Altitude Sickness A Barrier To Ethnic Integration

Ethnic segregation may be reinforced by the biological tolerance of different peoples to high altitudes, according to a new study.

Asian Scientist (Jul. 4, 2013) – Ethnic segregation in nations straddling the world’s steepest terrains may be reinforced by the biological tolerance of different peoples to high altitudes. This is the conclusion of a study that examined the effect of elevation on ethnic demographics.

The study, published in Applied Geography, suggested that people native to low-lying areas can be naturally barred from regions such as the Tibetan Plateau, the Andes or the Himalayas by altitude sickness, which is caused by low oxygen concentration in the air and can be life-threatening.

As a result, the local population make-ups may become more homogeneous as elevation increases. In nations that encompass people living in both high- and low-lands, this separation can potentially increase ethnic tension.

The researchers studied Tibet and found that elevation has heavily influenced the location of the surrounding region’s population of Han Chinese, who make up 92 percent of China’s population and originate from the country’s eastern plains.

Tibet has an average elevation of roughly 4,380 meters above sea level. The researchers found that the number of settlements with a large Han Chinese population peaks at around 2,700 meters, while Tibetan settlements only begin to peter out beyond 5,200 meters.

According to the researchers, the sudden drop in the Han Chinese population at high altitudes can be attributed to altitude sickness. To support this claim, they cite existing research showing that Han Chinese are indeed susceptible to altitude sickness in areas in which Tibetans thrive.

The researchers used 2000 Chinese census data to determine the Han population in settlements within the traditional Tibetan homeland, which includes the Tibetan Autonomous Region as well as portions of the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan. They also gauged past Han Chinese presence through maps and a database that indicate whether the official name of each of the 1,960 settlements in this area is Han Chinese, Tibetan or both.

Their analysis showed that towns with at least one-third Han Chinese populations or were traditional Han settlements, are largely located at low altitudes. No towns with a Chinese name exist above 4,600 meters. Meanwhile, the greatest number of settlements with a Tibetan name can be found at 4,500 meters, an area that has a minimum of Han Chinese inhabitants.

“What the outcome suggests is that there is a direct effect of altitude now as well as in historical settlement patterns,” said Christopher Paik, lead author of the study.

“But if historical settlement is the only channel through which altitude influenced current settlement patterns, then there wouldn’t be the direct influence of elevation through altitude sickness that we still see. Han Chinese still suffer from altitude sickness and the influence on settlement seems to persist today.”

The study shows that geography continues to play a strong role in regional diversity despite modern trappings such as the Qinghai-Tibet railway and government initiatives such as China’s Western Development Program. The researchers believe that ethnic integration policies may work in the long run, but will be harder to implement in higher altitude regions.

The article can be found at: Paik et al. (2013) Altitude And Adaptation: A Study Of Geography And Ethnic Division.


Source: Princeton University; Photo: archer10 (Dennis)/Flickr.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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