Thursday, May 3, 2012

Four Millions Years ago in Tibet

Zanda (Tholing) horses on the Tibetan Plateau
The discovery of a well-preserved horse skeleton on the Tibetan plateau, north of the Indian border of Himachal Pradesh is a great progress in the knowledge of the history of Tibet. 
Archeology of the plateau is a relatively new disciple. 
Though explorers such as Tucci, Hedin, Richardson or Roerich did the first archeological surveys at the beginning of the 20th century, their studies remained superficial.
The scenario has changed during the past 2 or 3 decades with more scientific studies being conducted by Tibetan, Western and Chinese archeologists. Their researches dwell not only upon Western Tibet, rich in ‘pre-Buddhist’ vestiges, but also on other parts of the plateau, like Amdo and Kham.
The latest archeological discoveries open new perspectives on the history of the plateau, particularly regarding the Zhangzhung kingdom. Archeologists believed today that a climate change altered the balance of power a few millennia ago. Due to the drought and subsequent increase in salinity of the areas around the large lakes of Northern Tibet, the political center may have progressively shifted to warmer and moister regions like Yarlung.

Paleontology and Paleoanthropology gives us an even deeper sight in Tibetan history.
This reminds me an interesting text written by John Vincent Bellezza, a US archeologist in his book Antiquities of Upper Tibet.
Belleza wrote about the Impact of Climate Change of the Development of Upper Tibet.  I quote him:
The climatic history of Upper Tibet in the Late Holocene is vital to our understanding of the environmental conditions pre-Buddhist inhabitants were forced to adapt to. The mechanisms devised to not only cope but to flourish in one of the most difficult environments in the world can furnish us with insight into how certain monumental forms developed. Climate history is also essential for a clarification of past settlement patterns and how these have changed over the millennia.  Paleoenvironmental conditions in Upper Tibet also provide us with a hypothetical groundwork for explaining the disappearance of pre-Buddhist civilization and the subsequent utter destitution of many of its foci of settlement.
One of the largest interdisciplinary studies of the paleoclimate of Tibet to date was carried out by a Sino-French expedition at sPang gong mTsho, in Ru thog, in 1989.The proxy climatic data presented here was obtained from the detailed scientific reports published by members of this expedition, which provide us with authoritative, but as of yet still incomplete data, on the nature of climatic change in Upper Tibet.  In particular, the chronology of the last 2000 years needs to be refined and must be considered with caution (Gasse et al. 1996: 84, 88). The Sino-French expedition noted that the ancient shorelines of lakes in western Tibet, which are tens to hundreds of meters above present day lake levels, reveal large-scale climatic and hydrological changes during the late Quaternary (Fontes et al. 1996: 25). Corrected radiocarbon ages of fossil material, collected from the Sino-French 12.4 meter piston core sunk in east sPang gong mTsho, indicates that beginning 6200 years ago, there was a non-linear return to aridity, which was particularly pronounced approximately 3900 to 3200 years ago and 1300 years ago (ibid. 25, 30, 44). Thirteen hundred years ago the eastern basin of sPang gong mTsho closed in response to aridity on the catchment (ibid. 25, 44). Palnyostratigraphical methods applied to the same spang gong mTsho core also demonstrate a trend towards aridity beginning around 6500 years ago with dry events centered in 5500, 3900 to 3200 and 700 years before present (Campo et al. 1996: 49, 58, 62). Moreover, the mean percentage of cyperaceae pollen is much higher in the fossil record than in the modern surface--samples, suggesting a local origin (ibid. 56).  An analysis of the constituent organic components of the sPang gong mTsho core indicate that there was a last lacustrine event of minor amplitude between 3000 and 2000 years ago before the closure of the system (Fan Hui et al. 1996: 65, 76). The resemblance and synchronism between environmental changes recorded at sPang gong mTsho and gSum bzhi mTsho, located 200 kilometers to the north and 800 meters higher, shows that regional climatic changes have been the primary cause of the ecological and hydrobiological modifications in lakes of western Tibet (ibid 65, 77). A period of extremely low diatom content 3900 to 3200 years before present, was succeeded by the re-establishment of lacustrine conditions more favorable to life, but water levels in this period were lower than in the Early and.Middle Holocene (ibid. 75, 76). In the final stage, 2000 years ago to present, diatom content in sPang gong mTsho fell rapidly and there was an increase in the percentage of saline water species, which can be attributed to regional climatic change Ubid. 76, 77). Radiocarbon chronology of the sPang gong core material suggests an extremely low sedimentation rate 2100 years to 1300 years before present, which implies very dry conditions (Gasse et al. 1996: 84). After a period of probable maximum aridity 1200 to 1000 years ago, a trend towards moister conditions was detected at sPang gong mTsho Ubid. 84). The climatic record deduced from a three meter core taken from gSer gling (Zi leng) mTsho, in Nag tshang, likewise indicates that there were two major aridity maxima: 4200 to 3300 years ago and 2400 to 1400 years ago, with a moister period in between (ibid. 89). In the last 1400 years there are also indications from gSer gling mTsho of a trend towards a slightly moister climate.
Photo: John Vincent Bellezza
Scientific studies cited above agree that the Middle Holocene in Upper Tibet was characterized by a period of optimum climate. However, the more favorable environ mental conditions encountered by Neolithic man in the Middle Holocene gave way to a general trend towards a deteriorating climate and environment in the Late Holocene. While the specific impact of wet and dry pulses in the climate of the Late Holocene on the development of civilization in Upper Tibet is still well beyond our grasp, long term desiccation could only have had deleterious consequences for human settlement in the region. The development of the Zhang zhung-Mon cultural and political entity and its subsequent demise beginning 1400 years ago must be seen in an environmental context for, as the above studies indicate, it had to grapple with exceptionally harsh environmental conditions. This is not to suggest that climate change, played a deterministic role in the fortunes of Zhangzhung, but there is no question that it had a negative effect on economic systems of production, especially those of an agrarian nature. Perhaps the biggest implication of the eroding climate was that it may have helped definitively shift the balance of power to the Yarlung state, located in a region with a significantly warmer and moister climate. Lower elevation and more humid southern Tibet could better cope with the effects of a deteriorating climate and was inherently in a better environmental position to benefit from moister climatic events than was the north and west of the plateau.

Much more researches need to be made in this filed. 
For sure, the history of Tibet did not start with Nyatri Tsenpo (127 BC).

Ancient horse skeleton offers glimpse into Tibetan past
Apr 25, 2012
Featured News

The discovery of the well-preserved skeleton of a horse that lived 4.6 million years ago has provided valuable insights into ancient conditions on the Tibetan Plateau.
The Tibetan Plateau is the youngest and highest plateau on Earth, and its elevation reaches one-third of the height of the troposphere, with big effects on atmospheric circulation and climate.
The uplift of the Tibetan Plateau was an important factor of global climate change during the late Cenozoic and strongly influenced the development of the Asian monsoon system.
However, there have been heated debates about the history and process of Tibetan Plateau uplift, especially elevations in different geological ages.
Some of those questions have been answered by Dr Tao Deng, from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and his team, thanks to their research into the well-preserved skeleton of the three-toed horse, Hipparion zandaense, from the Zanda Basin, in southwestern Tibet [Tholing in Ngari Prefecture].
Their findings were published on last Monday in the journal, “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences”.

The skeleton indicates that the Zanda horse was a horse well adapted for running that lived in alpine steppe habitats, with skeletal features differing significantly from other species of ancient horse known to have inhabited forest areas.
Because this open landscape would be situated above the timberline on the steep southern margin of the Tibetan Plateau, the elevation of the Zanda Basin 4.6 million years ago was estimated to be about 4000 metres above sea level, using an adjustment to the temperature in the middle Pliocene as well as comparison with modern vegetation vertical zones.
Thus, Deng and his team conclude that the southwestern Tibet achieved the present-day elevation in the mid-Pliocene.
Fossils of the three-toed horse genus Hipparion that have been found on the Tibetan Plateau have provided concrete evidence for studying the uplift of the plateau. These include a skull and associated jaw from another  Hipparion zandaense, again from Zanda.
In August 2009 the near-complete three-toed horse skeleton was excavated from the Zanda Basin, and its dental features confirmed it was Hipparion zandaense.
The Zanda Basin is just north of the high Himalayan ridge crest. The Sutlej River has cut through to the basement, exposing the entire basin fill in a spectacular series of canyons and cliffs.
The horse skeleton was discovered in the eastern bank of the main wash of Daba Canyon west of the Zanda county seat and south of the Sutlej River.
The skeleton of the Zanda horse preserved all limb bones, pelvis, and partial vertebrae, which provided an opportunity to reconstruct its locomotive function.
A greatly hypertrophied medial trochlear ridge (MTR) of the femur serves to “snag” the medial patellar ligament, or parapatellar cartilage, and the patella when the stifle joint is hyperextended, forming a passive stay-apparatus or “locking” to reduce muscular activity in the stifle (knee) extensors during long periods of standing.
The well-developed MTR is an indicator of the presence of this locking mechanism. The femur MTR of the Zanda horse is greatly enlarged relative to the lateral trochlear ridge.
Like modern horses, which may stand erect for over 20 hours a day, even in their sleep, the Zanda horse could remain on its feet for long periods of time without fatigue.
On the other hand, the forest three-toed horses, such as the European Hipparion primigenium, have an obviously smaller femur MTR than the Zanda horse.
Slender limb bones are a marker for running ability, which is most clearly exhibited on metapodials of ungulates.
The slender nature of the metapodial shaft is represented by diminished breadth relative to its length. The ratio between the maximum length and the minimum breadth indicates that the Zanda horse and the latter-day Tibetan wild ass have relatively slender metapodials, while the forest horses have very robust metapodials.
During the evolution of better running ability in horses, the posterior shifting of the lateral metapodials relative to the third metapodial is not only an evolutionary change toward functional monodactyly, but also a better adaptation for running, usually accompanied by a deepening of the whole bone and an effacement of the distal supra-articular tuberosity.
As a result, the width of the distal tuberosity appears reduced relative to the articular width in the Zanda horse, whereas the former is larger than the latter in the forest horses.
These changes diminish lateral mobility and create better conditions for anteroposterior movements. The sagittal groove of the first phalanx III contains the keel of the distal articulation of the metapodial in order to avoid dislocation and sprain of the joint in lateral orientation, especially during rapid turning.
The Zanda horse has a strong keel, so it can better minimize the lateral movement of the foot articulation, thereby strengthening the anteroposterior movement more effectively.
In three-toed horses, the increase in size of the oblique ligaments on the proximal and central phalanx may have allowed the central toe to stand more vertically, thus causing the side toes to be lifted from the ground and become non-functional in locomotion, allowing the animal to run faster by supporting the fetlock and by adding bounce.
The Zanda horse has strong oblique ligaments, more similar to Equus, the modern horse. In three-toed horses, each foot has three toes. The reduction in toes in horses is a marked evolutionary trend towards better running ability.
The central toes of the Zanda horse are relatively long, but the side toes are distinctly reduced so that they have a larger suspending extent. This character indicates that the side toes of the Zanda horse have completely lost locomotive function, a characteristic related to faster running.
If distal elements of a limb are lengthened relative to proximal ones, the whole limb will be lengthened while keeping its center of mass situated proximally and reducing its inertia, which allows for a long, rapid stride, and speed is the product of stride length and stride frequency.
Lengths of distal elements of fore – and hindlimbs – that is, the metapodials and first phalanges – relative to proximal elements in the Zanda horse are much longer than in the forest horses, which indicates the stronger running ability of the former.
The locomotive function shows that the Zanda horse has the ability to run fast and stand persistently, which is beneficial only in open habitats, because close forests would encumber running.
Three-toed horses are typical hypsodont ungulates, and the tooth crowns of the Zanda horse are especially high, which indicate that it is a grass-grazing specialist.
Because grazing is inefficient in terms of nutritional intake, a great amount of food is required to obtain adequate nutrients. Grazing horses spend a large portion of the day standing and eating in open habitats with mainly herbaceous plants, so that they can keep watch for potential predators.
The well-developed MTR of the femur in the Zanda horse is a fitting adaptation for this ecosystem. The vestigial side toes of the Zanda horse also reflect its adaptation for open environments instead of forests.
The Tibetan Plateau has gradually risen since the Indian plate collided with the Eurasian plate about 55 million years ago.
Regardless of the debates over the rising process and elevation of the plateau, there is no doubt that the Himalayas have appeared as a mountain range since the Miocene, with the appearance of vegetation vertical zones following thereafter.
Open grasslands per se have no direct relationship to elevation, because they can have different elevations in different regions of the world, having a distribution near the sea level to the extreme high plateaus.
On the other hand, the southern margin of the Tibetan Plateau has been high and steep to follow the uplift of this plateau so that the open landscape must be above the timberline in the vegetation vertical zones.
Because the Zanda Basin is located on the south edge of the Tibetan Plateau, its vegetation ecosystem is tightly linked to the established vertical zones along the Himalayas.
In the Zanda area, the modern timberline is at an elevation of 3600 m between the closed forest and the open steppe.
The locomotive analysis indicates that the Zanda horse was more suited to live in an open environment above the timberline, as opposed to a dense forest. The inference of high-elevation open habitat is supported by the carbon isotope data, which indicate that grasses ingested by the the Zanda horse, like the modern wild Tibetan asses, were cool-season grasses commonly found in high-elevation ecosystems.

Other mid-Pliocene mammalian forms from Zanda also indicate an open landscape.
The mid-Pliocene global climate was significantly warmer than the Holocene, whereas crucial boundary conditions such as the placement of continents were about the same as today.
Therefore, it was likely that temperature, instead of longitude and latitude, was the main factor in determining the timberline of the Himalayas in the Pliocene. Based on the marine record, the temperature of the mid-Pliocene was about 2.5 degrees Celsius warmer than today, and consequently the elevation of the timberline in the Zanda area 4.6 million years ago was 400 metres higher than the modern one of 3600 metres, assuming a temperature lapse rate of 0.6 degrees per 100 metres applies to the past. This suggests that the Zanda Basin had achieved an elevation comparable to its present-day elevation by 4.6 million years ago.
The material from another three-toed horse found in Biru, Tibet, includes limb bones, especially distal elements. They date back about 10 million years.
The metapodial proportions of the Biru horse mean that it was a forest horse and lived in a habitat with a lower elevation.
Therefore, the three-toed horses of different ages from Tibet have been clear to reflect the progress and magnitude of the uplift of the Tibetan Plateau since the late Miocene.
The limb bones of the Tibetan wild ass, which lives in the Tibetan Plateau today, are very close in proportion to the Zanda horse, especially the slenderness of their metapodials.
Both, the researchers noted, have lived in the same plateau environment. These shared features further support Deng and his team’s conclusion that the paleo-environment and paleo-elevation estimations for the Zanda horse are reasonable.

Full paper:

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