The 81st Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2012)

Ancient mortuary rituals in a high altitude population in Nepal: cut marks among shaft tomb burials from Upper Mustang


Department of Anthropology, Western Michigan University

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Ancient high altitude populations who occupied the Upper Mustang region of Nepal made extensive use of shaft tombs for mortuary practices. Exploration of the Sam Dzong valley has uncovered human burials dating to the 5th-7th centuries AD. Four of the 10 tombs explored yielded human remains, for a minimum of 33 individuals, including 10 subadults and 23 adults (10 males, 11 females, and two of unknown sex). Postmortem cut marks were found on a minimum of 72.7% (24/33) of these burials, located on many elements of the axial and appendicular skeleton, including the skull, ribs, scapulae, os coxae, and long bones. Among the 24 burials with cut marks were nine adult males (37.5%), nine adult females (37.5%), one adult of unknown sex, and five subadults (20.8%). The distribution of cut marks across the age groups from juveniles to older adults, and among males and females suggests relatively equal mortuary treatment across age and sex. Among the faunal remains also found within the tombs were a minimum of 25 caprids, eight bovids, six horses, and one hare. Several had cut marks, including four caprids, one horse, and one bovid.

All cuts were made with a sharp implement, showed no signs of healing, and were located in areas that suggest defleshing. In the 11th-12th century AD, this area adopted the Tibetan practice of “sky burials,” but the Sam Dzong burials pre-date this period. These findings offer new evidence for exploring complex mortuary behavior among high altitude populations in Nepal.

Funding for this study was provided to Mark S. Aldenderfer from the National Geographic Society and Henry Luce Foundation.

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