People in Central Asia today enjoy a rich dairying tradition, but the origins and antiquity of this vital culinary practice are poorly understood. Skeletal remains of domesticated cattle, horses, sheep and goats recovered from archaeological sites located in Mongolia suggest that dairying spread to the eastern steppes during the Bronze Age, but the precise nature of how these animals were used remains unknown. In addition, we still lack knowledge about how these animals genetically relate to others found throughout Eurasia, which can provide key details about ancient animal dispersals and human mobility. To address these questions, the DairyCultures project explores the archaeology of dairying in Mongolia through cutting-edge scientific methods of palaeogenomics and ancient protein analysis.

To identify ancient dairy consumption, the DairyCultures project studies milk proteins from archaeological teeth. Previous work by DairyCultures team members has shown that milk proteins can become archived in calcified tooth plaque (dental calculus) which can survive for hundreds or even thousands of years. By extracting and identifying these ancient milk proteins, we can directly observe whether that person ate dairy products and which animal species produced the milk.

The DairyCultures team will also turn to ancient DNA to unlock more information about the earliest domesticated animals to reach Mongolia and how people bred and exchanged livestock over millennia. By analysing DNA preserved in animal bones, the project will investigate the complex genetic histories of animals recovered from archaeological sites in order to trace initial dispersal routes and the dynamics of selective pressures that gave rise to the vibrant dairying traditions of the steppes today.

Some examples of recent work from DairyCultures project members are listed below. 

Dairy pastoralism sustained eastern Eurasian steppe populations for 5,000 years

In a recent study published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, researchers discovered that drinking dairy products has been taking place in Mongolia for at least 5,000 years, discovering some of the oldest evidence of dairying in Eastern and Central Asia to date. Here the team identified milk proteins preserved in ancient dental calculus discovering that goat, sheep, bovids, horses and camels were all used for dairy products in ancient Mongolia. Led by PhD student Shevan Wilkin, this research also discovered that horse milk consumption appears to begin in Mongolia at around 1200 BCE, alongside other evidence for horse riding.

Find the Mongolian translation of this article here / Та энэ өгүүлэлийг Монгол хэлээр эндээс олно уу

Bronze Age population dynamics and the rise of dairy pastoralism on the eastern Eurasian steppe

Published in PNAS, this study combined ancient DNA and ancient protein analysis to understand the link between milk consumption and population genetics in the Bronze Age northern Mongolian province of Khövsgöl. Led by Choongwon Jeong and Shevan Wilkin, this research analyzes ancient DNA from human skeletons from Late Bronze Age burials, revealing that these individuals had little ancestral connection to people from the Western steppe. However, ancient protein analysis from dental calculus showed signs that these individuals consumed dairy foods from bovine animals, sheep and goat, animals that were originally domesticated further west. Therefore, this suggests that the tradition of dairying was adopted by local hunter-gatherers through a process of cultural transmission, rather than genetic exchange.