Interviews: Exploring Tibet's Lost Civilization

Upright stone slabs on a lonely Tibetan plain -- evidence of a pre-Buddhist settlement or tomb i i

hide captionUpright stone slabs on a lonely Tibetan plain — evidence of a pre-Buddhist settlement or burial ground.

John Vincent Bellezza
Upright stone slabs on a lonely Tibetan plain -- evidence of a pre-Buddhist settlement or tomb

Upright stone slabs on a lonely Tibetan plain — evidence of a pre-Buddhist settlement or burial ground.

John Vincent Bellezza
The explorer and historian at a remote camp site high on the Tibetan Plateau.

hide captionThe explorer and historian at a remote camp site high on the Tibetan Plateau.

John Vincent Bellezza

High in the Tibetan Plateau, some 15,000 feet above sea level in a region the size of California and Texas combined, lies evidence of a civilization predating Buddhism — ruins of citadels and burial grounds weathered by centuries of exposure to the elements, but largely untouched by man.

Stories of this ancient kingdom survive to this day in the rich storytelling traditions of the nomadic people who now call the high plateau their home. But for years, the stories of the kingdom were thought to be just tales, lost in 1,500 years of history.

Explorer and cultural historian John Bellezza has spent the last two decades surveying the region, and he's discovered relics of the lost kingdom that back up centuries of legend. NPR's Alex Chadwick recently caught up with Bellezza during a recent trip to the United States.

"There are many sites in upper Tibet belonging to this early time — this pre-Buddhist period — and they were largely forgotten during the Buddhist period as culture and values changed," Bellezza tells Chadwick. "I've been looking at these sites trying to visit all of them... and photograph them, measure them, and collect stories related to the site, myths and legends that the local people tell."

Bellezza says the evidence of ancient civilizations is often hidden in plain sight. A ritual burial site, for example, might have thousands of rock pillars marking graves — but the pillars are so weathered by age and exposure that they look like part of the landscape.

"Many of these sites... have been abandoned, no one lives there any more," Bellezza says. "It's kind of like entering a time warp, leaving the modern world behind and entering a world that's no longer populated — but its monuments remain, its stones are there for us to see and measure and to try to understand the kind of culture that gave rise to them."

Scientists now believe that thousands of years ago, the upper Tibetan plateau was warmer and wetter, enough to support agriculture and give rise to citadels. But the region very gradually turned cold and arid.

"Because the region was so marginal to begin with, it didn't take much to put this civilization over the edge, and it came tumbling down," Bellezza says. "And now only its monuments are left — the nomads have maintained some of the cultural traditions, but none of their old glories have survived there with them."

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