A team led by archaeologist Guanghui Dong of Lanzhou University in Gansu province unveiled the earliest archaeological evidence of human presence—dating to 39,000-31,000 years ago—on the southeastern fringe of the Tibetan Plateau.
The site, rich with stone tools and animal bones, lies at 2,500 meters above sea level at the bank of the Salween River.
“Tibetan-specific DNA sequences can be traced back to ancestors 62,000-38,000 years ago…This represents the earliest colonization of the Tibetan Plateau,” says Shuhua Xu, a population geneticist at the Chinese Institute of Sciences’ Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences.
Xu’s work was published in September in the American Journal of Human Genetics, and presented at the American Society of Human Genetics’ annual meeting in Vancouver.
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Science has long held that humans did not set foot in this alien place until 15,000 years ago, as suggested by archaeological evidence of the earliest known settlement on the northeastern fringe of the plateau 3,000 meters above sea level.
But now new genetic data indicate this may have occurred much earlier—possibly as far back as the last ice age, 62,000 years ago.“It’s simply too harsh even for the toughest hunter-gatherers.” But about 15,000 to 9,000 years ago—after the so-called last glacial maximum (LGM), during which the Earth’s ice cover had reached its most extensive point and climate was at its harshest—people flocked into Tibet en masse.“It’s the most significant wave of migration that shaped the modern Tibetan gene pool,” Xu says.That idea contradicts the commonly held notion that any early plateau dwellers would have been eliminated during harsh climate intervals such as LGM and another period known as the Younger Dryas between 12,900 and 11,600 years ago, says David Zhang, a geographer at the University of Hong Kong, who was not involved in Xu’s research.In 2002 Zhang and a colleague published a controversial study in showing marks of hands and feet from at least six individuals in rocks that were once soft mud, which was dated to 20,000 years ago at 4,000 meters above sea level in the heart of Tibet.The much earlier divergence between Tibetans and Han Chinese makes sense because there are continuous material cultures on the plateau since 15,000 years ago, he says.