National Geographic : 2012 Oct
• had made some sensational nds. In one cave they discovered a 26-foot-long mural with 42 exquisitely rendered portraits of great yogis in Buddhist history. In another was a trove of 8,000 calligraphed manuscripts---a collection, most of it 600 years old, that included everything from philosophical musings to a treatise on mediat- ing disputes. What Athans and the scientists wanted most was a cave with items from before the era of written records to shed light on the deepest mys- teries: Who rst lived in the caves? Where did these people come from? What did they believe? Most of the caves Athans had peeked into were empty, though they showed signs of domestic habitation: hearths, grain-storage bins, sleeping spaces. "You can spend your life looking in all the wrong caves," says Aldenderfer, whose long career as an archaeologist has included no short- age of frustrating quests. The ideal cave, he felt, would be one used as a cemetery rather than a home, with pre- Buddhist-era ceramic remains scattered below, on a cli too high for looters to reach, in a part of Mustang where locals are comfortable with foreigners disturbing their ancestors' bones. All this, and one additional factor. "Sometimes," Aldenderfer admits, "you just need to get lucky." was a cave complex near a tiny village called Samdzong, just south of the Chinese border. Athans and Aldenderfer had In the private chapel of a home in the city of Lo Manthang, a Tibetan Buddhist lama performs a rite with cymbals, drum, and incense. Once part of greater Tibet, Mustang remains suffused with Tibetan culture.