Just a few weeks ago and after being introduced by our common friend, the Tibetan expert Isrun Engelhardt, I got in contact with the well-known Canadian biologist, born in Ukraine, Valerius Geist. He is a widely recognized specialist in the biology, behavior and social dynamics of large mammals and he is a champion of ethical hunting. Back in 1991, he published a paper on the taxonomy of the Argali or Giant sheep, Ovis ammon. In this work he recognized seven subspecies and while studying material of the subspecies known as Tibetan argali (Ovis ammon hodsonii), he found that the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (now The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University) had several females collected by the German zoologist and explorer Ernst Schäfer (1910-1992), and the adventurer and naturalist Brooke Dolan II (1908-1945) during the second Dolan Expedition to eastern Tibet from 1934 to 1936. Surprisingly, among these females there were a few stunted adult males, similar in size and characteristics to the females. The dwarfed males showed “delayed development and were in female company” when taken by Schäfer along the rugged mountains of a particular section of Eastern Tibet. Those dwarfed, stunted males, were completely different from the large, typical males of larger size and impressively developed horns that were collected in the neighboring lower, valley areas next to the mountains.

In our correspondence, Valerius pointed out an article that was published in Der Spiegel in 2014, based on the discoveries of Neanderthal, Denisovan, and other archaic human genome intrusions into modern human’s genome. It includes three maps showing the distribution of several primitive genes (HLA – A* - 11; HLA – A – C; HLA – A) and the pseudogene RRM2P4 worldwide. These maps clearly show that the Hsi-fan region, the same region where the Tibetan Argali can be found, “contains” a high concentration of primitive human genes. The highest density of the so-called “early human” genes are sort of “spreading out” from that area that lies between the high western mountain walls of the provinces on Yunnan and Szechuan, in China, the valley of the Brahmaputra River in India and parts of northern Burma and eastern Tibet that are also included as part of this area.

There, we find a striking overlap of archaic human genes and human characteristics, mixed also with archaic pre-Pleistocene fauna, and high bio- and cultural diversity. The very particular landscape of the region presents a series of complex morphological and geological processes and a climate that favors the retention of the primitiveness of living organisms, including humans. The geographic features of the region are ideal to escape from prosecution of any kind, predators are very scarce or non-existent. One must easily expect that ancient humans that were living in this area held out longest due to the topographic setting, and they were also able to withstand the invasion of more modern humans that dispersed “out of Africa” after the Toba supervolcanic eruption that occurred about 75 thousand years ago in Sumatra.

The region is, indeed, a “Survival Fortress” with huge canyon walls where ancient and modern humans survived side by side during the Würm Glaciation, the last glacial period that ended about 12 thousand years ago. It seems also that during the whole Würm Glaciation, in this Hsi-fan region, post-Toba modern and primitive humans survived side by side for more than 40,000 years well into the period of de-glaciation (when many problems arose as occurred in Europe during that time). However, such a long time of contact was more than enough to allow a flow of genes from archaic to modern humans. The extent of tropical influence during the glaciation must then have been less compared to now. Also, when the Denisova hominins arrived earlier from the north, they apparently also interbred with Hsi-fan archaic humans as one would suspect from the mtDNA of the first Denisovan genome analyzed and published in 2010, based on an unknown ancient hominid discovered in southern Siberia. But, why is this possible?

“The answer lies in the zoo-geographic study conducted in the 1930s by Ernst Schäfer. The Hsi-fan region is a land of parallel running deep and steep canyons holding such mighty rivers as the Brahmaputra, Mekong, and the Yangtze. It is affected by massive uplifts and, climatically, by both, the Indian Monsoon coming from the southwest, and the South-East Asian Monsoon coming from the east. Due to the enormous elevation differences from canyon-bottom to ridge top, and due to its southern locality, it draws in from the south the Indo-Malayan fauna, and from the north the Siberian-Tibetan fauna. Consequently, there is a stacking of habitat belts in these canyons from the Tropic to the Arctic.”

In the area, some of the canyon walls rise as enormous cliffs taller than 3000 meters above the valley floor. The south-facing canyons are “showered” by hot tropical air generating some tropical conditions in the valleys. Varied vegetation is found from the valley floors to the glacier,

“… beginning with tropical forests, bamboo jungle, grasslands, cloud-forests, Palearctic mountain forests, rhododendron & willow thickets, sub-alpine dwarf conifer scrubs, and finally alpine habitats and glaciers on the top of the ridges. There are in addition sharp vegetation differences generated by aspect, such as south-facing as opposed to north-facing slopes. And it’s a landscape peppered in elevation with large and small spots of fertility, wherever fertile silt and loess happens to accumulate.”

These factors allow for incredible biodiversity. As a proof of this we can mention as example the amazing variety of birds. There are 63 genera, only in the Hsi-fan area proper. But extending into India and Tibet, from the Hsi-fan, we find another 40 bird genera. In the area going to the Alpine/Arctic only (skipping India), there are 27 more genera. And finally, extending from the Hsi-Fan to north-east India we find 20 genera. The Hsi-fan region contains numerous species of primitive birds, but also of very primitive mammals, such as deer, caprids, bears, canids, viverrids, and rodents. There are also lots of plant forms, many endemics strictly adapted to the Hsi-Fan region. It is clear that the landscape favors many cliff-adapted species, and the presence of so many ecological water and habitat barriers, it also favors the presence of a multitude of endemic species. Plants and other organisms are also incredibly diverse. Besides, historically, mega-herbivores and carnivores seem to have been scarce, which is not surprising. All this set of very particular characteristics had been an effective refuge for its adapted inhabitants, from predators and hunters.

After exploring and visiting this region searching for zoological samples to bring to the Academy of Sciences of Philadelphia, Ernst Schäfer, highly knowledgeable in zoology, ecology, animal behavior, and ethnology, noted and wrote about how difficult it was to hunt in the Hsi-fan. I paraphrase some of his words originally written in German in one of his diaries:

“… here we find the deepest erosion walls of our planet. … as a result, many tribes were contained in these remote mountains. Here we found a large museum of ethnological relics. About 40 0r 50 tribes. … they were stunted and as small as the dwarf animals they had with them. …”

Such harsh conditions were the main reason, Schäfer, pointed out, why species as vulnerable to hunting as the giant and red pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca and Ailurus fulgens, respectively) survived in these towering jungle-covered cliff walls. Curiously, the main goal of the first Dolan Expedition was to at least collect one Giant Panda for scientific purposes.

Pandas were virtually unknown and the first shown to the western world was by the French missionary Armand David (1826-1900) thanks to a skin he was given in 1869. The German Zoologist and Ornithologist Hugo Weigold (1886-1973), who was also a member of Dolan II expeditions, was the first westerner to see a Panda cub alive and he bought it in 1916 but the animal soon died. The Australian missionary James Huston (J.H.) Edgar (1872-1936) is often credited with the sighting of a panda in the wild also in 1916, but this was doubted by Brooke Dolan II as expressed in a letter to the Harvard Mammologist Glover Morrill Allen (1879-1942):

“As for the Reverend Edgar’s account of a white bear in a tree between Batang and Derge, I would as well expect to see an Indian rhino on that road. Edgar was essentially a “leg puller” and as far as natural history is concerned did not know the difference between a mouse and a rat. The nearest bamboo is many days travel south of Batang, several hundred, the Lord knows what distance north or west. The road from Batang to Derge runs through poplar, prickly oak, barberry, willow, etc. Sowerby, who accepts this yarn, has never been in Szechuan.”

Thus, the first westerners who certainly saw pandas in the wild, alive, were Kermit (1889-1943) and Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (1887-1944) in 1929, hunted a specimen and obtained an additional skin, and both are still exhibited at the Field Museum of Natural history in Chicago. Later, Schäfer and Dolan II were able to collect some Giant Pandas in 1931 and they have been in exhibition at the Academy since 1933.

Without a doubt, early humans had nearly two million years to adapt and settle in the Hsi-fan region. Schäfer also mentioned archaeological evidence indicating their presence. In the general area, the oldest Homo erectus fossil in China, some 1.7 my old, was found in Yunnan. The Red Deer Cave people from Longlin and Maludong from Southwest China may also fit here.

It looks like small size was a re-evolving of “primitive” morphological characteristics reminiscent of Australopithecus, and according to Valerius, it might lead us to believe that Homo erectus was highly adaptable to changing conditions. This is why some human groups adapted closely to the harsh canyon landscape of the Hsi-tan region and its rich and diverse biota.

“It’s a landscape made for thorough exploitation by courageous, agile hunter-gatherers. Most remarkable, the archaic humans in the Hsi-fan survived the Toba Super Eruption Event some 73,000 years ago, despite their proximity to it, while pre-Toban “out of Africa” modern immigrants perished. This accentuates the deep canyon complex of the Hsi-Fan region as a “Survival fortress”. The influx of archaic genes into moderns occurred with post-Toba “out of Africa” immigrants. The Denisovans to the north also survived, as they mixed in Melanesia with post - Toban “out of Africa” immigrants. Also, the survival of archaic people virtually into the Holocene, despite the traumatic events during and following the Toba Super Eruption, is also evidenced by the Longlin and Maludong cave finds. The survival of archaic, but not of modern humans, supports the notion that colonizing the Hsi-Fan complex by modern hunter-gatherers would have been very difficult in the presence of well-adapted archaic competitors.”

Thus, it seems that specialized Homo erectus, used the canyonlands of the Hsi-fan region as a refuge over a very long-time span over which modern humans had the opportunity to contact such primitive humans.

It is quite significant that at the time of Schäfer’s presence in the Hsi-fan region in the mid-1930s there were still up to 50 native tribes concentrated there, which were surrounded by the Chinese. Those tribes were probably refugees of long-standing. The sheer misery of post-glacial existence in the near absence of the megafauna was a misfortune, which generated marginal agriculture that was still preserved during Schäfer's visit. He noted that the body size of some of the natives, as well as the size of their livestock, was diminutive.

Valerius had been able to read Schäfer’s Dr. Habil. thesis in detail, and we both have read most of his research works and writings. When referring to the archaic and Hsi-fan tribes present during the time of his visit, Schäfer goes on to state that the Chinese, unlike the natives of India, have acted intolerant to diversity and always push to convert contacted and conquered groups into their culture. A clear example of this is what they have done to the small Kingdom of Tibet. Unfortunately, what Schäfer saw of those aboriginal cultures in the Hsi-fan region and in Tibet, is gone today, making his writings priceless.

Anyway, while archaic hunter-gatherers during glacial times had a hard life in the Hsi-fan region, it became intolerable during de-glaciation and the subsequent megafaunal extinction, leading to both, an invasion of modern humans and the extermination of archaic hunter-gatherer rivals with the subsequent development of marginal subsistence agriculture. The tribal diversity in the Hsi-fan, surrounded by the dominant Chinese culture, is thus a modern cultural example of the “refuge phenomenon” emphasized by the region’s characteristics.

Thus, hybridization between archaic and modern humans in the area took place in the same manner as it has been postulated for Neanderthal hybridization with modern humans in the west. The latter occasionally adopting babies of early Homo erectus settlers that were killed or dispersed. These adopted babies becoming part of the modern humans’ communities, but also accepting and meeting other archaic humans and mating with them, as mentioned by the Paleontologist and Evolutionary Biologist Nick Longrich in an article that my friend, the Venezuelan ecologist Rafael Herrera sent me recently (and also suggested some thoughtful corrections to an earlier draft of this note):

“Elsewhere, DNA tells of other encounters with archaic humans. East Asian, Polynesian and Australian groups have DNA from Denisovans. DNA from another species, possibly Homo erectus, occurs in many Asian people. African genomes show traces of DNA from yet another archaic species. The fact that we interbred with these other species proves that they disappeared only after encountering us.”

The proposal of the idea of a “Survival Fortress” for the Hsi-fan region, was developed by Ernst Schäfer, a brilliant, but controversial scientist, in his Doctor Habilitatis thesis, Tiergeographisch-Ökologische Studien über das Tibetische Hochland. (eine biogeographische Arbeit auf Grund dreier Forschungsreisen nach Tibet und in die himalajanischen Hochgebirge) [Zoo-geographic Ecological Studies of the Tibetan Highlands (a bio-geographic work based on three Expeditions into Tibet and the Himalayan mountain ranges)]. Here, he presents a biogeographic synthesis on the biota of Eastern Tibet and the Hsi-fan region. This work was, unfortunately, never published and as far as we know only three copies exist, after a third one just recently surfaced at the Berlin State Library.

As I mentioned at the beginning of these notes, while collecting and studying representative samples of the Tibetan Argali that Schäfer, non-selectively hunted, Valerius noted the presence of old males with diminutive horns and “body size,” confused among the females. This allowed him to verify the presence of two types of males in this subspecies, “… those that left the female bands for the rich, rolling grasslands below the cliff and rubble ridges which female sheep occupied with their young for security;” and those that remained with the females in the poor and grazed-out rugged terrain. The first group of males grew into big horned rams, able to escape predators by high-speed running; the latter remained in over-grazed land, being of small size and looking like females. Without a doubt, an interesting evolutionary strategy of these animals. The harsh conditions of the region influenced and promoted dwarfing of all species, including humans, living in the rugged cliffs of the Hsi-fan as Schäfer had suggested so many years before.

Schäfer was a prolific author, with about 100 research-based publications including over 15 books. His Dr. Habil. dissertation is loaded with very original observations and insights. He had not only an encyclopedic mind for details but also a great ability for synthesis and was able to see and point out a larger picture.

I have been researching about Schäfer for quite a while now, and have learned about him through his writings and publications. But Valerius met him personally, communicated with him frequently, and they visited each other. Valerius even received from Schäfer a copy of his unpublished Magnum Opus. Soon after the publication of his paper “On the Taxonomy of giant sheep (Ovis ammon Linnaeus 1766)” and during a visit to Germany, Valerius called Schäfer to mention how accurate his theory on the “survival fortress” was, as well as the presence of the stunted males among females of the Tibetan Argali,

“… [there are] two forms of mature males! … [Valerius] phoned him …, and [Schäfer] laughed with joy. He died eight days later.”