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Humans began dairy farming much earlier than previously believed

In a recent study, an international team of researchers uncovered new evidence suggesting that dairy farming on the Tibetan Plateau began much earlier than previously believed, approximately 3500 years ago. 

This finding not only highlights the importance of dairy pastoralism in the long-term settlement of the region but also provides new insights into how prehistoric populations adapted to the harsh conditions of the plateau.

The Tibetan Plateau, often referred to as the “third pole,” is one of the world’s largest and highest plateaus. It presents significant challenges to human survival due to its extreme environment and agriculturally poor highlands. 

To understand how early populations were able to adapt to this inhospitable landscape, Professor Michael Petraglia, Director of Griffith’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution, joined forces with researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, the Tibetan Cultural Relics Conservation Institute, and the Center for Archaeological Science at Sichuan University. Their findings were published in the journal Science Advances.

Led by PhD candidate Li Tang, the research team included Professor Nicole Boivin of the Max Planck Institute, Professor Shargan Wangdue from the Tibetan Cultural Relics Conservation Institute, and Professor Hongliang Lu from Sichuan University. The team’s investigation focused on the role of dairy pastoralism in the early settlement of the Tibetan Plateau, as the contribution of pastoralism, particularly dairy pastoralism, to the region’s colonization remains poorly understood.

“The extreme environments of the Tibetan Plateau – one of the world’s largest and highest and commonly referred to as the ‘third pole’ – offer significant challenges to human survival and demanded novel adaptations,” Professor Petraglia said. 

While biological and agricultural adaptations that enabled early human colonization of the plateau have been widely discussed. 

“These included genetic adaptations that allowed Tibetans to use smaller amounts of oxygen more efficiently,” Li Tang said.  “But the contribution of pastoralism to the settlement of Tibet is less well understood, especially the dairy pastoralism that has historically been central to Tibetan diets.”  

Through their research, the team discovered that dairy farming was a crucial cultural adaptation that supported the expansion of early livestock farming into the non-arable highlands of the Tibetan Plateau. This adaptation, in turn, enabled widespread, long-term human occupation of the region.

How scientists found evidence of early dairy farming

The researchers used palaeo proteomic techniques to analyze ancient milk proteins preserved in dental calculus has shed new light on the dietary habits of early human populations in Tibet and western Qinghai. 

Dental calculus provides a unique and direct source of ancient dietary information, as food proteins and other substances become trapped in the calcified matrix during its formation. This matrix helps to stave off decay, allowing for the long-term preservation of ancient biomolecules from specific foods like milk. By investigating the amino acid sequences of milk proteins, the researchers discovered that ancient humans in the region sourced their dairy from sheep, goat, and possibly cattle and yak.

The study, conducted by an international team of researchers, examined dental calculus from 40 human individuals across 15 ecologically diverse sites in Tibet and western Qinghai. The patterns of milk protein recovery highlighted the importance of dairy for individuals living in agriculturally poor regions higher than 3,700 meters above sea level.

“Previous research has suggested that crop cultivation based on frost-tolerant barley was one of the critical adaptative strategies that enabled more sustained habitation of the Tibetan Plateau, facilitating its permanent occupation by around 3600 years ago,” Professor Boivin said.  

But this finding reflects data collected only from arable regions of the plateau situated below 3500 meters above sea level. 

“Our findings indicate that dairying was introduced onto the interior Tibetan Plateau by at least 3500 years ago, more than 2000 years earlier than recorded in historical sources.”  

The chronology aligns with the discovery of the oldest domesticated ruminant bones in the inland plateau, suggesting that the practice of dairying was likely embraced promptly following the expansion of pastoralism in that area. 

“Understanding how ancient populations obtained sufficient food to survive in these agriculturally marginal highlands is key to understanding the long-term economic and demographic, as well as land-use development of the Tibetan Plateau,” Li Tang said.

Discovering how ancient populations obtained sufficient food to survive in agriculturally marginal highlands is essential for unraveling the long-term economic, demographic, and land-use development of the Tibetan Plateau. 

The discovery of early dairy farming in the region not only provides new insights into the dietary habits of ancient populations but also underscores the importance of dairy resources in enabling long-term human occupation and adaptation in these extreme environments.

Early human activity on the Tibetan Plateau

Aside from the domestication of animals for dairy purposes, early humans on the Tibetan Plateau also domesticated several other animals for various purposes, such as food, transportation, and clothing. Some of the commonly domesticated animals in the region include:

  1. Yaks: Yaks have been essential to the livelihood of Tibetan people for centuries. They were domesticated primarily for their meat, milk, and transportation capabilities. Yak hair and hides are also used for clothing and tent materials.
  2. Horses: Horses were domesticated on the Tibetan Plateau for transportation, labor, and military purposes. The Tibetan people have a long history of horse riding, and horses have played a vital role in the region’s trade and communication.
  3. Sheep: Apart from dairy production, sheep were also domesticated for their meat, wool, and hides. Wool from sheep is a critical resource for making clothing and textiles to protect against the harsh climate of the plateau.
  4. Goats: Like sheep, goats were domesticated for their milk, meat, and hides. The hair from goats, such as the Tibetan cashmere goat, is used to produce high-quality textiles.
  5. Pigs: Although less common than other domesticated animals on the Tibetan Plateau, pigs were also kept for their meat and fat.
  6. Chickens: Chickens were domesticated for their meat and eggs, providing a valuable source of protein for the people living on the plateau.

These domesticated animals played a crucial role in early human settlements on the Tibetan Plateau, providing essential resources, food, and transportation necessary for survival in the region’s harsh environment.


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