Tooth plaque shows drinking milk goes back 3,000 years in Mongolia

Milk proteins preserved in tartar show that ancient Mongolians drank cow, yak and sheep milk

yaks in Mongolia

MODERN MILK  Seven species of animals, including yaks (shown), are milked in Mongolia today; recent research suggests that yaks were milked in the region 3,000 years ago, too.

C. Warinner

WASHINGTON — Ancient people living in what’s now Mongolia drank milk from cows, yaks and sheep — even though, as adults, they couldn’t digest lactose. That finding comes from the humblest of sources: ancient dental plaque.

Modern Mongolians are big on dairy, milking seven different animal species, including cows, yaks and camels. But how far into the past that dairying tradition extends is difficult to glean from the usual archaeological evidence: Nomadic lifestyles mean no kitchen trash heaps preserving ancient pots with lingering traces of milk fats. So molecular anthropologist Christina Warinner and her colleagues turned to the skeletons found in 22 burial mounds belonging to the Deer Stone culture, a people who lived in Mongolia’s eastern steppes around about 1300 B.C.

TOOTH DAIRY Researchers analyzed milk proteins within dental plaque recovered from the teeth (shown) from human skeletons buried in mounds dating to about 1300 B.C. The results suggest that people in Mongolia have been milking some animals — including cows, sheep and goats — for at least 3,000 years. C. Warinner
The hardened dental plaque, or tartar, on the teeth of the skeletons contained traces of milk proteins , Warinner, of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, said February 16 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Those proteins showed that the people drank milk from cows, yaks, goats and sheep, but not from camels or reindeer, which modern day Mongolians milk today.

Ancient Mongolians’ DNA also revealed that they weren’t able to digest lactose as adults. Instead, the Deer Stone people, like modern Mongolians, may have relied on bacteria within the gut, known as the gut microbiome, to break down the lactose, Warinner said.

Warinner’s team had first detected milk proteins in the tooth tartar of European Bronze Age skeletons dating back to 3000 B.C. (SN: 10/14/17; p. 18). The hardened plaque preserves tiny evidence of all sorts of events in a person’s lifetime, from drinking milk to inhaling pollen to working in a dusty artistic working environment (SN: 2/2/19, p. 14).

Carolyn Gramling is the earth & climate writer. She has bachelor’s degrees in geology and European history and a Ph.D. in marine geochemistry from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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