Around 2700 years ago, Mongolian nomads were processing animal blood and milk using bronze cauldrons, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of Basel have discovered the culinary secrets of these ancient peoples through protein analysis of archaeological finds.

Bronze Age cauldrons have been unearthed repeatedly across the Eurasian steppe, but their specific use was a mystery until now. The study, published in Scientific Reports, reveals that Mongolian nomads collected blood from sacrificed animals in these cauldrons, likely for making sausages, and possibly fermented milk in them, predominantly from yaks.

Location of the excavation site in northern Mongolia
Location of the excavation site in northern Mongolia. Credit: Jamsranjav Bayarsaikhan

In 2019, herders in northern Mongolia discovered two metal cauldrons along with other artifacts. Radiocarbon dating indicates these cauldrons date back to the late Bronze Age, approximately 2700 years ago. Dr. Shevan Wilkin, leading the research at the University of Basel, and her team conducted thorough protein analyses on these cauldrons.

The researchers found remnants of blood from ruminants, mainly sheep and goats. Dr. Bryan Miller from the University of Michigan, a co-author of the study, notes, Historical accounts often mention that steppe inhabitants regularly consumed blood. These new findings provide a clearer picture of how blood was integrated into their diet.

The team believes the blood was collected in the cauldrons during animal slaughter to make blood sausages, mirroring contemporary culinary practices in Mongolia.

The second cauldron found in the excavation and analyzed
The second cauldron found in the excavation and analyzed. Credit: Jamsranjav Bayarsaikhan / Bruce Worden

The similarities with modern customs, along with historical accounts of diet and sacrificial practices, suggest that blood processing was a traditional part of Mongolian food culture, says Wilkin. Sausage production was also a crucial preservation method for other steppe peoples.

Additionally, the cauldrons contained traces of milk from domesticated livestock and yaks. This indicates that yaks were domesticated and milked in Mongolia much earlier than previously thought, says Wilkin. The milk could have been fermented into yogurt or used as an ingredient in sausage making.

Our findings offer a glimpse into the traditions and diet of Bronze Age nomads and highlight the diverse culinary methods of ancient civilizations, Wilkin explains. The research involved collaboration between the University of Basel, the University of Michigan, the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology in Jena, and the National Museum of Mongolia.

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