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Moving Up in the World

Archaeologists seek to understand how and when people came to occupy the Andean and Tibetan plateaus

Mark Aldenderfer

Figure 1. Panoramic view of JharkotClick to Enlarge Image

Living at high elevation imposes some special stresses. In addition to the piercing wind and numbing cold so common of such places, residents of the Earth's high-elevation regions must cope with the chronic hypoxia that comes from breathing the thin air. Above about 2,500 meters, lowlanders experience fatigue, headache, nausea and other acute symptoms of "mountain sickness." Over the long term, residents of high elevations adapt, but they still suffer from reduced work capacity, lowered fertility and various chronic ailments. Why then did primitive peoples migrate to high-elevation regions such at the Andean altiplano and the Tibetan plateau? Anthropologists and archaeologists are piecing together the story of how, when and why these harsh locations were settled and what physiological and cultural adaptations were necessary.

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