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.
How many sets of remains did Dr. Aldenderfer's team find? What age were they?
Dr. Aldenderfer's team found at least two adults and one child.
What part of the remains are the most important to Dr. Aldenderfer? Why?
Teeth provide the DNA evidence that the team needs in order to analyze the origins and possible identities of these people.
What are some of the things that can be interpreted from the skeletal structure?
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.
What do the scientists think might have caused the bone fracture examined in the film?
Answers will vary, but may include violence in the culture, or rock falls common in the region.
For Further Exploration
For Further Exploration
Articles & Profiles
- National Geographic News: New Death Ritual Found in Himalaya—27 De-fleshed Humans
- National Geographic News: "Shangri-La" Caves Yield Treasures, Skeletons
- National Geographic Explorers: Mark Aldenderfer—Archaeologist
|Term||Part of Speech||Definition||Encyclopedic Entry|
science of the origin, development, and culture of human beings.
|Encyclopedic Entry: anthropology|
study of human history, based on material remains.
|Encyclopedic Entry: archaeology|
|Noun||study of human skeletal remains from archaeological sites.|
(deoxyribonucleic acid) molecule in every living organism that contains specific genetic information on that organism.
scientific studies done outside of a lab, classroom, or office.
|Encyclopedic Entry: field work|
atom with an unbalanced number of neutrons in its nucleus, giving it a different atomic weight than other atoms of the same element.
the study of fossils and life from early geologic periods.
|Encyclopedic Entry: paleontology|
The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.
Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Explorer
Dr. Mark Aldenderfer, Archaeology
For information on user permissions, please read our Terms of Service.
If you have questions about licensing content on this page, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information and to obtain a license.
If you have questions about how to cite anything on our website in your project or classroom presentation, please visit our FAQ page.
Some media assets (videos, photos, audio recordings and PDFs) can be downloaded and used outside the National Geographic website according to the Terms of Service. If a media asset is downloadable, a download button appears in the lower right hand corner () of the media viewer. If no button appears, you cannot download or save the media.
Text on this page is printable and can be used according to our Terms of Service.
Any interactives on this page can only be played while you are visiting our website. You cannot download interactives.