Tech UPTechnologyHorse milk was key in the prehistory of Mongolia

Horse milk was key in the prehistory of Mongolia

A new study has shown that the domestication of dairy cattle is closely related to the rise of complex societies in prehistoric Mongolia.

The movement of herders and cattle from the western Asian steppe to the eastern steppe has been a topic of great interest to researchers. Both plains are divided by the Altai Mountains : to the west is the steppe of present-day China and Kazakhstan, to the east, the plains of Mongolia. These mountains were a border dividing different populations and ecologies. Prior to 3,500 B.C. C., the groups of hunters and gatherers of these two areas had not yet made contact, they remained geographically and genetically separated by the barrier that Altai represented. But thereafter, during the Bronze Age, populations from the west began to cross the range in several waves into present-day Mongolia.

Neolithic without agricultural revolution

We know very well that the expansion of agriculture implies drastic changes in the economy and society , to the point of assuming a revolution for the human being, who goes from the Stone Age to the Neolithic, when they decide to settle, grow products and raise animals. to survive. This process took place gradually throughout the world in different phases and at different rates (in fact, tribes with a Paleolithic way of life still exist today). In the heart of Asia, Mongolia, this rhythm was determined by the introduction of dairy cattle: sheep, goats and horses. The livestock practice of these domesticated species was what allowed the growth of the population, the establishment of community cemeteries and the construction of great monuments : elements, all of them, typical of complex prehistoric societies since they require organization, hierarchies and time of dedication to carry out these tasks.

This increase in social complexity, as we say, is usually related to agriculture, but in the case of Asia it is different. This region has been populated in a general way by shepherds. Therefore, in this case, the key is in livestock, since semi-nomadic pastoral life has lasted here until the arrival of domesticated grains, which did not occur in northern Mongolia until the early Iron Age, around 800 BC C. So that we understand the chronological context well, while in Greece urbanization processes were taking place that would give rise to city-states such as Sparta and Athens, in Mongolia they were still beginning to cultivate.

The key is in dairy farming

But this delay in the adoption of agriculture did not prevent the increase in population and its complexity. The key is in the livestock way of life. The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE , indicates that ruminant cattle were introduced into the Altai Mountains around 3,000 BC. C. and domesticated horses, extremely important animals for the region, would not arrive until 1200 BC. c.

“Pastoralism is an integral part of the economies in the eastern Altai, a dry area where cultivation is challenging and modern communities depend on ruminant livestock as their main form of subsistence. To better understand the adoption of domesticated cattle in Altai, we carried out a proteomic analysis of dental calculus from 21 Bronze Age individuals from the region.”

The results show that social changes, and monumental constructions such as the Deer Stone-Khirgisuur assemblages , “were driven by a long-term dependence on sheep, goats, and cattle,” according to Alicia R. Ventresca Miller, an anthropologist at the University. of Michigan leading the investigation.

The analysis of the dental remains studied shows that the population consumed milk from sheep, goats, cows and mares. Some results supported by the discovery of bones of these animals in large circular monuments made of stones called Khirgisuurs .

The most notable social changes coincide in time with the evidence of horse milk production in Mongolia , a practice that was maintained for a long time almost exclusively in this Asian region.

“Thus, the expansion of herds in the Mongolian Altai, and later of horses, resulted in immediate dietary changes, with subsequent social and demographic transformations making possible a system of food production that supported growing populations.”


Ventresca Miller, A. R. 2022. The spread of herds and horses into the Altai: How livestock and dairying drove social complexity in Mongolia. PLoS ONE 17 (5): e0265775. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0265775.

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