Larrie Stone

Larrie Stone

The Mongol Empire existed during the 13th and 14th centuries and was the largest contiguous land empire in history. It was founded by Genghis Khan in 1206. Its territory extended from the Yellow Sea in eastern Asia to the borders of eastern Europe.

The Mongols originally consisted of numerous loosely organized nomadic tribes living in Mongolia, Manchuria and Siberia. When these tribes became organized, they were the most savage conquerors in history, and their vast empire resulted in increased contacts between people of many different cultures. Later migrations fostered these contacts and promoted important trading of goods among different groups.

The early mongols lived in felt tents called yurts and raised ponies, sheep, camels, oxen and goats. They subsisted mainly on meat and milk.

Today, Mongolians are big on dairy products, milking seven kinds of animals, including cows, yaks, camels and reindeer. Anthropologists have been interested in knowing how far back into the past this dairy tradition extended.

A partial answer was recently uncovered using skeletons found in burial mounds belonging to the Deer Stone people who lived in Mongolia's eastern steppes around 1300 BC. With modern technology, fossilized bones and teeth can provide a treasure-trove of information about a person's history.

Teeth are a unique, enduring archive of a lifetime's experiences, stretching back to before birth. A research team was able to analyze the hardened dental plaque (tarter) found on the teeth of these skeletons. Proteins found in the plaque showed that these people drank milk from cows, yaks, goats and sheep, but not from camels or reindeer.

Dental plaque is very resistant to destruction and has been found on the teeth of people living from 200 to over 5,000 years ago. The hardened plaque preserves tiny evidence of all sorts of events in a person's lifetime, from what was eaten to the types of environment they encountered. This same research team had previously detected milk proteins in the tooth tarter from European Bronze Age skeletons dating back to around 3000 BC.

Larrie Stone is a retired Dana College science professor.

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