Protein helps Genghis Khan conquer the world

I’ve been reading a biography of Genghis Khan written by an anthropologist who spent over five years in Mongolia researching his subject. I came across an interesting paragraph that I thought I would share. A little background.

After Genghis Khan had achieved dominion over the entirety of Mongolia he received notice that his submission was required by the Golden Khan, the leader of the Jurched dynasty centered in what is now northern China. Genghis Khan decided to attack rather than submit. He began preparations for a march by his thousands of troops (the so-called Mongol horde) across the Gobi Desert and an attack on the Golden Khan, who resided in what is now Beijing.

The quote:

The Chinese noted with surprise and disgust the ability of the Mongol warriors to survive on little food and water for long periods; according to one, the entire army could camp without a single puff of smoke since they needed no fires to cook. Compared to the Jurched soldiers, the Mongols were much healthier and stronger. The Mongols consumed a steady diet of meat, milk, yogurt, and other diary products, and they fought men who lived on gruel made from various grains. The grain diet of the peasant warriors stunted their bones, rotted their teeth, and left them weak and prone to disease. In contrast, the poorest Mongol soldier ate mostly protein, thereby giving him strong teeth and bones. Unlike the Jurched soldiers, who were dependent on a heavy carbohydrate diet, the Mongols could more easily go a day or two without food.

I’ve always maintained that one can discover more nutritional wisdom from the anthropological data than from the giant mass of current medical papers. This quote proves it.

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12 thoughts on “Protein helps Genghis Khan conquer the world

  1. Their secret, as I learned from “Poland” by Michener, was jerky. I have wondered if Michener’s “jerky” wasn’t really pemmican. Pemmican is a 50/50 mix of ground up jerky and fat, plus a few handfuls of berries or vegetables. Packed in raw hide pemmican was good for years.

    Hi David–

    I don’t know if Genghis are pemmican or not, but I know a lot about it.  It does store forever in hide bags.  I can tell you, though, that it ain’t all that easy to make.  You have to grind up the jerky then pour the hot fat over it and let it percolate through.  It’s difficult to get the fat at the right temperature where it is still liquid yet won’t burn the jerky.  If the jerky gets burned, the whole lot sucks.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  2. It is good though, even eaten cold. If heated it is delicious because the fat smells like steaks and roasts.

    Hi David–

    I agree.  Pemmican can be delicious, although I have had some that wasn’t.  It’s just hard to make, or at least it has been for me.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  3. I agree that anthropological research reveals the best examples of healthy living. I’m a big fan of Weston A. Price’s work as a great source.

    Speaking of pemmican, I intend to submit a paper soon to my former employer (a Wilderness Therapy organization) that details the optimal primitive backpacking foods based on anthropological accounts and traditional diets, drawing largely off of Weston Price’s work — pemmican is included. My hope is that they will include large amounts of meat and other nutrient-rich rations for the youth and staff who walk the trail. This, I figure, will augment the therapuetic aspect of the program and result in much happier participants!

    In your post: “The grain diet of the peasant warriors stunted their bones, rotted their teeth, and left them weak and prone to disease.” Well, the trail foods for the participants of this wilderness therapy program is mostly grains and sugars and other carbohydrates — NO MEAT. And the youth, or “clients,” are on the trail for SIX WEEKS! Not to mention the primitive survival camping/backpacking style of the program that has its own challenges.

    I am trying my best to encourage an increase in animal foods, fat, and cholesterol for this program. I think that information like what you provided above is what will be most powerful. What do you think?

    Wish me luck!

    Hi Ryan–

    Good luck!

    You might want to see if you can get a copy of Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s book “The Fat of the Land” about his experiences trying to get the US Military to adopt pemmican in place of what became C-rations.  He gives all kinds of fascinating information about pemmican and the American Indians and about how well various explorers fared on diets of pemmican alone.  You can sometimes find the book on online used book sellers http://www.bookfinder.com for example, but can probably get it quicker from a library.  Given your undertaking it would be well worth the effort. If you can’t find that book, look for “Not by Bread Alone” by the same author.  “Not by Bread Alone” was the original book; “The Fat of the Land” is an expansion on the earlier book.
    Keep me posted.

    Best–

    MRE

  4. I have gone backcountry skiing with pemmican. Pemmican was a very hard sell. I think it is the high fat content – people think their health will be ruined. But for me personally, it was great. Plenty of energy, good tasting food. And a light pack.

    Bookfinder.com had one copy – an original edition of “not by bread alone” inscribed by the author for $204! I will try the library.

    Hi David–

    People constantly worry about the fat content of everything despite the fact that there is no real data showing that it is anything but good.  It’s hard to shake unshakable stupidity.  I should know; I’ve been trying for years.

    Good luck on finding the book.  I’ve found most of Stefansson’s books via various online booksellers over the past few years, and have never paid over about $50.  And I’ve gotten most of them with author’s signature and a paragraph or so of his writing.  Apparently Stefansson never just signed a book, he seems to always have written a little something along with the signature.  You might try Ebay–if found a couple of his books there at pretty reasonable prices.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  5. The Mongols also milked and bled their horses along the way, and they had herds of sheep at their main camp (though not with raiding parties.)

    Their endurance for cold would be another medical issue. The Russian winter which caused the Germans and French so much trouble actually helped the Mongols (because the swamps and rivers were frozen.)

    Weatherford needs a grain of salt. He has access to enormous amounts of information, but too much comes from Mongol patriots. Well worth reading, and often very good, but it’s like “the official story”.

    Hi John–

    Thanks for your insights.  Do you know a good biography of Genghis Kahn from a non-Mongolian patriot perspective?  I would be interested to read and see the difference.

    Best–

    MRE

  6. Lurker here–I’ve enjoyed your web site a great deal. Sounds like the Mongols’ diet was mainly fat as well as protein (not that that’s a bad thing). I think we can see the difference in our daily lives. Think of all the vegetarians we all know–especially vegans. I know several vegans and to a person they look anemic and weakly. Can’t they see what their diets are doing to them?

    Hi Paul–

    I know what you mean.  I’ve never seen a vegan who I thought looked to be in robust good health; they almost always look anemic and weakly.  Probably because they are. It always amazes me that they can’t see how they look and put two and two together.
    Thanks for commenting.

    Best–

    MRE

  7. The anti-fat thing really gets me. I just got back from a long Thanksgiving weekend with my sister. I asked her to buy me low-fat cream cheese and instead she stocks her refrigerator with non-fat, which is twice in high in sugar as the low-fat!

    She eats non-fat everything, and most of her diet is carbohydrates. Although she does go for whole grains and brown rice at least. And she’s one of those lucky people who CAN eat that way – she’s a good weight, even a bit skinny, and her cholesterol numbers are better than mine. She eats healthy for her body; I have to eat healthy for mine, which is the opposite diet from hers.

    Drove me crazy living with her for four days, though and having to turn down the waffles, potatoes, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and everything else that was served during that time.

    Hi Victoria–

    Yeah, people like that drive me nuts, too.  People like your sister can get by with this kind of dietary behavior for years, but sooner or later, it catches up with them.  I am a case in point.  When I was younger I could (and did) eat anything and everything without (seeming) consequences.  I never met a carb I didn’t like, and I ate tons of them, along with everything else.  Then, almost overnight, things changed.  I started piling on weight, and have had to work to maintain ever since.

    Best–

    MRE

  8. I remeber studying American History, 4 years ago, and learned about how the colonists viewed the Natives of America. They spent their winters with very little food or clothing. Contrary to popular belief, many American Indian cultures didn’t store food over the winter months. The colonists viewed this as a disability to take care of themselves.

    To comment on a previous post about the ability to eat any carb and not gain weight. I was like that. I wasn’t a big eater of breads, pastas etc., as a kid, but as I got older, these things started tasting pretty good. I made them quite regular in my diet and overnight, my weight began to climb. Hindsight is 20/20.

    Hi Mary–

    Hindsight is indeed 20/20.  Unlike you, I was a huge eater of everything starting early on.  I loved breads, cakes, cookies, you name it.  And it ultimately caught up with me.  Dietary crime doesn’t pay, I guess.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  9. I am participating in an ongoing discussion on how low carb affects calcium. Many people believe that low carb/high protein diets contribute to osteoporosis or osteopenia. From my obsrvations and minute research, I have concluded that the best diet for bones is one that is high in protein. Recently, there was a news article on how the Dutch have grown to be the tallest people in the world. A high protein diet was parially credited for this. We assume that we need calcium to make calcium… but isn’t really what we need, are elements ( protein/Vitamin D ) that help us better absorb calcium to sew ( bond ) it to teeth and bones

    Hi Mary–

    You are absolutely correct.  We need protein along with calcium, magnesium, vitamin D to build bones.  A number of studies have shown that, especially in the elderly, a higher dietary intake of animal protein seems to increase bone mass.  Most people mistakenly believe that all that is needed for strong bones is calcium.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Calcium has the advantage of having the dairy industry promoting it because dairy products contain a lot of calcium.  Magnesium, protein, and vitamin D don’t have an industry with a lot of lobbyists promoting them, so they don’t get the publicity that calcium does, but they are every bit as important.

    Best–

    MRE

  10. I’m reading an interesting book about the history of beer in Europe. The book is “The Barbarian’s Beverage” by Max Nelson. He writes that the Greeks and Roman attitudes about barbarians stemmed partly from the diets of the Celts and Germanic tribes. Apparently it was considered by the Greeks a barbaric practice to have a diet that comes primarily from meat and dairy products. The Greco-Roman world also had a very negative view of beer and considered it an effiminent drink. The Celts and Germanic tribes seem to have used their cereals primarily for beer production (or animal feed?) rather than bread or porridge.

    Hi Travis–

    Thanks for the info.

    Best–

    MRE

  11. Some basic historical facts about Genghis Khan:

    Genghis Khan ,(Chinggis Khan), is one of history’s greatest leaders.During his lifetime, he conquered more territory than any other conqueror and established the largest contiguous empire in world history.Today his legacy continues in Asia,Mongols today celebrate him as the founding father of Mongolia….read more