July 14, 2010

Are Tibetans superhuman?

How is it that Tibetans thrive at 13,000 feet, where those of us born closer to sea level get sick? Scientists now think that Tibetans have evolved while most of the rest of us have stood still:

Recent research shows that Tibetans, who have lived isolated in these high altitudes for thousands of years, enjoy a genetic variation that keeps their hemoglobin levels in a normal range. A variation of EPAS1, a gene that is sometimes associated with increased athleticism, causes an enzymatic change in the way oxygen binds to blood and is transported around the body. Compared to lowland Chinese, Tibetans thrive in high altitude—they do not suffer from chronic altitude sickness and their children are born with normal weight.

"It makes them super athletes at altitude, without a doubt," says Ken Kamler, a surgeon, author of Surviving the Extremes and an editorial advisor to Popular Mechanics. "I've been on climbs with these guys, and I'm maybe a foot taller than some of them, and they carry loads on their backs that I can't even lift off the ground, and they will carry them way faster than I'm climbing with a much lighter load."

Read the rest here.

[Image: Traversing the treacherous terrain at elevations over 10,000 feet is no easy task—unless you're a Tibetan, that is. (Travel Ink/Getty Images)]

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TenzinRangdol's picture

That doesn't mean we're super human, but you could say we are more than your average human?
and...The Times article was interesting because it essentially said that the Tibetans are essentially cousins of Han Chinese. Which of course nobody on any side of this issue wants to go into depth about…

what are you trying to infer? Okay so maybe we are descended from Han Chinese but that doesn't make us Your cousins because you could obviously say that about any other ''people'' since everyone is bound to be descended from some other place and africa being at the top of the list of places your ancestors were from. Also i would like to add that no han chinese have this mutation, but all Tibetans do. Which could only mean we have no connection with chinese people except in the past. which again you could say any ''people'' have ancestors from another place.
Our ancestors could also be from Mongolia not China and this is excepted by all Tibetans and also most scientists because our ''mutation'' brings us more closer to mongolians and other people of high altitudes than China. Oh, and also why do you take pride in saying tibetans are cousins of china, we are cousins of mostly all asian people and one more thing none of us will accept that. WHY DO YOU WANT US TO BE CHINESE SO BAD? I'M SRRY BUT NO1 WANTS TO BE YOU''CHINESE'' PEOPLE

Tricycle » The cultural vaccum and variant genes's picture

[...] here’s more on that variant gene Tibetans are said to have that we wrote about last week. The article is mostly notable for the New York Times’s caption of the photo of the [...]

Philip Ryan's picture

Mumon: You're right, the title of this post could be improved, and the Popular Mechanics article itself is not the most sterling piece of journalism the world has ever seen—the article you provide the link to is better!

We had a discussion in the office today touching on issues like this and I expect a blog post (probably not from me) will come out of it.


Mumon's picture


Apparently you have a very well-developed capacity to access your outrage.

Maybe so, but the title of the post did bring to mind the phrase Orientalism.

Then again, having clicked through the article, I think the term "Orientalism" applies in one way or another to all the "superhuman" designations therein.

I'd read a similar bit in the Times a few days ago and thought that was what you were quoting - my apologies.

The Times article was interesting because it essentially said that the Tibetans are essentially cousins of Han Chinese. Which of course nobody on any side of this issue wants to go into depth about...

Philip Ryan's picture

Mumon: The article mentions several other groups and mutations, including, if you read it, lactose tolerance. The changes tend to happen in isolated groups: Okinawans, Tibetans, Europeans 7500 years ago, etc.

The rest of us have stood still—in relation to Tibetans developing the EPAS1 gene. Perhaps it could have been more felicitously phrased, but really, "the r-word?" Please. Apparently you have a very well-developed capacity to access your outrage.

Mumon's picture

"While most of the rest of us stood still?"

Not only is that scientifically incorrect, as there are no reasons why other genetic traits in other populations have not arisen in that time frame (all you need is an isolated population and an introduction of a genetic variation that confers a survival advantage) but it borders on the "r" word.

As examples of such traits that might have arisen: lactose tolerance is a biggie that has evolved within the span of time you're discussing.

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