Melting permafrost reveals insights from Mongol empires
Melting permafrost in the Khovsgol mountains, east of Eurasia, has revealed the remains of an aristocratic cemetery from the time of the Mongol Empire. The cemetery dates back to the 13th century, starting around the Mongol Empire's unification in 1206 CE under the infamous Genghis Khan.
The skeletons of 11 individuals were discovered in 2018 and 2019 in the Khorig site, which the melting permafrost had partially revealed. The remains were found in a well-preserved state despite being over 800 years old, thanks to the sub-zero temperatures that preserved them. The people buried in the cemetery held a high social status, buried with lavish grave goods and fine materials.
A new study has analyzed the remains to understand the lifestyles and diets of the Mongol Empire aristocrats. The study used the proteins found within ancient dental calculus and discovered direct evidence of consuming the milk of horses, sheep, goats, cows, and yaks.
The discovery of evidence of yaks in the remains excited the team since these animals hold an important place in the culture of people living in the high-altitude regions of eastern Eurasia. Yaks are an excellent source of high-calorie food, thick hair for textiles, and fat for making useful commodities like candles.
The remains of an elite woman buried with a birch bark hat and silk robes depicting a golden dragon were found by researchers studying an aristocratic cemetery from the time of the Mongol Empire.
The study concluded that she consumed yak milk during her lifetime, supporting the long-term use of the animal in the region and its connection to the elite rulers. The study also revealed that ceramic vessels were transformed into lanterns made from dairy products, which shed light on religious ideas and the daily life of the Mongol Empire's elites.
Milk has been a valuable resource in Mongolia for over 5,000 years, but the earliest consumption of yak milk has been difficult to determine until this discovery.
Despite the melting permafrost helping scientists find the remains, it has also left them vulnerable to looting. If the permafrost continues to degrade, there is a fear that frozen archaeological remains, both here and beyond, may be destroyed before they can be properly appreciated.
Julia Clark, an archaeologist at Nomad Science, stated that the level of looting they have observed is unparalleled, as almost all surface burials they can locate have been recently ruined by looting activities.
The study in the Khovsgol mountains has provided insight into the lifestyles and diets of the Mongol Empire aristocrats buried in the Khorig site. It has also helped to verify the long-term use of yaks and their ties to the elite rulers of the region.
However, with the permafrost melting, the historical remains are at risk of being destroyed before they can be properly discovered.