Animal Husbandry and Dairy Drive Dramatic Social Change in Ancient Mongolia, UM Study Finds
The movement of herders and cattle in the eastern steppe is of great interest to scholars, but few scholars have linked the introduction of herds and horses to the rise of complex societies.
Now, a new study in the journal PLOS ONE provides interdisciplinary support for the links between dairy farming and rising social complexity in the eastern steppe. Using proteomic analysis of human dental calculus from sites in the Mongolian Altai, researchers demonstrate a shift in dairy product consumption during the Bronze Age.
By tracking dairy consumption among people in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia, researchers have revealed the essential role of domestic sheep, goats and cattle in ancient economies. The adoption of ruminant farming eventually led to population growth, the establishment of community cemeteries, and the building of grand monuments. Although these pronounced changes occurred in tandem with the earliest evidence of horse breeding in Mongolia, the consumption of dairy products for horses remained a relatively new practice until later periods.
Thus, the spread of herds in the Mongolian Altai led to immediate changes in the human diet, with a delay in subsequent social and demographic transformations, said the study’s lead author Alicia Ventresca Miller, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan.
“As we push back the dates for the introduction of livestock, we need to rethink the pace of social change, which can occur over much longer timescales,” she said.
Ventresca Miller and colleagues at UM and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany extracted proteins from calculus samples to identify caseins and whey associated with dairy products from ruminants and horses. The results were interpreted in consultation with researchers from the National University of Mongolia and the National Museum of Mongolia, with the aim of clarifying how ancient societies changed after the adoption of domestic cattle.
Dramatic social changes and monumental constructions have been fueled by a long-term reliance on sheep, goats and cattle, says Ventresca Miller. This is supported by finds of mostly ruminant bones in large monumental Khirgisuurs in the Altai Mountains, while in other parts of Mongolia horse bone deposits have been identified with ruminants.
“These new findings could enable a shift in our understanding of Bronze Age dynamics,” said Tsagaan Turbat, professor of archeology and anthropology at the National University of Mongolia.
Turbat believes the Deer Stone-Khirgisuur complexes, the most studied in the region, may have originated from Sagsai groups in the Altai Mountains.
The current study pushes the earliest date of horse milk production in the eastern steppe associated with the Sagsai burials to around 1350 BC. say the researchers.