). This action demonstrates a deep and intentional reciprocal relationship founded in the knowledge of the power (Yu) all around (Du) that holds things together (Ghi). This interconnectedness is deeply profound and seeds our understanding of the relationships we have with our environment.”

Reading this, I began to wonder how our, secular, societies could achieve this same sense of interconnectedness and equilibrium. What would our offerings to nature look like? And could we measure their impact in order to prove their efficacy?

The UK government’s biodiversity net gain policy, in which some new building developments in England will have to demonstrate a 10% improvement for biodiversity, is a potential example. Though perhaps only in principle at the moment – aspects of the policy and its implementation have faced criticism.

At a household level, the concept of wildlife-friendly gardening could be seen as a kind of giving-back. After all, gardens are just plots of land we've cordoned off for our own, private access. We could give thanks for that by doubling our efforts to support wildlife in those places.

A truck pictured beside a Mongolian tent, with white covering fixed in place with ropes, under a starry sky.
A Mongolian encampment at night. Credit: Peter Bittner.

Some people argue that equilibrium with nature cannot be achieved within a capitalist system. But whether you believe that is true or not, there are certainly opportunities to improve the situation within our extant political and economic systems, whatever they happen to be. It’s those opportunities I’m most interested in at the moment.

From carbon offsetting to financial repercussions for companies and governments that lay waste to nature, many different options for redressing balance are open to us. A biodiversity tax, maybe?

Some of these ideas and existing schemes in a similar vein might well be flawed – but I like the idea that we could heighten their impact by attempting to reinstate balance literally every time we remove something from nature or deplete a resource. We could start by deciding to repair, as far as possible, what we’ve destroyed to date.

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on this! What examples of this approach already exist? Please don’t hesitate to get in touch and share your suggestions for how to tip the scales towards nature and biodiversity. Or tweet at me.

Ultimately, I suppose that arguments over specific methodologies will remain academic, unless we attain what those indigenous societies have: a fundamental appreciation that we are nothing without nature. And that caring for it is not just a duty – but our only means of survival.

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If you enjoyed last week’s story about the golden era of school nature tables, you might also appreciate the discussion it provoked on Twitter. Both I and Sophie Yeo, who runs the great Inkcap Journal newsletter (where the story was simultaneously published) received lots of comments from readers about their memories of nature tables from days gone by.

I particularly liked this one: “We had a nature table when I was at school. Due to that I became an ecologist.”

In the spirit of this week’s story, on balancing our transactions with nature, take a look at Andrea Arnold’s piece in The Guardian. It’s about her new film, Cow, a sort of motion picture portrait of an animal. A long gaze. Arnold writes:

“I didn’t want in any way to attempt to get inside her head or suggest human emotions. I just wanted to watch her reactions to her daily reality. In all of its beauty and challenges and brutality.”

I’d also recommend this piece in Mongabay about agroforestry in India – a practice in which trees are allowed to flourish alongside crops or livestock. A new study reveals that agroforesty areas had higher total carbon storage than any other zones. It’s the sort of data that could strengthen the argument for agroforestry as a climate change mitigation.

Finally, the Financial Times has a great and wide-ranging interview with Isabella Tree that touches on UK conservation policies, mammoth-cloning, the sustainability of various food products and, yes, her and her husband’s now famous 3,500-acre rewilding project, on part of the Knepp Castle Estate in West Sussex.

“It has been astonishing, beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, the biodiversity,” says Tree.

BiodiversityIndigenous PeoplesAnimals

Chris Baraniuk

I'm a freelance science journalist and nature-lover who wants to find new, hopeful ways to bring people and nature together.