- Hirten im Himalaya – Prähistorische Mumien im Höhlengrab Mebrak 63 (Mustang/Nepal) ed. by Angela Simons
Compared to the Indian subcontinent and even the Tibetan plateau, which in the past decade has seen extensive archaeological research, our understanding of the early prehistory of the high Himalayan valleys—those at elevations above 2500 m—stretching from Arunachal Pradesh in India in the east to the Gilgit-Baltistan territory of Pakistan in the west, is extraordinarily scant. In great part this is due to the difficulties of field research and access to the region, but geopolitical tensions between the countries along the Himalayan arc have made much of it off-limits to archaeological research.
One of the enduring questions of the Himalayan past is when and from where people first moved into the high valleys. Over the years, three scenarios have been proposed: populations moved there either from the plateau, from South Asia or Southeast Asia, or down the Himalayan arc from the northwest. None of these, of course, are mutually exclusive, and it is highly likely that there have been multiple peopling events and processes through time. In the absence of a robust corpus of archaeological data, the genetics of modern peoples inhabiting the region, analyses of linguistic variability and change over time, and historical and ethnographic accounts have been pressed into service to explore this question. Unsurprisingly, these data sources sometimes produce complementary, but more often contradictory, answers to the questions of the peopling of the arc, the adaptations that followed, and the flow of commodities along and across them.
In this edited volume, Angela Simons and colleagues present some welcome archaeological data that help to explore fundamental questions about the prehistoric past of the high Himalayas. They describe the excavation and analysis of materials recovered from Mebrak 63, a remarkable mortuary cave dated between 400 b.c.e. and 0 c.e. that was found in the southern region of the Nepali district of Mustang. This excavation was one of a series of projects initiated by the German Research Council (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft or DFG) in 1992 with the title "Settlement Processes and the Formation of States in the Tibetan Himalayas" (Haffner and Pohle 2001). The regional focus of these projects was the village and environs of Kagbeni, which is located on the Kali Gandaki river, a major north-south drainage that connects South Asia with the Tibetan Plateau. This umbrella project brought together geographers, historians, Tibetologists, natural scientists, and linguists, among others, to study modern, historical, and prehistorical Kagbeni.
Werner Schön and Simons, of the Institute of Prehistory, University of Cologne, with [End Page 174] colleagues from the Department of Archaeology, Government of Nepal, directed the archaeological component of the project labeled "Nepali-German Project on High Mountain Archaeology." From 1992 to 1997, the team examined and tested surface sites as well as some of the extensive, human-made cave systems that stretched from the Jhong drainage (a.k.a. the Muktinath valley) to the east of Kagbeni; Mebrak 63 was one of the caves discovered. A second, parallel archaeological project, also with support from DFG and directed by Hans-Georg Hüttel of the German Archaeological Institute at Bonn, was conducted from 1991 to 1999 at Khyinga (also in the Jhong drainage near Mebrak 63). The Khyinga site was described by Hüttel as a "settlement mound" (Hüttel and Paap 1998:5). Excavations revealed that the site was a large habitation structure or "castle" (p. 10). The early occupation period of this site from before the first century b.c.e. to the third century c.e. overlaps with Mebrak.
Mebrak 63 is a small, roughly 12 m2 chamber excavated into a sheer cliff face some 30 m above the valley floor; the elevation of the site is ca. 3500 m. The exploration of the cave could only be accomplished by rappelling to it from above...