May 7, 2017

Alternate spellings: “Tamsag Bulag,” “Tamsagbulak,” “Tamsag,” “Tamsak Bulak,” Mongolian: “Тамсагбулагийг”

Tamsagbulag was a major site during the relatively understudied Mongolian Neolithic. While originally presumed to have been active during the 3rd millennium BCE, recent radiocarbon dating techniques place the site between 4753 and 4155 BCE (Okladnikov and Derevianko, 1970), (Séfériadès, 2004). This site, or constellation of sites, rather, served as the key location of a sophisticated but short-lived Tamsagbulag culture. This culture was characterized, among other things, by both sedentary hunter-fisher-gatherers and agriculturists who occupied southeastern Mongolia and northern China during the late Neolithic.

(Location of Tamsagbulag within Mongolia) (Séfériadès, 2004)

Tamsagbulag lies in the Dornod region – the easternmost province of Mongolia – just a few kilometers away from the Chinese border (Manchuria) (see figure 1). The sites can be accessed after a five-hour drive southeast from the town of Choibalsan, the province’s capital. In Mongolian, “Bulag” means spring, and it’s likely that a fertile spring once existed here though the area today more closely resembles a dry desert steppe (Okladnikov and Derevianko, 1970). Most of the sites in Tamsagbulag are situated on a high plateau terrace (at an elevation of 700 m) with a flood plain at its foot. About 1 km away from the area exists the remains of a large, shallow lake that is almost completely dry today. Natives of the region, in conjunction with some fossil finds, suggest that the area was once rich in gazelles, boar, and saiga antelopes before the Soviet Army drove them out (Séfériadès, 2004).

The site itself is constituted by at least three major clusters (villages?) of semi-subterranean, quadrangular, wattle-and-daub houses. As a whole, this constellation of houses occupies around 12-13 km of area, with each house individually spanning 30-40m2 (7.60 m long, 5.60 m wide and 0.60 m deep) (Séfériadès, 2004). The position of the houses atop the plateau allowed for its inhabitants to observe the surrounding landscape and its fauna. The houses all lack any ostensible windows or doors, suggesting that the inhabitants entered and exited through the pyramidal roofs (Dani, 1993, 172).

Several artifacts have been discovered in each of the three recorded ‘villages’, all of which suggest a very distinct, relatively advanced Tamsagbulag culture. Tamsagbulag 1, which was first investigated in 1970 by a Russian research team led by A. P. Okladnikov and A. P. Derevianko, revealed several stone implements made from flakes and cores of a variety of shapes. One such shape of core scraper was so anomalous that it is now referred to as the “Tamsagbulag type” (Dani, 1993, 172). The Tamsagbulag type of stone tools is characterized by “a bevelled striking surface fashioned by making transverse chips. The flakes were removed from only one side and the shoulder was cut into a point or wedge shape” (Dani, 1993, 172) (See figure 2). At the time of Tamsagbulag 1’s discovery, tools of this nature were entirely unique to the Tamsagbulag culture alone. In addition to these distinct scrapers, remnants of arrowheads, hammers, adzes, and primitive hoes were also found in great quantity. The presence of these artifacts, in addition to fossil discoveries of ostensibly domesticated livestock, suggest that the Tamsagbulag people enjoyed a relatively rich and sophisticated culture of hunting, gathering, fishing, and even agriculture (Dani, 1993, 172).

(Illustration of Tamsagbulag stone tools) (Dani, 1993)

Further evidence of the sophistication of the Tamsagbulag culture was discovered during a second excavation of the site in by a French research team led by Séfériadès (1997). This session revealed the sites of Tamsagbulag 2 and 3, which were discovered on the opposite bank of the ancient lake (Séfériadès, 2004). In addition to the discovery of these sites, several new artifacts were also unearthed, including chipped stones, ceramics, and grave goods. The chipped stone remnants discovered at both of these sites suggest a diverse and thriving stone industry within Tamsagbulag culture. Many utilitarian stone remnants were found, including bladelets and fragments of both adzes and hoes, further suggesting that the inhabitants of Tamsagbulag engaged in some form of early agricultural behavior. This behavior has been referred to as the earliest known indicator of farming in Mongolia, and helps provide a narrative about Central Asian cultures during the Neolithic that deviates from the traditional nomadic archetype (Eisma, 2012).

In addition to stone tools, the research team discovered semi-precious stones of a variety of colors, such as jasper, quartz and chalcedony (Séfériadès, 2004). They were also able to recover two pieces of obsidian, which are not native to the area, and may suggest the presence of medium and long-distance exchange network patterns within the Tamsagbulag culture (Séfériadès, 2004). Following these discoveries, Séfériadès began to refer to the inhabitants of Tamsagbulag as “les preimiers paysans de Mongolie,” or, “the first peasants of Mongolia” (Séfériadès, 7, 1999).

Excavation of all three Tamsagbulag sites have also yielded pottery fragments from the Neolithic and possibly Early Bronze Age (Séfériadès, 2004). These pieces of pottery are also seen as a distinct aspect of the Tamsagbulag culture, as “nothing like it has been found among remains from the same period in other parts of Central, North and East Asia” (Dani, 173, 1993). The fragments are distinguished by grey, thick-walled, friable, pieces of clay with high sand content and geometrically incised or impressed surfaces (Dani, 1993), (Séfériadès, 2004). The distinct nature of these ceramic fragments are seen by Dani (1993) as “unquestionable evidence” of a local thriving ceramic industry (172).

A third indicator of a relatively sophisticated, distinct Tamsagbulag culture is found in their burial customs. Tamsagbulag burials were first reported by Okladnikov and Derevianko (1970), when the researchers found human skeletal remains beneath the floor of Tamsagbulag 1. Remarkably, the skeletons were discovered in a sitting position, which is almost entirely anomalous in Europe and Asia and more akin to mummies of ancient Peru (Séfériadès, 2004) (see figure 3). A series of grave goods accompanied these skeletons, including bone knives and necklaces fashioned from Maral incisors and mother of pearl beads (Séfériadès, 2004) (see figure 4).

(Recreation of Tamsagbulag burials) (Séfériadès, 2004)

(Illustration of necklace found in Tamsagbulag burial site) (Séfériadès, 2004)

Fortunately, a scholar by the name of Alex Humbolt has already mapped out key sites of the Tamsagbulag expeditions on Google Earth. In my opinion, the most impressive set of coordinates, (47°15’46.65″N, 117°17’23.50″E) depicts what appears to be an ancient Neolithic, Tamsagbulag village with many houses. The site becomes visible from an eye altitude of 13,869 feet and spans an area of roughly 7km. However, from the Google Earth view, it’s difficult to discern which notches in the earth are ancient houses and which are the result of archaeological excavations. Another set of coordinates: (47°16’20.25″N, 117°16’9.38″E) very clearly show the remnants of a few long semi-subterranean houses characteristic of Tamsagbulag culture. These houses individually are consistently 42 m long and 7.5 m in width and are still remarkably visible today.




Séfériadès, M. L. 2004. An aspect of Neolithisation in Mongolia: the Mesolithic-Neolithic site of Tamsagbulag (Dornod district). Universités Rennes 1, Laboratoire d’Anthropologie. Retrieved from: <http://revije.ff.uni-lj.si/DocumentaPraehistorica/article/view/31.10>


Séfériadès, M. L. 1999. A Tamsagbulag, les premiers paysans de Mongolie. Archeologia 0570-6270. Retrieved from: <http://cat.inist.fr/?aModele=afficheN&cpsidt=2022715>


Dani, A. H. 1993. History of Civilizations of Central Asia: The Dawn of Civilization: Earliest Times to 700 B.C. United Nations Educational.


Eisma, D. 2012. Agriculture on the Mongolian Steppe. The Silk Road. Retrieved from: <http://www.silk-road.com/newsletter/vol10/SilkRoad_10_2012_eisma.pdf>


Humbolt, A. 2006. Mongolia – Tamsagbulag neolithic site (5.000 BC) Google Forums. Retrieved from: <https://productforums.google.com/forum/#!topic/gec-history-illustrated/LfqBNkf0n18>


Okladnikov, A. P., and A. P. Derevianko (1970). Tamsag-Bulak. Neoliticeskaja kul’tura Vostocnoj Mongolii. Materiali po istorii I filologii Tsentral’noy Azii 5: 3–20.

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