The study traces the roots of long-standing cultural interactions across the Tibetan Plateau to prehistoric times

The study traces the roots of long-standing cultural interactions across the Tibetan Plateau to prehistoric times

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“Highways of Mobility” simulation of interactions between farmers and herders overlaid with geographically mapped archaeological sites dating back to ca. 3600 and 2200 BC. Credit: Shenzhou Chen

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“Highways of Mobility” simulation of interactions between farmers and herders overlaid with geographically mapped archaeological sites dating back to ca. 3600 and 2200 BC. Credit: Shenzhou Chen

The million-square-mile Tibetan Plateau—often called the “Roof of the World”—is the highest landmass in the world, with an average elevation of 14,000 feet. Despite the harsh environment, humans have been permanent residents there since prehistoric times.

Agriculture and pastoralism play major roles in the economy of the Tibetan Plateau today, as they have done throughout history. To make the most of this challenging environment, farmers, agro-pastoralists, and mobile pastoralists interact and move side by side, in turn shaping the overall economy and cultural geography of the plateau.

A new study conducted by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and Sichuan University in China was published on February 2 Scientific reportstraces the roots of long-standing cultural interactions across the Tibetan Plateau to prehistoric times, as early as the Bronze Age.

The researchers used advanced geospatial modeling to compare ecological and archaeological evidence linking ancient mobility and subsistence strategies to the cultural bonds formed between farmers and pastoralists in the Bronze and Iron Ages. Their findings show that these strategies influenced the settlement pattern and transmission of ceramic styles – such as the materials used and the properties and decorative features of the pottery – between distant prehistoric communities across the plateau.

The research was an enormous undertaking made possible by advances in geospatial data analysis and high-resolution remote sensing, according to Michael Frashetti, professor of archeology in Arts & Sciences at Washoe University and corresponding author of the study.

First, the researchers created simulations of the optimal travel paths used by prehistoric farmers and herders based on land cover and the ability of the environment to support the needs of their crops or herds. For example, upland pastoralists typically move through areas with rich grassland resources toward more limited arable areas on the plateau. The recurring patterns emerging from these simulations were shown to correlate statistically with the geographic location of thousands of prehistoric sites across the Tibetan Plateau.

To test how these methods influenced social interaction, the team compiled a large database of published archaeological findings from Bronze and Iron Age sites throughout Tibet and created a social network based on the shared techniques and designs of ceramics found at these sites. The resulting social network indicates that even remote locations were well connected and connected thousands of years ago across the Tibetan landmass.

“When we connect mobility maps with the social network, we see a strong connection between subsistence-oriented mobility routes and strong relationships in material culture between regional communities, suggesting the emergence of ‘mobility highways’ over centuries of use,” Fraschetti said. . “This tells us not only that people moved according to the needs of agriculture and herding – which were largely influenced by ecological potential – but that this mobility was fundamental to the construction of social relations and the territorial character of ancient societies on the Tibetan Plateau.”

more information:
Geospatial modeling of interactions between farmers and herders maps the cultural geography of Tibet in the Bronze and Iron Ages, 3600-2200 years ago, Scientific reports (2024).

Magazine information:
Scientific reports

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