On a Cliffside in Sichuan province of southwest China hang over three hundred coffins, all of them several hundred feet up a sheer rock face. While various forms of coffin hanging existed around China, Indonesia, and the Philippines, this particular location was done by the Bo people of southwest China. The Bo people flourished in Hemp Pond Valley for approximately four hundred years, three thousand years ago until mysteriously disappearing, leaving only their hanging coffins and cliff wall paintings.
A small minority, the Bo people existed at a time when southern China was experiencing, famine, crop devastation, and more. Their mysterious disappearance is often associated with being completely wiped out by the Ming Dynasty army, which left little to go on in terms of the rites and rituals that were involved in coffin hanging. It is thought that the coffins were placed high on the cliff faces as a means of lifting the deceased closer to the gods and the heavens, with the more powerful and affluent dead going higher up on the wall than the common people. For this reason, the lost Bo people are often referred to as the “Subjugators of the Sky” and “Sons of the Cliffs.”
Unlike other groups that hung their coffins on cliffs around the same time, the Bo people did not paint theirs. Instead, the cliff faces where the coffins can be found are painted with murals and stories in fiery red colours.
The question of how the Bo people managed to get three hundred coffins up several hundred feet of sheer cliff is still hotly debated among anthropology scholars. A number of theories have been suggested, such as the building and tearing down of earthen ramps, the use of stakes as a means to climb the cliff, etc. There is no archaeological evidence found to suggest the use of scaffolding, and dirt ramps would have been very time intensive work for such a small community. Instead it is thought that, due to the fact many rest on outcroppings from the cliff face, the coffins were lowered via ropes from the top of the cliff, a theory supported by the findings of marks on many coffins suggesting ropes were used.
The true meaning behind the ritual of the hanging coffins remains a mystery, much like the disappearance of the Bo people. Yet further archaeological exploration may help us fill in the gaps on this ancient funeral tradition, the Bo people, and their way of life.