Dairying is one of the great puzzles of history. An archaeologist set out to unravel it and, in the process, discovered Mongolia’s hidden wealth of endangered microbes.
By Virginia Gewin February 12, 2020 9:00 PM
In the remote northern steppes of Mongolia, in 2017, anthropologist Christina Warinner and her colleagues were interviewing local herders about dairying practices. One day, a yak and cattle herder, Dalaimyagmar, demonstrated how she makes traditional yogurt and cheeses.
In spring, as livestock calve and produce the most milk, Mongolians switch from a meat-centered diet to one based on dairy products. Each year, Dalaimyagmar thaws the saved sample of the previous season’s yogurt, which she calls khöröngo. She adds some of this yogurt to fresh milk, over several days, until it is revived. With this “starter culture,” she is then able to make dairy products all summer.
Afterward, as the anthropologists drove their struggling vehicle up steep hills back to their camp, graduate student and translator Björn Reichardt had a realization. Khöröngo is also the Mongolian word for wealth or inheritance.