First Contact:

gather% / fish % / hunt %
fat % / protein % / carb%

A rough estimate to help us understand how carnivorous and how ketogenic these people were before being exposed to western civilization


Click this Slide deck Gallery to see high quality images of the tribe, daily life, diet, hunting and gathering or recipes

About the Tribe

  • The Mongolians had no cuisine as we might think of it. They had simple cooking that was the same for everyone: mostly boiled, unseasoned meat. Yet the cook was one of the highest-ranking officials of the empire and in charge of running the court.

  • The cook was also important in keeping the peace, since the order in which people were served food could lead to great fights and food riots. For this reason, no one could come to a meal with a weapon (but they still threw dishes and anything else at hand).

  • Mongols categorized food into two groups. Ulaan Idee were red foods (like meat), mainly eaten in the winter and spring. Tsagaan Idee were white foods (like dairy products), mostly eaten in the summer and fall. Vegetables were considered a form of grass and called “goat food.” The Mongols were thoroughly disgusted that farmers ate plants that grew in the dirt and had often been fertilized with excrement.

  • The Mongols were very particular about butchery. The butcher (usually a young boy) made a small incision in the chest of the goat or sheep, reached inside and pinched off the aorta, which immediately killed the animal. It had to be done outdoors, but in a shadow, so that the sun would not see it, and without spilling the blood, so that the earth would not feel it. Large animals like oxen would be killed by hitting them between the horns with a sledgehammer, so as not to spill any blood. Normally an animal would be consumed within three hours.

  • Because the Mongols cooked over dung fires, they usually boiled meat rather than roasting or frying it. When on the move, the Mongols often cooked an animal in its own skin by stuffing it with heated rocks. Genghis Khan and his men once avoided starvation by killing a wild horse and cooking it in its hide.

  • Genghis Khan’s first killing was over food. He killed his half-brother for taking a bird and a fish he’d caught.

  • In the fall, when the men took the animals far from home to graze and fatten them for the winter, they lived mostly on fermented horse or camel milk supplemented by wild marmots, which they cooked in their skin. Fermented camel and horse milk produce nearly constant diarrhea, but since the men lived outside, it was not considered too big a problem.

“The Mongol Diet”, adapted from correspondence with Professor Jack Weatherford, author of Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

The low caries prevalence for all the samples is in accord with populations which did not rely extensively on cerealbased diets. Conversely, there is a high degree of dental calculus in all samples which may be related to diets high in protein and is also indicative of an alkaline oral environment which would deter the formation of carious lesions. In addition, the presence of caries in some samples does indicate that cariogenic foods were available and consumed by particular groups. The low to moderate frequencies of other pathological conditions, such as AMTL, abscesses and periodontal disease, indicate relatively good standards of group health based on dental pathology. This is also supported by the relatively low occurrence of LEH. Moderately low attrition rates indicate diets low in abrasive particles and lesser degrees of masticatory stress.

Importance of Animal Products

The food of the Mongols also consists of milk prepared in various ways, either as butter, curds, whey, or kumiss. The curds are made from the unskimmed milk, which is gently simmered over a slow fire, and then allowed to stand for some time, after which the thick cream is skimmed of and dried, and roasted millet often added to it. The whey is prepared from sour skimmed milk, and is made into small dry lumps of cheese. Lastly, the kumiss (tarasum), is prepared from mares’ or sheep’s milk; all through the summer it is considered the greatest luxury, and Mongols are in the habit of constantly riding to visit their friends and taste the tarasum till they generally become intoxicated. They are all inclined to indulge too freely, although drunkenness is not so rife among them as it is in some more civilised countries.

Tea and milk consitute the chief food of the Mongols all the tear round, but they are equally fond of mutton. The highest praise they can bestow on any food is to say that it is ‘as good as mutton.’ Sheep, like camels, are sacred; indeed all their domestic animals are emblems of some good qualities. The favourite part is the tail which is pure fat. In autumn, when the grass is of the poorest description, the sheep fatten wonderfully, and the fatter the better for Mongol taste.[1] No part of the slaughtered animal is wasted, but everything is eaten up with the utmost relish.

The gluttony of this people exceeds all description. A Mongol will eat more than ten pounds of meat at one sittings, but some have been known to devour an average-sized sheep in the course of twenty-four hours! On a journey, when provisions are economised, a leg of mutton is the ordinary daily ration for one man, and although he can live for days without food, yet, when once he gets it, he will eat enough for seven.

They always boil their mutton, only roasting the breast as a delicacy. On a winter’s journey, when the frozen meat requires extra time for cooking, they eat it half raw, slicing off pieces from the surface, and returning it again to the pot. When travelling and pressed for time, they take a piece of mutton and place it on the back of the camel, underneath the saddle, to preserve it from the frost, whence it is brought out during the journey and eaten, covered with camel’s hair and reeking with sweat; but this is no test of a Mongol’s appetite. […]

They eat with their fingers, which are always disgustingly dirty; raising a large piece of meat and seizing it in their teeth, they cut off with a knife, close to the mouth, the portion remaining in the hand. The bones are licked clean, and sometimes cracked for the sake of the marrow; the shoulder-blade of mutton is always broken and thrown aside, it being considered unlucky to leave it unbroken.

On special occasions they eat the flesh of goats and horses; beef rarely, and camels’ flesh more rarely still. The lamas will touch none of this meat, but have no objection to carrion, particularly if the dead animal is at all fat. 

Fowl or fish they consider unclean, and their dislike to them is so great that one of our guides nearly turned sick on seeing us eat boiled duck at Koko-nor; this shows how relative are the ideas of people even in matters which apparently concern the senses. The very Mongol, born and bred amid frightful squalor, who could relish carrion, shuddered when he saw us eat duck à l’Européenne.

Their only occupation and source of wealth is cattle-breeding, and their riches are counted by the number of their live stock, sheep, horses, camels, oxen, and a few goats—the proportion varying in different parts of Mongolia. Thus, the best camels are bred among the Khalkas; the Chakhar country is famous for its horses, Ala-shan for its goats; and in Koko-nor the yak is a substitute for the cow.

[1]: They have a remarkable way of killing their sheep: they slit up the creature’s stomach, thrust their hand in, and seize hold of the heart, squeezing it till the animal dies.

Nikolay Mikhaylovich Przhevalsky, Travels in Eastern High Asia, Vol. I: Mongolia, the Tangut country, and the solitudes of northern Tibet, pg. 53-57 (1876)

In their dress and way of living the Massagetae are like the Scythians. Some ride, some do not-for they use both infantry and cavalry. They have archers and spearmen and are accustomed to carry the 'sagaris', or battle axe. The only metals they use are gold and bronze: bronze for spearheads, arrowpoints, and battle-axe, and gold for headgear, belts and girdles. Similarly they give their horses bronze breastplates, and use gold about the bridle, bit, and cheek-pieces... They have only one way of determining the appropriate time to die, namely this: when a man is very old, all his relatives give a party and include him in a general sacrifice of cattle; then they boil the flesh and eat it. This they consider to be the best sort of death. Those who die of disease are not eaten but buried, and it is held a misfortune not to have lived long enough to be sacrificed. They have no agriculture, but live on meat and fish, of which there is an abundant supply in the Araxes. They are milk-drinkers. The only god they worship is the sun, to which they sacrifice horses: the idea behind this is to offer the swiftest of mortal creatures to the swiftest of gods. (Hdt. I. 215-16 emphasis by author).

Overall, average wear rates were generally low to moderate throughout all the samples, based on the wear scoring stages from 1 to 8 by Smith (1984). With the exception of Sample 1 WMON (the older age sample), only Sample 9 KYR had an average Mi score which was higher than S. These scores are suggestive of diets which are generally low in abrasive materials. Examples of abrasive particles which can be found in food are cellulose plant fibres, mineral from bone, collagen from animal tissue and gritty contaminants from food processing techniques such as grinding stones (Hillson 1979).

Importance of Plants

They do not habitually eat bread, but they will not refuse Chinese loaves, and sometimes bake wheaten cakes themselves. Near the Russian frontier they will even eat black bread, but further in the interior they do not know what it is, and those to whom we gave rusks, made of rye-flour, to taste, remarked that there was nothing nice about such food as that, which only jarred the teeth.

Vegetables were considered a form of grass and called “goat food.” The Mongols were thoroughly disgusted that farmers ate plants that grew in the dirt and had often been fertilized with excrement.

Individual bone collagen and tooth enamel δ13C values for the Xiongnu and Mongol empires range between those indicative of a pure C3 diet to those that suggest heavy C4 plant consumption. Interestingly, during this period, a few individuals had δ13C values lower than those of the Early period which, alongside lower δ15N values, indicates a staple intake of C3 plants, likely crops such as wheat and barley. Historical and archaeobotanical sources suggest that cereal crops were commonly cultivated or obtained through trade during the Mongol period13,51–56. In addition to grains, carbonized fruit and nut remains have been recovered from sediments at the Mongol cap- ital of Kharakhorum (also used during the Mongol rule in the Yuan Dynasty) showing the diversity of imported plants through the presence of rice (Oryza sativa L.), over a dozen cultivated fruits, including grapes (Vitis vin- ifera L.), figs (Ficus carica L.), and jujube (Ziziphus jujube Mill.), as well as vegetable and oil-seed crops. There are also remains of spices – notably a few, such as black pepper (Piper nigrum L.) and caraway (Carum carvi I.), that were imported along the trade routes with South Asia, and would have involved transport across distances of up to 2000 kilometers12.

Transition to Industrialized Food Products

The current study, led by Dr Shevan Wilkin of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, provides the first detailed glimpse into the diets and lives of ancient Mongolians, underscoring the importance of millets during the formation of the earliest empires on the steppe.

Collaborating with archaeologists from the National University of Mongolia and the Institute of Archaeology in Ulaanbaatar, Dr Wilkin and her colleagues sampled portions of teeth and rib bones from 137 previously excavated individuals.

The skeletal fragments were brought back to the Stable Isotope Laboratory in Jena, Germany, where researchers extracted bone collagen and dental enamel to examine the ratios of stable nitrogen and carbon isotopes within.

With these ratios in hand, scientists were able to reconstruct the diets of people who lived, ate, and died from hundreds to thousands of years ago.

Researchers tracked the trends in diet through the millennia, creating a “dietscape” which clearly showed significant differences between the diets of earlier Bronze Age peoples and those who lived during the Xiongnu and Mongol Empires.

A typical Bronze Age Mongolian diet was based on milk and meat, and was likely supplemented with small amounts of naturally available plants. (or not)

Later, during the Xiongnu Empire, human populations displayed a larger range of carbon values, showing that some people remained on the diet common in the Bronze Age, but that many others consumed a high amount of millet-based foods. Millets are small-seeded grasses, which are now widely grown around the world as cereal crops.

Interestingly, those living near the imperial heartlands appear to have been consuming more millet-based foods than those further afield, which suggests imperial support for agricultural efforts in the more central political regions.

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