Mongolian Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Who lives in Mongolia? The Mongolians! But who are the Mongolians? In this lesson, we're going to talk about the ethnic groups that make up modern-day Mongolia and see what this means for the nation.


If you've heard of the central Asian nation of Mongolia, you've probably heard of the Mongol Empire. If you've heard of the Mongol Empire, you've probably heard of Genghis Khan, who united the Mongol tribes and created one of the largest empires the world has ever seen. Now, if you've heard of the Mongolian Empire, and you've heard of the Mongol people, and you've heard of Mongolia, you may be assuming that it is the home of the Mongols. Well, you're correct. Also, you're sort of wrong. Remember, Genghis Khan united a diverse range of Mongolian tribes into a single empire. Most of these groups did, and to this day do, consider themselves to be distinct ethnic groups. In fact, within Mongolia today there are 19 different branches of Mongol people. I'm willing to bet that's something you haven't heard before.


The Khalkh

Mongolia is home to a wide range of Mongol peoples, but one group does have clear numerical superiority. The Khalkh, also spelled Khalkha or Halh, are the dominant ethnic group of Mongolia at roughly 82% of the total population. As the majority group that controls the ancestral homelands of all Mongol people, the Khalkh people see themselves as the direct ancestors of Genghis Khan, and therefore the true standard bearers of authentic Mongolian culture. They uphold Khalkh traditions and beliefs as being the official Mongol traditions, and Khalkha Mongol is the official language of the nation since all other Mongol languages are dialects of this common tongue. Considering their history, it's really not surprising to learn that the Khalkh are extremely proud of their heritage, and encourage the preservation and continuation of traditional Mongol, by which they mean Khalkh, culture. For a long time, this lead the Khalkh, who do dominate Mongolian politics, to shut off Mongolia from outside influences. Today however, Mongolia is much more open and has even permitted a limited entry of Christianity into a nation that traditionally practices Buddhism.

The Khalkh Mongol people make cultural preservation a top priority
Mongol culture

Minority Mongol Groups

The other 18 Mongol ethnic groups of Mongolia are dispersed widely across the nation, and have relatively low population numbers. The largest Mongol minority, for example, are the Dövöd, who only make up about 3% of the total population. The Dövöd, like most of the Mongol minority groups, mostly stay confined to a specific part of the country that was traditionally their own, in this case the western provinces. Most of the Mongol minority groups, and even many Khalkh people, still live in semi-nomadic pastoral bands that move continually across the Steppe, the high-altitude plains where their ancestral culture originated. However, many worry that nomadic herding is no longer sustainable, as climate change is drying up the land and major cities are developing throughout the nation where more economic opportunities are available.

Traditional Mongol semi-nomadic pastoralism is still practiced by many people in Mongolia
Mongol yurt

Between the 19 Mongol ethnic groups, Mongolia has a fair amount of diversity. Generally, however, this has not led to major problems. The Khalkh people are generally not challenged in their claims to represent true Mongol culture, nor in their widespread control that simply comes from much greater numbers. This does not mean however that things are always perfect. Every now and then one of the ethnic minority groups will bring their lack of political representation into national politics or will question decisions made by the government for Mongolia's future. However, while racial tension does exist in these cases, the disputes are almost always resolved peacefully and diplomatically.

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