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Sustained Prehistoric Life on the Roof of the World

21 Nov 2014
Bradshaw Foundation

An online article in Past Horizons magazine - Pinpointing early sustained farming on the Tibetan Plateau - reveals the work of an international team of archaeologists in pinpointing a date for possibly the earliest sustained human habitation at high altitude, based on Animal teeth, bones and plant remains.

First farming in Tibet

Modern-day barley harvest in Qinghai, farmed at a height of 3,000 meters above sea level. Image: Professor Martin Jones, University of Cambridge.

Discoveries made on the Tibetan Plateau indicate that from 3,600 years ago, farming practices, both harvesting crops and herding animals, were taking place. These findings are unprecedented at such altitudes. 

The research has been published in Science: 'Agriculture facilitated permanent human occupation of the Tibetan Plateau after 3600 BP'
Authors: F. H. Chen, G. H. Dong, D. J. Zhang, X. Y. Liu, X. Jia, C. B. An, M. M. Ma, Y. W. Xie, L. Barton, X. Y. Ren, Z. J. Zhao, X. H. Wu, M. K. Jones.
Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1259172

Our understanding of when and how humans adapted to living at altitudes above 2000 to 3000 meters of the Tibetan Plateau has been constrained by a paucity of archaeological data. Here we report data sets from the northeastern Tibetan Plateau indicating that the first villages were established only by 5200 years ago. Since 3600 calendar years before the present, a novel agropastoral economy facilitated year-round living at higher altitudes. This successful subsistence strategy facilitated the adaptation of farmers-herders to the challenges of global temperature decline during the late Holocene.

The survey covered 53 archaeological sites spanning 800 miles, between 2,500 metres above sea level (8,200ft) and 3,400 metres (11,154ft). Intermittent human presence on the Tibetan Plateau has been dated to at least 20,000 years ago, then semi-permanent villages for hunting game dated to 5,200 years ago. For sustained habitation, now established at 3,600 years ago, the problem has always been the scarcity of archaeological data.

The emerging picture now asks questions about the the adaptation of humans, livestock and crops to life at such dizzying heights, at a time when continental temperatures were actually getting colder at these altitudes. Work will now focus on genetic resistance in humans to altitude sickness, as well as genetic and ethnic identity of the human communities, and on genetic response in crop plants in relation to attributes such as grain vernalisation, flowering time response and ultraviolet radiation tolerance.

Not only that, this research invites questions about human migration and 'cultural creep'; the timing and introduction of crops such as barley and wheat from the Fertile Crescent in the west, joining or replacing the traditional North Chinese crops of broomcorn and foxtail millet. This development itself will have facilitated human adaptation in the harsher conditions of higher altitudes in the Plateau.

Editor's Note: Compare this research with that featured in our Latest News article 'Ice Age settlements discovered in Peruvian Andes':

To view our section on Tibet - The Rock Art of Lake Namtso:



27 Jan 2015
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