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UC Merced professor to be featured on PBS documentary
UC Merced archaeology professor Mark Aldenderfer, whose research in the Himalayas will be featured on the NOVA season premiere in January, gets ready to rappel into some caves with climber Pete Athans. - photo by Photo Contributed

Those who tune in to explore the towering Himalayas during the season premiere of NOVA on PBS might see a similar face: that of University of California, Merced archaeology professor Mark Aldenderfer.


“Secrets of the Sky Tombs” will follow Aldenderfer and his international team — including one highly-skilled mountain climber — as they scale sheer cliff sides in the Himalayas, which are among the last places on Earth that humanity settled, to find out how ancient people came to live there and how they adapted to survive.


“The intent of the project when we started was to investigate where the people came from that lived in this high elevation environment and when they got here,” said Aldenderfer. “At first glance it seems like an obvious answer, but these were difficult places to live. In order to succeed and have their population grow, they needed to have certain genetic adaptations to allow them to live in a cold climate with relatively scarce water.”


Aldenderfer said the documentary is the culmination of a decade’s worth of research, which included taking a look at the bioarchaeology of human remains found in tombs, extracting DNA and conducting material culture studies. In “Secrets of the Sky Tombs” Aldenderfer will explain how he and his team were able to determine that the people that lived in this high elevation environment in the Himalayas came from the Tibetan plateau, with the earliest occupation of the area dating back 3,000 years ago.


“NOVA pulls it all together,” said Aldenderfer. “The people that were here are from the Tibetan plateau because they have specific genes that help with a higher elevation adaptation. It looks today like it is a very arid environment, but 2,000 to 3,000 years ago, this place was a very important spot on the landscape of this region.”


Aldenderfer said that his interest in high elevation environments spans back further than his research in the Himalayas, starting with his first trip to a high elevation environment in Peru in 1984.


“With science, you learn one thing about a region and you begin to think if it would be similar in a different region on the planet,” said Aldenderfer. “Over the course of my career of looking a higher elevation places, I’ve had a lot of fun. I started in the Andes and ended in the Himalayas.”


During “Secrets of the Sky Tombs,” viewers will get a glimpse into the high elevation environment of the Himalayas, as well as an inside look at laboratories in Oklahoma, Chicago and London where research was conducted.


“It’s a good story,” said Aldenderfer. “It combines the best of high quality science with an exotic location that many people will find appealing even if they find it very different from their daily lives. You’ll see some adventure and get a good sense of what the people are like here living in this harsh and difficult region today, many of them are likely to be descendants of the people we are studying.”


The season premiere of NOVA “Secrets of the Sky Tombs” is scheduled to air at 9 a.m. on Jan. 4.