Hundreds of ancient reindeer stones dot Mongolia and no one knows why

Across the Mongolian wilderness, hundreds of ornate ancient megaliths dot the landscape, sporadically sticking out of the ground like matches stuck in the sand. Their existence for thousands of years is still steeped in mystery as it’s unclear who built these strange stone monuments, let alone why, but archaeologists have come up with some tantalizing theories to explain them.

Known as stag stones or reindeer stones, more than a thousand megaliths are found in Mongolia and parts of Siberia. They vary in style and size, but many are larger than a human, with some reaching over 4.5 meters (15 feet) in height.

Elaborate carvings feature prominently on the stones. While designs like human faces, patterns, weapons and animals can often be seen on the stones, one of the most common themes is reindeer, hence their name. Some depictions even feature flying reindeer, as an early homage to Santa’s sleigh pullers.

Strangely, some stones have rounded tops while others have straight tops. This could have some stylistic significance, although scholars suspect it could be a sign of damage, possibly at the hands of enemies who wished to destroy the monuments.

A leaning stag stone placed in central Mongolia.

A leaning stag stone placed in front of dozens of small stone mounds containing burials of ritually sacrificed horses at the Bronze Age monument site of Ikh Tsagaanii Am, Bayankhongor Province, Central Mongolia. Image credit: William Taylor

It was once assumed by some that the stag stones were the work of the Scythians, the mounted nomads who raised hell in this strip of Eurasia from the 7th century BCE to the 3rd century BCE. However, radiocarbon dating of horse skulls found near some of the stones indicate that they were made before the Scythian culture took hold during the Late Bronze Age (1200-700 BCE).

The big question is why these deer stones were created. One theory posits that stag stones are grave monuments used at the funerals of powerful rulers or esteemed warriors. After all, the Scythians who came after this culture are well known for their elaborate burials. However, human remains are not usually found at the sites, which largely discredits this idea.

Another theory suggests the stones had something to do with reindeer herding, possibly marking the site where tethered reindeer were used to attract wild deer. Although sacrificed horse bones have been discovered near the stones, deer remains are rarely found, which also throws cold water on the idea.

Mongolian steppe landscape.  The Tsjagaan-Go Deer Stone is a famous ancient monument located near the Hovd River.

A stag stone located close to the Hovd River. Image credit: longtaildog/Shutterstock.com

Based on depictions of humans on some stones, other experts have claimed that the sites were used by shamans in spiritual ceremonies.

“The rare depictions of human faces are usually seen with rounded, open mouths – as if chanting or chanting – and seem likely to represent shamanic power or seance. The deer-bird image also suggests a spiritual transformation experienced in the shamanic flight when passing from earth to heaven, or the passage of a stag stone figure’s soul from earthly life to heaven after death,” reads a 2009 study by Smithsonian Anthropologist William Fitzhugh. and director of its Center for Arctic Studies, which runs the Mongolian-Smithsonian Deer Stone Project.

“It seems likely that these images replicate deer-bird images tattooed on the torsos of the true warriors who were represented by the deer stones, possibly protecting them from dangerous forces, spirits, or events.”

Perhaps the true meaning of the stones will never be known again. Whatever the purposes of these stones, they clearly held great significance to the mysterious people who once roamed this land.

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