exploration and survey
recording and excavation of ancient settlements

Ongoing research

Human-environment interactions from prehistory to the present


By at least the beginning of the Holocene warming period (~11 kya), if not earlier, hunter-gatherer communities across Eurasia were involved in the early cultivation of foods such as rice, millets, wheat and barley that, today, have become invaluable staples feeding the majority of the world’s population. Part of this process of domestication involved the movement of species across enormous distances of thousands of kilometres over the (sub)continents of Asia, South Asia, Europe and East Asia. However, over 500,000 square kilometres of this landmass is covered by the Himalayas, and geographically they occupy a band that is traditionally conceived of as a formidable barrier to exchange. Instead, routes that later became formally enshrined in the silk roads are considered likely lines for the dispersal of globally important plant and animal foods. As its starting point this projects contests this supposedly insubstantial role for the Himalayas in pan-Eurasian exchanges during the earlier Holocene, hypothesizing instead that the high altitude/relief offered a specialised draw to hunter-gatherer communities because of the biodiversity, affordances to broad spectrum diets, precious stones, and other assets, like salt, found in these mountainous landscapes. The aim of this project is to investigate whether the Nepalese Himalayas were implicated in pan-Eurasian exchange of commodities like globally important food crops right back into prehistory.


To address this aim— and test the hypothesis on which it is based— requires answering a series of 3 objectives:

•1: What is the antiquity of occupation, and nature of settlement (mobile-transitory, permanent, seasonal, etc.)?

•2: How were these settlements provisioned? By non-indigenous, cultivated exchange products, occupation dependent upon long-distance mobility solutions, using indigenous plants and animals, or exchange spearheaded by local groups?

•3: Were communities adapting strategically to environmental changes to develop and consolidate exchange routes, and if so, how?


Since March of 2013 a team of archaeologists,  surveyors and heritage experts have been undertaking survey and exploration of archaeological sites around the Annapurna and Langtang regions. Discounting the many hundreds of ‘Sky Caves’ in Lower Mustang, a total of nearly fifty sites and archaeological landscapes with potential, or confirmed archaeological activity have been identified in the environs of the Annapurnas that was surveyed.


The Himalayas occur where the landmasses of the Indian Subcontinent and Asia collide, and the 'folding' effect of the crumple-zone has resulted in numerous high-altitude plateau that are ideal landscapes for ancient settlement. HEART has been recording open air settlements, rockshelters, and stone-built structures which could be prehistoric in date. A programme of excavation and recording is underway, so watch this space for future updates.

palaeo-environmental reconstruction using lake cores

Global climate change models point to past climate changes that were more extreme in amplitude if not in rate than those experienced today. Whilst environmental scientists have engaged with environmental reconstructions into the earlier Holocene of the Himalayas, archaeological datasets and thus human responses to these deep time changes are virtually unknown. HEART is untertaking a programme of high-altitude lake-coring in order to establish how ancient communities were interacting with their environments, to find ways that we can learn from their low-impact, sustainable management practices. Such biocultural interactions at archaeological time-depths are key in the development of models that will allow modern societies to adapt strategically to forthcoming environmental changes in these fragile mountain ecosystems.

3d-modelling of prehistoric caves

During the first season of fieldwork in 2013 and following the traverse of the Thorung La Pass, the team descended into Lower Mustang and met with a representative from the Government Department of Archaeology (DoA) in Kathmandu, who granted access to inspect and begin survey of the Sky Caves near Djong. The representative also negotiated local permissions to enter the caves. Around twenty caves were accessed, and were surveyed in three-dimensions using photogrammetric recording. The interiors were left undisturbed, and were only viewed and photographed, as per agreement with the DoA. It was noted that many of the caves displayed stratified sediment sequences that would be amenable to excavation.

© 2014 by Hayley Saul.

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