Ancient Mongolians Feasted on Blood Sausage Thousands of Years Ago

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It takes a lot of fuel to conquer a large part of two continents by horseback. But the Mongolians had been developing a strong culinary tradition they could carry along with them for roughly 2,000 years before they swept across much of Eurasia.

Now, new research gives us a closer look at what kinds of foods the nomadic pastoralists of the Mongolian steppe were eating around 700 B.C.E. by examining the protein residues left in ancient cauldrons — and the findings are a little bloody.

“This practice of collecting the blood and not wasting any of the animals went back a lot farther than we knew from historic documents,” says Shevan Wilkin, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Basel in Switzerland.

Life in Ancient Mongolia

As Wilkin and her colleagues reported in a study published recently in Scientific Reports, the leather dated back to 700 B.C.E., nearly 2,000 years before Genghis Khan was born in the mid-1100s C.E. Based on previous research, archeologists know that Mongolians in this period were nomadic pastoralists, rotating herds of ruminants like sheep, goats, and yaks between pastures.

In some ways, their way of life may have resembled those of modern-day herders in the same area. For example, Wilkin says that it’s still common for herders today to bury large items before traveling great distances overland so they don’t have to carry them. She believes that the ancient cauldrons discovered in recent years were buried for this purpose with the intention of digging them up again for use.

“They were likely buried at a place where people moved back to,” Wilkin says.

Horses had already been domesticated for centuries at this point, as well — some of the oldest direct evidence for Mongolian horse domestication goes back to around 1400 B.C.E.

Read More: What Is a Nomad, and Are There Any Nomadic Tribes That Still Exist?

How Archaeologists Study Ancient Diets

The recent breakthrough was hidden in the residue of two ancient cauldrons. In 2021, the cauldrons were found buried under the ground in northern central Mongolia when two herders were digging a hole to put up a fence post.

The herders discovered two “really beautiful bronze cauldrons,” says Wilkin, each about the size of a large watermelon, with frayed leather remains wrapped around the bowls. The cauldrons were reported to the National Museum of Mongolia, and the National Center for Cultural Heritage.

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What Did Ancient Mongolians Eat?

The museum in Mongolia sent the cauldrons to Wilkin and her team to analyze before cleaning them out — a process that could have erased some of the evidence still hidden within. Wilkin uses a relatively recent technique of studying the proteins in ancient residues to determine what kind of food, or drink, may have been in ancient vessels.

Wilkin was expecting the cauldrons to reveal proteins from meat and other remains, similar to the stews that are popular in Mongolia today. Another discovery of a cauldron in the western steppe around the Caucasus region between the Caspian and Black seas revealed the remains of muscle proteins and milk, likely from an ancient stew. But that discovery dates back 5,000 years ago, and was roughly 1,800 miles away away from the cauldrons Wilkin was working with.

What’s more, analysis of these two Mongolian cauldrons revealed they were made up of about 99 percent blood and immune proteins found in blood. “These were actually filled with the blood from ruminants — from sheep and goats,” Wilkin says.

Soot residue revealed that the cauldrons were likely used to cook with. Once again, the team turned to modern practices in Mongolia, where herders collect the blood from slaughtered livestock in plastic bowls.

“They are collecting this blood to boil and turn into blood sausage in the intestinal casings of the animals,” Wilkin says. The cauldrons also carry some traces of yak milk, pushing back archaeological proof of yak husbandry back centuries, she adds.

Read More: How Did Ancient People Keep Their Food From Rotting?

Did Ancient Mongolians Only Eat Blood?

Aside from blood sausages, also known as blood pudding in some areas, Mongolians likely subsisted mostly on meat and dairy products from their herds. They were also riding horses by this time, and Wilkin says that evidence shows that Mongolians were drinking horse milk, as well, right from the beginning of domestication.

Wilkin also speculates that Mongolians were likely drinking alcohol made from fermented horse milk — a popular beverage even today that she describes as “earthy.” Today, people leave horse milk to ferment in leather bags hung up in tents, and even punch them while walking by to aerate the liquid and keep the fermentation process going.

“We assume these things happened in the past,” Wilkin speculates, though it’s hard to find preserved evidence of such behaviors. For her, this discovery adds to the evidence that nomadic dairy pastoralism has sustained Mongolians for thousands of years.

“It’s still a very strong tradition today,” she says.

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Joshua Rapp Learn is an award-winning D.C.-based science writer. An expat Albertan, he contributes to a number of science publications like National Geographic, The New York Times, The Guardian, New Scientist, Hakai, and others. Find him on [Instagram](

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