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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

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7:00am, February 17, 2019
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.

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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.

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).

Citations

C. Warinner. Archaeology of the invisible: Proteins and metabolites. American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, Washington, D.C., February 16, 2019.

C. Jeong et al. Bronze Age population dynamics and the rise of dairy pastoralism on the eastern Eurasian steppe. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Vol. 115, November 27, 2018, p. E11248. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1813608115.

Further Reading

B. Bower. Paint specks in tooth tartar illuminate a medieval woman’s artistry. Science News. Vol. 195, February 2, 2019, p. 14.

H. Thompson. Christina Warinner uncovers ancient tales in dental plaque. Science News. Vol. 192, October 14, 2017, p. 18.

H. Thompson. Ancient dental plaque tells tales of Neandertal diet and disease. Science News Online, March 8, 2017.

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