Tibetan prehistory, new research


This video says about itself:

14 August 2012

Compare the lives of hunter-gatherers during the Paleolithic Age with the lives of people during the Neolithic Age.

From Science News:

Hunter-gatherers were possibly first to call Tibetan Plateau home

High-altitude foragers moved in long before farmers, new dates indicate

By Bruce Bower

2:00pm, January 5, 2017

People hunted and foraged year-round in the thin air of China’s Tibetan Plateau at least 7,400 to 8,400 years ago, a new study suggests. And permanent settlers of the high-altitude region might even have arrived as early as 12,000 to 13,000 years ago.

Three lines of dating evidence indicate that humans occupied the central Tibetan Plateau’s Chusang site, located more than 4,000 meters above sea level, at least 2,200 years earlier than previously thought, say geologist Michael Meyer of the University of Innsbruck in Austria and colleagues. Their report, published in the Jan. 6 Science, challenges the idea that the Tibetan Plateau lacked permanent settlers until farming groups arrived around 5,200 years ago.

“Hunter-gatherers permanently occupied the Tibetan Plateau by around 8,000 years ago, which coincided with a strong monsoon throughout Asia that created wet conditions on the plateau,” Meyer says.

These early permanent residents hunted animals such as wild yaks and foraged for edible plants, including berries from sea buckthorn shrubs, in nearby river valleys at elevations more than 3,600 meters above sea level, Meyer suspects. Brief, summer forays to Chusang would have been difficult for people living below 3,300 meters above sea level, he adds. Even when mountain passes were clear of heavy snowfall and expanding valley glaciers, round trips from low altitudes to the central Tibetan Plateau would have taken 41 to 70 days, Meyer’s team estimates.

Researchers discovered Chusang in 1998. The site consists of 19 human hand- and footprints on the surface of a fossilized sheet of travertine, a form of limestone deposited there by water from a hot spring.

The new age estimates for Chusang come from three measures:  the decay rate of forms of radioactive thorium and uranium in travertine sampled in and around the prints; determinations of the time since quartz crystals extracted from the travertine were last exposed to sunlight; and radiocarbon measures of sediment and microscopic plant remains found on the travertine slab’s surface.

Signs of long-term camping at Chusang have yet to turn up, but extensive excavations of the site have not been conducted, Meyer says. His group found chipped rocks and other stone tool‒making debris at two spots near Chusang’s hot springs. These finds are undated.

Previous research has suggested that hunter-gatherers occasionally reached the Tibetan Plateau’s northern edge by around 12,000 years ago (SN: 7/7/01, p. 7), and again from about 8,000 to 6,000 years ago, says archaeologist Loukas Barton of the University of Pittsburgh, who wasn’t involved in the study. But the new discoveries at Chusang may not necessarily point to permanent residence there. Those early arrivals likely spent a single summer or a few consecutive years at most on the plateau, Barton says. “That would not constitute a peopling of a region any more than our 1969 visit to the moon did,” he says.

Archaeological finds indicate that human populations expanded on the Tibetan Plateau between around 5,200 and 3,600 years ago, Barton says. Those groups cultivated barley and wheat at high altitudes and herded domesticated sheep and perhaps yaks, he says.

Before that time, Chusang might have supported a year-round occupation, says archaeologist David Rhode of the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev., who wasn’t involved in the study. But the site could easily have been occupied seasonally, he says. Unlike Meyer, Rhode estimates that Chusang was about a two-week walk from some lower-altitude campsites. “That’s not far at all for a human forager.”

New dates for Chusang also raise the possibility that rare gene variants that aid survival in high-altitude, oxygen-poor locales first evolved among hunter-gatherers on the Tibetan Plateau, Meyer says. But both Barton and Rhode doubt it.

Wild yak mothers climb higher than males


This video is called Rare Tibetan Wild Yak 1.

From Wildlife Extra:

Wild yak mothers found to be higher climbers than their male counterparts

In the world of the endangered wild yak of the Tibetan Plateau it’s the mothers that are the real climbers, say researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

They discovered mothers with young are far more likely to venture up onto steeper terrain and higher altitudes (around 15,994 feet) than either males, who prefer the valley floor, or females without young.

This they believe is to avoid predators and to access more nutritious food.

Wild yaks are the largest grazer north of the tropics; and are closely related to North American bison.

The authors of the study say that the remoteness of the wild yak’s habitat gives conservationists an opportunity to study a species that has not been largely impacted by humans.

“Neither habitat destruction nor fragmentation are issues in the yak’s home in far western China, and so there are amazing opportunities to learn about why males and females respond differently to climate change and biological challenges,” said lead author Joel Berger of WCS and University of Montana.

“But, more fundamentally, just as people climb mountains in the Himalayas because they are there, here we have a throwback to the Pleistocene; it is still here, and we by uniting people from different countries have the opportunity to conserve a species, not to mention an ecosystem and a landscape that is larger than all of Montana and Nebraska combined.”

Did big cats evolve in Tibet?


This video about African lions is called Big Cats Of The Timbavati – National Geographic Wild Documentary.

From the BBC:

13 November 2013, Last updated at 00:19 GMT

Oldest big cat fossil found in Tibet

By James Morgan, Science reporter, BBC News

The oldest big cat fossils ever found – from a previously unknown species “similar to a snow leopard” – have been unearthed in the Himalayas.

The skull fragments of the newly-named Panthera blytheae have been dated between 4.1 and 5.95 million years old.

Their discovery in Tibet supports the theory that big cats evolved in central Asia – not Africa – and spread outward.

The findings by US and Chinese palaeontologists are published in the Royal Society journal Proceedings B.

They used both anatomical and DNA data to determine that the skulls belonged to an extinct big cat, whose territory appears to overlap many of the species we know today.

“This cat is a sister of living snow leopards – it has a broad forehead and a short face. But it’s a little smaller – the size of clouded leopards,” said lead author Dr Jack Tseng of the University of Southern California.

“This ties up a lot of questions we had on how these animals evolved and spread throughout the world.

“Biologists had hypothesised that big cats originated in Asia. But there was a division between the DNA data and the fossil record.”

Surprising find

The so-called “big cats” – the Pantherinae subfamily – includes lions, jaguars, tigers, leopards, snow leopards, and clouded leopards.

DNA evidence suggests they diverged from their cousins the Felinae – which includes cougars, lynxes, and domestic cats – about 6.37 million years ago.

But the earliest fossils previously found were just 3.6 million years old – tooth fragments uncovered at Laetoli in Tanzania, the famous hominin site excavated by Mary Leakey in the 1970s.

The new fossils were dug up on an expedition in 2010 in the remote Zanda Basin in southwestern Tibet, by a team including Dr Tseng and his wife Juan Liu – a fellow palaeontologist.

They found over 100 bones deposited by a river eroding out of a cliff, including the crushed – but largely complete – remains of a big cat skull.

“We were very surprised to find a cat fossil in that basin,” Dr Tseng told BBC News.

“Usually we find antelopes and rhinos, but this site was special. We found multiple carnivores – badgers, weasels and foxes.”

Among the bones were seven skull fragments, belonging to at least three individual cats, including one nearly complete skull.

The fragments were dated using magnetostratigraphy – which relies on historical reversals in the Earth’s magnetic field recorded in layers of rock.

They ranged between 4.10 and 5.95 million years old, the complete skull being around 4.4 million years of age.

“This is a very significant finding – it fills a very wide gap in the fossil record,” said Dr Manabu Sakamoto of the University of Bristol, an expert on Pantherinae evolution.

“The discovery presents strong support for the Asian origin hypothesis for the big cats.

“It gives us a great insight into what early big cats may have looked like and where they may have lived.”

However, Prof William Murphy of Texas A&M University, another expert on the evolutionary relationship of big cats, questioned whether the new species was really a sister of the snow leopard.

“The authors’ claim that this skull is similar to the snow leopard is very weakly supported based on morphological characters alone, and this morphology-based tree is inconsistent with the DNA-based tree of living cats,” he told BBC News.

“It remains equally probable that this fossil is ancestral to the living big cats. More complete skeletons would be beneficial to confirm their findings.”

Dr Tseng and his team plan to return to the fossil site in Tibet next summer to search for more specimens.

See also here.

Buddhist monks protect endangered snow leopards


This video is called Snow Leopard – Beyond the Myth.

From msnNOW:

Researchers find Buddhist monks protecting endangered snow leopards

7 September 2013

There aren’t many snow leopards left in Asia. Between 3,500 and 7,000 live high in the mountains there, with about 60 percent in China. Largely because their thick, warm fur is desired by humans and their organs are considered valuable in Chinese medicine, snow leopards have seen their numbers decline by 20 percent in the last 20 years.

Research published in the journal Conservation Biology last week suggests that more snow leopards are being protected in the Tibetan Plateau, where there are Buddhist monasteries, than in the nature reserve set aside for the cats. The monks patrol the area and prevent poachers from killing the animals. In addition, the monks are teaching the local people that killing snow leopards is wrong. “Buddhism has as a basic tenet, the love, respect, and compassion for all living beings,” George Schaller, a biologist with the endangered-cat conservation group Panthera, said in a statement.

See also here.

Wild yaks surviving in Tibet


This video is called Rare Tibetan Wild Yak 1.

And here is Part 2.

From Wildlife Extra:

Very remote, high altitude haven proving a saviour for wild yak

Once decimated by hunting, wild yaks may be returning

January 2013. A team of American and Chinese conservationists from the Wildlife Conservation Society and University of Montana recently counted nearly 1,000 wild yaks in a remote area of the Tibetan-Qinghai Plateau. The finding may indicate a comeback for this species, which was decimated by overhunting in the mid-20th century.

990 yaks in Hoh Xil National Nature Reserve

The team counted 990 yaks in a rugged area called Hoh Xil – a national nature reserve nearly the size of West Virginia but devoid of people. The remote region lies in the mid-eastern Tibetan-Himalayan highlands, home to some 17,000 glaciers – an area sometimes called the “3rd pole” due to its Arctic-like conditions.

Third largest mammal in Asia

Wild yaks are the third largest mammal in Asia, second only to elephants and rhinos. Adults are estimated to be the size of bison, but – because the area where they occur is so isolated – wild yaks have never been officially weighed. Fifty years ago, the Tibetan steppe was dotted with wild yak much in the way that bison once stretched across vast North American prairies. Like bison, wild yaks were slaughtered. Yak skulls still litter high elevation haunts up to 17,500 feet.

Wild yak population estimates across the Tibetan-Qinghai Plateau are unknown, though conservationists believe they may be making a comeback due to conservation efforts by Chinese park officials and provincial governments. Recently, the Qinghai provincial government has launched several conservation related policies and regional projects in order to develop a sound basis for wildlife and environmental conservation in this region.

“Wild yaks are icons for the remote, untamed, high-elevation roof of the world,” said Joel Berger who led the expedition for WCS and the University of Montana. “While polar bears represent a sad disclaimer for a warming Arctic, the recent count of almost 1000 wild yaks offers hope for the persistence of free-roaming large animals at the virtual limits of high-altitude wildlife.”

Hybridization

Berger and his colleagues found greater yak densities near glaciers, which often support adjacent food-rich alpine meadow habitats. Less than one percent of the yaks observed showed colour variation, a good indication that hybridization with their more colourful domestic yak cousins is less frequent here than in more peopled regions on the Tibetan Plateau.

Very little is known about wild yak biology, including how often they reproduce, infant mortality rates, and the role wolves may play on population dynamics.

The team’s next steps will be to process data to understand more about climate change impacts on this high elevation ecosystem, and to unravel more about human-wildlife conflict in this fragile and little-known part of the world.

Joe Walston WCS Executive Director of Asia Programs, said: “For millennia, yaks have sustained human life in this part of Asia, it would be a cruel irony if their reward is extinction in the wild. Thankfully, we have a chance now to secure their future and give back a little of what they have provided us.”

The expedition was sponsored by the National Geographic Society, WCS, and the University of Montana. Hoh Xil National Nature Reserve and Qinghai Provincial Forestry Bureau of China provided invaluable support to make it happen.

‘Extinct’ Tibetan mountain finch rediscovered


Sillem's mountain finch

From the BBC:

22 October 2012 Last updated at 03:02 GMT

Tibetan mountain finch rediscovered after 80 years

By Adrian Pitches Environment correspondent, BBC North-East

It has been missing for 80 years but Sillem’s Mountain Finch has now been rediscovered on the Tibetan plateau by a trekker who was too ill to leave camp.

The mountain finch has been an enigma ever since its discovery in 1929, not least because it wasn’t identified until 1992.

Two specimens of the sparrow-sized grey and white bird with a russet head were collected by Dutch ornithologist Jerome Alexander Sillem on an expedition to the Karakoram mountain range in 1929.

Nowadays this is the disputed border region of China, India and Pakistan and a no-go area for birders.

The specimens were labelled as a race of Brandt’s Mountain Finch (Leucosticte brandti) and consigned to a drawer in the Amsterdam Zoological Museum.

And there they remained until 1992 when a modern-day Dutch ornithologist, Kees Roselaar, opened the drawer and realised the two specimens were a distinctive species in their own right. And he named the new species Leucosticte sillemi – after the original finder.

Fortunate misfortune

But then the trail went cold – until June this year when French nature photographer Yann Muzika was trekking in the Yenigou valley of Qinghai province in China. However, he contracted food poisoning on the eve of departure and was soon confined to camp.

Yann takes up the story: “After the second day, I decided to take a day break and explore the surroundings as much as my condition would allow.

“It was a trek, not a birdwatching trip, but I was nevertheless carrying a camera and a 400mm lens, just in case.

“I came across a flock of Tibetan Rosefinches (Carpodacus roborowskii) and with them there was a single bird that I did not know, resembling a Brandt’s Mountain Finch but with a rufous head instead of dark brown. I took one picture before the bird flew away.

“On my return home, I just downloaded the pictures and left them for a few weeks. I still couldn’t identify the finch but in the Birds of China field guide there was a brief description of Sillem’s Mountain Finch that seemed to match pretty well… but then we were talking of a bird that had not been seen since 1929.

“As I was reaching the limits of my expertise on birds, I sent the picture and others taken during the trek to Krys Kazmierczak who manages the Oriental Bird Images database for the Oriental Bird Club.”

He immediately realised the significance of the “mystery bird” photo that had been emailed to him.

He told BBC News: “When I saw the excellent photo of the mystery bird my immediate thought was Sillem’s Mountain Finch! However, being of a cautious disposition I did quite a bit of checking and consultation with others.

“Now we are pretty sure that it is Sillem’s Mountain Finch, especially since it has been endorsed by Kees Roselaar, who simply said: ‘Fantastic! At last the proof that sillemi still exists’.”

The June 2012 bird was found 1,500km to the east of the original sighting in 1929 and the Oriental Bird Club is now urging birdwatchers to search for the bird above 5,000m over a vast swathe of high altitude Pakistan, China and Tibet.

See also here. And here. And here.