Stone Age people conquered the Tibetan Plateau’s thin air

Stone tools at least 30,000 years old suggest people settled high altitudes earlier than thought

Tibetan Plateau site excavation

TIBETAN HIGH  Excavations at this site on the Tibetan Plateau indicate that people inhabited this high-altitude region between 40,000 and 30,000 years ago, much earlier than previously thought.


People settled down high up — really high up — as early as around 40,000 years ago. That’s when humans first inhabited East Asia’s Tibetan Plateau, about 4,600 meters above sea level, scientists say.

Until now, evidence of humans colonizing this high-altitude region extended no further back than around 8,000 years ago (SN: 2/4/17, p. 8). Some researchers have argued that the first permanent settlers arrived perhaps 12,000 to 13,000 years ago.

Archaeologist Xiaoling Zhang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and her colleagues excavated a much older site than that, called Nwya Devu, on the Tibetan Plateau. Three sediment layers contained a total of 3,683 stone artifacts made from local, high-quality rock, the researchers report in the Nov. 30 Science.

Based on estimates of the time since each soil layer had been buried, people occupied the site from about 40,000 to 30,000 years ago, then from roughly 25,000 to 18,000 years ago, and finally from around 13,000 to 4,000 years ago. Zhang’s group suspects people used the site as a workshop where they made a variety of stone tools, including long, rectangular blades that could be used for cutting or scraping.

OOLING UP Stone implements such as these, unearthed around 4,600 meters above sea level in East Asia, help to make a case that Stone Age people lived at high-altitudes. Xing Gao

Ecological conditions on the Tibetan Plateau during the late Stone Age would have enabled seasonal visits by people who could have hunted prey such as gazelles and yaks, the researchers say.

Humans that reached Nwya Devu starting more than 30,000 years ago may have inherited a gene variant for coping with high-altitude oxygen deprivation via interbreeding with Stone Age relatives of Neandertals and humans called Denisovans (SN: 8/9/14, p. 8).

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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