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Cave People Of The Himalaya

Airs Wednesday, June 19, 2013 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV

Climber Pete Athans removes a skull from an eroded cliffside cave in Nepal's ...

Credit: Courtesy of Cory Richards/National Geographic

Above: Climber Pete Athans removes a skull from an eroded cliffside cave in Nepal's Mustang region.

Photo credit: Courtesy of © Cory Richards

Bioarchaeologist Jacqueline Eng and lead archaeologist Mark Aldenderfer with a mandible.

Photo credit: Courtesy of © Cory Richards

Climber and North Face athlete Matt Segal recovers human remains.

In the 1990s, a high Himalayan cave in Upper Mustang, Nepal was discovered to contain 42 ancient people, buried on wooden bunk beds.

American archaeologist Dr. Mark Aldenderfer believes there must be more burial caves, but the challenge is how to find them deep within cliff faces in the cold and inhospitable environment of the Himalaya.

He enlists the world's best technical climbers to do the searching. Aldenderfer's theory is the funerary caves were carved out by the earliest people to have settled in the Himalaya.

If he can find their remains and extract their DNA, he'll learn who these people were and what brought them to the toughest parts of the planet to live.

In "Cave People Of The Himalaya," National Geographic's cameras capture the rare moments of discovery as they unfold.

First, the 7-year-old on the expedition finds a human bone along a riverbed. Then, a series of burial caves are discovered above the riverbed, with human remains spilling forth from dangerously eroding caves.

Bioarchaeologist Jacqueline Eng begins laying the bones out anatomically to count the number of individuals in the cave.

The climbers, led by seven-time Everest mountaineer Pete Athans, recover bones from a total of 27 individuals: adult men, women, adolescents, even infants, along with their goats, cows and a horse. Wood inside the caves provides the clue that bunk beds must have housed the bones at one time.

This program premiered February 2012.

Preview: Cave People Of The Himalaya

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Watch Search for Ancient Mummies on PBS. See more from Cave People of the Himalaya.

Everest climber and thrill seeker Pete Athans returns to the Himalayas with Dr. Mark Aldenderfer in search of the caves and mummies of a lost civilization. There they risk their own safety to reveal astonishing evidence of a previously unknown 1,500-year-old death ritual high in the Himalayan caves.

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