High Altitude Anthropology

Recording the remote cultures of northern Burma

In December, Academy anthropologist Christiaan Klieger set out to trace the course of an ancient trade route through the mountains of northern Burma, hoping to discover whether or not it was still used to transport Tibetan salt. During his arduous 300-mile trek, Klieger found much more than an active trade route - he encountered three largely unrecorded groups of people.

One of these groups, the Rawang people, form a patch of Christianity against a strongly Buddhist background - the mark of Baptist ministers who managed to make it up to their region in the 1930's. A related group, called the T'rung, now consists of only five members. Once part of a population of several hundred, these people are unusually short, with an average height of less than four feet. Klieger was surprised to learn that besides the Burmese border, their stature is the only thing that separates them from their brothers and sisters in China, presenting an interesting case study for geneticists.

Klieger found another surprise when he reached Tehaundan, the northernmost village in Burma. The town is populated by Tibetan refugees from the Khampa tribe, who live in log cabins instead of the traditional Burmese bamboo huts and farm wheat or millet instead of rice. In Tehaundan, Klieger recorded a rare example of fraternal polyandry - a system in which brothers stay in their father's home and share a wife in order to ensure that inherited land is not broken into tiny parcels. Now back on flatter ground, Klieger is weaving these experiences into an ethnography.

The disappearing T'rung group that lives in northenmost Burma (shown here with Christiaan Klieger, right) is known for their extremely small stature. The man (third from left, age 45) is the last surviving male of the T'rung people. Photo: Dong Lin
Christiaan Klieger crossing a cane bridge over one of the upper tributaries of the Ayerwaddi River
Photo: Dong Lin
The village of Tehaundan, Myanmar's northernmost village. Located adjacent to pine forests, it is inhabitated by Khampa Tibetans who live in log houses. Photo: Dong Lin
Map by Colleen Sudekum