Origins of Dairying in Ancient Central Asia Project

What can calcified dental plaque tell us about the origins of dairying and adaptations for adult lactase persistence? Through proteomic analysis of human calculus deposits we can asses the presence/absence of milk proteins, determining which species contributed to the nutritional diversity of Central Asian populations in antiquity. Furthermore, aDNA studies can uncover whether these populations had specific adaptations for retaining the ability to digest lactose after childhood.

Goats are an important source of milk, meat, and fiber in marginal environments. After a full day of grazing, a local herder drives his goats into the walled city of Lo Manthang in Upper Mustang, Nepal.

The consumption of dairy in prehistoric Central Asian societies profoundly affected steppe populations. In addition to nutritional benefits, milk may have also provided an essential uncontaminated water source for pastoralists in marginal environments. Recent research has demonstrated the interconnectedness of Asia, Africa, the Near East, and Europe through the transmission of ideas and technology across Eurasia, across what would become the Silk Road, including the spread of genes and methods for milk production.

Dairy cattle in Mongolia. Ruminant dairying has long been an important component of central Asian subsistence.

South Asian and European populations share the same genetic adaptation for lactose digestion, but whether this diffused through Eurasia remains unclear. Using proteomic, isotopic, and genomic analyses, this project will assess the direct consumption of milk through time in prehistoric Central Asian populations, such as groups inhabiting Mongolia and Turkmenistan, to determine what types of species-specific diary were produced, and the frequency and forms of lactase persistent genotypes and phenotypes.

Recent proteomic analyses on human dental calculus from the last 5000 years on the Eastern Steppe have established the presence of ruminant dairy consumption in Mongolia by the Early Bronze Age (c. 3000 BC), likely introduced by incoming Western Steppe migrations. Furthermore, we demonstrated the presence and ubiquity of horse milk consumption from the Late Bronze Age which appeared concurrently with the earliest evidence for Mongolian horse riding and bridling. The inclusion of both ruminant and horse milk in subsistence strategies continued through the Xiongnu and Mongol Empires, and still holds an important dietary and cultural significance today. Ongoing and upcoming studies will further investigate the pathways along which dairying populations moved from SW Asia across the landscape into the Central and Eastern steppes. 

Related Publications

Jeong, C., Wilkin, S., Amgalantugs, T., Bouwman, A. S., Taylor, W. T. T., Hagan, R. W., Bromage, S., Tsolmon, S., Trachsel, C., Grossmann, J., Littleton, J., Makarewicz, C. A., Krigbaum, J., Burri, M., Scott, A., Davaasambuu, G., Wright, J., Irmer, F., Myagmar, E.,  Boivin, N., Robbeets, M., Rühli, F. J., Krause, J., Frohlich, B., Hendy, J., Warinner. C. G. 2018 Bronze Age Population Dynamics and the Rise of Dairy Pastoralism on the Eastern Eurasian SteppeProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 115(48): E11248-E11255.

Wilkin, S., Ventresca Miller, A., Taylor, W. T. T., Miller, B. K., Hagan, R., Bleasdale, M.,  Scott, A., Gankhuyag, S., Ramsøe, A., Trachsel, C., Nanni, P., Grossmann, J., Ludovic O., Horton, M., Stockhammer, P. W., Myagmar, E., Boivin, N., Warinner, C., Hendy, J. 2020 Dairy Pastoralism Sustained Eastern Steppe Populations for 5000 YearsNature Ecology & Evolution. 4(3):346-355.

Spengler, Robert N., N. Ryabogina, P. Tarasov, M. Wagner 2016 The Spread of Agriculture into Northern Central Asia: Timing, Pathways, and Environmental Feedbacks. The Holocene:1-14.

Bronze Age human teeth with dental calculus deposits from Mongolia.

Spengler Robert N., M. D. Frachetti, P. N. Doumani, L. M. Rouse, B. Cerasetti, E. Bullion, A. N. Mar’yashev 2014 Early Agriculture and Crop Transmissin among Bronze Age Mobile Pastoralists of Central Eurasia. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 281: 20133382

Warinner, Christina, Jessica Hendy, C. Speller, E. Cappellini, R. Fischer, C. Trachsel, J. Arneborg, N. Lynnerup, O.E. Craig, D.M. Swallow, A. Forakis, R.J. Christensen, J.V. Olsen, A. Leibert, N. Montalva, S. Fiddyment, S. Charlton, M. Mackie, A. Canci, A. Bouwman, F. Rühli, M.T.P. Gilbert, and M.J. Collins. 2014 Direct Evidence of Milk Consumption from Ancient Human Dental Calculus. Scientific Reports 7(7104).

Boivin, Nicole 2008 Material Culture, Material Minds: The Impact of Things on Human Thought, Society, and Evolution. Cambridge University Press, New York.



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