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Our understanding of when and how humans adapted to living at altitudes above 2000 to 3000 meters of the Tibetan Plateau has been constrained by a paucity of archaeological data. Here we report data sets from the northeastern Tibetan Plateau indicating that the first villages were established only by 5200 years ago. Since 3600 calendar years before the present, a novel agropastoral economy facilitated year-round living at higher altitudes. This successful subsistence strategy facilitated the adaptation of farmers-herders to the challenges of global temperature decline during the late Holocene.