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An aristocrat's Robe shows the dragon with 5 claws. (Tibet Metropolitan Museum of Art/CC0)

Mongol Empire's Frozen Mummies Reveal Surprising Drink of Choice – Yak Milk!


Scientists have analyzed the remains of high-ranking individuals from the Mongol Empire, who were buried in graves with luxury items such as leather, silk, and gold, and had been preserved in permafrost for 800 years. By studying their dental calculus, scientists found evidence that they had a preference for consuming yak milk.

The study, published in the journal Communications Biology, explains that the question of yak domestication had long been unresolved owing to a lack of data. The only archaeological specimen found so far has been a yak cranium recovered from the Late Bronze or Early Iron Age Denjiin Navtan site, the Heritage Daily reports. Other archaeological and historical records of yak domestication in the region are equally hard to come by.

Using paleoproteomics, the study of ancient proteins, to make up for this absence, the investigation has concluded that yak milk was being consumed by Mongolian elite at least as early as the 13th century.

This makes it the first archaeological discovery of yak milk, according to a University of Michigan College of Literature, Science and the Arts (LSA) newsletter. There is plenty of evidence establishing that milk has been vital to Mongolian society for 5,000 years. Researchers have been able to determine the historical consumption of cattle, sheep, goat, and even horse milk, but evidence of early yak milk consumption has been elusive until recently. The discovery was made during the excavation of the Khorig cemetery in the Khovsgol mountains of northern Mongolia, which is located at a high elevation.

Permafrost, Thawing, Vandalization and Salvage

The Khorig—meaning taboo—cemetery is in a high-altitude location, situated in the permafrost and, as a Miami Herald article reports, this has meant that human remains dating back to 1206 AD found there, have remained remarkably well preserved. Researchers spent years collecting and conserving bits of leather and silk strewn across the surface of the burials.

However, recent global-warming induced thawing has started exposing the burials not only to the elements but also to looters and vandals. Excavations at the site were therefore speeded up in the nature of salvage operations to rescue the archaeological remains from the dangers of atmospheric and human-induced degradation.

The excavations revealed that the individuals buried in the cemetery were members of the Mongolian aristocracy, with some evidence of links even to the ruling elite.

The Khovsgol mountains in northern Mongolia. (Arabsalam/CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Khovsgol mountains in northern Mongolia. (Arabsalam/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Many Surprises

Proteins were extracted from the calcified dental plaque from 11 individuals buried at the cemetery. Ten revealed proteins typically found in the dental cavity. “Our most important finding was an elite woman buried with a birchbark hat called a Bogtog and silk robes depicting a golden five-clawed dragon. Our proteomic analyses concluded that she drank yak milk during her lifetime,” said University of Michigan researcher Ventresca Miller, according to the LSA newsletter.

“This is the first time that yak dairy has been identified in the past-so it is currently the oldest known case of yak milk consumption. This helped us verify the long-term use of this iconic animal in the region and its ties to elite rulers,” the Miami Herald reports her as saying.

The five-clawed dragon depicted on the woman’s robes and another one on a Cizhou vessel helped establish that the individuals buried in the cemetery belonged to the elite class, a finding that surprised the researchers as the capital of the Mongolian empire was the city of Karakorum, located hundreds of miles south of the site. “The dragon on the robe with five claws is specifically something only used for the imperial family, and so it’s a bit strange that it’s that far north,” Ventresca Miller said according to the Miami Herald.


An aristocrat's Robe shows the dragon with 5 claws. (Tibet Metropolitan Museum of Art/CC0)

An aristocrat's Robe shows the dragon with 5 claws. (Tibet Metropolitan Museum of Art/CC0)

Another surprise was the discovery of a gold Buddha figurine showing that Buddhism was practised amongst the Mongolian aristocracy. Finding evidence of Buddhism so far north, near the Russian border, was in itself intriguing.

The study's most notable discovery was the confirmation of yak milk consumption in Mongolia, dating back to at least the 13th century, and possibly earlier. The scarcity of yak dairying in the Mongolian and worldwide archaeological records makes this discovery significant. The scientists acknowledged that while the 1270 AD date for yak milk consumption may be considered late, it is likely that it was consumed earlier but had gone unnoticed until now.

Top image: Yak in the high mountains of Northern Mongolia. Source: zinaidasopina112/Adobe Stock

By Sahir Pandey


Heritage Daily. 2023. Permafrost preservation reveals evidence for early yak milk consumption. Available at:

LSA Newsletter. 2023. Yak milk consumption among Mongol Empire elites | U-M LSA Museum of Anthropological Archaeology. Available at:

Rascius, B. 2023. Melting permafrost reveals bodies of ancient Mongolians — and their diets, study says.

Ventresca Miller, A. R., Wilkin, S. 2023. Permafrost preservation reveals proteomic evidence for yak milk consumption in the 13 th century. Available at:



Pete Wagner's picture

I doubt ancient people anywhere, other than Sumer, had so-called elites.  The whole idea of ‘elite’ suggests alien takeover leading to tyranny over the aboriginals.  Prior to that, the commoners likely lived well in equality, down in their comfy caverns, whereupon something suddenly killed them, leaving them and their implements buried ...until discovered.

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

Sahir's picture


I am a graduate of History from the University of Delhi, and a graduate of Law, from Jindal University, Sonepat. During my study of history, I developed a great interest in post-colonial studies, with a focus on Latin America. I... Read More

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