Washington: Experts have found remains of 27 ancient men, women, and children in cliffside caves in Nepal. Many of the bones bear cut marks that point to a previously unknown Himalayan death ritual.
The corpses—many of which had been stripped of flesh—were placed in the high mortuaries some 1,500 years ago, the team announced Friday.
Nearly 67 percent of the bodies`` had been defleshed, most likely with a metal knife, say the researchers, who found the remains in 2010.
After the de-fleshing process, the corpses had been neatly laid to rest on wide wooden shelves, the researchers speculate. But due to centuries of exposure to the elements, the bones and bunks—and much of the caves themselves—had collapsed by the time the team entered the chambers.
Dug into characteristically reddish cliffs of the Upper Mustang district, the human-made caves lie at 13,800 feet (4,200 meters) above sea level, high above the village of Samdzong (Mustang region map).
Little is known about the three ancient Himalayan groups that de-fleshed and entombed their dead in the high Mustang caves, making the motives behind the rite even murkier. The team has, however, ruled out cannibalism.
"This was done in a respectful fashion," Nat Geo News quoted project leader Mark Aldenderfer, an archaeologist at the University of California, Merced, as explaining.
Preliminary DNA analysis of some of the bones suggests the de-fleshing subjects were related.
"I would imagine that many of these mortuary caves are for large extended families," Aldenderfer said.
"This would be their traditional burial place, and another family would have their own."
Ancient people living in the Upper Mustang region may have adopted funerary rituals of passing Zoroastrians as they traveled west, Aldenderfer said. These rites, in turn, may have transformed into, or inspired, the Tibetan sky-burial ritual.
The new finds are only the latest to be uncovered in the remote cliffs.
The new Mustang-caves finds are to be covered in an upcoming National Geographic documentary.