These 7,400-Year-Old "Mythical Beast" Footprints Have Just Changed The Entire History Of Tibet


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer


The beautiful mountain landscape of Tibet. My Good Images/Shutterstock

A new study in Science has revealed that the history of the human journey to Tibet, once upon a time, is quite different from what anyone has thought.

A group of closely spaced hand- and footprints in a mountain just north of Lhasa, pressed into a limestone slab about 4,260 meters (14,000 feet) above sea level, have long been thought by local villagers to have been made by legendary monsters. They were, of course, left by people, but until now, no thorough analysis had been conducted on them.


A team of researchers from the Universities of California and Innsbruck had a bit of a poke around, and, using radiocarbon dating, they calculated that these imprints were made by humans between 7,400 and 12,700 years ago. Even at the lower end of the age estimation, the prints predate the archaeological evidence of the first permanent villages in the region by more than two millennia.

So this means that early humans, during the end of the last glacial maximum when the world – especially its high altitudes – was decidedly chillier, were far more proactive and adventurous with their migration patterns than anyone had considered.

However, as pointed out by the Washington Post, there is also a strange political angle to this discovery.

A digital rendering of two of the footprints (A) alongside a field photograph of the same pair (B). Meyer et al./Science


Chinese authorities have for some time considered China to be Tibetan territory. At present, and since 1951, the mountainous region has been known as the Tibet Autonomous Region or “Xizang,” and is officially part of the Chinese state.

There’s plenty of debate between historians about how much dominance the ancient Chinese dynasties had over Tibet. Since at least 1720, the Qing dynasty had control over it. However, a revolution across the land took place in 1911 – the dynasty collapsed, the six-year-old emperor abdicated, and the Republic of China formed.

Tibet also became independent. However, despite putting up considerable defenses, by 1951, Tibet surrendered to the forces of the now-communist China’s military forces.

Tibet, then, has been controlled by China for many centuries. However, Tibetans and others have argued that their culture was never originally part of the same ancient civilizations that founded China.


Chinese state-funded researchers have often looked back beyond their first (contentious) civilization, the Xia dynasty, and pointed to a Stone Age culture called the Yangshao in order to provide evidence for their point. They say that pottery the Yangshao made within China’s Yellow River Basin is very similar to the earliest Tibetan pottery, and therefore they must have come from the same civilization.

This new study, though, reveals that there were people moving into Tibet at least 2,200 years earlier. This means that there were indigenous peoples within Tibet long before the early Chinese settlers got there, which suggests there were two distinct cultures all along.


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