In the lost caves of Nepal, climbers help archaeologists uncover the secrets of an unknown civilization.
A human skull lay on top of a crumbling block of rock in the inaccessible northern part of Nepal’s Mustang district. Pete Atans, leader of a mixed team of climbers and archaeologists, donned his safety gear, strapped on a rope, and climbed a six-meter boulder. Another climber, Ted Hesser, insured him. Upon reaching the skull, Athans, for fear of contaminating the find with his own DNA, pulled on his gloves and carefully pulled the skull out of the stone rubble. Pete is almost certainly the first person in a thousand and a half years to touch this skull. Chaff sprinkled from the eye sockets. Atans put the skull in a soft red bag and lowered it down to where three scientists, Mark Aldenderfer of the University of California at Merced, Jacqueline Eng of Western Michigan University and Mohan Singh Lama of the Nepalese Department of Archaeology, were waiting.
The mustang has given humanity one of the greatest archaeological mysteries of the world.
Aldenderfer particularly pleased with the presence of two molar teeth, because the teeth can tell what a person ate, what was his state of health and even approximately establish where he was born. Bioarchaeologist Eng determined that the skull most likely belonged to a young male. She also noted four fissures, three on the cranial roof and one on the right side of the jaw. “Signs of violence,” Eng said. – Well, or he just got kicked by a horse. How did this skull end up here? The boulder on which he lay, a reddish-brown stone with pink and white veins, was under a high cliff. Toward the top of the cliff were several small caves that had been hollowed out by hand in the pliable rock a long time ago.
Part of the cliff eventually collapsed, taking the skull with it. What’s left up there, then, where he fell from? Mustang, a formerly independent kingdom in north-central Nepal, has thrown one of the world’s greatest archaeological mysteries to mankind. In this dusty land lost in the Himalayas, blown by strong winds and cut into deep canyons by the Kali Gandaki River, there is a mass of man-made caves – 10,000, according to the most conservative estimates. Some are far away from the others and are like lonely mouths unfolding on the wrinkled faces of weathered stone. And others are crowded in groups – the whole clusters, sometimes eight or even nine stories, a real vertical village.
Some are hollowed out in the cliff walls, others are punched through from above. And many of them are more than a thousand years old. Who dug these caves? Why? No one has the answers to these questions. It is not even clear how people got into the mountain caves, because even with modern mountaineering equipment to climb here is very dangerous. What was used before? Ropes? Woods? Hollowed out steps? Unknown. But seven centuries ago Mustang was the center of Buddhist science and art, and it was probably the most convenient route from the salt mines of Tibet to the cities of India. Salt was one of the most valuable commodities, and in the heyday of Mustang, caravans of wagons loaded with salt lugged along the local mountain trails.
Later, in the seventeenth century, when neighboring kingdoms rose, Mustang began to decline. The situation has been exacerbated by the fact that India has begun to develop its own salt deposits. The majestic statues and temples of Mustang began to decay and crumble, and soon the kingdom itself was all but forgotten. Then for more than two centuries, impregnable mountains and strict governments guarded the secrets of the salt region. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s, after gaining access to the area, that archaeologists from the University of Cologne, along with Nepalese colleagues, were able to look into the most easily accessible caves. And immediately came across numerous remains at least two thousand years old, lying on wooden beds.
All were wearing copper jewelry and glass beads, not made in Mustang. Pete Atans first saw the caves here in 1981. Many of them seemed absolutely impossible to reach-and Athans, an experienced climber who had stood on the summit of Everest seven times, could not miss such a challenge. However, permission from the authorities was not obtained until 2007 – and then the Mustang became the main expedition of the Atans.
The spring 2011 trip was Atans’ eighth. In the previous seven his team had already made several sensational findings. In one of the caves they discovered an 8-meter wall painting – 42 portraits of the great yogis of Buddhist history. In another was a treasure trove of 8,000 calligraphic manuscripts, most of them from 600 years ago, including everything from philosophical treatises to mediation manuals. But Athans and his team members dreamed of finding a cave with objects from the pre-written era that could help answer the big questions. Who lived here first? Where did these people come from? What did they believe? Most of the caves I looked into
Atans, were empty, although there are still signs that people once lived in them: hearths, grain bins, places to sleep. “You can spend your whole life getting into the wrong caves, time after time,” continues Atans Aldenderfer, who has experienced many disappointments.
Aldenderfer imagines the ideal cave for study: it was used as a cemetery rather than a house, there are shards of pre-Buddhist pottery scattered on its floor, the cave is high, meaning thieves could not reach it, and in an area of Mustang where locals do not disturb foreigners by disturbing the remains. The cave complex near the tiny village of Samdzong, south of the Chinese border, was considered the most promising of the discoveries.
Atans and Aldenderfer first visited Samdzonga in 2010 – and found the burial cave system. And on the first day of work in the spring of 2011, while scouting at the bottom of the cliff, photographer Cory Richards spotted the very same skull. The next morning, the climbers prepared to explore the caves above the discovery site. The cliffs of Mustang are magnificent – they are huge walls that seem to melt like wax under the rays of the high mountain sun. Erosion has given them bizarre shapes: here you can see both bony fingers supporting huge stone balls, and towering columns, resembling the pipes of a giant organ.
Their color, changing throughout the day, incorporated all possible shades of gray, red, brown, and ochre. But climbing these cliffs is a serious challenge. “It’s hard, it’s not pretty – it’s like going through a dumpster,” Atans says. And extremely dangerous. The stone, brittle as a dry cookie, breaks at every touch. A few months ago, videographer Lincoln Els inadvertently removed his helmet and sustained a head injury when a piece of rock collapsed on him. Els had a fractured skull and had to have urgent brain surgery in Kathmandu. In 2010, Cory Richards, not only a photographer but also a climber, fell and suffered a severe fracture.
Like Els, he was evacuated by helicopter. Athans and Hesser, the group’s main climbers, climbed the cliff and reached the flat area above the caves. Here, with the permission of the authorities, they hammered some metal rods into the rock and tied a rope to them, to which Atans slipped quietly off the cliff. Stones drummed on his helmet. Below, on level ground, sat Aldenderfer, a man with an impressive mane of gray hair pulled down by a red bandana.
He had a small monitor in his hand, which wirelessly received the signal from Atans’s video camera, allowing the anthropologist to direct the search. Not far away, a local lama, 72-year-old Tsevang Tashi, was sitting cross-legged, wearing a dark crimson robe. He lit a small fire of juniper twigs, poured holy water from a Pepsi-Cola bottle into a ritual vessel, and began humming softly, tinkling a bronze bell and dipping his fingers in the water – it was a Buddhist rite to drive out evil spirits that might interfere with the work of the research team. Meanwhile, Atans descended into the smallest cave – no more than four square meters -.
He had to duck: It was less than two meters to the vault. The cave was originally a hidden underground tomb, shaped like a decanter. When it was dug, only the top of the shaft was visible from outside. The bodies were lowered through a narrow shaft like a sewer pipe and the entrance was sealed with stones. But later part of the cliff collapsed, one of the walls of the cave disappeared – and a new entrance was formed. A large boulder, once part of the ceiling, collapsed to the floor: if there was anything in the cave, it was something left behind the boulder.
Atance began to rock the stone, gradually pushing it toward the exit. Finally he shouted: “Roll!” – and the boulder rumbled down the cliff, kicking up a cloud of amber dust. Fifteen centuries later (as indicated by the results of carbon analysis) after the cave was sealed, it was rediscovered. Aldenderfer divides the history of Mustang Caves into three periods. In the beginning, maybe three thousand years ago, these were tombs.
Then, about a thousand years ago, caves began to be used primarily as dwellings. For centuries the Kali Gandaki River valley, the bottle-neck that connects the highlands and lowlands of Asia, appears to have been a frequent battlefield. “People lived in constant fear,” says Aldenderfer. Seeking safety, they moved into caves.
After examining the remains, Eng, a bone expert, made a startling discovery: the bones of 76 percent of the deceased had distinct traces of flesh being cut with a knife. And these marks appeared after their death.
It was not until the early fifteenth century that most of the locals returned to the regular villages. The caves became meditation rooms, military observation posts, and storehouses. However, even today they are inhabited by several families. “It’s warmer there in the winter,” says Yandu Bista, who was born in one of Mustang’s caves in 1959 and lived in these uncomfortable apartments until 2011. – But it’s hard to get water up there.” The first thing Athans found in the closet-sized cave (later called Tomb-5) were a variety of planks, slats, and pegs carved from magnificent hardwood.
Aldenderfer and Singh Lama eventually managed to connect these parts and assemble a box about a meter high – a coffin ingeniously designed so that it could be lowered disassembled into a narrow passage and then easily assembled in the main chamber. “A kind of ancient IKEA,” Eng chuckles. A primitive orange and white drawing was visible on the box: a man on horseback. “Perhaps it was the deceased’s favorite horse,” Aldenderfer suggested.
Later, a horse skull was found in Tomb 5. Back in 2010, a team in Samdzonga discovered the remains of 27 men, women and one child in two of the largest caves on the cliff. In those caves, too, there were coffins, similar to beds, but made of much lower quality wood, with simpler construction and without drawings. Tomb 5, on the other hand, Aldenderfer speculated, was for a high-ranking person, perhaps even a ruler.
The remains of two people, an adult male and a child about ten years old, were found in the tomb. The latter has led to a lot of speculation. “I would not like to say that the child was sacrificed or that he was a slave, because there is no evidence to indicate that,” says Aldenderfer. – But we’re probably dealing with an elaborate ritual.” After examining the remains, Eng, a bone expert, made a startling discovery: the bones of 76 percent of the deceased had distinct traces of flesh being cut with a knife. And these marks appeared after their death. The bones are relatively intact, and it is unlikely that they were broken or burned on purpose. “All evidence suggests,” notes Eng, “that there was no cannibalism here.
The separation of the flesh from the bones may have been related to the Buddhist tradition of open-air burial – even today the body of the deceased in Mustang, along with the bones, may be cut into pieces, which are then quickly dispersed by vultures. The catch is that the bones found in the cave date from the period from the third to the eighth century A.D. – at this time Buddhism was not yet in Mustang.
In the era of the Samdzonga cave burials, Aldenderfer suggests, the flesh was cut off from the bones, but the bones themselves were left articulated. The skeleton was lowered into the tomb, folded to fit in the box, then the funeral team climbed out and piled the entrance. But before that, the remains were decorated. Athans discovered this as he sat in Tomb-5, bent over, sifting through the dust for hours. So he found over a thousand glass beads (some no bigger than a poppy seed) of six colors. As studies have shown, the beads were of different origins: from present-day Pakistan, India, and Iran. Three iron daggers with gracefully curved handles and heavy blades were also found in the cave. Bamboo tea cup with a thin round handle. Copper Bracelet. A small bronze mirror. Copper kettle, ladle and iron tripod to it. Pieces of fabric. A pair of yak or bull horns. A huge copper cauldron in which you could boil an inflatable beach ball. “I’ll bet it’s a cauldron of cheng!” – Aldenderfer said, referring to the local barley beer. And so Atans finally sent down a funerary mask, made of gold and silver, with facial features in relief. The eyes were circled in red, the corners of the mouth were slightly down, the nose was marked in a straight line, and there was a hint of a beard. There were small holes along the edge. The mask was probably sewn to the cloth and lay on the face of the deceased.
The beads were part of the mask. Taking the mask in his hands, Aldenderfer, a normally calm and reserved man, could not contain his feelings. “Amazing! – he marveled. – What craftsmanship, what richness, color, grace! This find changes in the most serious way our ideas about the ancient history of the region.” Almost all of the objects found in the cave were brought from afar. Even the wood from which the coffin was made grew in the tropics. How is it that a man from these places, now so poor in resources that it takes hours even to gather wood for a fire, was able to amass these untold riches? Most likely, it’s the salt. Controlling a section of the salt trade route in those days must have been about the same as owning an oil pipeline today. All items found by the group were left at Samdzonga, in the care of the village elders.
In addition, Athans, as he did everywhere in Mustang, made a donation of personal funds to create a small museum. “The people of Mustang should be proud of their rich history,” Pete says. Scientists took with them only tiny samples of materials and pieces of bone, which will be examined in different laboratories: teeth will go to the University of Oklahoma, the metals – at University College London.
Paints will be decomposed into chemical components: scientists will try to figure out from which plants they were made. Scrapings, threads, tooth enamel powder – everything will be subjected to a thorough analysis. The process could take a decade – that’s if you only investigate what has already been discovered.
And no one knows how many hidden tombs are left! We must assume that many treasures are still hidden from people. “A new find might be waiting for us in the next cave,” says Aldenderfer. – We might have to climb a hundred caves, though. When the group had already finished their work at Samdzonga, another discovery was made.
Ted Hesser climbed to the top of the cliff to pull out the metal rods to which the climbers attached their ropes, and was on his way back when he noticed an unnaturally round depression in the crumb of rock beneath his feet.
He probably stumbled upon the entrance to another tomb-this time sealed, with its contents completely intact. But the deadline for permission to travel to Nepal was coming to an end, and the scientists had to leave the find behind. At least for now.
This article was published in National Geographic magazine (#109, October 2012).
Author: Michael Finkel