Where Did Yaks Originate From?
The present domestic yak is descended from wild yak, which may have been caught and tamed by ancient Qiang people in the Changtang (a Tibetan term meaning “the empty highland of the north”), an area that covers more than half of Tibet.
This process is thought to have begun in the late Stone Age, about 10 000 years ago, and led to the primary yak industry, beginning in the period of the Longshan Culture of the late New Stone Age. The history of China’s yak industry is thus at least 4 500 years old. Chinese historians regard the ancient Qiang people living around 30 000 years ago as the first intelligent humans. They lived and roamed the present Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, though its average altitude then, at around 3 000 m, was lower than it is now.
These people developed quite possibly the earliest animal husbandry culture of excellence in the world – the Qiang Culture. This development is of a different type from that based on agriculture in ancient Mesopotamia, widely regarded as the cradle of civilization. The outstanding achievement of the Qiang Culture was the taming of wild beasts for domestic purposes.
Sheep and goats had already been tamed successfully and this led to the taming of yak, horse and other herbivores and the development of a society based on animal husbandry. Domestication of yak in particular led to progress, prosperity and economic advancement for the people because of the value of the yak as a beast of burden and its products of milk, hair, hides and meat – and the availability of its dung as a fuel in the areas above the tree line.
Yak expanded outward from that original area of domestication on the Plateau. To the east, yak migrated from the Bayan Kala mountains into the Songpan grasslands (located in what are now the Aba, Ruoergai and Hongyuan counties of Sichuan province) and into the Danba mountains.
To the south, the migration went through passes in the Himalayas to the mountainous grasslands of the southern slopes of the range. To the west, yak entered Kashmir through the western Tibet grasslands. And to the north the migration took the yak over the Kunlun mountains into northern Pamir, northern and southern Tianshan and Altai.
Nearly all the nationalities that now keep yak are thought to be related to the ancient Qiang people, including, for example, the Suchas and Tibetans. Others such as the Menba, Luoba and the Sherpa people of Nepal were separated from the original Qiang only when they entered the southern slopes of the Himalayan range.
The Luoba became the Yi nationality when they migrated to the Yungui Plateau from the east. Similarly, nationalities in central Asia and the Tianshan area are related to the Qiang people, as are the Mongolian and other southern nationalities.
Many old Chinese documents illustrate these links and the associations with the yak. For example, the Guoyu chuyu describes events in the late Western Zhou Dynasty (ca. 841 B.C.): “… The Bapu’s rhinoceros and yak cannot be destroyed …” (Bapu was the northern part of the ancient Ba nation located in the present Daba mountains area of Sichuan province). The old text describes how yak were raised in large numbers.
A geological document, the Shanhaijing Zhongshanjing, dating from 400 B.C., states: “In the northeast there is a mountain called Jingshan. Its northern slope abounds with iron and the southern slopes are rich in gold. There are many yak on the mountain ….” The Jingshan is at the extremity of the Daba range in what is now the Xiangyan area of Hubei province.
Many other Chinese documents dating from the fourth to the first century B.C. attest to the abundance of yak on the mountainous slopes. They also describe the migration, often forced by oppression from despotic rulers, of the Qiang people who took their yak with them. The Qiang people thus branched into what became different races living in isolation from each other. One of these was the sixth Mao Niu race – a name synonymous with one of the names for yak.
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