Dr. David Dian Zhang had seen traces left by early humans on the Tibetan Plateau before, but this time was different.
The geologist and his team had hiked up to a fossilized hot spring around 80 kilometers northwest of Lhasa, where a villager said he’d seen a strange set of hand and footprints on a boulder. Locals claimed they were made by a goddess, or possibly a yeti.
Zhang knew the true origin was the ancient hominids who roamed these mountains tens of thousands of years ago. He had seen similar markings many times in the region, as its harsh, icy climate can leave sites frozen in time for millennia.
Yet, the 67-year-old was still amazed by what he found at the spring. The neat cluster of prints, he felt certain, hadn’t been left there by accident.
“You could see clearly that these were marks made — deliberately — by humans,” Zhang tells Sixth Tone. “Someone did this on purpose. It was just like a mosaic.”
Even on that day in 2018, Zhang knew the impressions must be extremely old: He could tell simply by looking at the nature of the terrain around him. But the real surprise came later, when radiometric analysis of the travertine rock indicated the prints dated back to between 169,000 and 226,000 years ago.
That would make them the oldest examples of immobile art ever found, far outdating previous discoveries such as the hand stenciling uncovered on cave walls on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi (around 40,000 years old) and the Chauvet cave paintings in France (30,000 years old).
A view of the 200,000-year-old prints discovered in Tibet Autonomous Region, 2018. Courtesy of David Dian Zhang
Zhang’s team at South China’s Guangzhou University finally published their findings in the journal Science Bulletin two weeks ago, and the paper has since generated headlines around the world.
After analyzing the size of the prints, Zhang and his team believe they were made by two children: the footprints by a 7-year-old and the handprints by a 12-year-old. The kids may have been part of a community of Denisovans — a hominid species that predates even the Neanderthals — based on recent discoveries of Denisovan bones in the region, according to Zhang.
“I have seen these people in my dreams, perhaps running across the grasslands and hunting,” Zhang says.
Some have questioned whether the find truly represents a form of prehistoric art, arguing the children could have left the prints accidentally. Others admit the markings were almost certainly made intentionally, but set a higher bar for what constitutes artistic creation.
But Zhang’s team has stuck to their guns. It’s highly unlikely such a combination of hand and footprints could have been made by pure chance, they insist. The marks also don’t have a clear utilitarian purpose, indicating they were the product of some creative instinct, according to Thomas Urban, an archaeologist at Cornell University who worked on the project.
“These young kids saw this medium and intentionally altered it. We can only speculate beyond that,” Urban said in a recent interview. “This could be a kind of performance, a live show — like somebody says, ‘Hey, look at me, I’ve made some handprints over these footprints.’”
A 3-D relief model of the Quesang hand and foot prints. The colors indicate the depth of the impressions on the rock surface. Courtesy of David Dian Zhang
Zhang, meanwhile, says the discovery may just be the tip of the iceberg. The academic first stumbled across ancient hand and footprints in the mountains of Tibet Autonomous Region in the 1980s, while he was still working toward his PhD in geology from Manchester University.
The papers Zhang turned in on his early finds changed the world’s understanding of life in ancient Tibet, suggesting there were human settlements in the frigid region during the last Ice Age. They also called into question previous assumptions that a glacier completely covered the plateau during that period.
But in the decades since, Zhang’s work has focused mostly on studying how climate change has impacted Chinese society over the past 2,000 years. It is only recently that he has restarted his research into humanity’s ancient past on the Tibetan Plateau — a passion project he wants to indulge now that he’s approaching retirement.
Speaking with Sixth Tone via Zoom from his office at Guangzhou University’s School of Geographical Sciences and Remote Sensing, Zhang discusses how his latest discovery came about — and where he plans to take the project next. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Dr. David Dian Zhang poses for a photo with the ancient hand and foot prints (below) in Tibet Autonomous Region, 2018. Courtesy of David Dian Zhang
Sixth Tone: How did you first come across the hand and footprints you found in Tibet Autonomous Region back in the late 1980s?
David Dian Zhang: We went there because of the hot springs and those geological formations. That was the work we were doing: Charting those formations and the geology of the region. It was when we were looking for those that I first found the handprints and footprints. There were about 18.
The local people came to me and said that it was probably the yetis, those legendary beasts in the Himalayas. I just took a few pictures because I was focusing on my thesis. But when I came to the University of Hong Kong in 1995, I wanted to continue my studies on Tibet. It’s not my major field of study, but I find it very interesting.
So I went back, and then I wrote a paper that was widely reported in many countries. There were no previous records of human beings in such high places and in such harsh conditions in Asia so long ago. It received a lot of attention.
Sixth Tone: And how did your latest discovery then come about?
Zhang: After I joined Guangzhou University in 2018, we went back to Tibet to look again. Initially, we only found some hand and footprints that had previously been reported. We wanted to explore further, but we needed permission, and the local government didn’t fully understand what we were trying to do — they thought we were trying to dig up some treasure.
But we talked with them, got permission, and then asked a local village head whether he knew of any more sites. He told us of this place — a place that nobody else knew. It was very exciting, so we kept going back every year.
Sixth Tone: Did the villagers tell you how they found this site?
Zhang: They had only found the prints relatively recently — after my first findings in the late ’80s. They told me one of the villagers had actually been sleeping on that exact rock. He had been resting in the sunshine, enjoying life. When he got up, his hand touched that surface and he saw the markings. He thought they must be the hand or footprints of a goddess. They found it very strange.
A local woman poses for a photo in Tibet Autonomous Region, 2018. Courtesy of David Dian Zhang
Sixth Tone: What went through your mind when you first saw them?
Zhang: We’d just been given permission to go there. We followed someone on a motorcycle, who led us to this place. We climbed up and there they were — these prints. We could see immediately that they were put there deliberately — hands and feet pressed into the soft mud. We were very excited.
Then, when we heard the results of the dating analysis, I was really shocked. They were so old. In China, the history of Homo sapiens only goes back tens of thousands of years. Now, we have proof of some form of intelligence, someone with an imagination imprinting their hands and feet into the soft mud — and it happened some 200,000 years ago. I was so excited because I knew the significance of this kind of finding.
Sixth Tone: Did you feel a connection with the beings that made these markings when you saw them?
Zhang: Yes, I feel a connection. You know, East Asians share many genetic characteristics, so maybe there is a direct connection between me and Tibet. Some people have genes that make them suited for living at high altitude. I feel I have that.
Recently, there were some bones of ancient Denisovans discovered on a lower part of the Tibetan Plateau — around 3,200 meters above sea level. The site we visited was over 4,000 meters. But we guess the people who made the prints were also Denisovans, and modern Tibetans also share some Denisovan genes. Maybe I have them, too.
The team investigates the travertine layers where the hand and footprint were found, in Tibet Autonomous Region, 2018. Courtesy of David Dian Zhang
Sixth Tone: There has been some discussion over whether or not these prints constitute a work of art. What’s your take?
Zhang: I had already studied this site before. When the mud rises from the hot springs, the carbon dioxide is quickly released and the calcium carbonate deposit remains. So, if you put your hand or foot on the mud, it will solidify quickly. Someone did it deliberately, as you can see when you look at these prints. From the first moment, I thought someone must have made these on purpose. They are just so perfect, the way they’re arranged.
Sixth Tone: How do you feel about this discovery on a personal level?
Zhang: I think of it as an academic achievement. I’m proud of it because I have spent a lot of time on this research since I came to Guangzhou University. I’m going to retire soon, and I want to enjoy life and follow my interests. These things take up so much time and are a lot of work.
Sixth Tone: Do you ever think about the people who made these markings and what kind of life they were leading?
Zhang: I actually just wrote a poem apologizing to these ancient people. I feel sorry for exposing their creation to the world. There’s a possibility it may be damaged in the future. Maybe in another world, we were friends.
The first time I saw the mountains in Tibet 34 years ago, I wept. I had dreamed about those high mountains and endless landscapes. I felt like a pebble, so small. Being there helped me understand myself better.
So, yes, sometimes I think about those people. That’s why I said in my poem that in a past life, maybe I was your friend and we danced and sang together.
Sixth Tone: Where does this discovery leave your research?
Zhang: There is more work ahead and more places to explore that have these prints. I can’t tell you where they are — we’re going to write to the government to ask them to protect these places. We have more work to do.
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: Dr. David Dian Zhang inspects the hand and foot prints in Quesang, Tibet Autonomous Region, 2018. Courtesy of David Dian Zhang)