Scientists know that humans were kicking around the lower altitudes of the Tibetan Peninsula around 10,000 years ago. Permanent settlements, however, didn't show up in the harsh higher altitudes until 3,600 years ago. What happened that allowed ancient settlers to survive in a region nicknamed the "roof of the world"? They discovered barley, reports Science. Analysis of charred seeds suggests that humans figured out around that time that barley could be grown at 11,000 feet—unlike their previous staple of millet, reports the Washington Post.
"As barley is frost-hardy and cold-tolerant, it grows very well on the Tibetan Plateau even today," archaeologist Dongju Zhang of China's Lanzhou University tells Reuters. "Therefore, barley agriculture could provide people enough—and sustained—food supplies even during wintertime." The discovery was probably a "lucky accident," say the researchers, given that barely had been first domesticated in a different part of Asia. Scientists think that Tibetans had acquired genes to survive in high altitudes tens of thousands of years ago, but they still needed to a crop to make that survival possible—and barley did the trick. (Archaeologists think ancient settlers in Peru were at even higher altitudes.)