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Hunted animals as Mongolian medicine: the case of the consumption of marmot

Quand le produit de la chasse est un remède : le cas de la consommation de marmotte en Mongolie
Natasha Fijn


Certaines espèces animales occupent une place particulière dans la cosmologie mongole, notamment celles dont la chasse sert à la fois à nourrir et à soigner. L’article décrit comment les éleveurs perçoivent les principaux animaux sauvages qu’ils chassent, et en particulier la marmotte, et comment certains organes et parties du corps de ces animaux participent selon eux à l’amélioration de la santé et du bien-être. Comment sont envisagés la santé et le bien-être parmi les communautés de pasteurs nomades mongols aujourd’hui, en relation avec les animaux chassés, en particulier la marmotte ? Au lieu d’éviter les marmottes parce qu’elles véhiculent la peste, de nombreux éleveurs mongols les chassent et en consomment la viande et les organes parce qu’ils estiment que la marmotte possède de puissantes vertus médicinales.

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The multispecies ethnography was largely based on fieldwork that was part of a Fejos Fellowship in Ethnographic Filmmaking from the Wenner-Gren Foundation during 2017. The author is also funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Project (DP190103110, 2019-2022) grant with a focus on the transmission of Mongolian medicinal knowledge and treatment across species. Thank you to Li Narangoa, Benedikte Lindskog and Baasanjav Terbish for commenting on earlier drafts, as well as insightful feedback from three reviewers.


  • 1 I have only revealed the name of the herder if the event occurred in the distant past, or the story (...)

1It is evident after spending time in the Mongolian countryside that herders love the sight of marmots in the landscape (fig. 1). While traveling in a vehicle with Mongolian herders, one of my travel companions spied a pair of marmots on a mountain slope. The driver stopped the vehicle so that we could keenly observe them. No one had a gun to hunt them at the time but just the sight of the pair of marmots fighting together caused excitement1.

Figure 1. Herders searching for a marmot near a known burrow

Figure 1. Herders searching for a marmot near a known burrow

© Natasha Fijn, September 2017

2The marmot has important symbolic and cosmological significance to Mongolians. According to Mongolian legend (domog) there is a description of the marmot existing initially in human form. There are many versions of the Erhii Mergen legend, a commonly told story passed on over the generations with added flourishes here and there. The tale includes some natural history aspects of the marmot, such as how they live in burrows and hibernate over winter, their diurnal foraging habits and the eating of fresh vegetation.

3As the legend goes, Erhii Mergen, an excellent archer, undertook to save the earth from the seven suns that scorched the land in a devastating drought. If he was not successful in shooting down the suns from horseback, he vowed to cut off his thumbs and would relinquish being human. Firing at the seventh sun, he missed, as a swallow flew in front of his arrow. The outcome was that Erhii Mergen transformed into a marmot and “lives in a dark hole. The marmot’s claws are four, because of the fact that Erhii Mergen cut off his thumbs. The marmot comes out from its hole by the morning and the evening sun at its rising or setting” (Altangerel 2006, p. 10).

4An earlier edition of this collection features a separate section entitled “About the Marmot”, which stipulates: “When a man kills a marmot and skins it, he always throws away its collarbone as the human’s bones, some small ruddy meat in the marrowbones, as it is man’s meat and some small meat stuck to the marmot’s kidneys as it is called man’s kidney’s” (Altangerel et al. 1987, pp. 21-22). Removing and discarding these body parts of the marmot is a means of carefully separating out the difference between human and animal, including bones, organs and flesh (Humphrey 2018). In practical terms, the narrative is instructive for Mongolians to avoid the area of the upper shoulder blade and collarbone, the clavicle between the muscle and the meat, which is known as “human flesh” (hün mah). As I detail later in this article, some individuals do not specifically cut out this part of the marmot, purposely eating this “human flesh” around the neck due to the perceived medicinal properties located there. The targeting of this area of the marmot is a link to the legend of the hero becoming a marmot and the resulting anthropomorphic powers of this animal.

  • 2 Haloxylon ammodendron is not listed as a plant used for medicinal purposes in the comprehensive Med (...)

5Charles Bawden (2004) recorded the folktale of the “saksaul”. The saksaul (alternatively spelt saxaul, Haloxylon ammodendron, or in Mongolian zag) is a desert-steppe plant, recognised by herders as an important grazing plant and a source of fuel (Galbadrakh & Ganchimeg 2000). According to the tale, a swallow found an elixir that could cure marmots that had been struck by the plague. While flying with the elixir in its beak, a bumblebee stung the swallow and the elixir dropped down onto a saksaul bush, resulting in the plant containing healing powers. Bawden writes, “As the marmot knows about the saksaul bush, when plague breaks out it bites off some saksaul and brings it from the Gobi” (Bawden 2004, p. 537). What is interesting here is that the marmot is given the agency to seek out this specific medicinal plant as a cure for the plague2.

6Such oral narratives may be viewed as metaphorical or just anthropomorphic folktales, but these old stories can also be informative in relation to cosmology, the perception of Mongolians towards other beings, the origins of how the world came to be and how humans are inherently interconnected with other life forms (for the taking of metaphor seriously, see Willerslev 2007). Grigorii Potanin (1883) recorded eleven oral narratives involving the transformation of the marmot into different human forms, relating to shamanic underpinnings, whereby the human and that of the marmot are perceived as interchangeable. In a cosmological sense, the legend of Erhii Mergen is indicative of how the marmot is viewed as containing human-like qualities, while reciprocally humans can also be thought of as having marmot-like qualities.

7Siberian marmots are commonly referred to as tarbagan in English, although Mongolians refer to both species of marmot as tarvaga (Marmota sibirica and M. baibacina). Although a focus of this article is on the hunting and subsequent consumption of the marmot for medicinal benefits, I describe broader multispecies ethnographic examples of other larger mammals that are hunted as medicine, while also considering why rodents (other than marmots) are not hunted for their medicinal qualities within separate sections of this article.

8On-the-ground field-based research employed the anthropological method of participant observation, undertaking in-depth interviews, including the visual anthropological method of observational filmmaking: recording long-takes of conversations and herders’ medicinal practices. Fieldwork was conducted within two separate herding communities in Bulgan and Arhangai Provinces throughout 2005 and during the spring of 2007. After an absence of ten years, I returned to Mongolia in spring 2017 and travelled intensively across the Hangai steppe-montane region, interviewing 35 herding and veterinary families that were knowledgeable about treatment and healing, then returned to visit key informants during two subsequent autumns in 2017 and 2019. The multispecies ethnography (Ogden et al. 2013) within this article is drawn from a broader multispecies-oriented project where I have been considering how herding families heal and treat themselves and different species of herd animal through the collection of a wide diversity of plant, animal and fungal species derived from the surrounding ecology within their homeland (for the multispecies structure of herding with large herd animals on the Mongolian Plateau, see White & Fijn 2020).

9There has been some wildlife conservation literature on hunting animals in Mongolia, but there has been sparse analysis on the hunting of animals for medicinal purposes. If utilization of animals for medicinal use has been mentioned, it has been in relation to the increasing international trade for use in Chinese or Asian medicines, which has caused a dramatic collapse in population numbers of large ungulates that have been targeted, such as saiga antelope, Mongolian gazelle, red deer, musk deer, and argali (Pratt et al. 2004; Zahler et al. 2004). As part of her dissertation fieldwork Barbara C. Seele documented herders’ accounts of different medicinal uses of wild animals (see Seele 2017, p. 41, table 2.5). With regard to the hunting of marmots, contemporary scientific-based articles have focused on hunting pressure and economic impacts (Townsend & Zahler 2006, Wingard & Zahler 2006), but not on the perceptions of local herders and their use of parts of the marmot as medicine, with the exception of a short piece by Kolesnikov et al. (2009). Mongolian ontological, cosmological and ecological implications of the hunting of marmot warranted full discussion within a separate article (see Fijn & Terbish 2021).

10My purpose for detailing herders’ perspectives is to provide a better understanding of differing perceptions towards other beings; treatment and healing by employing the use of different animal parts as a unique medicinal approach; and the herding communities’ attitude toward the threat of deadly zoonotic diseases, such as the plague. Within this article I ask, what are the differing perceptions regarding health and wellbeing amongst the Mongolian herding community in relation to the hunting of wild animals? Why is the marmot perceived by the herding community as being particularly potent for improving one’s health, when the Mongolian population has known for centuries that the marmot is a carrier of the plague? What are the ontological underpinnings with regard to the perception of animals and their medicinal qualities and why do herding families still consume wild animal meat and organs when they are at risk of contracting one of many zoonotic diseases?

Zoonotic disease and hunted animals

11With the coronavirus pandemic, we have been alerted to the rapid spread of lethal zoonoses, diseases that spontaneously cross mammalian species barriers. Zoonoses are recognised by the World Health Organisation as comprising 75% of newly emerging infectious diseases. In the case of the plague, across Inner and Central Asia, bacteria are often transferred by the biting of fleas with the marmot as a carrier, mainly infecting those who hunt and trade in marmot pelts. These carrier species become beings that are perceived differently, as in news items they are viewed as dangerous animals that harbour disease, yet in terms of conservation they are often classified as endangered through being hunted over international borders as part of a wider global market economy (Reading et al. 1998).

12Over the millennia herding communities have developed an awareness of symptoms and signs of illness in both humans and herd animals and have developed ways of preventing and counteracting disease. In alignment with Mongolian herding terminology, I refer to these knowledge practices as kinds of treatment (emchilgee), or healing (zasal), which is exhibited in many different forms, such as moxibustion (töönuur zasal), healing rituals (dom zasal), shamanic rituals (böögin zasal), or bloodletting (hanuur zasal, see Fijn 2020 for bloodletting on horses; for different forms of Mongolian “folk” medicine, see Saijirahu 2008). Nomadic healing and treatment include knowledge that has been passed on for thousands of years and is a form of medicine that does not make the same dichotomous divisions between human and other animal as Western biomedical frameworks tend to, while the causalities of illness are thought of differently in relation to an animate world that is inherently part of an interconnected ecology.

13Whilst there seems to be no Mongolian medicine-based cure for such a virulent zoonotic disease as the plague, through a long history of hunting and consuming marmot, Mongols have known that it is a disease that is carried by marmots, hence the name “marmot plague” (tarvagany tahal), or “disease of marmots” (tarvagany övchin). As an indication that Mongolians were making connections between the virulent disease and marmots, as early as the 16th century Mongolian Buddhist scholar Ye shes dpal ‘byor (1704-1788) described the plague as “marmot poison” (Norov 2019, p. 5). Mongolians are unlikely, however, to have understood the different modes of bacterial spread, or had epidemiological knowledge relating to the plague. Christos Lynteris (2018) provides a detailed medical history regarding the Manchurian pneumonic plague (1910-1911) and the differing Russian and Chinese-based scientific hypotheses regarding the sources and transfer of the plague in the Inner Asian region, which were subsequently adopted by scientists globally (also see Orent 2004).

14A large part of the Mongolian population are mobile pastoralists and have to cope with zoonotic diseases in their herd animals, such as horse flu, foot-and-mouth, Brucellosis, anthrax, rabies, ticks or internal parasites (Foggin et al. 2000). Families co-exist with often five different species of herd animals, nurturing young animals inside the yurt, while constantly working with them at close quarters. This means that they are exposed to and are at risk of contracting numerous zoonotic diseases that can cross between humans and domestic animals (Barnes et al. 2020; Ruhlmann 2018). Herding families mainly rely on their herd animals for sustenance but supplement their diet by hunting animals and gathering plants from the surrounding environment. Herders only tend to contract zoonotic diseases from wild animals when they are at close quarters with them, including the consumption of the body parts of the animal (particularly if consumed raw).

Hunted animals as medicine

15In an origin story at the start of The Secret History of the Mongols, all Mongol clans were decreed as deriving from a male blue-grey wolf and a female deer as ancestors ordained by the heavens (Rachewiltz 2006, p. 1). Because of their interchangeable human-like qualities, both wolves and deer are thought to have powerful medicinal properties. These wild mammals are connected with powerful entities that are part of a person’s surrounding environment, such as tenger, the sky or weather deity, or hangai the mountain entity. The wolf is often referred to as hangai instead of chono, as just uttering the common name can bring bad luck. This section provides some descriptions from herders about the use of these large sacred mammals, the deer (buga) and the wolf (chono), for medicinal purposes and the risks they entail.

16Unlike herd animals or dogs that are nurtured around the herding encampment, mammals that survive in the wild, such as wolves, bears, snow leopards, foxes, deer, boar or marmots are viewed as having strong medicinal qualities, just as they are thought to have powerful essences and hunting them brings good fortune (hiimor’) upon the hunter (Charlier 2015). Other species of wild animal, such as birds, fish or insects, do not have as strong protective qualities, because their flesh is not connected with human flesh within herding cosmology. If people disregard prohibited taboos, then supernatural beings that are part of the land, water or sky can become angered, resulting in terrible retribution in the form of diseases, such as the plague.

17The hunting of the Siberian roe deer (Capreolus pygargus) and wolf (Canus lupus chanco) is not as prohibited by the state compared to other large mammals that have become highly threatened by hunting pressure, such as marmot, bear, or snow leopard. There are particular species of deer, such as the Siberian musk deer (Moschus moschiferus) and red deer (Cervus elaphus) that are now threatened yet are still over-hunted in Mongolia. In hunting and seeking out deer and wolves for their medicinal properties, it is causing pressure on the population and numbers have been declining with ever greater access to high-powered rifles (Wingard et al. 2006; Zahler 2004). Enhtuvshin, a herder and previous ranger for over thirty years, is aware of diminishing species by targeted individuals for their medicinal properties, such as the wolf or deer.

If I say it’s good [medicinally], then people may go and kill it. For example, they say the blood of the deer [bugiin tsus] is good, so they shoot it and kill it. Low-paid, uneducated rangers point out that animal’s location to [urban or foreign] hunters. The wolf has a bad name, but even its faeces are good. No action is taken against those who hunt wolves, so when a person with a powerful gun is asked what to hunt, he says wolf. In fact, they don’t just hunt the wolves but other [endangered] animals too. (former ranger, Arhangai Province, spring 2017)

18Wild animals that are hunted (an göröös) are perceived as containing medicinal properties that connect with the surrounding ecology. Herders only ever drink deer blood (bor göröösnii tsus) in spring to gain the beneficial effects of the medicinal plants, such as pasque (yargui) and peony (tseene) flowers, that they know wild deer seek out when the flowers emerge in spring, while deer are largely left by herders to roam and reproduce during other seasons. As the elder Shadgar put it, “in spring deer eat peony roots to regenerate the blood after their antlers fall off”, an indication of the importance of seasonal timing and the potency of both animal and plant medicine (see Fijn, in press).

19In the spring of 2017, we arrived on horseback to find the pelt of a hunted Siberian roe deer (bor göröös, Capreolus pygargus) lying on the ground outside the encampment we were visiting. I had known the herder well ten years previously, while his older brother was currently visiting. They sat drinking shots of deer blood with vodka, while occasionally slicing off chunks of raw deer liver and consuming them (fig. 2). Mongolian herders do not tend to eat raw meat, as “raw food is for wandering souls of the unidentified dead” (Ruhlmann 2019, p. 252). When it comes to being of benefit for medicinal purposes, however, an exception is made in the consumption of raw organ. As the herder ate, he explained, “If you eat raw liver, it regenerates the blood and is good if the body is stressed. Deer kidney is also good for human kidney. People with not enough iron take it and it thins the blood”. He gave the example of it being good for women after they have gone through the stresses of childbirth. A herder in another province also mentioned that deer blood is good for people with anemia and fatigue, relieving stress and tiredness.

Figure 2. Two jars of deer blood mixed with vodka, drunk with the shot glass

Figure 2. Two jars of deer blood mixed with vodka, drunk with the shot glass

The raw liver was being cut with a knife and sprinkled with salt for consumption

© Natasha Fijn, April 2017

20A knowledgeable herding elder and his extended family live in the same valley. While I accompanied him on horseback in the autumn of 2017, in search of different species of medicinal plant, he described a formative experience (bolson yavdal) of drinking deer blood when he was a young man (he was in his late 60s in 2017):

  • 3 To neutralize the effects of “bad blood”, urine is often used for Mongolian medicinal purposes.

I’m telling you a true story. We don’t know if a wild [hangai] animal is healthy or not. One spring, three of us were travelling and saw a deer and shot it, as we reasoned that it would have been feeding on newly sprouted spring pasque flowers [yargui]. We had heard that deer blood was good for regenerating and purifying [tseeverleh] the blood. The deer was huge with large antlers. The deer fell dead on the ground, then we dragged it into the woods and hung it from a tree. The blood needed to be mixed with vodka. Luckily, we had a bottle of vodka with us. We filled half a bottle of the vodka with deer blood. We didn’t have cups with us, so we poured the fresh blood in our palms and all three of us drank it. Blood was everywhere. We tried to wipe the blood from us with the sleeves of our coats. After four or five minutes one of my friends stumbled and fainted. Deer blood is usually good, but it is important that the deer is healthy. How could we know whether the hangai animal was healthy or sick? If the animal was healthy, it would have been beneficial. We became worried – it was far from any encampment. My friend, who was older than me said, “we need urine”3, but we had nothing to collect the urine in either. You improvise in an emergency. He instructed me to open his mouth – he could have died – so my friend urinated in his mouth. In less than ten minutes our friend twitched, got up and all three of us had a good laugh. These kinds of things happen to men.

21A number of other herders in the same river valley said independently that they avoid drinking too much deer blood at any one time, as it can cause negative side effects. According to my host and friend, you must only drink a small amount, diluted with vodka. Her brother-in-law emphasized the need to immediately mix the blood with vodka or sugar too. A herder mentioned that it is not good to have too much iron in the body at once. Another potential cause is that the consumption of raw blood or organs means that herders are exposing themselves to potential infection from zoonotic diseases, such as brucellosis, leptospirosis, salmonella or toxoplasmosis, to name just a few potential illnesses.

22Each body part of the wild animal tends to be used to treat an equivalent part in humans. Herders use many different parts of the body of the Mongolian wolf for different ailments, including the tongue, the brain, stomach coating, lung, kidney, spleen and the liver, the bones, even gall bladder or bile (mixed with medicinal herbs for the health of herd animals). After hunting a wolf, older hunters may sometimes suck fresh wolf blood (Saveljev et al. 2014, p. 76). There are, however, restrictions on who should drink wolf blood. According to Bernard Charlier’s (2015, p. 118) hunting informants, drinking of wolf blood is meant only for elders, as it can have negative effects on a young person from the excess heat contained in the blood, causing the person to become cold afterwards, perhaps similar to the consequences resulting from the consumption of deer blood by the young man.

23Wolf meat is thought to be particularly good for respiratory problems and the lungs in both humans and horses (Seele 2017, p. 41, table 2.5). Amaraa, for instance, described in the spring of 2017 how the family used the consumption of wolf lung to treat her husband’s cough:

We got married in 2005. During that time my husband had a persistent cough. We started by trying modern medicine-, so many commercial ones. We heard from others that wolf meat would work, so my grandmother dried wolf meat for her grandson-in-law’s cough. She pounded the dried meat and put it in fried turnovers [hushuur]. But it did not help his cough. Later, we were all sick with flu and happened to visit grandma again. She said, “let’s give you urgusun buundgii [urgusun buundgii is a round, spiky, purple thistle, which is also known as “horse’s lip” (aduunii uruul)]”. We all took urgusun buundgii and all became well. And my husband’s coughing finally stopped. (Amaraa, spring encampment, Hotont sum, Arkhangai, 2017)

24It is evident from the above account that not all treatments are deemed effective for each individual, so a pluralistic approach to medicinal treatment is often applied, where medicines may be compounded together as a recipe, or a different medicinal plant may be applied depending upon the person’s specific needs. Individual recipes or different forms of treatment are passed down across the generations, through word-of-mouth, or administered via practical trial-and-error by individual herders.

25The same herding elder who recounted the mishap with the hunted deer earlier, told another story as we rode on horseback back to the encampment. He described the medicinal use of wolf tongue as a form of healing from when he was a child.

Wolf tongue is used when we have a sore throat, like tonsillitis – it’s good for that […] I had tonsillitis and my father was talking about how my tonsils needed to be surgically removed. At that time the elders did not view surgeries favourably. They thought that if a surgical knife touched things it may go in the wrong direction [“going south”, uragshaa yayah]. I took wolf tongue and my mother gave me her morning urine and my tonsillitis disappeared. Wolf tongue is always given first thing in the morning, not at night. It is given as soon as you wake up. One thing to remember is that wolf meat cannot be consumed in hot weather – not in summer, you don’t use it before September. It can only be used in cool weather. (recounted after searching for medicinal herbs on horseback, Bulgan Province, autumn 2017)

  • 4 As Pratt et al. (2004) points out, if herders are to hunt deer for medicinal purposes when the purp (...)

26According to traditional tenets, herders point out the season when animals are to be hunted, or particular parts of a medicinal plant collected and on an appropriate auspicious day according to the Buddhist calendar. Powerful medicinal qualities are only present at specific times of the year, often in spring when there is new growth for the hunting of animals and the start of autumn for the collection of medicinal herbs. This strategy is also a means of allowing the hunted or gathered species in the homeland time to bounce back. Some Mongolians from urban environments no longer believe in abiding by these traditional seasonal tenets and hunt or gather when the opportunity arises, which ends up depleting the availability of medicinal resources for herding families who rely on them as a source of medicine4.

Rodent boundaries

  • 5 The marmot is also related to the American groundhog and woodchuck.

27Before turning to the detailed case of herders’ perceptions toward marmots as food and medicine, in this section I consider how herders engage with different forms of small rodent-like mammals as part of the broader grassland steppe ecology they live in. A small ground squirrel (zuram, suslik, Spermophilus spp.) is occasionally hunted and eaten, but is much less preferred compared to the larger and fatter marmot (tarvaga)5. Zuram are relatively common, often popping in and out of burrows, particularly in the mountainous-steppe regions of Mongolia. Because ground squirrels are far more common now than marmots, children and dogs like to catch these smaller ground squirrels. The hunting strategy is to pour water down one hole and wait at another nearby exit to capture the alarmed animal.

28Mongolian herding families respond towards other kinds of rodent (generally referred to as meregch) and small mammals, such as moles, in a different manner. Mice often enter the yurt, or wooden cabins in the autumn, once it starts to become cold at night. In 2005, one night we could hear mice rustling around, searching for food in the darkness. A young herding woman asked me to set up the simple wooden trap to try to stop them because she was too afraid to do so in the darkness with mice scuttling around.

29Although herders do not tend to hunt other kinds of rodent for their medicinal properties, they do make use of a medicinal plant, which is sourced from the winter larder stored by mice (halgana) when they hibernate during the colder months. As the knowledgeable herding elder, Shagdar, explained while holding up a dried specimen of the plant meheer (Polygonum viviparum):

This is the plant that everyone knows [as a medicine], meheer. It grows a lot in my homeland. Mice collect it in their food hoard for the winter. Because [milled] meheer flour is high in calories, eating white butter with meheer flour means you will not become cold in winter. It’s a very good spicy plant for the kidneys and backache. (recorded, Selenge Province, September 2019)

30This plant is used for treating a wide variety of ailments, including pneumonia and respiratory ailments (WHO 2014, p. 154). Three other herders noted that they are careful not to take too much of the plant, as it is an important food for mice when they are hibernating in winter, an indication of herders’ awareness of their connection with the surrounding ecology, despite wanting to be rid of them within the home. Another form of medicine is the use of mouse droppings (baragshun) mixed with water to treat inflammation and wounds (Seele 2017, p. 41, table 2.5).

31In the autumn of 2005, I was helping to rake up hay into small haystacks, while the herding men were scything hay with sickles by hand, cutting the long grass with wide repetitive arcs. One of the men startled and jumped back, almost scything a nest of baby rodents at the base of a grass clump. The other men refused to look closely and looked aghast when I bent down and picked up the nest in my hands to examine the tiny creatures (see Fijn 2011, pp. 206-207). In another instance, but this time in the autumn of 2017, I was helping my host to clear out the inside of a shelter the family use for tea breaks and storage during the haymaking season. In a bed of dry grass, nestled together for warmth, was a nest of baby moles (menge) (fig. 3). She was afraid of these tiny beings and wouldn’t go anywhere near them, asking me to remove them. When asked why she was so afraid of these creatures but not marmots, she replied with a similar response to others, that marmots are food but that these creatures contain disease.

32Siberian marmots are the most likely to carry the fleas with the enterobacteria that causes the plague. The plague has also been identified by a Mongolian and German scientific team as existing in a range of smaller rodent species in Mongolia, including the pika, the suslik (the ground squirrel, zuram), the vole, the gerbil and the jerboa (Galdan et al. 2010; Riehm et al. 2011).

33Instances of herders’ encounters with small mammals are indicative of how, according to Mongolian ontology, not all animals are culturally significant or thought to contain powerful medicinal qualities. Herders were expressly afraid of certain kinds of rodent, or small mammals resembling rodents, such as baby moles, but had no fear in relation to marmots or ground squirrels. Mice take shelter and invade the family’s immediate domestic sphere, while foraging and competing for stored food, which relates to perceived threat of disease. In the Western context too, mice and rats are feared. People have been taught over the generations to avoid them “like the plague”. But the marmot is viewed differently in Mongolia, as they are hunted in the surrounding landscape, separate from the domestic sphere (hot ail), while being attributed as having powerful healing qualities.

Figure 3. Baby moles uncovered on the straw-covered floor of a small wooden shelter

Figure 3. Baby moles uncovered on the straw-covered floor of a small wooden shelter

Although not rodents, they do look like rodents when small but with longer snouts

© Natasha Fijn, September 2017

The case of the consumption of raw marmot

34In 2019, a Mongolian man, who hunted marmot in the west of Mongolia near the Russian border, reputedly ate raw marmot liver with his pregnant wife. Both subsequently contracted bubonic plague and died in hospital a few days later, leaving behind four young children. The implication from the newspaper article soon after the incident was that the plague was a result of consuming raw liver that was infected with the plague. Dr Tsogbadrah, Director of the well-established National Centre for Zoonotic Dermatology and Medicine, is quoted in the newspaper as saying “Despite the fact that eating marmots is banned, Citizen T hunted marmot. He ate the meat and gave it to his wife and they died because the plague affected [their] stomach” (The Siberian Times 2019). Eating raw marmot organ is not practiced in many areas and it is unusual for ethnic Kazakhs to hunt and eat marmot in the western provinces of Mongolia. The story was picked up internationally, as such stories tap into a western fear of rodents and the plague, a connection with historic accounts of the bubonic plague striking down whole towns in Europe during the Middle Ages and the perception of the Mongols as scapegoats for the spread of the plague through their invading army (for example, Voloder 2019). The narrative surrounding the plague is mainly Eurocentric and often historical in focus.

35In Mongolia between 1940 and 2008 there were 521 human cases with 70% resulting in death (Galdan et al. 2010). In response to the “marmot plague” (tarvagan tahal), Mongolian government policy is to quarantine affected areas, including any people that may have been in contact with those infected. Any person with the plague is hospitalized and given antibiotics, as transmission is mainly through contact with the fleas of a rodent rather than via person to person. Epidemiologists Jan Kehrmann and Mongolian colleagues from the National Centre for Zoonotic Disease (2020), describe the diagnosis further. Despite being given antibiotics in hospital, the couple did indeed die from the plague through consuming raw marmot organs, even though the man who died had been vaccinated against the Y. pestis bacteria the previous year. Of significance is that the woman concealed the fact that she had consumed raw marmot to doctors, delaying her diagnosis. The Mongolian government has prohibited the hunting of marmot since 2014, so she may have been reticent to admit that she had eaten marmot to avoid punishment.

  • 6 Although Mongolia is a hotspot for the plague, there are between 5 and 15 cases reported in the Uni (...)

36There are cases of Mongolians contracting the plague from hunting and eating marmot nearly every year in Mongolia with the mortality rate five times higher than average worldwide (Galdan et al. 2010, p. 74)6. Of the plague cases recorded in Mongolia since 1998, 59% were from close contact with marmots, while 7% was from the consumption of raw marmot meat (Kehrmann et al. 2020). The plague, therefore, is not usually spread through consumption of cooked marmot meat, but more due to the person being in close contact through skinning the animal becoming exposed to the marmot flea (Oropsylla silantiewi), while preparing the animal for cooking when the person inadvertently has a cut on their hand, or when an organ is eaten raw for medicinal purposes.

Marmot as food and medicine

37Archaeological evidence from different sites, indicates that marmots have been an important species culturally and a source of food across the Mongolian Plateau for thousands of years. Mongolian archaeologists have revealed large numbers of marmot at burial sites spanning from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age through to the 12-13th centuries (Khenzykhenova et al. 2016). In Southern Siberia near Lake Baikal, for instance, an archaeological team uncovered hundreds of graves from the Early Neolithic period (approximately 7550-6800 BP), including 643 marmot incisors from one site and 1521 from another. The incisors appear to have been used as decorations on clothing and as jewelry (Masuda et al. 2015). In another archaeological dig based over the border in Mongolia from the Xiongnu period, cut marks on marmot bones were identified from summer campsites, indicating the marmot was a seasonal food source (Houle & Broderick 2011). Although domestic animals still made up a large part of subsistence in the past, marmots clearly represented an opportunistic addition to the nomadic diet from the different species of herd animal.

38According to some herders’ accounts, the most delicious and tasty meat is marmot by cooking the meat from the inside with hot rocks, in the form of the Mongolian specialty dish, boodog. When I asked herders why they wanted to hunt and eat marmot, the resounding brief answer would invariably be, “marmot meat is delicious!” (tarvagan mah amttai baina!) (fig. 4).

Figure 4. Boodog, which is a Mongolian delicacy, the skin and fat is cooked from the inside through rocks heated in the fire inserted into the body cavity of the marmot

Figure 4. Boodog, which is a Mongolian delicacy, the skin and fat is cooked from the inside through rocks heated in the fire inserted into the body cavity of the marmot

Steam emitted from the hot stones cooks the meat chopped up and contained within the thick outer layer of fat

© Natasha Fijn, September 2017

39Here I turn to a particularly informative ethnographic instance in the early autumn of 2017, whereby a particularly fat marmot was procured while we were collecting a range of species of medicinal plants. The successful hunt precipitated an animated discussion amongst three of the men surrounding the hunting of marmot as both food and medicine.

40A herding elder, who is over 70 and valued for his knowledge in the area, decided to take me into the surrounding mountains in search of medicinal herbs. A neighbouring herder, in his forties, took the opportunity to catch a ride with us on the back of the truck. He carried an old hunting rifle and a pair of binoculars tucked into the folds of his Mongolian clothing. He intended to hunt marmot, as they are sought after in autumn for their additional layer of tasty fat, prior to the temperatures dropping and the marmots disappearing to hibernate in their burrows over the winter months.

41As we jolted down the slope over the rolling landscape, the neighbouring herder, temporarily turned hunter, described the many human uses of marmot:

Marmot meat, named “human meat” [hün mah] is good for the pancreas [noir bulchirhai]. A lot of this human meat is in the neck of the marmot, at the bottom of the neck, in the chest area, near the forelegs. People with pancreas issues eat this meat […]

We eat marmot liver raw with vodka; it is good for injuries. You can dip it in boiling water, slightly cook it and eat it. You heal quickly […]

The skin is good for your back – you wear the pelt on your back. Marmot is good for everything. The meat is good food to eat […]

It has tiny anklebones [shagai]. If you clean them nicely, you can wear the anklebones and you won’t get injured. (recording of neighbouring herder, Arhangai, September, 2017)

  • 7 These cosmological aspects of the marmot – being able to morph between human and animal form – are (...)

42He mentioned how “human meat” (hün mah) is consumed raw with vodka, which is similar in preparation to the drinking of deer blood described earlier. According to Kolesnikov and his biology colleagues (2009), the “human meat” around the neck area has only been used as a treatment for pancreatitis in Mongolia since the early 2000s, while traditionally this area of the marmot was avoided prior to this. Whether the “human meat” is avoided, or eaten for medicinal purposes, it is nonetheless viewed as a powerful part of the marmot’s body, which aligns with the Erhii Mergen legend detailed at the beginning of this article, whereby the marmot is recounted in legend as being derived from human form7.

43People wear tiny marmot anklebones as protective talismans (dom) against disease, trauma or malignant spirits. Parents place bracelets with marmot anklebones attached to babies and toddlers’ wrists to help to ward off bad forces (fig. 5). Since such amulets are also believed to be good for fertility, women who wish to become pregnant, or who wish to have a healthy pregnancy are often advised to wear them too. Kolesnikov et al. (2009) describe how “fresh-flayed marmot skin”, in other words putting the warm pelt against the skin, is used to treat muscle inflammation, which aligns with the neighbouring herder’s description of wearing marmot pelt on the back. They commented that people also carried a marmot’s tail inside their pants as a means of increasing fertility and sexual prowess.

Figure 5. A marmot anklebone tied onto a sleeping toddler’s wrist

Figure 5. A marmot anklebone tied onto a sleeping toddler’s wrist

© Natasha Fijn, October 2019

44After collecting medicinal herbs under the cool canopy of the forest, we found that in the interim the neighbour had actually shot the large marmot. The men became hugely elated. The elder joked with his wry sense of humour, “You have finally become a man!” (the neighbour would be around forty). To be successful as a hunter connotes good fortune and provides a boost in prestige. We sat down with the neighbouring herder with the lifeless marmot in the centre of our circle, while he cut the top off a water bottle to form a cup to share vodka around.

Elder: The marmot has many benefits but is becoming rare in our mountains. There are more in the north where it is prone to the marmot plague [tarvagany tahal] […]
Marmot meat is beneficial for weak herd animals. Now, the liver [
eleg] is good for injuries. It relieves the pain well […] I’ve tried it myself. People with gall bladder [tsös] issues eat marmot gall bladder, right?
[The neighbouring herder agrees.]
Elder: People with osteoporosis use milled bone
– they make it into soup and drink it. I’ve heard that it is very good. The “human meat” [hün mah] is good for the pancreas. The testes [tömsög] are believed to be good for the kidney. This has been known since the olden days.
Neighbouring herder: The marmot’s “bad stomach” [
muu hodood] is good for the thyroid [bambai bulchirhai]. My [relatives name] says that she put it on [where her thyroid is] and all is fixed. Remember I got some from you and gave it to her? She says that it is all now healed.
Elder: Marmots are animals that eat medicinal plants. There is something called a “good stomach” [
sain hodood]. If you hunt a few at once, you can dry the good stomach, then feed [the contents] to weak herd animals in spring. (discussion with hunted marmot lying nearby, Arkhangai Province, September 2017)

45The neighboring herder absent-mindedly flicked vodka to the four directions. Performed without pageantry, these gestures could almost go unnoticed, but these blessings have important meaning in that they symbolise a form of recognition for the respect for life that was given to the hunter by the surrounding mountains, or the powerful sky deity tenger.

46The elder recognized how marmots are becoming rare and that they are afflicted by the plague in the mountainous regions to the North, yet not within his homeland. Some herders attribute instances of the plague as a form of punishment for not treating nature (baigal’) well, such as the overhunting of marmots for their pelts, rather than just a few for the needs of the family. The risk in contracting the plague associated with hunting marmots and eating their flesh is considered low by some hunters within their specific homeland, especially if there haven’t been any cases heard of in the past few years. Studies have shown that the plague has not emerged in Arkhangai Province, where we were located, in the past five years, but that it was evident in the mountainous region of the Hangai prior to this (Riehm et al. 2012). Between 2012 and 2019 the plague bacteria was found in small rodents across 137 districts, within 13 provinces (Kehrmann et al., 2020; see Barnes et al. 2020 on herding households perceptions regarding other forms of zoonotic disease).

47Mongolian scientists from the National Centre for Infectious Diseases with Natural Foci recommend that the most effective way to reduce infection is to increase the awareness of marmot hunters regarding the risks of infection through their close contact with hunting the marmot (Galdan et al. 2010). At the time, no one thought to keep enough distance from the marmot lying in the centre of our circle to avoid marmot fleas jumping onto us.

48When we returned to the elder’s encampment, the neighboring herder began preparing the marmot for cooking (fig. 6). As an animal hunted by men, it is men that prepare the marmot for eating when usually the preparation of meat for cooking is by women (Ruhlmann 2019, p. 98). It is at this stage that the preparation is particularly dangerous, fleas are more likely to jump from the lifeless marmot onto the person handling the pelt. The dead marmot was hung from the ceiling of the yurt and the pelt, including the head, removed. The neighbouring herder with the help of the elder used a blowtorch to burn off fur from the remaining skin (which would have been an effective way of killing any fleas). Hot rocks from the stove were then inserted into the neck cavity to cook the meat from the inside, then tied together with wire to seal the steam emitting from the heated rocks.

Figure 6. The hunter removes the inner organs and bones of the marmot so that only the outer fat and skin are left

Figure 6. The hunter removes the inner organs and bones of the marmot so that only the outer fat and skin are left

© Natasha Fijn, September 2017

49After the meat was cooked, the herding men gathered around to partake in the choicest pieces of meat (mah) and fat (ööh), while juggling the still hot rocks in their hands. One of the men explained that the hot stones are used as treatment against arthritis, essentially as a form of physiotherapy. Kolesnikov (2009) noted that sitting on the hot stones with bare buttocks may also be used as a form of treatment against radiculitis, osteochondrosis and different forms of cold. After the men have taken the initial pieces of meat to chew on, women and children then join in to eat parts that are left. Everyone eventually has a share of some of the much sought-after boodog, as the rest is then offered to neighbouring families (fig. 7). No part of the marmot is wasted, as any small scraps are quickly consumed by hungry dogs.

Figure 7. Babies are given marmot meat at an early age

Figure 7. Babies are given marmot meat at an early age

Sucking on the fat is one of the ways a baby is introduced to eating solids in Mongolia

© Natasha Fijn, September 2017

50The Siberian marmot lives on mountain slopes, they consume alpine herbivorous plants, including some plants that contain medicinal properties that are thought to be particularly nutritious (the plants are also high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, Yoshihara et al. 2009). Medicinal products are given to both humans and domestic animals. From a Mongolian medicine perspective, the world is divided into opposites that require balance (arga bilig), including between “hot” (haluun) and “cold” (hüiten). The marmot is categorized as a hot animal by its effects on the body, but also by the way the marmot lives when alive, so is therefore used to treat cold imbalances in the body. As was described in the excerpt of conversation above, there are bad and good parts to the stomach (the first and second stomach in the marmot, respectively). Herders readily feed animal products, such as the “good stomach” contents, or the marmot’s second stomach (tarvaganii hoyor dahi hodood) to herd animals. The small amount of pre-masticated grass can be dried in a cool place for later use when the herd animals are particularly tired in spring, while the “bad stomach” is not used as it is inedible.

51Mongolian herders are less bounded in their perceptions of species divides, as both plant and animal products are readily employed together for the treatment of humans and herd animals alike. Treatment includes herbal plant medicines with those that derive from animal products, which are used in the treatment of ailing herd animals, including milk, fat, blood, bone or meat broth (see Meserve 2006). The finely chewed, pre-masticated contents from the marmot’s stomach are given to sheep and goats as a means of boosting immunity, providing much-needed strength for weak animals in spring (see Pratt et al. 2004, p. 600, fig. 5). The oily fat (tos) of the marmot may be applied to wounds or burns, including saddle sores on horses, or the hardened, rendered fat (ööh) can be used to treat inflammation of the mucous membranes and pulmonary diseases in humans (Kolesnikov et al. 2009).

52As with other hunted animals, the organs of the marmot are thought of as being medicinally beneficial for ailments in the same organ in humans: marmot liver is used to treat a diseased liver, or marmot kidney is used to treat inflammation of the kidneys. This resonates with the legend of Erhii Mergen mentioned in the introductory paragraphs, as marmot can be reciprocated for human, and vice versa. The multiple medicinal methods of healing and treatment in the use of many different parts of the marmot make it understandable as to why herders persist in hunting marmot, despite the very real risk of potentially contracting the plague.


53Humans have hunted and eaten marmot on the Mongolian Plateau over an exceptionally long period of time, for thousands of years, while being aware of and living with the threat of a deadly illness that is spread by marmots. In many parts of the world, there is a heightened fear of the plague in comparison to other zoonotic diseases, perhaps from the large volume of historic accounts of the devastation of the black plague throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. Mobile pastoralists across Inner Asia have lived with the disease in their connection with marmots for just as long but continue to perceive the marmot quite differently from the very negative European perception of the rat with the plague.

54Like a number of key significant mammalian species in Mongolia, the marmot is thought of as a complex being: in terms of cosmology, it is thought to contain human-like characteristics with connections to powerful supernatural entities; they contain important medicinal qualities and are thought of as a tasty food source at certain times of the year; yet herders also know that handling them can cause death in the form of rapid onset of a deadly disease.

55This article has focused on localized and context-based multispecies ethnographic instances from the field and literature derived from Mongolia with the intention of thinking through zoonotic biosocial connections in relation to the hunting of animals for medicinal purposes. Thinking across species is important when considering the way in which zoonoses work, and in this instance how the plague is perceived to work, with the bacteria’s ability to cross between species.

56Herders persist in hunting, handling, and eating animals, as they need to do so as a way of life, dealing with the potential risk of contracting dangerous zoonotic diseases in their close contact with multiple species of herd animals on a daily basis, while also potentially catching disease from the occasional hunting and subsequent handling of wild animals. From the Mongolian herding perspective, herding families have always drawn upon resources from their surrounding environment as additional sustenance, perceived as a powerful means of preventing different kinds of ailment and disease, as well as being an important part of maintaining overall health and wellbeing.

57Herders have a pluralistic approach to medicine, where if there are biomedical options available to them, they will take the medicine prescribed to them by a doctor, if they can afford it and when available to them. Amongst herding families, problems with the organs, such as the kidneys, liver or pancreas, are common complaints and there is often little means of getting prohibitively expensive treatment through hospitals and pharmacies. Amongst the herding community, with the case of hunting marmots, there is less concern about hunters dying from the plague, in comparison to the marmot’s powerful curative properties in the treatment of chronic diseases of the organs, or other serious ailments, solutions derived from long-held, pre-existing knowledge.

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1 I have only revealed the name of the herder if the event occurred in the distant past, or the story is in relation to other people in order to provide anonymity. I have also refrained from indicating the local area where the families are located in order to protect both herders’ and wild animals’ lives from exploitation.

2 Haloxylon ammodendron is not listed as a plant used for medicinal purposes in the comprehensive Medicinal Plants of Mongolia produced by the World Health Organisation (WHO 2013).

3 To neutralize the effects of “bad blood”, urine is often used for Mongolian medicinal purposes.

4 As Pratt et al. (2004) points out, if herders are to hunt deer for medicinal purposes when the purple pasque flowers emerge in spring, then they do so with no heed to prohibitions, as permits (at the time of publication) to hunt roe deer were in the autumn from September 1 to December 1.

5 The marmot is also related to the American groundhog and woodchuck.

6 Although Mongolia is a hotspot for the plague, there are between 5 and 15 cases reported in the United States every year. Rodents, such as the marmot, are not the only means of catching the plague, as humans have caught the plague from fleas on animals as wide ranging as cats, rabbits, goats and camels (Orloski & Lathrop 2003).

7 These cosmological aspects of the marmot – being able to morph between human and animal form – are explored in greater detail in Fijn & Terbish (2021).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Herders searching for a marmot near a known burrow
Crédits © Natasha Fijn, September 2017
Fichier image/jpeg, 510k
Titre Figure 2. Two jars of deer blood mixed with vodka, drunk with the shot glass
Légende The raw liver was being cut with a knife and sprinkled with salt for consumption
Crédits © Natasha Fijn, April 2017
Fichier image/jpeg, 353k
Titre Figure 3. Baby moles uncovered on the straw-covered floor of a small wooden shelter
Légende Although not rodents, they do look like rodents when small but with longer snouts
Crédits © Natasha Fijn, September 2017
Fichier image/jpeg, 180k
Titre Figure 4. Boodog, which is a Mongolian delicacy, the skin and fat is cooked from the inside through rocks heated in the fire inserted into the body cavity of the marmot
Légende Steam emitted from the hot stones cooks the meat chopped up and contained within the thick outer layer of fat
Crédits © Natasha Fijn, September 2017
Fichier image/jpeg, 364k
Titre Figure 5. A marmot anklebone tied onto a sleeping toddler’s wrist
Crédits © Natasha Fijn, October 2019
Fichier image/jpeg, 838k
Titre Figure 6. The hunter removes the inner organs and bones of the marmot so that only the outer fat and skin are left
Crédits © Natasha Fijn, September 2017
Fichier image/jpeg, 352k
Titre Figure 7. Babies are given marmot meat at an early age
Légende Sucking on the fat is one of the ways a baby is introduced to eating solids in Mongolia
Crédits © Natasha Fijn, September 2017
Fichier image/jpeg, 144k
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Natasha Fijn, « Hunted animals as Mongolian medicine: the case of the consumption of marmot »Études mongoles et sibériennes, centrasiatiques et tibétaines [En ligne], 53 | 2022, mis en ligne le 23 décembre 2022, consulté le 28 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Natasha Fijn

Natasha Fijn is Director of The Mongolia Institute at the Australian National University. Her research focuses on multispecies anthropology and visual anthropology, particularly observational filmmaking. She is the author of a number of journal special issues on these topics, as well as a seminal book featuring multispecies ethnography in Mongolia, Living with Herds: human-animal co-existence in Mongolia (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

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