Tibetan Plateau populated long before advent of agriculture

by Mary Caperton Morton
Monday, May 15, 2017

Due to the harsh living conditions of the Tibetan Plateau — which has an average elevation over 4,500 meters — archaeologists have long assumed that people didn’t live in the Himalayan high country until after the adoption of agriculture in this region of the world, about 3,600 years ago. But a new study of a trove of handprints and footprints found around a fossilized mud spring in Tibet is suggesting that people may have lived here as early as 13,000 years ago.

The mud spring, discovered in 1998 and at an elevation of 4,300 meters near the village of Chusang on Tibet’s central plateau, features as many as 19 handprints and footprints preserved in the soft clay. Initial radiocarbon dating suggested the prints could be 20,000 years old. But in the new study, published in Science, Michael Meyer of the University of Innsbruck in Austria and colleagues estimate that they are between 7,400 and 13,000 years old, which still makes the spring the oldest archaeological site on the Tibetan Plateau. The dates are consistent with genetic studies of modern Tibetan people, which show evidence for high-altitude physiological adaptations dating back as early as 8,000 years.

Some researchers have argued that the footprints might have been left by people who migrated through the region seasonally, and that permanent settlements weren’t established until much later. But Chusang is located more than 350 kilometers over rough high-alpine terrain from the lowlands, a much longer migration than typically observed in hunter-gatherer populations, Meyer’s team wrote. Although agriculture “may have enabled substantial population growth after 5,000 years, it by no means was required for the early … occupation of the high central valleys of the Tibetan Plateau.”

The finding sheds light on the colonization of high-altitude environments, said co-author Randy Haas of the University of Wyoming in a statement. Such environments “offer something of a natural laboratory for studying human adaptation,” he said. “Our findings clarify that genetic and cultural responses on the Tibetan Plateau played out over considerably longer time spans than previously thought.”

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