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Who are the Tibetans?

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Science  13 Feb 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6223, pp. 708-711
DOI: 10.1126/science.347.6223.708

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Summary

A spate of recent findings is beginning to unravel the mystery surrounding the earliest pioneers of the harsh, low-oxygen Tibetan Plateau. Archaeological evidence shows that nomads wandered up river valleys almost as soon as modern humans arrived in Asia. They came not just from the east—the Chinese heartland—but from the west and south as well. But which of those groups finally settled on the "roof of the world" and became the present-day Tibetans? Like many questions of geography and migration, this one has political overtones. Seeking the high ground in disputes about Tibet's historical relationship to China, the Chinese government has seized on recent findings that Tibetans and Han Chinese may have descended from a common ancestor, diverging only in the past several thousand years. Evidence points to a complex and nuanced picture, suggesting that the nomads who ventured onto the plateau thousands of years earlier, from all across Asia, left a substantial genetic imprint on today's Tibetans.

  • * Jane Qiu is a science writer in Beijing.