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Recent investigations raise more questions about an enigmatic people

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An ancient log coffin still stands high on a cliff in Coffin Cave. There are more than 60 log coffin sites in the Pang Mapha region of northern Thailand. (Jerry Redfern) Rasmi Shoocongdej is director of the Highland Archaeology Project, which is devoted to studying the Log Coffin Culture. (Jerry Redfern)

Thailand's far northwestern corner is rippled with mountains, lush at their bases and craggy on top, where the limestone outcrops graze the sky. This landscape stretches for hundreds of miles through villages of ethnic Shan and animist hill tribes that farm their fields on both sides of the Thailand-Burma border. Clusters of bamboo-and-thatch huts cling to the mountainsides. I've traveled here before--pursuing stories as well as fresh air and lazy vacation days--and the people have welcomed me with sticky rice, tea, and stories of their ancestors. This time, I am visiting Ban Rai Rock Shelter--better known to locals as Tham Pi Maen or a "spirit" cave--500 feet up from the valley below, to see the remains of 15 giant teak coffins where a little-known culture left their dead more than a thousand years ago.

Some 600 miles northwest of Bangkok, this undulating terrain, crisscrossed by rivers, has a climate cooler than that of Thailand's flat plains to the south. Known as the "lime hills" in the Shan language, the region has yielded some of Thailand's most important archaeological finds, including the oldest wood carving in the country and the earliest human remains in northern Thailand. American archaeologist Chester Gorman began investigating this area in 1965, and found seeds of domesticated plants dating between 11,000 and 8,000 years ago. But then, as now, much of the area's archaeology remained unexcavated and poorly understood. This is clearly evident in the case of the Log Coffin Culture.

Karen J. Coates is a journalist who splits her time between Asia and the American Southwest.

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