Natasha Fijn is a multispecies anthropologist and observational filmmaker

Interviewer: Courtney Boag
Image: Hand milking yak (sarlag) in the Bulgan Province, Mongolia, Summer 2005. All images courtesy of Natasha Fijn.  

22 January, 2024

“As an anthropologist, my focus lies not in the notion of documenting a vanishing culture, but in advocating for the acceptance of diversity in terms of different ways of experiencing life and the acknowledgement of longstanding cultural practices. Mongolia is one of the few remaining nomadic herding cultures in the world and it’s important to record and understand the significance of this way of life for the future”

Natasha Fijn

Natasha Fijn's research and filmmaking are deeply grounded in her background in anthropology and animal behaviour. She integrates the ethnographic method of participant observation into her filmmaking process, taking charge of every aspect of her films from inception to completion. Having collaborated on projects with the BBC Natural History Unit, Green Umbrella Productions, and Natural History New Zealand, Natasha's documentaries have been globally distributed by National Geographic and Discovery Channels. Her ethnographic footage has been showcased in exhibitions at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. Natasha has also presented her documentary work at workshops, conferences, and festivals across Australia, as well as internationally in Auckland, Manchester, Aberdeen, Oslo, Aarhus, Stockholm, and at the Sorbonne in Paris. From 2010 to 2015, she taught Visual Culture Research and Visual Anthropology courses at the Australian National University and recently she has been coordinating an intensive field-based course in the Mongolian summer.

Natasha's distinctive approach to research and filmmaking is enhanced by her exploration of humanities and natural sciences literature. She is part of an emerging collective of academics who provide valuable insights into animal behavior and multispecies ethnography. Her extensive fieldwork includes research for her Masters thesis in the tropical rainforests of the Philippines and assisting in a cross-cultural project assessing the sustainability of sooty shearwater harvesting, partly funded by Rakiura Maori. She has also spent extended periods of time in the remote locations of Mount Cook and Mount Aspiring National Parks in New Zealand to research and document the social behaviour and problem-solving abilities of ‘Kea’ the mountain parrot. Additionally, Natasha has been involved in cross-collaboration anthropology and archaeology projects in Flores, Indonesia, and fieldwork in remote Aboriginal communities in Arnhem Land, Australia. She has also conducted long-term fieldwork in the Khangai mountains of Mongolia to study the relationships between nomadic Mongolian herders and their animals.

Natasha was also involved in an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery team that investigated knowledge transfers of Mongolian traditional medicine and healing techniques within the herding community from 2019 until 2023. Recently, Natasha has received a mid-career ARC Future Fellowship to research 'A Multi-species Anthropological Approach to Influenza' (2022-2026). 

Natasha, your work is centred around human-animal relations and domestication in Mongolia within a field of research called 'multispecies ethnography'. Can you explain multispecies ethnography and why you became interested in doing this research?

Multispecies ethnography originates from anthropology but is gaining broader acceptance. The more-than-human involves studying subjects beyond humans, including animals, plant species, ghosts, spirit beings, and various entities, while multispecies ethnography typically focuses on animals, plants, microbes, and all living beings. Across cultures, people may view inanimate objects like rocks, air, or fire as having life. This broader perspective falls under the term “more-than-human." In my experience, the term "multispecies" is fitting for my research. In Mongolia, herders manage five kinds of animals collectively - sheep, goats, horses, yaks, and camels - reflecting a unique aspect of their pastoral lifestyle. In Australia, the focus has traditionally been on farming individual species like cattle or sheep. However, a shift towards regenerative agriculture emphasises the benefits of having multispecies herds. This shift makes multispecies ethnography particularly relevant. Considering the perspectives and behaviours of both animals and humans is crucial in multispecies ethnography. It involves continuous exploration beyond the human realm, fostering engagement across various species.

Would you say that your background in working with animals brought you to anthropology?

The notion of animals being completely separate from humans is a bit old-fashioned. So, I thought what I'm interested in is this engagement across species, and particularly the domestication of species. But the realm of domestication in the past was usually the focus of archaeologists and bioanthropologists, who would take a long-term perspective: what are the adaptive processes that are going on with domestication? But what I wanted to do for my PhD research [starting in 2004] was to look at domestication now and to understand how people are engaging with animals in the domestic sphere. My research has been more of a window into domestication, rather than looking at it from an evolutionary, adaptive perspective.

This  recent paper on Multispecies co-existence in Inner Asia may be helpful to some readers who are interested to learn more.

Two herders participating in a horse herding competition, Tov Province, Mongolia, April 2023.
Competitors at the start of a horse herding competition, all holding their elongated lasso-pole (uurga), Tov Province, Mongolia, April 2023.

So, Natasha, you've been instrumental in using mixed media methods, in particular filmmaking and photography to convey your research. You have filmed and produced ethnographic films and your work has been integrated into exhibitions, such as in the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the National Museum of Australia in Canberra and so much more. You've travelled to so many amazing places around the world screening your films. What inspired you to incorporate filmmaking into your anthropological practice?

I was really interested in natural history filmmaking. I earned a postgraduate diploma in Natural History, Filmmaking and Communication, which was good in terms of thinking about how to communicate to a wider audience. I'd also worked with the BBC and Natural History New Zealand, which meant I knew wildlife filmmaking techniques. When I came to the Australian National University to do my PhD, I realised that there was this amazing cohort of staff that were really talented with observational, or ethnographic filmmaking, particularly David and Judith McDougall. I had just started my PhD, and they held this course called, 'Thinking with a Video Camera', which I enrolled in (and subsequently taught to Masters students). I'd been frustrated with the ethics of natural history filmmaking because it applies a dramatic narrative to animal lives, which is not necessarily accurate. Natural history filmmaking is not filming to find new discoveries; it is more about illustrating what scientists have already found. I was interested in portraying new aspects, concepts, and ideas, and I could see that this is what observational filmmaking is better at doing.

So, observational filmmaking is about long takes. If you record the data for long enough, then other researchers can come back at a later stage and bring a different perspective to the footage. As part of a three-year postdoc at the ANU, I based some of my research on the archives of Ian Dunlop’s Yirrkala Film Series, for instance, Ian filmed a funeral ceremony that was related to crocodile dreaming. Ian was focusing on kinship dynamics, but I was more interested in the crocodiles themselves. When I went back to view the footage, I was doing so with a particular lens to explore the significance of the crocodile in Arnhem Land as a totemic species. When I was conducting fieldwork, I wanted to understand how the crocodile is, as an actual 'being-in-the-world', and to better understand the Yolngu perspective on the crocodile. Ian had already recorded all the ceremonial material, so I could look at his observational films as data because as a director he would record complete song cycles that would last for 20 minutes. That was still using film rather than digital, so he used a lot of film stock [laughs].

I went back and filmed while engaging in the landscape, more so from the perspective of the everyday, or life 'on the ground'. I'd record Yolngu collecting mussels around the mangroves when the tide was out and we would be watching out for crocodiles in the process. The absence of the crocodile became an interesting concept because, while you couldn't see any crocodiles around, they would always be in peoples’ minds in a symbolic and cautionary sense. Many Aboriginal people in northern Australia and other remote areas of the country have totemic connections with the crocodile as an ancestral being, so I found it interesting to see how Yolngu thought of and related to the crocodile.

Being able to go back to the archives and use Ian Dunlop’s Yirrkala Film Series footage as data was really important to my understanding and I'm hoping that one day in the future people can look at my work in the same way. There is a great resource here in Australia, the film archive at AIATSIS, that allows researchers to put footage in their extensive archival collection so that in the future people who are interested in researching some of the material can have access to it. The project I did in Arnhem Land may become important for Yolngu in the future, so it holds value in that respect.

My footage from when I was living in Mongolia in 2005 has now become important because I was filming herders still using ox-carts, now people rarely use ox-carts because they're using trucks, cars and other modes of transport. There have been big changes in the few years I've been going into the field so it might be useful for people in the future to view what life was like for people in Mongolia during 2005. I like video as a research tool because it allows people to review footage many times over and each time possibly find new meaning in the content. You know, ideas evolve over time and so you might come to have new ideas for research later on down the track that you didn't have when you were filming, so it opens up opportunities to go back and re-consider some aspects in a new light.

For more information on this work, see Natasha’s recent paper on ethnographic filmmaking in Arnhem Land, Australia.


“Living with Crocodiles” a short film by Natasha Fijn

That's so fascinating.  So, Natasha, you have conducted significant fieldwork in the Khangai Mountain region on the Mongolian plateau to specifically understand the medical knowledge and practices of the nomadic pastoralists in that region. Importantly, you describe how 'the Mongolian plateau is one of the few places where healers and practitioners still practice medicine across species with pluralistic, inclusive forms of knowledge'. Firstly, can you describe some of the medical frameworks and practices widely held in this region and how this knowledge has been transmitted over generations? 

Yeah. There's been a lot of research into Tibetan and Chinese traditional medicine and other Asian medical techniques, but there's been very little work on Mongolian medicinal practices translated into English.

In Mongolia, there's an institutional framework of Buddhist medicine. I have been collaborating with historian Li Narangoa at The Australian National University. She has been looking into more of the historical side of the Buddhist institutional practices and the passing on of knowledge in that sense. I have been looking at contemporary medicinal treatments in the herding community. They have derived their medical techniques from several sources, including Buddhist Tibetan medicine, but also shamanic underpinnings and long-held nomadic medical techniques.

I was interested in the ancient techniques that are still practised by herders. In the autumn, they'll go up into the surrounding mountains and collect medicinal plants, or they will use different animal products. Li Narangoa, a Norwegian scholar Benedikte Lindskog, and I have edited a book on Mongolian medicine that should be out soon with Amsterdam University Press. We wanted to encompass all kinds of Mongolian medicine, including what they call dom: herding rituals and practices, which include shamanic underpinnings.

Trailer for “Two Seasons: multispecies medicine in Mongolia” by Natasha Fijn

Is this knowledge being passed down to the younger generations?

There is a concern among elders as they may pass on knowledge to the younger generation, but its ongoing practical application remains uncertain. In my visits to Mongolia in 2005 and 2007, many people relied on traditional methods to treat their herd animals due to financial constraints. But nowadays, there is a shift towards purchasing medicines from pharmacies or veterinary clinics, which may lead to improper dosages or the use of substandard medicines from Russia or China that don't meet current international medical standards. These biomedicines can enter rivers through animal waste, resulting in long-term negative effects on the surrounding environment. Balancing the benefits and drawbacks of antibiotics is a complex issue.

Mongolian herds graze freely on natural pastures without chemical interference, allowing animals to consume various medicinal plants. The animals instinctively seek out specific plants, like yagui, a bitter peony that eliminates parasitic worms from the stomach, ensuring healthy meat for consumption. This practice is well-known in Mongolia, where goat meat is preferred in spring due to goats seeking out and consuming yagui. Similarly, nomadic herders hunt deer in spring to obtain parasite-free meat from deer that are known to forage for yagui in spring. Both wild and domestic animals, actively seek out medicinal plants for themselves. The goats' attraction to the yagui plant signals herders to the plant's location, creating a mutual, symbiotic ecological relationship.

For more information on this, see Natasha’s recent paper on ecological approaches to health in Mongolia.

That's so fascinating. It's a very full-circle system.

What I like about that is that the herders are so attuned to the different trophic cycles, that they're aware of when medicinal plants will come into season and therefore when the meat will be safe to eat. That's like a lot of medicinal plants. Herders have a keen awareness of what the herd animals are eating.

In autumn, there are a lot of medicinal plants that come into season and what the herders will do is they will actually harvest grass, combined with the medicinal plants, and will dry it together as hay for the animals to eat over the winter time. In that way, the animals will still be consuming medicinal plants, like nutritional nettles and thistles, when the weather becomes extremely cold and harsh during winter. Most animals have to survive on what is available and you know, it's below zero for over eight months of the year and in winter it's an average of minus 28 degrees Celsius. So, these animals have to survive under extreme conditions. But at least if herding families have this medicinal hay stored up, they can feed it to an animal if one becomes sick.

What we consider weeds here – nettles and thistles – nomadic herders consider as important medicine. These herders have known this information for thousands of years, and what I'm trying to do is record some of this baseline knowledge so that it can be preserved in the future.

“Dogsom on Bloodletting” a video by Natasha Fijn

So is your research aiming to learn more about the medicinal properties of these plant species, or are you trying to uncover something else?

Instead of focusing on the biological or microbial aspects of these medicines, my interest lies in documenting the Traditional Ecological Knowledge shared by herders at an ecological level. I was awarded an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship grant, a four-year grant that supports my research into different forms of medicinal prevention and treatment and their role in combating diseases like influenza. As part of this grant, I am collaborating with two Mongolian researchers to delve into archives in Mongolia. One of the researchers has been examining newspapers, film materials, and contemporary archives, specifically studying instances of avian and equine influenza. While my primary focus is on current activities within herding communities, the research encompasses different scales: interviews range from government officials and scientists at a zoonotic disease institute, to university veterinary researchers, local veterinarians, or rangers within national parks discussing issues related to horse flu and bird flu.

My interest in cross-species connections centres on how viruses spread globally across different species. For example, avian influenza, commonly known as bird flu, can originate in regions like South Asia in India, spreading from factory farms there to wild bird populations, affecting various waterbird species that migrate on a flyway up to places like Mongolia and Siberia. The virus can re-combine to become equine influenza, posing risks to horses, humans, and wildlife. Similar to COVID-19, which likely originated in bats before jumping species to humans through intermediate carrier hosts like pangolins or ferrets, avian influenza's roots can be traced back to chickens in factory farms. In Mongolia, threatened wild species, such as the last remaining wild horse, known as the takhi, and other wildlife, such as the wild ass, or khulan, and wild camels face risks. Conversations with Mongolian park rangers and local veterinarians have revealed a lack of attention to the herders' perspectives and observations on these issues.

My research is centred on collaborating with local communities, particularly herders, to understand how zoonotic diseases can spread across countries and to gather valuable insights from local knowledge holders about what is happening 'on the ground'. Unlike scientific approaches relating to zoonotic diseases that may focus narrowly on a single species, my investigative journalism-type methodology for this project seeks to unravel zoonotic diseases within a broader narrative, while conveying diverse perspectives.

That's so interesting. It sounds like there's this interesting marriage between traditional medical practices and more modern methods, but it sounds like they're existing in a relatively harmonious balance. Would you say so?

The Mongolian economy is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world because of mining, so Mongolia is changing rapidly. Back in 2005 when I started travelling there for field research, Mongolia wasn't engaging in the market economy much in the countryside and over the last decade, they have begun to do so a lot more. The herders I worked with were living sustainably and more in balance with the surrounding ecology back then, you know, they were eating the meat and the dairy products that their animals produced. If you had chapped lips, you'd just rub some animal fat on your lips. Now, there are plastic and other commodity items pretty much available everywhere. It shifts the way herders are moving their herd animals because they want to be closer to amenities. I've noticed a big shift in how these new ways of life are impacting the environment, because plastic is much more available today than ever, but people aren't disposing of, or recycling plastic, so it just gets strewn across the windswept countryside.

Child jockeys competing in a horse race within the Kharkhorin Naadam festival, July 2023.
A free-roaming horse herd in the arid, high-altitude Govi-Altai Province, Mongolia, August 2023.

I'm really interested in understanding if there are any climatic changes to the environment in Mongolia at the moment as a result of climate change. If so, is this disrupting the seasonal calendar and thereby impacting when and how herders can access medical species to treat their herds?

In Mongolia, there is a weather phenomenon called dzud, which brings disastrous conditions, affecting herders and herd animals. Unlike Australia, where bushfires and flooding are becoming more common, Mongolia has been facing more extreme winter events. The formation of a layer of ice over the landscape makes it difficult for animals to access food, leading to sickness and malnutrition, ultimately resulting in death. This year [winter of 2023-2024], heavy snowfall has caused a significant loss of herd animals in Mongolia. The animals struggle to endure the harsh weather changes between dry summers and the extreme cold of winter. These extreme weather patterns used to occur cyclically every seven years, but now they happen more frequently, leaving less time for the animals to recover. Herders demonstrate remarkable resilience in the face of challenges. Their ability to adapt and survive in harsh conditions reflects the strength and tenacity of the Mongolian people and how well the herd animals are adapted to local environmental conditions.

A young herding woman searches for the mother of the kid in her arms, Arkhangai Province, Mongolia, May 2017.
“Summer and Winter | Black and White” by Natasha Fijn

I'm interested from a land-claims basis, do herders have legal certainty over the land that they depend on for their livestock? Do they have any protection against external forces that are trying to push them off or encroach them into the cities?

It's common land, so the state owns the land. One problem is that the State is granting exploration and mining rights to mining companies, and so millions of hectares are now occupied by exploration and mining. There's also increased cropping. In the past, it wasn't such a problem because people had traditional custodianship of the land and that was recognised if a herding family had a winter encampment there. It was acknowledged who the people in that valley were and where they lived, there was a common understanding, but this isn't so clear anymore. These market forces, international investment companies and mining companies pose, in many ways, new forces of colonisation on Mongolian pastoral homelands. 


I'm keen to get your thoughts on the impact you feel your research has. How do you want your research to impact broader society?

I aim to explore and document diverse approaches to interacting with animals, highlighting various perspectives on coexisting with animals, herding them, or producing meat and dairy. This exploration celebrates diversity and different lifestyles, emphasising the importance of learning about alternative ways of living, both from different cultures and from animals themselves, who can offer valuable lessons on harmonious coexistence. The foundation of Mongolian herding society is rooted in ecology, a sustainable system that has thrived for centuries, preserving their surrounding environment. In Mongolia, a healthy ecosystem is highlighted by the presence of predators like wolves, snow leopards, and bears.

As an anthropologist, my focus lies not in the notion of documenting a vanishing culture, but in advocating for the acceptance of diversity in terms of different ways of experiencing life and the acknowledgement of longstanding cultural practices. Mongolia is one of the few remaining nomadic herding cultures in the world and it’s important to record and understand the significance of this way of life for the future.

My work centres on documenting various kinds of knowledge, challenging the assumption that Euro-American-derived solutions hold all the answers. Rather than imposing industrial-scale agricultural practices on Mongolian herding existences, I believe in the value of reciprocal learning. Mongolian herders are open to embracing new technologies and innovations while offering valuable insights that we can learn from. This two-way exchange of knowledge, is reminiscent of the Yolngu concept of two-way knowledge practices, emphasising mutual learning and respect for different ontologies and ways of life. While causal interpretations may differ, such as attributing ailments to displeased local deities, the effectiveness of traditional practices should not be dismissed but rather documented to enrich our understanding. By acknowledging wisdom accumulated over thousands of years, we can appreciate diverse perspectives and techniques.

Young herding boy returning to the encampment, Tov Province, Mongolia, April 2023.
Interested to learn more about Natasha’s work? Follow her page here

To view more of Natasha’s films visit her archives here

Read some of the latest research from Natasha via her academic profile. Also, check out her  seminal book engaging with multispecies ethnography in the Inner Asian region entitled ‘Living with Herds: human-animal coexistence in Mongolia’.

Connect with Natasha via

Anthrōprospective is Australia’s first independent anthropology journal of it’s kind. Based in Naarm (Melbourne).

We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri and Bunurong people.