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Why Tibetans Needed Barley to Move to High Altitudes

/ Source: Reuters

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The Tibetan Plateau isn't the ideal place for people to call home, due to its extreme altitude, frigid temperatures, relentless winds and low-oxygen conditions. When people did succeed in colonizing the "roof of the world," it was only after they discovered how to feed themselves year-round with cold-hardy crops like barley that were brought to the region from far away, scientists said Thursday.

In the journal Science, researchers described 53 archaeological sites in northwestern China's Qinghai province where they found remnants of rustic structures, hearths, pottery, animal bones, cereal grains and other evidence of human habitation. They found signs of periodic human presence dating back at least 20,000 years. There were settlements at lower altitudes by 5,200 years ago, where inhabitants relied on millet, a frost-sensitive crop unsuited for higher altitudes. Permanent settlements with agriculture and livestock were established about 3,600 years ago at high altitudes — above 9,800 feet (3,000 meters) — after barley was introduced to the region. "They could quite plausibly be the earliest sustained settlements in the world at this altitude," the University of Cambridge's Martin Jones said.

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