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


Dairy pastoralism is integral to contemporary and past lifeways on the eastern Eurasian steppe, facilitating survival in agriculturally challenging environments. While previous research has indicated that ruminant dairy pastoralism was practiced in the region by circa 1300 bc, the origin, extent and diversity of this custom remain poorly understood. Here, we analyse ancient proteins from human dental calculus recovered from geographically diverse locations across Mongolia and spanning 5,000 years. We present the earliest evidence for dairy consumption on the eastern Eurasian steppe by circa 3000 bc and the later emergence of horse milking at circa 1200 bc, concurrent with the first evidence for horse riding. We argue that ruminant dairying contributed to the demographic success of Bronze Age Mongolian populations and that the origins of traditional horse dairy products in eastern Eurasia are closely tied to the regional emergence of mounted herding societies during the late second millennium bc.

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Fig. 1: Ruminant and equine dairying in prehistoric Eurasia and contemporary Mongolia.
Fig. 2: Mongolian dairy consumption by period.
Fig. 3: Alignment of observed BLG peptides for two individuals analysed in this study, showing the number of Equus and ruminant BLG peptides detected.
Fig. 4: Timeline of evidence for the consumption of different livestock milk in prehistoric and historic Mongolia.

Data availability

Raw and processed MS/MS data from blanks, instrument washes and samples are available to download via the PRIDE partner repository under accession codes PXD014730 and PXD014730. The authors declare that all other data supporting the findings of this study are available within the paper and its supplementary information files. We have commissioned a Mongolian translation of this manuscript, available at https://natureecoevocommunity.nature.com/users/348900-shevanwilkin/posts/59870-mongolian-translation-of-dairy-pastoralism-sustained-eastern-steppe-populations-for-5000-years.

Code availability

MS-MARGE, an R script used to estimate the validity of peptide identifications and summarize the findings is available for use via Bitbucket: https://bitbucket.org/rwhagan/ms-marge/src/master/. The custom dairy database used to analyse the data in this study is available to download via the York Research Database at https://doi.org/10.15124/589742eb-287a-4576-a00a-30df33d9f52c.

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We thank the National University of Mongolia and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Science and Sports for facilitating this research. We thank the Functional Genomics Center Zürich, L. Kunz and C. Fortes for mass spectrometry analysis and helpful comments and suggestions for this study. We thank Dalaimyagmar, Bayandalai and Sukhbat-Nayamsuren from Khövsgöl aimag for sharing their knowledge and insights into traditional Mongolian dairying practices, traditions and herding strategies. We thank K. Douka from the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit and M. Dee from the Groningen Radiocarbon Laboratory for radiocarbon analysis. This research was supported by the Max Planck Society (to S.W., A.V.M., W.T.T.T., R.W.H., M.B., A.S., N.B., C.W. and J.H.), a Max Planck Society Donation Award (to J.H. and C.W.), the US National Science Foundation (grant no. BCS-1523264 to C.W.) and the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant no. 804884-DAIRYCULTURES to C.W.). The protein database used for this research was produced within the framework of ‘FoodTransforms: transformations of food in the Eastern Mediterranean Late Bronze Age’ (ERC-2015-StG 678901-FoodTransforms) funded by the European Research Council. Deamidation analysis was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (grant no. AH/N005015/1).

Author information




S.W., W.T.T.T., N.B., C.W. and J.H. designed the research plan. S.W., M.B., S.G., M.H., S.U., E.M. and J.H. assessed archaeological collections and performed osteological assessments and subsampling. S.W., R.W.H., A.R., C.T., P.N. and J.H. performed laboratory work, mass spectrometry work and data analysis. R.W.H., A.S., A.R., C.T., J.G., P.W.S. and C.W. contributed to the development of data analysis tools. S.W., A.V.M., W.T.T.T., B.K.M., S.U., L.O., E.M., C.W. and J.H. contributed to archaeological data interpretation. J.H. and S.W. generated the figures. S.W. and J.H. wrote the paper with input from W.T.T.T., L.O. and C.W. and final approval from all authors.

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Correspondence to Shevan Wilkin.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1

Milk and bulk deamidation and peptide counts.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Table 1 listing all of the sites include in Table 1, Supplementary Table 2 listing deamidation results used in Extended Data 1, Supplementary Data 3 showing an example of our data filtering method MS-MARGE defined in the main text methods section.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Table

Table S3. Location, date, taxa, site information and references for sites included in Fig. 1; Table S4. Archaeological culture groups, archaeological sites and their geographic coordinates (rounded to two decimal places), and dairy protein taxonomic identifications presented in Fig. 2; Table S5. Peptides included in peptide mapping coverage of ruminant and equine BLG identified in individuals AT-233 and AT-775 and presented in Fig. 3; Table S6. Data for the creation of Fig. 4, showing temporal distribution of dairying taxa.

Supplementary Data

Supplementary Data 1: Species included in dairy database. Supplementary Data 2: Dairy peptides identified per individual.

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Wilkin, S., Ventresca Miller, A., Taylor, W.T.T. et al. Dairy pastoralism sustained eastern Eurasian steppe populations for 5,000 years. Nat Ecol Evol 4, 346–355 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-020-1120-y

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