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2 March 2011
Ancient cave culture unearthed in Nepal

Archaeologists and other experts rummaged through remote cliffside cave complexes in Nepal for five years has come up with the remains of prehistoric people, their arts and manuscripts, providing a new look into ancient Himalayan civilization.
     According to the local Department of Archaeology (DOA), the researchers discovered the remains of 27 individuals buried in caves at 13,800 feet (4,200 meters) above sea leve, in the Upper Mustang district. Adult men, women, adolescents, even children, along with cattle, were deposited in a wooden structure and hidden inside a cliff-top communal grave for some 1,500 years. "The researchers believe the culture they have uncovered carried with it the origins of the sky burial practice of the Tibetan plateau," DAO said in its report.
     The caves, explored by archaeologists and experts led by American archaeologist and National Geographic grantee Dr. Mark Aldenderfer, are believed to date back some 3,000 years. Analysis of the skeletal remains found last summer shows cut marks - some 67 percent of the bodies were de-fleshed. Stripped of the flesh, the bones were deposited inside the cave tombs, a practice distinctly different from the more complete offering of chopped bones and flesh in the ethnically Tibetan practice known as sky burial, said DAO. The researchrs also discovered goat, cow, and horse remains - perhaps sacrificial offerings for the dead, though their purpose remains a mystery.
     The motives behind the rite are still unknown; the team has, however, ruled out cannibalism. "When you're going for meat, you process a skeleton in a very different way than if you were trying to strip the flesh off," explained project leader Mark Aldenderfer, an archaeologist at the University of California, Merced. "This was done in a respectful fashion. I would imagine that many of these mortuary caves are for large extended families," Aldenderfer said.
     Detailed analysis including DNA of the caves and their contents has painted a more comprehensive picture of the important role of the Kali Gandaki River corridor in human migration and the exchange of art and religion between the regions of Central Asia, the Tibetan plateau and Southeast Asia. Based on lab results from DNA of the cave populations, the research suggests that like in modern times, people from the highlands moved well into the lowlands in prehistoric times.
     DAO is worried that the time for unearthing the early cave cultures of the region is running out. In ancient times, rock outcrops and probably ladders would have eased access to the caves. Since then, however, erosion has rendered the chambers accessible to only expert climbers, such as seven-time Everest summiter Pete Athans, who co-led the team. "Clues to when these caves were built, and by whom, are melting before our eyes," Athans said in a press statement. "The cave tomb we found is under great threat. It is situated in a fragile rock matrix that has already collapsed some time in the past. I don't believe the tomb would've lasted one more monsoon," Athans said.

Edited from Republica (26 February 2011) National Geographic News (1 March 2011)

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