It was a plastic bag, of all things, that spooked the young Tibetan horse into a bucking frenzy. We had just saddled him up and tied some snacks onto the already-packed saddle bags. Our 9-year-old son, Finn, was his rider. Something about the unfamiliar sound of crinkling plastic set the horse off and 10 seconds later Finn miraculously threw himself from the saddle, landing onto his back. He stood up, immediately, and faced everyone to say, in a shaken voice, “I’m okay.”
Ironically, this was the only plastic bag I had accepted from a shop keeper in 10 days and my misjudgement felt like a slap in the face. Plastic bags don’t belong out in the wilds of the Himalayan high steppes — even the 2-year-old gelding knew that.
We were at 13, 300 feet, just outside the royal city of Lo Manthang in the Kingdom of Mustang, Nepal. Finn’s horse galloped away down a rough stretch of canyon, the saddle bags now dangerously tangled between his hind legs. He had ripped himself, twice, from the grips of Tashi Wangyel, his owner, the former horseman of the Raja, or king, of Mustang. Tashi was devastated by the sight of the abrasions across Finn’s back. Finn is like a son to him, a dear friend of his own son, Kunga, who is one of the youngest monks at the nearby monastery. Luckily Tashi had a spare horse Finn could jump on as we had a 5-hour hike ahead of us to the Tibetan borderlands village of Samdzong.
We had 6 days to excavate 6 caves for the remains of a 1600-year-old people who once buried their dead in cliff-side shaft tombs. We also had a waste audit to conduct, researching how a traditional village at the end of the trail handles the influx of modern plastic packaging in many goods that are now available due to the nearby construction of a road from China and Tibet.
The Samdzong people, compared to most villages in Upper Mustang, are relatively untouched by modern amenities often brought in to Mustang to appease the tourists. There’s no shop in Samdzong, indeed few tourists are given permission to visit the forgotten village. We’re helping fund the building of a museum for the ancient artifacts our team of archaeologists and climbers uncovered in the high caves — the attendant grave goods of a Himalayan people we’re only just beginning to flesh out through genetic analysis. The material culture these people had at their fingertips consisted of domestic animals, wood, ceramics, wool, glass beads, and metals like bronze, copper, iron, and other precious metals.
Little has changed in Samdzong today. The people in this bucolic village work their sheep and yak wool day and night, spinning and weaving to make sweaters, colorful clothing, and even hand-woven woolen boots and shoes that are more prevalent than sneakers.
For thousands of years, archaeologists have claimed, indigenous cultures discarded their material waste just outside their homes and villages, along slopes outside enclaves where gravity and precipitation would lend their aid in melting ceramics, wood, and textiles back into the Earth. Broken stone tools simply blended back into the landscape that thousands of years later only a trained eye can now identify. These are the clues to the ancients we look for in Upper Mustang, discards flippantly thrown out of cave dwellings or village homes as well as the goods buried with the dead, to accompany them into the next life.
Fast forward some 1600 years later, and Samdzong’s material culture is still mostly natural: Wood, metals, ceramics, a little glass, and of course textiles. They trade their large flock of goats for food and goods from Southern Nepal and nearby Tibet. A small percentage of what’s carried back to the village is plastic, and the behavior around waste has not changed. All household trash is sent out the door, often into the irrigation ditches only a few feet away so the buoyant plastic can be carried off with the current. The good news is that the plastics are limited to a few things: Ramen noodle packets and clothes washing powder bags from China. The women wash their clothes in the streams and ditches and set the empty bags free with the moving water. I picked up a large plastic feedsack-worth in about 10 minutes of cleaning-up down river.
We carried out with us the feed sack of plastic from the Samdzong river with promises to take with us next year’s village plastic if the locals stockpiled it year round. If all visitors to Upper Mustang carried out with them a large sack-full of a village’s compressed lightweight plastic packaging, including water bottles, and took them to Kathmandu to give to the rag pickers who collect and sell them to India for a reasonable price, Upper Mustang might be freed from its choking plastics.
“We often discover the settlements or mortuary remains of ancient cultures by first finding their trash: Their ceramics, or broken stone tools, even stone flakes from tool-making that were left behind. This is the common waste of early peoples,” explains Dr. Mark Aldenderfer, leading archaeologist in our scientific inquiry about who the first people were to settle and thrive in Upper Mustang.
Our research is all about early people’s garbage and grave goods. That we’re also committed to addressing the modern garbage of the local culture seems only fitting. We’ve brought Italian metallurgist, Giovanni Massa, with us to study the many metals we’ve uncovered in Samdzong’s caves. Thousands of years from now, when single-use plastics will be a mistake of the past, what will archaeologists make of our own material culture and plastic waste left behind? It will surely still be here, buried under the silt and dust of timeless winds. I image a plastics specialist will be needed to determine which polymers were used, how they could possibly have gotten here, asking why we invented a material that will never fully break down, slowly dissolving into smaller and smaller bits, disseminating into our waters to be taken up into our food chain, inadvertently consumed by creatures great and small.