WMU associate professor’s research featured in “NOVA” PBS documentary

Dr. Jacqueline Eng

Dr. Jacqueline Eng

The towering Himalayas were among the last places humanity settled, and for a daring team of researchers – including Western Michigan University’s Dr. Jacqueline Eng – they are a forbidding landscape where some of the world’s most enigmatic discoveries can be found.

On Jan. 4, a worldwide audience had the opportunity to witness Eng and her colleagues hunt for clues to how these ancient settlers lived in “Secrets of the Sky Tombs.” The documentary, which aired as part of the award-winning “NOVA” series on PBS, includes interviews with Eng and researchers who study human remains, ancient DNA, early textiles and metals, and Tibetan history and culture.


Biological anthropologist Eng specialized in the skeletal studies of the research. “The human body has the amazing capacity to adapt to all manner of challenges and the skeletal and dental remains can record the imprints of those stresses and adaptations – from evidence of malnutrition and disease, to signs of trauma and recovery,” she said. “The way in which people are buried also offer clues about cultural beliefs and the society in which they lived.”

Scaling sheer cliff sides, the researchers look for evidence to how ancient people found their way through extreme conditions and survived the high altitude. They discover rock-cut tombs filled with human bones and artifacts including gold masks and Chinese silk dating back more than a thousand years. With each revelation, the scientists piece together evidence of elaborate rituals and beliefs designed to ward off the restless spirits of the dead. 


Eng consistently studies the health of ancient human populations as revealed by their skeletal and dental remains. Through this bioarchaeological perspective, she has conducted osteological research on hunter-gatherer populations in California, Viking Age and Conversion Age inhabitants of Iceland, post-medieval peasants from Transylvania, and numerous societies from China’s northern frontier that date from the Neolithic to the Mongolian Dynasty.

She says her most recent experience in Nepal has been rewarding in many ways. “I have enjoyed interacting with the local people and learning about their history, collaborating with scholars from many different fields, and working with an intrepid crew of climbers and filmmakers,” Eng said.

“Secrets of the Sky Tombs” is currently available for viewing at pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/secrets-sky-tombs.html and will air at additional dates and times on PBS.