The last of Asia conquered by Homo sapiens

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Science  30 Nov 2018:
Vol. 362, Issue 6418, pp. 992-993
DOI: 10.1126/science.aav6863

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By 30,000 years ago, humans had colonized almost every part of Asia that was not covered by ice sheets and may even have settled on the shores of the Arctic Ocean (1). One of the last places in Asia that was colonized was the Tibetan Plateau, one of the most challenging and hostile environments of the Northern Hemisphere (2). With an average elevation of about 4000 m above sea level and an average annual temperature close to the freezing point of water, and with only half the concentration of oxygen as at sea level, it is not hard to see why it was such a challenge. Many researchers maintain that it was only colonized in the Holocene (the current epoch, which began approximately 12,000 years ago) with the adoption of agriculture, and the domestication of barley and yak (3). Others suggest that it might have been initially colonized at the end of the last ice age after about 15,000 years ago, when hunter-foragers began to hunt at higher altitudes during the summer months and gradually learned how to acclimatize to such harsh surroundings (4). Some genetic evidence from modern Tibetans suggests that the Plateau might have been colonized 30,000 years ago before the last glacial maximum (5), but archaeological evidence for this is lacking. On page 1049 of this issue, Zhang et al. (6) report that the Tibetan Plateau shows not only the earliest occupation of the “roof of the world” but the earliest record worldwide for humans living at high altitude (see the first photo).