Genealogy in the local oral tradition of Western Mongolia and its current renewal

Ondřej Srba

Genealogy in the local oral tradition of Western Mongolia and its current renewal

(66th Annual Meeting of the PIAC Göttingen, 2024)

In the Mongolian cultural circle, similarly to many other cultures, originally orally transmitted genealogies of ruling and noble families were the primary outline of chronicles, to which the individual parts of the narrative were connected. Some peripheral groups of the Mongolian cultural complex emphasize the responsibility of the individual to remember the sequence of the names of ancestors in the male line for a certain number of generations. In the 20th century, this knowledge significantly declined, yet in some areas, such as western Mongolia, oral knowledge of genealogies remains at a higher level than in other areas. In the case of Altai Uriankhai and Zakhchin groups, the knowledge of genealogies is often connected with knowledge of belonging to historical administrative units and clans. Clan names may have a relatively recent historical origin, others refer to ancient itinerant ethnonyms.

The transmission of genealogical knowledge is the only part of the knowledge of history, whose active learning and memorization is consciously supported by the traditional society. Beyond brief memorized lists of ancestors, the local oral tradition offers ancestral narratives describing origins of the lineage and less systematized narratives about certain ancestors.

The process of telling genealogies is not only a conscious reminder of the past or a matter of family honour but expresses the belief that actions of past generations have a direct impact on current generations. The oral genealogies are genealogies of good fortune but can also touch chaining of misfortune.

The oral genealogies offer tangible examples of recent transregional migrations which can be viewed as patterns playing important but often untraceable role in the ethnogenesis of ethnic subgroups. Sources to both written and oral genealogies provide also rare evidence on the development of personal names and clan names, which belong to rather understudied fields in the larger Altai area.