Lithic Assemblages from the Chang Tang Region, Northern Tibet

Article excerpt


This paper presents new evidence from surface stone tool assemblages collected by George Schaller in the Chang Tang Reserve, northern Tibet, at elevations above 4500 m asl. Eighteen separate localities have yielded lithic assemblages ranging in size from a single artefact to as many as 158 specimens. A number of the assemblages contain unique Upper Palaeolithic blade and bladelet technologies. This is perhaps surprising given that true blade technologies are rare in Chinese contexts (Brantingham 1999; Gao 1999; Lin 1996; Zhang 1999). Microblade cores, blanks and tools are also found at several of the Chang Tang localities. Microblade technology is common at Chinese archaeological sites dating to the terminal Pleistocene and early Holocene (Elston et al. 1997; Lie 1998; Madsen et al. 1998). A wide range of stone raw materials was used in manufacturing these technologies. Core reduction was intensive and many of the collected artefacts show patterns of intensive retouch and recycling. The collection methods employed limit the statistical value of these assemblages. Nevertheless, the range of lithic technologies represented and the specific characteristics of raw material utilization are significant for addressing questions of the nature of foraging adaptations in this hostile environment. Indeed, these surfaces assemblages from the Chang Tang are significant for understanding not only specific aspects of East Asian prehistory, but also for broader issues concerning the range and complexity of Pleistocene forager adaptations.

The Chang Tang Reserve

Located in the northwestern part of the Tibetan Plateau, the Chang Tang Reserve encompasses approximately 334,000 sq. km and exceeds 4500 m asl in average elevation (FIGURE 1) (Schaller 1998). The Chang Tang is bounded to the north by the Kunlun Mountains and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, to the east by Qinghai province, and to the south and west by the `northern highway', which traverses Tibet at roughly 32 [degrees] N. The area is characterized by large internal-drainage basins, saline and brackish lakes, and broad, rolling steppes broken by hills and snow-capped mountains. The Chang Tang is presently too cold and arid to support forests, but rather is dominated by cold desert grasslands, sedges, forbs and low shrubs. Schaller & Liu (1996) divide the Chang Tang into three vegetation zones: alpine steppe, desert steppe and alpine meadows. Alpine steppe is dominant in the southeastern half of the reserve. The alpine steppe occupies elevations between 4300 and 5100 m asl and is characterized by cold, windy conditions, poor soils and 100-350 mm precipitation annually. Plant cover is sparse in the alpine steppe zone ([is less than] 30%). Species of Stipa are the dominant plants followed by other graminoids, dwarf shrubs, herbaceous plants and a few legumes such as Astragalus. Desert steppe is dominant in the uninhabited northern areas and replaces alpine steppe between 34 [degrees] 30'N and 35 [degrees] N, where a mere 50-100 mm of precipitation fails annually. The diversity of plant species in the desert steppe zone is similar to the alpine steppe, though plant cover is significantly more sparse. Alpine meadows dominate the landscape where annual precipitation exceeds 350-400 mm. Alpine meadows are found in areas of east Qinghai, and in Tibet along the Lhasa-Golmud highway and as far west as Seling Co (Co = `lake'). Within the Chang Tang, alpine meadows are limited to riparian contexts along streams, seepages and swamps. Short sedges (Kobresia spp.) and forbs are the dominant vegetation types in the apline meadow zone.


These three vegetation zones provide an array of seasonally available plants that support six wild and four domestic ungulate species. The wild ungulates include the Tibetan antelope (chiru), Tibetan gazelle, Tibetan argali, blue sheep, Tibetan wild ass (kiang) and the wild yak (Schaller 1998). …