Tam Pa Ling cave sits at the top of Pa Hang Mountain, in Hua Phan Province, Laos. Every day, we climb the mountain and descend into the cave to dig. The view from outside the cave is spectacular, but its location means that the only equipment that we can use to dig through the wet clay of the cave floor is what we can carry up the mountain. Since starting work at Tam Pa Ling, we have excavated a giant pit that is 12 feet wide, 30 feet long and up to 18 feet deep – using only shovels, trowels and buckets.
To excavate Tam Pa Ling (Cave of the Monkeys), U. of I. anthropology professor Laura Shackelford, left; with project co-director Fabrice Demeter of the National Museum of Natural History, Paris, France; and their colleagues dug a pit that is up to 18 feet deep.
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This giant excavation started in 2009 as a small test pit in the center of the cave floor. After a few weeks of digging to see if climbing this mountain each day would be worth our time, we almost overlooked the first Tam Pa Ling fossils that we encountered because they were broken into nearly unrecognizable pieces and covered in massive chunks of clay. But the curve of the forehead and the smooth surfaces of teeth were as recognizable as our own. When all of these pieces were recovered, cleaned and put back together, we had the face of a young woman who looked surprisingly similar to the people who live throughout Asia today.
The finds include this partial skull and two jaw bones. These are the oldest modern human fossils ever found in mainland Southeast Asia.
This afternoon, my collaborator Fabrice Demeter and I will meet the French ambassador, Claudine Ledoux, who has organized the events at the museum. Together with officials from the Lao Ministry of Information and Culture, we will put the Tam Pa Ling fossils on display.
Finding a home for the bones of Tam Pa Ling
Bringing home the bones of Tam Pa Ling