Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Until the end of the seventeenth century the Buriats were mainly nomadic cattle breeders. Hunting continued to play a significant role in their economy. In the taiga they hunted large wild animals such as elks or bears. In the steppe it was foxes, wolves, or Siberian marmots. They hunted some animals for meat, some for fur, and others for both meat and fur. They especially valued beaver and otter fur, with which they paid tribute (Russian: iasak ) to the czar.
Food. The traditional staples of Buriat cuisine, like those of all nomads of Central Asia, were milk, milk products, meat, and meat dishes. Milk products ( tsagan ige ) were eaten fresh in summer and in early fall until the end of the milking season. From urum or erme, the layer of milk skimmed off during boiling, they made butter. The remaining milk, fermented with a special leaven ( kherenge), was used to make several sorts of cheese ( arul, khurut, ezgii ) and yogurt ( tarag). With a special distilling method, they made vodka from milk, varying from 6-8 percent to 45-50 percent alcohol. After distillation, the remaining curdled liquid was mixed in a separate dish with flour, roots from several plants ground into powder, and dried bird cherries. All winter this mixture was kept frozen. Pieces were broken off, cooked, and eaten. It was considered healthy and nutritious. They also made kumys (fermented mare's milk). Thought to have healing as well as nourishing powers, kumys was endowed with magic qualities in Buriat belief as well as in the beliefs of all Mongol peoples.
The Buriats herded rams, horses, goats, and horned cattle. Of all types of meat, they preferred mutton, except in winter, when they favored beef. They ate meat boiled in lightly salted water. To the bouillon they added millet or noodles. Mutton head was considered a dish appropriate for an honored guest. But the preferred dish was fresh mutton liver, which they roasted wrapped in fatty stomach lining immediately after the carcass was cut. They also ate the intestines and blood of the slaughtered animals. The Buriats made blood sausage, which they ate slightly cooked immediately after the butchering of the cattle. In order to have a supply of meat for the winter, they slaughtered cattle in late autumn, once frost had already appeared, cutting pieces of meat into long, thin slices and freezing it. In winter in southern Siberia, meat will keep for several months. Bread and pastry made from flour were adopted from the Russians, but these items did not have a special role in Buriat cooking. On the other hand, mixed dishes of milk and flour or meat and flour were very popular, as were flour grilled with sour cream ( salamat ) and steamed meat pies made with sweet dough ( buuz). The common drinks were tea served either with milk, mutton fat, or baked, salted milk skin; milk-based vodka; and, in summer, kumys.
Clothing. Buriat clothing was adapted to nomadic life and to the severe Central Asian climate. It was made for horseback riding, since it did not constrain the movement of the rider, and for sitting on the floor of the yurt. Clothing was sewn of leather, fur, and wool. In the winter men wore a straight fur overcoat (deel, degel). The left side buttoned closed over the right side. A long sash or a leather belt adorned with silver and copper ornaments was tied around the waist. On the right side of the belt, the men carried a tobacco pouch with tobacco and a snuffbox, a knife in its sheath, and a piece of steel for starting fires. They kept their pipes in their boots. The steel, tinder, and flint for starting fires were carried in a special sack, beautifully embroidered and even adorned with silver plates. In the past the steel for starting fires was highly valued—one could even exchange it for a horse. In summer, men wore a thinly lined coat ( terlig), styled like the coats they wore in winter. The edge of the coat and sleeves were sometimes trimmed with velvet or another beautiful fabric.
Usually women wore trousers, shirts, and a coat much like the men's coat, but with a low collar. The sleeves, cuffs, and collar were made from a colored fabric. Especially valued were Chinese silks and brocades. The hem of the coat was sometimes decorated with otter fur. Over the coat, married women wore a sleeveless jacket ( uuzha). For western Buriats it was just a jacket, whereas the eastern Buriats sewed a gathered skirt to their jackets at the waist. The sleeveless jacket, like the coats, had a lining and a slit down the front from the collar to the hem.
Men's and women's headgear was sown of fabric or fur (beaver, otter, fox); the elders wore hats of sheepskin. Traditionally, until the beginning of the twentieth century, men wore their hair pulled back in a braid. With Russification, this style gradually disappeared. Married women wore their hair in two braids covered with velvet. The braids hung in front, not on their backs. Silver and coral ornaments were woven into the ends of their braids. Young girls wore their hair in several braids, which were joined at the temples with coral-red thread.
Men and women wore low leather boots ( gutal ) leather with thick soles. The boots were slightly turned up at the toes. Wearing such boots a rider felt more certain that his or her feet would not slip out of the stirrups. They wore such boots year-round, but in the winter, for extra warmth, they placed felt in them. Today traditional folk clothing is worn only by old people. Classical clothing with full decoration and additional detail can be seen only in museums.
Land Tenure. After the arrival of the Russians in the Transbaikal region, the Buriats gradually adopted agriculture and hay making. According to Buriat common law, land on clan territory ( ulus ) was considered property of the community and had to be equally divided among all members. Clan property (the sign of the clan was branded on cattle) was gradually replaced by private ownership by individual members of the clan and their families. The combination of communal pasture and private herds allowed a rich, clan-based aristocracy to use its economic and administrative influence to secure plots of land for the owners of large herds.
After Buriatia was incorporated into the Russian state, the land was declared state property but the Buriat people were granted the right to communal land use. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the pastures, forests, and arable lands were taken out of communal use and became private property alloted to individual families. Toward the beginning of the twentieth century, 25 percent of the Buriats in Irkutsk Oblast were no longer involved in animal husbandry but were engaged in agriculture. They grew rye, wheat, oats, buckwheat, and vegetables. For Buriats in Transbaikalia, animal husbandry remained predominant. The Buriats living on Ol'khon Island supplemented animal husbandry with fishing, and the Buriats of the Tunkinsk region supplemented it with hunting. About 10 percent of Buriat households had 100-200 sheep, up to 100 head of horned cattle, and 20-30 horses; 30 to 40 percent of the households had 60-70 sheep, up to 50 head of cattle, and up to 10 horses.