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Dairy Farming Key to Early Human Occupation of Tibetan Plateau, Study Finds

Dairy farming played a key role in enabling prehistoric humans to survive the Tibetan Plateau's inhospitable environment, according to a proteomic analysis presented this week in Science Advances. The Tibetan Plateau — the world's highest and largest plateau — features a combination of cold temperatures, hyper-aridity, unpredictable weather, and low atmospheric pressure. While biological adaptations allowed early Tibetans to live at the high elevations of the plateau, acquiring sufficient food from the barren heights of the plateau also required cultural adaptations. Dairying appears to have been such a critical cultural adaptation, but its emergence is poorly understood. A team led by Max Planck Institute scientists has now analyzed ancient proteins from the dental calculus of 40 ancient individuals from arable and non-arable regions of the plateau. They find that dairying was introduced to the interior Tibetan Plateau by at least 3,500 years ago, more than 2,000 years earlier than recorded in historical sources. Dairy, the study's authors write, thus appears to have been vital to the expansion of early pastoralists into the Tibetan Plateau's vast, non-arable highlands, opening the region up to widespread, permanent human occupation.