Background Info

The Himalayas contain many unique and ancient cultures. Recently, a team of researchers and mountaineers led by archaeologist Dr. Mark Aldenderfer began unraveling mysteries surrounding peoples who lived thousands of years ago in the caves of Nepal's Upper Mustang region.

Aldenderfer led a 20-day expedition to the Upper Mustang to explore mysterious communal graves discovered in the 1990s. The skeletons and burial artifacts were found in caves on the sides of cliffs. To identify possible burial sites, Aldenderfer and his team, including bioarchaeologist Dr. Jackie Eng and seven-time Everest climber Pete Athans, combed the region for deep caves on the brink of collapse. The bones that Aldenderfer's team collected, thought to be the mysterious Membrak people, were then cleaned, pieced together, and analyzed.

For Dr. Eng, when an ancient communal grave is uncovered, her first job is to identify the number of individuals in the burial context. She does this by counting the number of left femurs. Bones hold important information about an individual's age, sex, and lifestyle. A fracture can be evidence of violence or of environmental peril, for example. From analyzing the bones, Eng can create a sort of character narrative for each individual, illustrating what life might have been like thousands of years ago in this high mountain environment.

For Aldenderfer, finding ancient human bones is exciting, but what he's really after are teeth and what he can learn from them. Most of the critical information held in the human body can be found in a single molar: analysis of dentine determines ancient DNA, while radiocarbon dating, and carbon and nitrogen isotopes in tooth enamel provide information about diet during childhood. Remarkably, strontium isotope analysis of tooth enamel, which forms during the neonatal period, can now tell us the birthplace of each individual.

Questions

1. 

How many sets of remains did Dr. Aldenderfer's team find? What age were they?

Show Answer

Dr. Aldenderfer's team found at least two adults and one child.

2. 

What part of the remains are the most important to Dr. Aldenderfer? Why?

Show Answer

Teeth provide the DNA evidence that the team needs in order to analyze the origins and possible identities of these people.

3. 

What are some of the things that can be interpreted from the skeletal structure?

Show Answer

Answers will vary, but can include the actual physical presence of the people, diseases survived, fractures experienced earlier in life, or the types of food eaten.

4. 

What do the scientists think might have caused the bone fracture examined in the film?

Show Answer

Answers will vary, but may include violence in the culture, or rock falls common in the region.

For Further Exploration

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

anthropology

Noun

science of the origin, development, and culture of human beings.

Encyclopedic Entry: anthropology

archaeology

Noun

study of human history, based on material remains.

Encyclopedic Entry: archaeology

bioarchaeology

Noun study of human skeletal remains from archaeological sites.

DNA

Noun

(deoxyribonucleic acid) molecule in every living organism that contains specific genetic information on that organism.

field work

Noun

scientific studies done outside of a lab, classroom, or office.

Encyclopedic Entry: field work

isotope

Noun

atom with an unbalanced number of neutrons in its nucleus, giving it a different atomic weight than other atoms of the same element.

paleontology

Noun

the study of fossils and life from early geologic periods.

Encyclopedic Entry: paleontology

Credits

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Writer

Hannah Herrero

Editor

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

National Geographic Explorer

Dr. Mark Aldenderfer, Archaeology

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