Cynthia Beall, anthropologist

A scientist-humanitarian offers wealth — in the form of woolly grazers — to remote Tibetan nomads who have adapted to life at extreme heights. Interview by Amber Dance

May 25, 2008

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Beall

High on the Tibetan plateau, surrounded by yaks and the tents of their herders, Cynthia Beall conducts her research. A 58-year-old anthropologist at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, Beall treks above 15,000 feet to study how Tibetan nomads survive at such high altitudes. She takes their blood and measures their breathing to learn how their bodies have adapted.

In more than 20 years of study, she's watched as the nomads dealt with life after China's Cultural Revolution. In the 1960s the Chinese organized the nomads into communes. The government tried to annihilate their traditions, forcibly changing everything from their religion to their haircuts. After Maoism fell, the communes dissolved in 1981. Every family started on equal footing, with the same number of animals — a currency more important than money for these pastoralists. Since then the gap between rich and poor has widened.

While working with the nomads, Beall and her colleague Mel Goldstein, also at Case Western, developed a program to help the poorest families. It's a bank that trades in sheep instead of money. Families can use the loaned animals, purchased from wealthy nomads, to build up their own herds and climb into the middle class. The animals provide milk for cheese, yogurt, and butter, plus wool that the nomads wear or trade for other goods.

At the 2008 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, Beall and Goldstein joined other anthropologists to discuss how their academic studies can provide material benefit for their subjects.

I thought anthropologists were supposed to stay out of the cultures they study.

I think there's been a big change in thinking about whether to do anything with the people you work with. In many cases, we've been working with people for a long time, and we actually know a lot about what might improve their lives. It's not that everyone's life needs improving, but when you're working in the third world — or even if you're working in the inner city — you could say, "I'm a scientist, I need to keep hands off." Or you could say, "I really learned how the system works, and I think I can make it better." We've realized that we could use our knowledge to help — hopefully, without damaging.

What kind of damage could be done?

Well-intentioned outsiders could step into the middle of local problems. For example, someone might intervene in local disputes or in family quarrels and upset the traditional ways of resolving such problems, or not be aware of the origins of the dispute or the ramifications of her decision.

I've heard the place you study has been called "Headache Mountain."

There's a quote from a Chinese diplomat [in 100 AD] who was sent, as the ambassador, to what we think is Afghanistan. And he did say, "First, one comes to the Greater and Lesser Headache Mountains." And then he talks about nausea and vomiting and everything — classic acute mountain sickness. These nomads we study live at 15,000 to 17,000 feet. Which is high.

"People in the nomad areas had never seen European foreigners before. You always have to explain what you're doing."

What is it like for you when you go up there?

I'm lucky [knocks on wood] that I don't get sick. I adapt well. I have had students who got sick and had to be evacuated. We pitch tents. We eat the same things they do. We buy barley, toasted ground barley, dried cheese, dried meat, potatoes, onions.

I read that they drink something called "butter tea." What is it really?

They buy tea in hard bricks. It's so hard-packed that they use a knife to break off lumps of tea leaves. They boil the tea leaves, then pour the tea into a "tea churn," which in the old days was a length of bamboo. A small one would be a meter tall, a big one might be a meter and a half tall, maybe eight inches in diameter. They throw in a handful of butter and a handful of rock salt, then the tea. There's a plunger, so they'll churn it up and down and it gets a little bit frothy.

Sounds revolting. Have you tried it?

Oh yeah, I drink it all the time. At first I was a little bit worried — am I going to be able to drink that stuff for a whole year? At first it's soup, not tea. Now it's tea.

How has the political situation in Tibet has affected these nomads?

As someone put it when we first went, "It's a good thing you came now instead of ten years ago, because now we can be friends." They knew that the governments were not on good terms. The political things, of course, affect them enormously. They were formed into collectives, and then they were decollectivized.

You were one of the first anthropologists able to go there.

Things started opening up in '81. My colleague, Mel Goldstein, is world-famous for his studies of Tibetan society and culture. I'm a physical anthropologist; I'm interested in how they live at high altitudes, what their diet is like, what their patterns of growth and development are, things like that. So we cover the waterfront that way.

What did they think when you first arrived?

We started in '86, and people in the nomad areas had never seen European foreigners before. You always have to explain what you're doing: We're here to find out how you make a living. And this is a really tough environment. It's high, it's cold, it's dry. And that made perfect sense to them — they knew they're tough. They knew they had specialized knowledge.

The Tibetan nomads deal with the high altitude physiologically differently than some other populations.

That was one of my real motivations for going there. Until the '70s almost all of the information on how people adapt to high altitude came from the Andes. There was the "Andean man model" — large, barrel-shaped chests with large lungs, very high hemoglobin concentrations, and a bunch of other features.

If you have high hemoglobin, that means you can carry more oxygen throughout the body?

Think of it as there's less oxygen available to pick up, but they have a bigger sponge. I did my dissertation work in the Andes, and when I first got a job one of the things I was asked was, "Have you ever considered working in the Himalayas?" At the time, it didn't seem feasible. But Mel Goldstein had been working with Tibetans, and he said, "I could help you." So my first summer after getting a job, I found myself on a trail in Nepal headed towards 12,000 feet. And that was the first of several expeditions in Nepal that demonstrated that Tibetans don't have such large chests, they don't have large lungs, they don't have the same hemoglobin.

How do they adapt, then, if it's not the extra hemoglobin?

I wish I knew. I have a few ideas. One is that they breathe more frequently. The other thing is that they increase blood flow.

Does that mean their heart rate is faster?

Their heart rate's faster, their cardiac output is faster, and their systemic blood flow is very high. The amount of blood being delivered to the forearm is double that of ours.

OK. Now, a couple years ago I was in Hawaii and went up to the top of the volcano on Maui. I was breathing heavily, and my heart was racing.

Yep, that's normal.

Is this a genetic adaptation they have, or just something that happens when you go up high?

You were reacting a lot more than they do. Their heart rate would be low seventies [beats per minute]. Yours was probably in the nineties, and you were aware of breathing heavily. What the Tibetans have is definitely an increase compared to what we have, but they're not aware of it. They're not walking around feeling like, "Whoa, my heart's really racing."

What do you plan to do in the future to figure out more?

We have evidence for a gene for high oxygen saturation of hemoglobin. So one line of future research is going to be to figure out what that gene is. Another thing we found that's almost difficult to believe is the amount of nitric oxide they produce. Tibetans exhale almost twice as much nitric oxide as we do. In their blood they have a hundred to a thousand times more nitric oxide metabolites than we do. Nitric oxide affects virtually every system we have. It's a vasodilator — it works in the same pathway Viagra does. What is regulating that production? What are the consequences for the rest of the body? I have no idea.

This sheep bank you've put together — how did this idea come about?

China had an official policy that everyone was supposed to get rich. And so they [the nomads] would think about how to get rich. We saw that the key to being rich in nomad areas was how many animals you have. Our logic was that you give them a renewable and expanding resource. We found the funding through an NGO [non-governmental organization]. And so this plan was hatched to give families 50 fertile females. It's a five-year loan. The fourth year they pay back 25 fertile females, the fifth year they pay back the second 25. And in the meantime, they're shearing them and getting the milk. The area has ample grass for the sheep to forage, so redistributing sheep does not raise the overall number of sheep to unsustainable levels. At the end of five years there's a pool of animals that the community will give to another set of families. It's money in, money out.

So who's in charge?

Elected leaders and household heads. The community has a responsibility, and they take it very seriously. They have to sign contracts. They have to say, we will not eat them, we will not sell them. But in some cases the contract is broken. One guy, for example, was a compulsive gambler. He was starting to sell his loan sheep. They took them back and gave them to someone else.

How long has the program been running?

It started around 2000.

So you've gone through one full five-year cycle, and you're into the next one.

And we've been able to get funding to expand it. We worked in one area, and they're part of a larger administrative area that every year has an annual horse fair, with races. We went to the horse races last time we were there, in 2005. And people all over knew about the program. They would run in and say, "Thank you. I'm rich now."

Amber Dance, a graduate student in the Science Communication Program at UC Santa Cruz, earned a B.S. in biology from Brown University and a Ph.D. in biology from UC San Diego. She has worked as a reporting intern at the Los Angeles Times, the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center news office, the "Quest" science series at KQED (Ch. 9) in San Francisco, and the San Jose Mercury News. Amber's summer internship is at Nature in Washington, D.C.

© 2008 Amber Dance