The milk of the “eastern cowboys” of ancient Eurasia

By Don “Doc” Sanders

More than 6,000 years ago, tribes wandered the prairies of what is now Russia and Ukraine. They settled across Eurasia, the earth’s largest continental land mass, encompassing all of Europe and Asia.

These wandering tribes, the Yamnaya, traveled with heavy ox-drawn wagons and left their genetic fingerprint from Hungary to Mongolia. They’ve been referred to as “eastern cowboys,” as they also traveled on horseback.

A news story about the Yamnaya recently caught my eye because I have traveled and consulted in Mongolia, which I’ve previously written about. 

The Yamnaya tribes were on the scene before the exploits of Genghis Kahn and the Mongol Horde. Genghis Kahn conquered the descendants of the Yamnaya after he became the major Mongol general in 1105 A.D. 

As a dairy management specialist, what really piqued my interest about the Yamnaya is a recent report that a DNA analysis of plaque in the fossilized teeth of 50 Yamnaya nomads suggested that they drank milk. It’s believed that the milk came from their oxen and mares. (By the way, mares’ milk generally contains only 1% butterfat, compared to 3.5% butterfat in cows’ milk.)

As you probably know, milk is a major source of calcium for strong bones. And milk contains many other essential nutrients, such as butterfat and proteins, which contribute to human nutritional well-being. It has been said by a noted lactation physiologist that butter contains 200 amino acids and proteins to support a healthy body. (Gorewit, R., personal communication.)

I know you may be thinking, “Wait a minute, how could the Yamnaya have been milk drinkers? Aren’t most Asians lactose intolerant?”

If that’s what you were thinking, you’d be right. But as I wrote in my OCJ columns about my time in Mongolia, the Mongols are noted for drinking fermented milk from mares. The fermentation process uses up the lactose (milk sugar). So, there is no lactose in fermented milk, which is considered a delicacy there.

There are two forms of fermented milk — a nonalcoholic version served after church and the more potent alcoholic version consumed at parties. A Mongol family who kept 700 mares told me that the alcoholic version is more popular. They always aimed to have a full barrel of fermented mare’s milk on hand for their shindigs.

After a Christian church service in Mongolia, I was invited to stay for social time before lunch. I was offered a shot glass of nonalcoholic fermented mare’s milk, which I used to wash down the hors d’oeuvres. 

“And what were those?” you might ask. And I’ll answer, at the risk you’re eating as you read this: cracker-sized portions of horse guts stuffed with liver, gut and spleen, served on a toothpick spear. The kidney, spleen, and liver tasted pretty much like boiled liver.

I can’t begin to describe what I was feeling as I chewed the horse gut morsel while standing in a crowd of churchgoers and realizing that discretely spitting the “delicacy” out on my plate wasn’t an option. It was pretty much like chewing on a juiced-up segment of bicycle inner tube. Swallowing, without gagging, was the only polite thing to do.

Dairymen and horsemen friends, take heart, dairy and meat diets have been a part of humankind’s heritage well before bloggers and Instagrammers raved to their audiences about the latest “gastronomic” delights they discovered.

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