News and Views on Tibet

Opinion: Whence the Tsampa Eaters?

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By Karma T. Ngodup

The story of peopling on the roof of the world

One Sunday morning, in the heat of summer, sitting around the long table by the Tibetan community center of Chicago is Mr. Tamdin Wangyal, born in Tibet in 1947, then exiled to India, and immigrated to the United States. Currently, he is waiting with his right-hand sleeve pulled halfway through his arm, as he waited for a nurse to draw a blood sample. That sample was not because of any illness. Instead, the University of Chicago was engaged in a research study of the Tibetan genome. Since then, many Tibetans around the world have become the subject of research that would help scientists understand the genome, as well as its adaptations and distribution within the plateau and beyond the Himalayas. That paper was in fact published last year and it reminded me of an image that inspired me in my childhood: a grayish, interestingly detailed illustration of the origin of the Tibetan race of people. After a long hunt through collections of old Tibetan books, I rediscovered it in the fourth-grade textbook published in 1964.

The contents were excerpted from ma ni bka’ ‘bum (Manikabum) – a collection of various mythico-historical texts attributed to the seventh-century Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo. As legends have it that the Tibetans descended from a monkey bodhisattva father and an ogress Tara mother. The image depicted their union, plus their six children, in a cave located behind Tsethang on Gangpori hill. The version of the story is also found in several chronicles including rgyal rabs gsal ba’i me long, bka’ thang sde lnga, and  bka’ chems ka khol ma. But the story doesn’t end there, the bodhisattva-father could not find enough food for their children, and asked Avaloketsvara for help, who bestowed upon him five seeds including barley seed, and told him to scatter them. Miraculously, without being tended, the region was filled with growing grain. And as they got higher and colder, barley proved to be the natural choice for food, so the Tibetans thrived on the Tibetan Plateau which happens to be along the line of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

Compelling as it might be, the story is still a myth. Dhondup Gyal, while writing in the Tibetan journal nyi-gzhon back in 1982 about the etymology of the term, “Tibet,” urged for a more scientific explanation of the origin of the Tibetan people. Orally transmitted myth, he said, had its limitations. That’s where I want to begin this piece by noting an important scientific discovery back in 1978, coincidentally, not far from Gyal’s home town. A local monk found a mysterious jawbone inside Gangya Drakar Nekhang (Baishiya Karst Cave) in Amdo which later ended up at Lanzhou University. It took thirty more years, until 2008, for another discovery to shed light on it. It was a strange pinky bone that belonged to an entirely new group of ancient hominins, distinct from Neanderthals, found in Denisova Cave – a cold site in Siberia Altai Mountains. That new group became humanity’s most enigmatic ancestor, the Denisovans.  It helped scientists determine that the human mandible found in Baishiya Karst Cave was from a Denisovan, was at least 160,000 years old based on the innovative technique of paleoproteomics analysis (the study of ancient proteins),  and provided the first Denisovan fossil evidence outside of Siberia (Chen F. et al., 2019). Some wondered whether this could the first credible evidence of the yeti supporting Manikabum’s accord of ambiguous liminal space, for being neither human nor nonhuman. However, this finding marked the earliest evidence of hominid occupation leading to the plausible theory of peopling of Tibetans on the roof of the world.

The discovery changes everything. It revises earlier thinking about the Tibetan people, their habitation, and the secrets that account for their adaptation to high altitude life. The discovery also predates all earlier findings in Tsaidam, Dingri, and Karub and is one of the most significant findings in human evolutionary biology of the last several decades. Subsequent archaeological excavation at Baishiya Cave reveals that during the Pleistocene prehistoric humans occupied the cave for a long time. Further analysis of the rich lithic and faunal remains found during the excavation shows lithic production and the existence of various wild animals including rhinos and hyenas1 (Zhang et al., 2020). The long-term and intensive occupation of the cave by Denisovans suggests that they may have adapted to life at high altitudes and may have contributed to such adaptations. Researchers have long wondered how Tibetans live and work at altitudes above 4,000 meters, that’s same as just one stop to the Everest base camp where the limited supply of oxygen makes most people sick. Other high-altitude peoples, such as Andean highlanders, have adapted to the thin air by adding more oxygen-carrying hemoglobin to their blood.  But Tibetans, counterintuitively, have less hemoglobin in their blood. This discovery led to the first genome study of Tibetans in 2010, which discovered a curious version of a gene called EPAS1(Endothelial Pas Domain Protein 1), which helps regulate blood in regions of high altitude. The investigative team compared the full EPAS1 gene in world populations and confirmed that Tibetans inherited the entire gene from Denisovans, over the past 40,000 years (Huerta-Sánchez et al., 2014). This specific gene enhanced the ability of early settlers to live on the Tibetan plateau. Later sample studies done around the world confirmed the existence of EPAS1 in modern Tibetans.

The discovery of ancient genomes in the Tibetans was further supported by yet another discovery of stone tools at Nwya Devu, a region northwest of Lhasa at the height of 4600 meters above sea level in 2013. Until that site was uncovered, there had been no signs of human habitation on the Tibetan Plateau prior to the start of the Holocene era, more than 11,000 years ago. This site pushed dating to around 40,000 years ago. It is the highest Paleolithic archaeological site yet identified globally (Lou et al., 2021). The dig has yielded an abundant blade tool assemblage, indicating hitherto-unknown capabilities for the comparatively modern humans who eked out an existence in this challenging environment. This site deepens the history of the peopling on the “roof of the world” and underscores the antiquity of human high-altitude occupations (Zhang et al., 2018), and the direction of demic dispersal of Tibeto-Burman speakers around the Tibetan Plateau and along the Himalayas.

Additional information came from nearby Chusang (4,270 meters). Several dating techniques were used to analyze sediments. They found human handprints and footprints which indicated that the plateau had been occupied at least 7,400 years ago (Meyer et al., 2017). The finding raised the question of how human settlements managed to survive at such high altitudes. The international team of researchers offered a simple answer: barley.

While Tibetans were able to move at high altitudes, the genome EPAS1 triggered its potential use of smaller amounts of oxygen efficiently. This was followed by the selection of barley as a staple food. As the share of barley was growing, the settlements were going higher too. And that’s probably no coincidence as barley is frost-hardy, and it also has a longer growing season. Moreover, a study at the genetic level revealed that barley is also in situ drought-responsive, particularly Tibetan hull-less barley.  Ground barley became the core of the quintessential make Tsampa – a lifeline of sustenance for Tibetans, and deeply intertwined with the Tibetan way of life. Tsampa is the greatest social yardstick that levels all people in Tibet, rich or poor, high or low, mighty or meek all must have their daily Tsampa or perish. Tsampa conquers all and rules all. It is without competition and without substitute if one is to survive on the Tibetan plateau. Tsampa is an offering to the gods, food for humans, and a smell (gsur) for hungry ghosts, a method of propitiation where the Tsampa is burned to feed them, and used in tsheril, a sort of longevity pill from the ritual of long-life empowerment. Barley is mentioned many times in the Blue Annals in the context of payment, as Milarepa did for his teacher Marpa, and also used in reference to a measurement – a mandated grain of barley’s space between the water offering bowls. In fact, Jamyang Norbu-la has written a detailed, beautiful, immaculately cross-referenced treatise on Tsampa, which would inspire anyone to delve further into this lifeline of the Tibetan people.

 That’s why when The Tibet Mirror, an independent Tibetan language newspaper, called out “all the Tsampa eaters” in 1959, it wasn’t arbitrary. As scholar Tsering Shakya wrote in Himal (1993) “During the height of the Tibetan resistance to the Chinese in 1959, a letter appeared in the Tibetan Mirror, symbolically addressed to “all tsampa eaters”. The writer had gone down to the staple, barley, as the most basic element which united the Tibetan-speaking world. If Buddhism provided the atom of Tibetanness, then tsampa provided the sub-particles of Tibetanness. The use of tsampa transcended dialect, sect, gender, and regionalism”.

The adaptation of Tibetans in the high-altitude region in modern times was first realized with Tenzin Norgay, one of the first to climb Mt. Everest carried Tibetan genes from his parents who came from Tibet. Then in the aftermath of the Sino-Indian war of 1962, the Indian government realized that any future conflict at the high-altitude border with China would need soldiers with special physical attributes and fitness. Tibetan refugees were destined for the call. It created a Special Frontier Force, utilizing above all Tibetan refugees – to permeate the aura of the Snow Lion on the Siachen Glacier (Uban, 2020). Many have given their lives for India, as did Tenzin Nyima recently at  Pangong Lake (altitude 4,225 meters). Today, we know that Tibetan soldiers are not only equipped with “protection amulets,” but are blessed with the gene that allows them to manage the most extreme terrain in the highest glaciers along the lofty Himalayas. However, with an evolutionary advantage comes the vulnerability of manipulation of the genetic mutation as in the “Age of genes” in the Manga series (Japanese graphic comics), especially in Tibet where the social and ethical standards in the collection of genetic information are of great concern.

That Tibetans as a race has been attested to since at least the 7th century, the “people of red face” in the Dunhuang manuscript, “people of snow land” as Thonmi Sambhota wrote, followed with another synonym “gangs can pa.” And we know of the “Tsampa eaters,” or even frequently referenced for inner attributes such as “sha khrag gcig gi mi rig,” a bloodline noted in 10th Panchen Rinpoche’s last address. Rinpoche underscores the most important characteristic of the Tibetan people that encapsulates something inherent and beyond the physical attributes of being Tibetans, the Denisovans – the first ancient human species to be revealed by genes alone and not fossil classification. 

I still owe my curiosity about the evolution of Tibetan people to that image I saw in fourth- grade,  probably drawn in accordance with the text. I give credit to its designer since it showed far more detail than the supposedly only existing mural of the monkeys and ogress (16th century), which is still on the eastern wall of the Potala Palace. Somehow, almost miraculously, that textbook image captured the landscape of the Denisovan jawbone site. This article is the result of that curiosity, plus interest and enthusiasm to learn about one’s immutable roots. It ushered me in the right direction ab initio of at least “monkey theory,” and not an outlandish myth. To sum up, I quote Marty Rubin – “Myth is ancient science; science is modern myth.”

Hyenas1 – recent fieldwork at Zamda Basin in the Southwest of the Tibetan Plateau has provided a new fossil of hyena, the occurrences hitherto unknown in Asia. Maybe the term ‘phar spyang, found in Dunhuang manuscript: Pelliot tibétain 126, and 15th century Mountain Valley Edict  (ri rgya rlung rgya bsdams pa’i rtsa tshig) could have been a term abbreviated from “pha ra and spyang ki”,  “a cross between dhole and wolf in reference to hyena”.


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(Views expressed are his own)

The author is an alumnus of Central School for Tibetans, Mussoorie, worked at the Tibetan Children’s Village. He is a member of the Tibetan National Sports Association, and currently works at the University of Chicago.

6 Responses

  1. I grew up with the same monkey and ogress mythological story about our origin, so does many other Tibetan.This article reinforce thee myth through the lens of today’s science.Thank you Gen.Karma la for all the hard work and research you had put into this wonderful Tsampa article.

  2. Wow! We can trace our ancestry to 160,000 years ago that too along the scientifically proven path of tracing the DNA! I recall the popular believe that Tibetan history is 4000 to 6000 years old and it sounds ancient. Then came “ A History of The Tibetan Empire “ by H.H. The Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche. He wrote that the first human like people ( homo sapien ) may have lived in Tibet 65,000 plus years ago, as they came out of Africa and spread to the rest of the world.
    Tibet is an ancient land and Tibetans are ancient people. Thanks to modern science, we can now scientifically trace our bone line ( rues-pa rues- gyud ) to Denisovans. The rest of the world who wants to live in high altitude like Tibet requires more hemoglobin to compensate for the lack of oxygen, only the Tibetans thrive on less hemoglobin for the same altitude. Tibetans are indeed endowed with special ability to live on a special land. This is not a myth we have been there all these while and now the science agrees with us . The magic DNA EPAS1 links us to Denisovans. Evidently there is no shortage of Tibetans carrying this special DNA to this day.

    Karma la this is a wonderful find. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Technology is an interesting thing. There is always the uses the original inventors anticipated, but like with anything, when money can be made using technology in a non-intended manner, it usually does. Human beings have been questioning the significance of our existence on this planet for eons, but like dinosaurs, we should also be aware of how our hubris may effect our existence as a species on a planet that we inhabit with so many other life forms.

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