Thwack! Breaking Bones
Is The Hot New Mongolian Game
The nomadic pastime, in which people compete to break thick animal bones in half with only their hand, carries dire risks for the untrained. That hasn’t slowed its popularity.
ERDENET, ORKHON PROVINCE, MONGOLIA — On a warm, sunny Saturday, 16-year-old Telmen stood on a concrete field, clutching a thick beef bone in his left hand. About 100 onlookers circled him as he pinched his face in concentration, hiked up the sleeves of his green traditional robe and tapped the bone multiple times with his right fist. He paused. Then Telmen arced his right arm back, as if wielding a hammer, and struck the bone hard: Thwack! The bone snapped in half as cleanly as a twig.
This is Mongolian bone-breaking, a modern version of a centuries-old herding pastime and, as of the coronavirus pandemic, a social media sensation. During lockdown, videos of people shattering cows’ thoracic vertebrae with their bare hands notched tens of thousands of views and made some viewers wonder: What if I struck a bone? Could I break it? Bone-breaking nods to a kind of rugged manliness revered in Mongolian culture, as evinced by its inclusion in what Mongolians consider the 10 attributes of a good man, alongside being a strong student and skillful speaker. However, rookies quickly learn that the game is not without risk.
At the hand injury ward of one of the country’s largest hospitals, the Mongolian National Trauma and Orthopedic Research Center in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, roughly 1 in 2 recent surgical patients have suffered injuries from trying the game themselves. Sometimes doctors must amputate fingers. “When you hit a bone with a bone, either of the bones will be broken,” says Dr. Nanjid Lkhagvadorj, director of the ward. Women and children, who generally have smaller hands that can’t withstand bone-bashing as easily, are particularly susceptible to harm.
Yet, the recent contest in central-northern Mongolia drew dozens of children between ages 13 and 16; each had one shot at breaking a bone and advancing to subsequent rounds. The bones are usually 20 to 35 centimeters (7 to 13 inches) long and purchased from butchers and livestock producers. Contestants wrap their hands in thin cloth, ostensibly to better grip the bones, but the cloth isn’t much of a buffer and contestants aren’t allowed to wear protective gloves. Among participants, the game’s toll was visible: swollen knuckles, hand wrappings stained with blood. Telmen’s right hand — his smashing hand — was bruised. (His full name is being withheld because he is a minor.) He says, “Hearing the sound of the bones breaking when you hit the bones gives you a refreshing and indescribable feeling.”
The tradition harks back to roughly the 13th century, says cultural researcher Yunden Bazargur, when nomadic herders ate cow, ox, yak or camel they’d rounded up and made a game of rifting the leftover bones. (Horses, particularly cherished in Mongolian culture, are off-limits for bone play.) As Mongolia urbanized, bone-breaking morphed into a winter ritual, in which families cooked and ate a cow and the men tried to crack its 12th vertebra.
Lkhagva-Ochir Dugersuren believes the pastime deserves the reverence and wider reach of a professional sport. “It is not just about breaking bones,” he says. “It is the Mongolian naadgai” — a traditional game — “which shows the strength and masculinity of the nomadic culture that we have inherited since ancient times.” In 2019, Lkhagva-Ochir helped found the United Association of Pan-Mongolian Thoracic Vertebrae Breakers, which has about 20 members and organizes an annual competition. They hope to someday register the game with UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, giving it even greater legitimacy.
In 2020, their efforts got an inadvertent boost. The country instituted a strict coronavirus lockdown, closing schools and offices and scotching events. Stuck at home with little to do but scroll their phones, Mongolians swooned over bone-breaking. Lkhagva-Ochir, whose group posted some of the videos, insists that even teens can replicate them safely: They simply need to learn proper technique, such as smacking the bone with their palms instead of their more delicate fingers. In one recent videoposted on Facebook, for instance, three girls with tiny frames and hands snap bones in half as if they were pencils.
Growing up, Banzragch Khishigsuren dabbled in busting beef bones, but he didn’t fully commit to the game until he found himself watching video after video after video. Now he smashes bones once or twice a month, with the hope of someday entering contests. On a recent day, his right hand was purpled and scarred, the result of trying to crack camel bones, which are larger, harder and therefore tougher to break than a cow’s. It was the third time Banzragch, a 32-year-old civil engineer, injured his dominant hand badly enough that he struggled to work or drive. His friends and family have begged him to stop, but he waves them off. “I just feel like knocking it again right after my hand is cured,” he says. He relishes how cracking bones makes him feel: strong and manly.
Yearning for the same rush, many Mongolians land in the hospital. Bone-bashing can damage soft hand tissue, inducing swelling or even infection. Before the pandemic, the Mongolian National Trauma and Orthopedic Research Center rarely encountered bone-breaking patients; in November alone, doctors performed 10 surgeries related to the game. Another bone-breaker, Nanjid says, delayed treatment for so long that an infection that started in their hand eventually spread through their body. The patient died.
Doctors say the government needs to reign in the game by imposing age limits for contests or requiring better hand protection. Alternately, officials could crack down on the availability of online videos. Last year, Saranbolor Ganjinkhuu’s 15-year-old son tried to copy a bone-breaking video he discovered on Facebook. His hand was so mangled afterward that he couldn’t write, missed 20 days of school and fumbled to catch up with his lessons. “Fortunately, it was a minor injury. If it was a serious injury, who would be responsible for it?” Saranbolor says with a deep sigh. “They should control those online videos.” The Ministry of Culture declined to comment.
Inspired by videos of other young women, Khulangoo Narantsogt was determined to try bone-breaking herself. “Everyone who watched the video of women banging was praising them,” the 23-year-old says. She and her friends thwacked vertebrae for more than a year before she tried to rift a large ox bone. Her right hand ballooned to the point where she couldn’t hold anything — not a pen, not a bookbag — and she had to visit a doctor every day to have it rebandaged. Keeping up with her university coursework proved impossible, so she took almost a month of school off. She has no desire to break bones again.