Sunday 12 June 2022

Human burials in a high altitude cave system in western Tibet.

Caves have been inhabited by Humans throughout the history of our species, but have also been widely used for other purposes, often mystical rather than practical in nature. One widespread use of caves has been as a burial site for the dead, both in natural and Human created spaces within caves. Such burials have been recorded at several places within the Nepalese part of the Tibetan Plateau, but to date have not been recorded from Tibet itself.

In a paper published in the journal Antiquity on 7 April 2022, Hongliang Lu and Ziyan Li of the School of Archaeology and Museology at Sichuan University, Chilie Ciren of the Tibet Autonomous Region Institute of Cultural Relics Conservation, Doudou Cao, also of the School of Archaeology and Museology at Sichuan University, and of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge, Xuan Gao, again of the School of Archaeology and Museology at Sichuan University, and Linhui Li, also of the Tibet Autonomous Region Institute of Cultural Relics Conservation, describe the discovery of an ancient burial site at the Sding Chung cave system in western Tibet.

The cave system is located on a mountain slope between the Gangdise and Himalayan Mountain ranges at an altitude of 5000 m. It is thought to have formed when part of the rock body collapsed following water dissolution (essentially as a sinkhole), but is now dry. The cave system is made up of two sets of branching tunnels, connected by a 14 m deep shaft. Both layers contained extensive collections of Human and Animal remains, as well as a few artefacts, which were spread out over the floors of the caves.

The location of the Sding Chung site. Ziyan Li in Lu et al. (2022).

Lu et al. divided the system into twelve units, collecting all artefacts from each of these, as well as taking samples of both the Human and Animal remains, although the majority of these were left in situ. More material was taken from the upper cave than the lower, due to unsafe conditions in the lower cave, and more Human remains were collected than Animal ones, with a preference for collecting skulls. The Human and Animal material was concentrated in a few branch caves, with little material found within the connecting tunnels. 

The landscape of Sding Chung. F Deng in Lu et al. (2022).

The floors of the three larger branches of the upper cave system (SG2, SG3, NG4) had a dense covering of Human and Animal remains, as well as a smaller number of artefacts. With the exception of two individuals found with the pelvis and vertebra attached by soft tissues, the Human remains were disarticulated and intermingled, although it is unclear whether this was done at the time of deposition or by later Human activities (which could have been associated with either ritual practices or looting). The most frequently encountered Human remains were crania, pelvises and limbs, although it is unclear if this was a product of collecting bias (these are generally the largest and most visible parts of a Human skeleton), or reflects a ritual practice in which more of these elements were deposited in the cave. A total of 526 Human bone and bone-fragment samples were identified in the upper caves, representing at least 34 individuals.

Plan and section views of the Sding Chung cave system. Kaiqi Zhang & Ziyan Li in Lu et al. (2022).

The most abundant Animal bones in the caves were those of Caprids (Goats), with those of Bovids, Equids, and Felids also present. Moat of these were found in a single branch cave (SG2). Some of the Animal remains were in the form of articulated limbs, often with skin and other soft tissues still present. At least three overlapping Equid skeletons were present. At least some of the Animal carcasses appear to have been transported to the caves intact. The artefacts found include bronze, ceramic, wooden and Bamboo items, and well as pieces of fabric.

(a) View from the tunnel of the upper cave; (b) the shaft tunnel; (c) scattered skeletons in LG1R; (d) piled Human skulls in LG1R. Hongliang Lu & Ziyan Li in Lu et al. (2022).

The lower caves had a much denser layer of Human and Animal skeletal remains. One of the cave recesses contained a pile of skulls, which appeared to have come from 10-15 individuals, five of which could be observed to have suffered notable injuries, though it is unclear at this time whether these injuries happened before or after death. The lower caves were found to contain 218 observable Human bones and bone fragments, representing at least 26 individuals.

Selected artefacts from Sding Chung: (1) wooden cup; (2) bronze goblet; (3) ceramic shard; (4) textile; (5) fragments of Bamboo weaving; (6) wooden stick. Hailun Xu & Xuan Gao in Lu et al. (2022).

The majority of the Animal bones in the lower caves were skulls, which Hu et al. presume is the result of deliberate selection by the people who placed them there. Once again Caprids were the most common Animals, with Bovids, Equids, and Canids also present. Artefacts were much less common in the lower cave system, and mostly comprise fragments of wood, which Hu et al. speculate may represent fragments of coffins.

The relationship between the remains in the upper and lower caves is unclear. If they can be assumed to represent different sets of individuals, then the minimum total number of individuals present would be 60. However, if some individuals have contributed skeletal remains to both levels, then the minimum total number of individuals present is only 54. It is also quite possible that other remains are present but buried or covered by rock debris or sediment and have not yet been discovered, in which case it is quite possible the caves hold over a hundred sets of Human remains. The Animal remains appear to represent at least 350 individuals.

Hu et al. carried out a limited excavation within the upper part of the Sding Chung cave system, uncovering a 1 m x 1 m area in branch NG1, close to the entrance. This produced a cluster of Bamboo objects, beneath which was a 20 cm ash layer, within which were found numerous burnt Animal bones, two Human bones, one intact bronze goblet, one bamboo cup, several ceramic shards, some wooden sticks, and debris from metal artefacts.

Hu et al. took twelve samples for radiocarbon dating from Human and Animal bones, Bamboo and textiles, from three locations in the upper cave system and one in the lower caves. All of these yielded dates between 300 BC and 300 AD. 

A number of prehistoric burial sites have been found in the Western Himalayas in recent years, although the majority of those being artificial cave or shaft tombs located close to settlements. A notable exception to this has been the cave burials of Mustang District in Nepal. The Sding Chung burials are at a notably higher altitude than most previous burial sites, and appear to represent a previously unknown funerary tradition, possibly involving people living in lowlands but carrying their dead to a higher (and hidden) burial site.

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