Do ancestors deserve respect?

Members of the 1924 expedition to Everest.

Members of the 1924 expedition to Everest

I didn’t expect to find a full house Friday night for an hour-long, black-and-white, silent movie from the 1920s.

But Portlanders came in droves to see the West Coast premiere of a newly restored, colorized version of John Noel’s hand-cranked motion picture of the 1924 climb on Mt. Everest.

The Epic of Everest features a clutch of British mountaineers, including George Mallory and Andrew Irvine—who would perish on the trek—and the indigenous souls who guided them.

Two porters also died—Manbahadur, a cobbler from Darjeeling, and Shamsherpun, a Gurkha Lance Corporal—yet their names are missing in the film.

What drew me to the event is the story of George Mallory.

Mallory and Irvine disappeared during the trek and the last known sighting of the pair is revealed in the 1924 documentary, when Noel captured them 600 feet from the mountain’s top.

Although rumors spread among climbers throughout the years that both men’s bodies had been seen in various locations, it wasn’t until an organized search team, equipped with cameras and funded by the television program NOVA and the BBC, located Mallory’s remains at 27,000 feet.

I was interested to know how they reported the handling of his body.

The climbing team filmed the discovery of the frozen, ivory-colored mummified body that was partly clothed and partly exposed. The team discovered Mallory’s name sewn into the collar of his cotton shirt.

“The body was remarkably well preserved, due to the mountain’s climate. A brass altimeter, stag-handled lambsfoot pocket knife with leather slip-case and an unbroken pair of snow-goggles were also recovered,” according to the BBC.

The discovery of George Mallory’s body—mostly intact because of the frigid climate—raised the question of what to do with the remains.

Climber Dave Hahn told the BBC, “We didn’t want to disturb him; he’d been lying there for 75 years.”

Out of respect for “disturbing the body,” Hahn said, the team—having filmed the exposition—covered the body with surrounding rock scree.

But discoverers have not been so respectful to other found bodies.

A famous example is the indigenous teenager dubbed, Juanita, unearthed on Mount Ampato in Peru in 1995 and placed on public display.

Juanita likely lived between 1450 and 1480, and was carefully bathed, clothed, killed and buried in a ritual to honor the mountain.

She and several other mummies have been extracted from their burial places and displayed under glass.

President Bill Clinton, who was famously photographed with Juanita, quipped to reporters, “You know, if I were a single man, I might ask that mummy out. That’s a good-looking mummy.”

Nearly one year after Juanita was nicked from the mountain, two college students in Washington stumbled upon an antediluvian skull in the Columbia River.

The skull and skeleton—which had been once carefully buried, according to anthropologists—were removed, and a local scientist sent off a piece of bone for carbon dating.

Researchers said the 9200-year-old remains, called The Ancient One by local tribes and Kennewick Man by news reporters, was a tremendously important discovery to science.

Much to the dismay of local Indian tribes, scientists wanted to examine the remains, which were required to be returned to tribes, according to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Local tribes echoed the same sentiment revealed by the climbers who found George Mallory and then buried the body “out of respect.”

Armand Minthorn, a spokesman for one of the tribes embroiled in the Kennewick Man case, argued the skeleton should be returned.

“Scientists have dug up and studied Native Americans for decades. We view this practice as desecration of the body and a violation of our most deeply-held religious beliefs.”

Minthorn said he was “waiting for the day when they [ancestors] can return to the earth.”

After nearly 2 decades, the remains of Kennewick Man continue to be sequestered at the Burke Museum in Seattle.

Juanita’s body is preserved, under glass, at the Museo Santuarios de Altura in Arequipa, Peru.

And George Mallory?

He “remains a part of Mount Everest,” says Eric Simonson, who led the Mallory and Irvine expedition in 1999. “We buried his body beneath stones and rocks.”

Today’s blog honors Grace Dillon, my colleague, friend and relative, who is recovering her health and humor


Photo from


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in american indian, authenticity, epic of everest, everest, framing, george mallory, Indian, Kennewick Man, native american, Native Science, science, science communication, writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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