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Ancient Mongolia was a good place to live—if you could survive the horse falls

Thousands of years before Genghis Khan and his descendants conquered vast stretches of Eurasia, the pastoral people of Mongolia lived healthy, but violent, lifestyles, new research reveals.

Although some Mongolians remain nomadic in modern days, researchers didn’t know how far back this tradition stretched. Any early nomadic pastoralists would have been healthier than sedentary people, who, especially before the advent of trash pickup and sewage infrastructure, lived more densely and among their own waste.

To find out whether this was true in the late Bronze Age, archaeologists analyzed the remains of 25 individuals excavated from burial mounds in the region dating mostly to about 3500 to 2700 years ago. The bones bore very little evidence of inflammatory lesions indicative of infectious disease, or signs of rickets, scurvy, or other diseases resulting from malnutrition.

That’s not to say these people didn’t suffer. The remains also display evidence of broken noses, ribs, and legs—common injuries that occur in assaults or when falling from horses. The individuals’ spines also show evidence of the type of wear and tear associated with horseback riding, the authors reported in November 2018 in the journal HOMO.

According to the researchers, the lack of much disease in these individuals adds to the growing body of evidence showing Mongolians lived in small nomadic groups in the late Bronze Age. But they were clearly also honing the type of horse skills displayed in the 14th-century woodcut above, which had proved useful in their conquests throughout Eurasia.