A 5,500-year model of changing crop niches on the Tibetan Plateau

d’Alpoim Guedes, J, Manning SW, Bocinsky KR.  2016.  A 5,500-year model of changing crop niches on the Tibetan Plateau. Current Anthropology. 57:517-522.

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The timing and mechanics of the spread of agriculture to the Tibetan Plateau—one of the most challenging environmental contexts on earth—is a focus of recent work and debate. Understanding the timing and spread of agriculture is basic to archaeology and history worldwide. Researchers seek evidence for the earliest, furthest, or highest occurrences of diagnostic elements. However, the Tibetan Plateau case illustrates a key flaw in current work: archaeologists have often uncritically interpreted the presence of plant domesticates at archaeological sites as being indicative of local agricultural practice. This assumption neglects the long history of food exchange on the Plateau, as elsewhere in the world, even beyond what were then the limits of agriculture. The cause is a fundamental lack of understanding of where crops could be grown in prehistory. Using a formal model of the agricultural thermal niche between the 5500 BP and the present, we argue that agricultural niches on the Tibetan Plateau were tightly constrained to lower-elevation river valleys throughout time. This pattern is confirmed by analysis of the extent of modern crop production on the Plateau. The challenges deriving from these altitudinal constraints placed on early Tibetans largely explain how and why the Tibetan economy developed in the way that it did.