Date of Award

Spring 5-15-2022

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



Our understanding of the development of high-altitude adaptations worldwide has been enriched by recent anthropological research. Study of life on the Tibetan Plateau—dubbed “the Roof of the World”—has highlighted specific challenges of seasonal availability of food and extreme weather systems. Recent archaeological studies have revealed that pastoralism has a long history of resilience on the extreme high altitude Tibetan Plateau. However, specific risks to early flocks on the Tibetan Plateau and ways that herders managed their animals to mitigate these have not been well explored. Dated to 3000–2200 Cal BP, the archaeological settlement of Bangga represents one of the earliest pastoral communities in high altitude central Tibet. Faunal assemblage at Bangga offers the rare opportunity to examine these issues. In this research, I use zooarchaeological and stable isotopic analyses to address these missing aspects of understanding regarding pastoralist high altitude adaptations, in two different ways. First, to address the enduring challenge of identifying and discriminating among Tibetan wild bovids and domestic animals, I developed new method for identifying and discriminating takin (Budorcas taxicolor) from yak (Bos grunniens), cattle (Bos taurus), gaur (Bos gaurus), and water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) in archaeofaunal assemblages. This research provided a reproducible method for distinguishing takin from other large bovids in this region. The osteomorphological criteria established in this study are important to future archaeological investigations of early usage of wild bovids and the emergence and development of pastoralism on the Tibetan Plateau. Second, to examine two broad research questions: 1) How environmental challenges might have threatened the survival of early pastoralists at the high altitudinal regions of the Tibetan Plateau? 2) How early central Tibetan pastoralists managed their livestock to cope with environmental pressures? I analyzed mortality profiles and enamel isotope compositions of sheep and goat remains Bangga. The mortality profile revealed that most sheep at Bangga (64.28%, n= 27) died within the first year of their life. Recent herd mortality metadata from Tibet and simulations suggest that within this high-risk context of Tibetan Plateau, the archaeological mortality profile from Bangga was most likely the outcome of environmentally-driven lamb mortality. Contextual archaeological and isotopic data for corralling and foddering at Bangga indicate specific ancient disease and nutritional risks associated with periodic confinement and lack of access to pasture. Comparison with archaeological sites from other regions of the plateau and its vicinities document similar high mortality at other high altitude sites, but not at lower elevations, drawing attention to high altitude risk. Together, these findings indicate that high juvenile mortality presented a threat for ancient herders who suffered from serious environmental pressures on the Tibetan Plateau. Research on the sequential stable carbon and oxygen isotope compositions in tooth enamel of sheep and goats from Bangga shed light on ways that these early central Tibetan pastoralists maintained their pastoral life under such environmental pressure. The sequential stable carbon and oxygen isotopic data show clear evidence of human control over diet and drinking water of their livestock. Sheep and goats at Bangga were provisioned with ground water and significant amounts of cultigens (likely barley and millet) seasonally or all year around, but there is no clear isotopic patterning suggesting seasonal movements along altitudinal gradients. These results demonstrate that central Tibetan agropastoralists three thousand years ago practiced a specialized livestock management strategy together with sophisticated cultivation systems, to assure year-round food for their livestock in order to survive in the extreme Tibetan Plateau environment. This research revealed ways that early pastoralists of central Tibet were able to increase resilience to periodic stresses and to survive, despite the inhospitable and unpredictable environment. As a result of the rare opportunity that well preserved animal bones from Bangga provided for of systematic zooarchaeological analyses, sequential stable oxygen and carbon isotope analyses, and the availability of regional ethnographic records, this research is the first to reveal details of animal-based subsistence strategies of some of the earliest central Tibetan pastoral groups. This research also provides complementary data to better interpret other archaeological materials from this region and will ultimately expand our knowledge of the process of peopling the Tibetan Plateau, shedding light on resilience of human communities’ in extreme environments worldwide.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Xinyi Liu

Committee Members

Fiona Marshall


Update embargo

Available for download on Saturday, April 20, 2024

Included in

Anthropology Commons