High Altitude Archaeology in the Jiuzhaigou National Park


Understanding how humans have managed to maintain food security while dealing with climatic change is crucial in a rapidly changing world. However, human adaptive responses to periodic fluctuations in local environment over the long term are poorly understood. Even more crucial is understanding how humans responded to climatic change, not in the few optimal areas of the world, but rather in key marginal loci where the livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers and pastoralists are at stake. Archaeology is uniquely poised to answer questions such as: Why are certain types of system resilient to climate change while others fall apart? What types of strategy are adaptive not just over the short term but for millennia?

I am the Principle Investigator for a collaborative fieldwork project with the Sichuan Provincial Institute of Archaeology, Oxford University, and the Jiuzhaigou National Park. Our fieldwork project aims to understand how humans modified their agricultural and pastoral strategies in the context of a series of major climatic reversals over the past two millennia.


Our NSF and National Geographic funded project will investigate how humans responded to and adapted to climatic fluctuations in one key marginal area: the high altitude environment of Eastern Himalayas of China. In addition to reconstructing ancient subsistence patterns through the analysis of plant and animal remains, the researchers will investigate how different types of social organization facilitated or impaired human adaptation. Project researchers will develop models to predict how crop and forage grass production was impacted by climatic change. Each of these models will be used to predict how production fluctuated not only in the past but also in future predicted scenarios.


Systematic archaeological excavations will be carried out at a the Ashaonao Site, in the Jiuzhaigou National Park providing the first clear information about the subsistence patterns of the inhabitants of the Eastern Himalayas. Dietary patterns will be determined through the analysis of plant and animal remains. Paired zooarchaeological and stable isotopic analyses of wild and domestic animal remains will provide insights into how the first herders in the region managed their animals.

Social networks analysis will be employed to understand the factors underlying changes in subsistence strategies in high altitude environments.

Our archaeological research is tied into a number of interdisciplinary projects that are ongoing in the park and that form part of our larger research platform. Our project dendroclimatologists, Dr. Sturt Manning (Cornell Tree Ring Lab), Dr. Brendan Buckeley and Dr. Jiangfeng Shi are working to construct a multi-millenial record of climate change for the region. Geomorhphological research in the park carried out by Dr. Amanda Schmidt (Oberlin College) will clarify how changing human subsistence patterns encouraging or slowed erosion. Co-PI Anke Hein will examine patterns in ceramic technology.


By outlining the complex interactions between different factors that determine how crops and graze resources react to changes in climatic and ecological variables, the models created for this project can be applied to other high altitude/high latitude areas worldwide, particularly those in the United States. By examining the potential for different adaptive strategies at the local level and providing a long term perspective on the

National-Geographic-logoconsequences of human decision making, this research has the

potential to further the production of more diverse, and more locally-adapted food sources that are resilient in the face of climate change.

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