Secrets of the Sky Tombs

Years ago, my husband, Pete, and I made a promise to ourselves: We’d try to give our children the best real-world alternatives to video games and virtual reality we could find because reality itself is so much more fulfilling. To that end, our children have grown up on the trail. Daily lessons are often as blunt as the hard-won objective of simply reaching the next village without incident.


Pete with 3-year-old Finn, on the trail up the Kali Ghandaki River to Jomsom. © Liesl Clark

Ancient castles, fortresses, and real-world kings are normal for kids who’ve played amongst crumbling fortress walls that intermingle with cold clouds, echoes of the past tickling us in the driving wind.


The winter palace in Tsarang, Upper Mustang, crowned by the Annapurnas. © Liesl Clark

If our children stayed at home, those castles and forts would be grand designs crafted from code in video games they play on their devices. Yet today they can work and play amidst the real thing: Tombs of the ancient dead, haul bags filled with faunal and human bones to sort and clean, artifacts hewn from leather, silk, iron, copper, silver, and bronze, some dating as far back as 2800 years.


10-year-old Cleo bagging two femurs, with Marion Poux overseeing her work. © Liesl Clark

Nothing in those video games can compare. As parents, we make our choices, whether we allow our children glimpses into our professional lives and our special passions. They, in turn, feel empowered to follow their own dreams, ask their own questions, and seek the truth.


Finn, now 13, connects easily with his friends in Samdzong. He also flies all of our drone aerials. © Liesl Clark

This drive is what makes us human, what pushed the early pioneers to find shelter amongst the world’s most hostile and glorious mountains. These early settlers brought their children with them, because the alternative was unbearable.


Leaving the kids at home, so we can do our work in the Himalayas, is unthinkable to us. © Pete Athans

On January 4th, 2017, our film, “Secrets of the Sky Tombs,” about our quest to find the first peoples of the Himalaya will air 9pm ET/8 Central on PBS’s NOVA. The film will also be broadcast in the upcoming months on France 5 in France and National Geographic Channel worldwide. It’s been a decade-long endeavor, and we’ll likely continue for another, as unknown caves, more ancient human DNA, and new questions need to be explored.


Finn & Pete below Tsaile, headed back to Jomson, dreaming up the next filming expedition. © Liesl Clark

But if there are “secrets,” (as the film’s title suggests) to be uncovered, they’re the clues to success of a people who foraged for what they could off the land, who found meaning in the struggle, and who relied on their clan and their fellow villagers for the bare essentials to survive. Community and one’s lineage is the secret to strength in times of hardship, in the face of the extremes.


Looking down on the village of Samar, Upper Mustang. © Liesl Clark

This lesson is not lost on us today.

Himalayan Megaquake: The Past Informing the Future

If there’s one big thing I learned from the April 25, 2015 magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Nepal, it’s that in the face of tragedy and hardship, people make do, learn from the events that transpire, adapt, and forge forward in new and often improved ways. The Nepalese people have been building and rebuilding after major earthquakes for millennia, but it doesn’t mean this seismic event was run-of-the-mill. The Himalayas were made by the world’s most colossal tectonic convergence and mega earthquakes have played the leading role in the formation of the dramatic landscape.

Few Nepalis today have lived through a big quake, and now we know there are secondary affects of large earthquakes in such a vertical landscape: Avalanches that can take out entire villages, glacial lake outbursts that can cause great flooding, and landslides that can block high-flowing rivers.

The Himalayan Uplift Zone in the Nar-Phu Valley © Liesl Clark

The Himalayan Uplift Zone in the Nar-Phu Valley © Liesl Clark

Because major quakes only happen every 80-100 years in Nepal, people forget about the severity of the great quakes after a generation and then homes are no longer built to outlast the rocking, jolts, and permanent elevation changes an earthquake can bring about. What we’ve found especially humbling is the resourcefulness of the millions who live outside the nation’s capitol. Traditional homes are constructed from the resources at hand: Rock, mud, and less often, wood. And in some villages, there are stacked stone homes that withstood a shaking that brought every building around them down. Why did those buildings, and the people inside, survive while others didn’t?

The Village of Nar, Stone and Mud Mortar, Pre-Earthquake © Liesl Clark

The Village of Nar, Stone and Mud Mortar, Pre-Earthquake © Liesl Clark

When I was asked to make a film for NOVA about what the scientific community has learned from the earthquake, the assignment was humbling and also a concern. There’s been a lot of great science going on behind-the-scenes, post-earthquake. Which projects should we focus on? And, how can we address, without sensationalizing, the devastating loss of more than 8,800 people?

We sure feel helpless when an earthquake half way around the world rocks our loved ones, but for everyone I know who lives outside Nepal, who has had any intersection with this beautiful country, those first few weeks after the earthquake were grueling. The news coming out of Nepal was hard to fathom, and in the months afterward, indeed even now (up until January 4, 2016), over 423 earthquakes of magnitude 4 or greater have been felt by the people residing there.

I can’t go into detail about the film, as it’s about to air, on January 27th, 2016 at 9 pm on NOVA/PBS (check your local listings! Some markets may have different and additional broadcast times.) But what I can say is that there’s a clue to the survivability of some structures in the quake and the absolute destruction of others. It can be found in the old part of the Hanumandhoka Palace, a structure built hundreds of years ago. The multi-story original palace structure, in general, withstood the strong shaking of the quake, while the newer wing of the palace, built more recently, is on the verge of collapse.

There's Timberlacing Here. The Secret to a Palace's Success in Surviving an Earthquake. © Liesl Clark

There’s a Clue Here. The Secret to a Palace’s Success in Surviving an Earthquake. © Liesl Clark

We can learn from our predecessors, who lived through past quakes. Old technology is often better than new. Look for examples of what works from our past, to pioneer the simple engineering solutions of the future. This is what people have learned over generations and what we strive to teach in this blog.

Rebuilding a Rubble Stone Home Using Innovative Ideas © Liesl Clark

Rebuilding a Rubble Stone Home Using Innovative Ideas © Liesl Clark

There’s a story of deep commitment and ingenuity in the film about to air, from the scientists, engineers, and architects who have worked decades to warn of the inevitability of earthquakes here, to the specialists in Nepal who have been hands-on, writing about the Nepali innovations of yore and today, to the people themselves who survive, adapt, innovate and thrive no matter what comes their way.

These are the lessons our children take home with them, better for having spent precious time in the lap of ingenuity and compassion.

Manhku Kids © Liesl Clark

Manhku Kids © Liesl Clark

If you have the time and interest, our film on NOVA airs at 9:00 pm on PBS on January 27, 2016. Hope you have a chance to watch.