A cluster of ghostly hand- and footprints on a mountain north of Lhasa offers evidence that humans scratched out a permanent existence in the thin air of Tibet much earlier than commonly thought, according to a new study.
Some locals believe the prints, pressed into an ancient slab of limestone located 14,000 feet above sea level near the present-day village of Chusang, were left behind by mythical beasts. A team of researchers say that the impressions were left by people and that they offer intriguing clues to the puzzle of Tibetans’ ethnic origins.The researchers, whose latest findings are published in the latest issue of Science, say they’ve now developed a clearer picture of the site’s significance. According to their calculations, Chusang was very likely used by inhabitants of a nearby year-round settlement between 7,400 and 12,700 years ago — at least 2,200 years before permanent villages are believed to have been established elsewhere on the Tibetan Plateau.The researchers used radiocarbon dating and other, more advanced tests to determine the age of rock and dirt samples taken near the prints, according to the report.
There are no other reliably dated sites on the central, high-elevation part of the plateau,” said Mark Aldenderfer, a University of California, Merced who lead the study along with geologist Michael Meyer, from the University of Innsbruck.
By positing an earlier date of settlement on the Tibetan plateau, the study is likely to be controversial in Chinese archaeological circles. It could also irk Communist Party officials, for whom the question of where Tibetans came from is freighted with political significance.
Pushing back against advocates for Tibetan independence, the Chinese government recently began arguing that Tibet has been a part of China, not just during the imperial era, but “since ancient times.” The effort to prove that claim has led state-affiliated scholars to reach past China’s first, and some say largely mythical, dynasty, the 4,000-year-old Xia, to a neolithic culture called the Yangshao that existed in China’s Yellow River basin between 7,000 and 5,000 years ago.
Some pottery shards and other artefacts found on the Tibetan Plateau appear similar to remnants of the late Yangshao — proof, these government-backed scholars say, that China and Tibet are branches of the same civilization.“Early history has abruptly become of far greater importance to the issue, and specifically to the Chinese side,” said Robert Barnett, director of the modern Tibet studies program at Columbia University. Previously, Mr. Barnett said, the government had dated its claims over Tibet to the Yuan Dynasty, established by Mongolian leader Kublai Khan in 1271.
A 2015 paper on human settlement of the Tibetan Plateau written by Chinese archaeologists, also published in Science, supports the Yangshao timeline. It says that people didn’t start living in year-round settlements on the plateau until the development of agriculture and herding in what is now Qinghai province around 3,000 B.C.The new paper, however, suggests that migrants bearing pottery and other elements of Yangshao culture into the Tibetan regions would have encountered indigenous inhabitants, according to Mr. Aldenderfer.
“Our argument is fairly simple: There were people on the Tibetan Plateau before these ceramics and other influences came in from lower elevation locations,” he said.
There are 19 handprints and footprints of various sizes pressed into the Chusang limestone, which is believed to have formed by deposits from a now extinguished hot spring. The site was discovered in 1996 by University of Hong Kong geographer David Zhang, who was not part of the Aldenderfer team.
An image of one of the hand prints, taken in 2006. PHOTO: MARK ALDENDERFER“
Locals took me there and said [the prints] were left by a yeti,” Mr. Zhang told China Real Time, referring to the mythical creature better known in the west as the Abominable Snowman.
Mr. Zhang, who said he had seen a copy of the report but not its supplementary material, disagreed with the conclusions of the new study. He cited tests he conducted that measured when quartz crystals from an ancient hearth found near the prints were last exposed to light. From that, he concluded that the evidence of settlement is closer to 20,000 years old.
Chusang was most likely one of several seasonal sites that people traveled to from primary settlements at lower elevations, he said.
Mr. Aldenderfer said Mr. Zhang’s measurements, taken in 2002, came from a different part of the Chusang site and that his testing methods were outdated. He said it would have taken an improbably long time to travel on foot from Chusang to a base camp at a low elevation.
The existence of smaller handprints suggests children also spent time at the site, he said.
Life would have been hard, with people forced to survive by hunting and foraging wild barley in temperatures only slightly warmer than they are now, but the area also would have had its advantages, Mr. Aldenderfer said.
“It’s a really cool place. It’s perched on a mountainside, and when you’re sitting at the hot spring that has the hand- and footprints, it has an absolutely fabulous view of the valley below,” he said. The hot spring would have offered warmth, and possibly even a chance to bathe, he said.