Human Planet
Copyright Timothy Allen / BBC

Mountains

From lush cloud forests at lower altitudes to bare summits that literally take your breath away, the higher we climb, the less oxygen there is to sustain us. Yet, whether in the Himalayas, the Andes or the relatively low-lying mountains of the Philippines, people living at altitude have always found remarkable ways to adapt to the high life.


Photo from Human Planet
Kazakh hunters train golden eagles to hunt foxes and wolves on the mountain plateau in Western Mongolia.

Introduction

Human Planet
Copyright Timothy Allen / BBC Mountains

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About Mountains

Weather in the mountains can be brutal, shifting from tropical to Arctic in a matter of hours, and the higher you climb, the tougher it gets as the oxygen slowly disappears. But millions of people around the world still choose to live at altitude, depending on adaptations, technology and community spirit to help them survive on the roof of the world.

The Himalayan mountain range is home to a hundred of the world’s tallest, yet seventy million people live here, many at altitudes thought to pose a threat to the average human body. The villages of Laya and Lunana, for example, are in the Bhutanese Himalayas and are some of the highest and most remote human settlements on earth, with yak camps at altitudes of 6,000m. At these dizzying heights, resources are few, hardiness is essential, and possessions and land are precious. As a result, the Layap people keep their assets in the family by practicing polyandry.

Polyandry is one of the rarest forms of marriage in the world, one in which a woman is married to more than one man at the same time, sometimes even in the same house. This keeps land, yaks and money in the family, but not all mountain dwellers practice polyandry. The Karen hill tribe of Thailand, for instance, are largely monogamous.

The highlands clearly influence how humans adapt physically, but mountain-dwellers have also gone to great lengths to adapt their surroundings to suit their needs. One of the most impressive examples of this can still be found in the Banaue rice terraces of the Philippines. Here, 2000 years ago, indigenous people used hand tools to build stone walls around their mountains. Working together they carved 12,000 miles of rice terraces, terraces that are still being worked by their descendants to this very day.

In the ‘fairy mountains’ of Cappadocia, Turkey, people still in the caves that their ancestors carved out of volcanic rock. The only difference now is that many of them are finely furnished and rented out as accommodation to the tourists who want to reconnect with the spirit of their inner caveman.

The idea of spirits is something that many Andean people would also understand. The Andes are the longest mountain range in the world and the people who live here have great reverence and respect for the mountains in which they live. The Incas used to view the tall peaks as gods, and perhaps understandably so. After all, how else to explain the presence of a life-sustaining lake at 4000m, in the middle of the desert?

If the Incas were right and the gods do exist perhaps now would be a good time to flex their muscles. If mining companies get their way, the lake will be drained and the water will disappear. Not only will this disturb the fragile ecosystem here, it is bound to make life even more difficult for those struggling to survive in these punishing mountains.

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