The frozen “mummies” of the Mongol Empire rise from the molten permafrost

The permafrost in the mountains of Eastern Eurasia is slowly melting, helping to reveal the buried bodies of the dreaded Mongol Empire – as well as their insatiable thirst for yak milk.

New research has investigated the remains of a cemetery at the so-called Khorig site, located high in the Khovsgol mountains. The dating suggests that the cemetery was functioning in the 13th century from the time of the unification of the Mongol Empire in 1206 CE.

This is the year the infamous Genghis Khan was proclaimed ruler of all Mongols. With the help of a fearless mounted army, he launched a series of bloody military campaigns across Asia, laying the foundations for the largest contiguous land empire in history that stretched from the Pacific coast of the Asia to Eastern Europe. The world has never been the same again.

In 2018 and 2019, the skeletons of 11 individuals were discovered at the elite burial site after being partially exposed by melting permafrost. The bodies were still in surprisingly good condition, despite being over 800 years old, thanks to sub-zero temperatures preserving the remains.

Buried next to lavish grave goods and dressed in fine materials, it seems that those buried here held high social status.

Golden ornament in the shape of a lotus encircling a seated Buddha from the cemeteries of Khorig.

Researchers have discovered a golden ornament in the form of a lotus encircling a seated Buddha from the cemeteries of Khorig. Image credit: J. Bayarsaikhan

For this latest study, the researchers were particularly interested in analyzing the remains to understand the lifestyle and diets of these aristocrats of the Mongol Empire. By examining the proteins found in ancient dental calculus, the team found direct evidence that they drank milk from horses, sheep, goats, cows and, most notably, yaks.

The team was particularly excited to find evidence of yaks, as these animals play an extremely important role in the culture of people living in the high-altitude regions of eastern Eurasia. They are also extremely practical for living in this harsh environment, providing a high-calorie food source, thick hair for warm textiles, and grease for making useful products like candles.

“Our most significant find was a buried elite woman with a birch bark hat called a bogtog and silk robes depicting a golden five-clawed dragon. Our proteomic analyzes concluded that she drank yak milk at the course of his life,” Alicia Ventresca-Miller, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, said in a statement. “It helped us verify the long-term use of this iconic animal in the region and its links to elite leaders.”

Yaks in a green field near the Mongolian mountains

Yaks still play an important role in Mongolian culture today. Image credit: Alicia Ventresca-Miller

“Ceramic vessels were transformed into lanterns made of dairy products, which revealed long-standing religious ideas and the daily life of the elites of the Mongol empire,” added J. Bayarsaikhan, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute. for the science of human history. and the National Museum of Mongolia.

Although thawing permafrost has helped scientists find the bodies, it leaves historic remains more vulnerable to looting. If temperatures continue to rise and the permafrost degrades further, it is feared that some frozen archaeological remains here and beyond will be destroyed before they can be properly appreciated.

“The degree of looting we are witnessing is unprecedented. Almost every burial we can locate on the surface has recently been destroyed by looting activity,” said Julia Clark, archaeologist at Nomad Science.

The study is published in the journal Communications Biology.

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