20080226-dzoing palace tibet china train com.jpg
Dzong palace
First palace Yumbu Yakhar
founded in 200 BC according to legend
Tibetans are considered a Central Asian ethnic group. They live primarily on the high Tibetan plateau, in the western Sichuan and Yunnan mountains of central and southern China, and areas throughout the Himalayas and around the Tibetan plateau. Tibet has traditionally been divided into three parts with the central part roughly coinciding with today’s Tibet Autonomous Region.

The word Tibet, which first appeared on maps of Arabic explorers, is believed to either be derived from the Tibetan term for “upper Tibet,” stod bod, or from the early Indian name for Tibet, bhot. The Chinese term for Tibetans is Bhotia. Tibetans refer themselves by the place-names of their geographical areas or tribal name such of the Golock people of Amdo or the Ladakis and Zanskaris from northern India.

Tsetang, Tibet’s third largest city, is the mythical birthplace of the Tibetan people. According to legend a monkey mediating in a cave was seduced by a female demon who had refused to wed another monster. She married the monkey and produced six children who grew up to form the six major tribes of Tibet. Another myth describes how the first Tibetan king descended to earth from heaven on a sky rope. These myth are believed to have their origin in the ancient Bon religion.

Throughout most of their history Tibetans have been left primarily to themselves. The rugged terrain that occupied and surrounded their homeland discouraged invaders.

Websites and Sources on Tibet: Central Tibetan Administration (Tibetan government in Exile) ; Chinese Government Tibet website; Wikipedia article on Tibet Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Tibetan History Wikipedia ; Tibetan News site ; Snow Lion Publications (books on Tibet) ; Tibetan Cultural Sites: Tibetan Cultural Region Directory ; White Paper on Tibetan Culture ; Tibet Activist Groups: Free Tibet ; Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy ; Students for a Free Tibet ; Students for a Free Tibet UK / ; Friends of Tibet ; Campaign for Tibet (Save Tibet) ; Tibet Society ; Tibetan Studies and Tibet Research: Tibetan Resources on The Web (Columbia University C.V. Starr East Asian Library ) ; Tibetan and Himalayan Libray Digital Himalaya ; ; Tibetan Studies Maps WWW Virtual Library ; Center for Research of Tibet ; Tibetan Studies resources blog ; News, Electronic Journals ; Book: "Tibetan Civilization" by Rolf Alfred Stein. Robert Thurman, a friend of the Dalai Lama and professor of Indo-Tibetan studies at Columbia University, is regarded the preeminent scholar on Tibet in the United States.

Neolithic Tibet

Evidence of an intermittent human presence on the Tibetan Plateau has been dated to at least 20,000 years ago, with the first semi-permanent villages established only 5,200 years ago. Archeological evidence indicates that people arrived on the Tibetan plateau from the northeast approximately 13,000 year ago. Over time they migrated throughout the region with large numbers settling along the Tsangpo River, which runs parallel to the Himalayas in southern Tibet.

Neolithic immigrants from northern China largely replaced the original inhabitants, bringing with them elements of Neolithic culture and technology, although a degree of genetic continuity with the Paleolithic settlers still exists. The neolithic settlers from northern China were possibly from a mixture of the Yangshao culture, which inhabited modern-day Henan, Shaanxi, and Shanxi, and the Majiayao culture, which inhabited the upper Yellow River region in modern-day Gansu and Qinghai. Archaeological evidence suggests that the spread of the Sino-Tibetan proto-language was caused by the westward expansion of the Yangshao culture, intermingling with the Majiayao culture, which expanded further west into the Himalayas. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The neolithic cultures of Kashmir, northern Sikkim, Chamdo, and Bhutan are all the result of this migration into the Tibetan Plateau, primarily through the use of two routes: 1) the southward route through modern-day Sichuan into Sikkim, Bhutan and southeastern Tibet, and 2) a westward path through the Karakoram mountain range, into Kashmir. The divergence in the Sino-Tibetan language family between the Bodish languages, including the Tibetan languages, and the Sinitic languages of China likely occurred during this migration. +

Evidence of neolithic Tibetan inhabitants and settlements have been found mainly "in river valleys in the south and east of the country". Archaeological sites consist of those in Nyingchi County, Medog County, and Qamdo County. Archaeologists have found pottery and stone tools, including stone axes, chisels, knives, spindle-whorls, discs, and arrowheads. Findings in Nyingchi culturally resemble the Neolithic Qijia culture in Gansu and Qinghai, while findings in Qamdo resemble the Dadunzi site in Yunnan, although there may be some connections with the Neolithic culture of the Yellow River valley. +

Ancient Tibetans

20080226-history first palace yumbu yakhar 200BC according to legend.jpg The Tibetans first settled along the middle reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo River (Brahmaputra River) in Tibet. Evidence of the new and old stone age culture was found in archaeological excavations at Nyalam, Nagqu, Nyingchi and Qamdo. According to ancient historical documents, members of the earliest clans formed tribes known as "Bos" (or “Pos”) in the Shannan area—Lhoka, located on the middle and lower reaches of the Yarlung Valley in southern Tibet near the present-day border with Bhutan. [Source: ]

Tibetans are believed to have evolved from the Qiang, one of the first ethnic groups to be referred to in Chinese historical records. They were mentioned in the 12th century B.C. by members of the Chinese Zhou dynasty, who originated from the western plains near the mountains in Gansu where the Qiang lived. The Zhou identified the Qiang as allies and the two groups were very similar and may have exchanged women.

In the 6th century B.C. as the Zhou and Chinese became increasingly involved in intensive agriculture the Qiang began migrating towards their present homeland in Sichuan. There were reports of Qiang states in the A.D. 4th and 5th centuries, around the time the first Tibetan kingdoms were reported.

Ancient Tibetans were a fierce, war-like, horse people with a reputation not unlike that of the Mongol Hordes of Genghis Khan. During the Ming dynasty Tibetans used to sell the Chinese around 30,000 horses a year.+

Zhangzhung Kingdom

Zhangzhung (Zhang Zhung, Xiangxiong or Shangshung) was an ancient culture and kingdom of western and northwestern Tibet, which pre-dates the culture of Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet. Zhangzhung culture is associated with the Bon religion, which in turn, has influenced the philosophies and practices of Tibetan Buddhism. Zhangzhung people are mentioned frequently in ancient Tibetan texts as the original rulers of central and western Tibet. Only in the last two decades have archaeologists been given access to do archaeological work in the areas once ruled by the Zhangzhung.

The Zhangzhung Kingdom was the earliest civilization center on the Tibetan plateau. Zhangzhung means "land of the roc” in Tibetan. Roc is a huge mythical bird. According to historical records, before the rise of the Tubo Kingdom (629-846), the Zhangzhung Kingdom existed and flourished in western Tibet, living mainly on animal husbandry, with some agriculture. The kingdom even established ties with the Tang Dynasty in China's Central Plains. [Source:,, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

The kingdom of Guge and Tibet (Tubo) are associated with the Zhangzhung. According to Namkhai Norbu some Tibetan historical texts identify the Zhang Zhung culture as a people who migrated from the Amdo region into what is now the region of Guge in western Tibet. Zhang Zhung is considered to be the original home of the Bön religion. By the 1st century BC, a neighboring kingdom arose in the Yarlung Valley, and the Yarlung king, Drigum Tsenpo, attempted to remove the influence of the Zhang Zhung by expelling the Zhang's Bön priests from Yarlung. He was assassinated and Zhang Zhung continued its dominance of the region until it was annexed by Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century. Recently, a tentative match has also been proposed between the Zhangzhung and an Iron Age culture now being uncovered on the Changtang plateau in northwestern Tibet. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Tradition has it that Zhangzhung consisted "of three different regions: sGob-ba, the outer; Phug-pa, the inner; and Bar-ba, the middle. The outer is what we might call Western Tibet, from Gilgit in the west to Dangs-ra khyung-rdzong in the east, next to lake gNam-mtsho, and from Khotan in the north to Chu-mig brgyad-cu rtsa-gnyis in the south. The inner region is said to be sTag-gzig (Tazig) [often identified with Bactria], and the middle rGya-mkhar bar-chod, a place not yet identified." While it is not certain whether Zhangzhung was really so large, it is known that it was an independent kingdom and covered the whole of Western Tibet. The capital city of Zhangzhung was called Khyunglung, the "Silver Palace of Garuda", southwest of Mount Kailash (Mount Ti-se), which is identified with palaces found in the upper Sutlej Valley. +

History of the Zhangzhung Kingdom

Tibetan historical records show that the Zhangzhung Kingdom flourished in the 7th century, and contained a highly developed culture that included the unique Zhangzhung written language. It was also the cradle of Bon, the indigenous Tibetan religion. The Xiangquan (Elephant Spring River) and Shiquan (Lion Spring River) valleys were its central regions. Zhangzhung culture, consisting of religion, characters, and medical science, occupies an important position in Tibet's civilization history. [Source:,, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

At the height of its power and splendor, the kingdom boasted extreme military power and occupied most of the Tibetan plateau, parts of today's Qinghai and Sichuan provinces, in Northwest and Southwest China respectively, and even the Ladak Kingdom (reputedly today's Kashmir).

Later, Tubo tribes grew increasingly stronger and conquered Zhangzhung in the 8th century. Hence, Zhangzhung together with its culture disappeared almost overnight, leaving no traces of its glorious past and highly developed civilization. Even today, historians are unable to identify the cultural legacies and ruins of the Zhangzhung civilization. The sudden disappearance of the Zhangzhung Kingdom still remains a mystery.

According to Rolf Alfred Stein, author of Tibetan Civilization, the area of Shang Shung was not historically a part of Tibet and was a distinctly foreign territory to the Tibetans: He wrote: “Then further west, the Tibetans encountered a distinctly foreign nation. - Shangshung, with its capital at Khyunglung. Mt. Kailāśa (Khailash, Tise) and Lake Manasarovar formed part of this country., whose language has come down to us through early documents. Though still unidentified, it seems to be Indo European. …Geographically the country was certainly open to India, both through Nepal and by way of Kashmir and Ladakh. Kailāśa is a holy place for the Indians, who make pilgrimages to it. No one knows how long they have done so, but the cult may well go back to the times when Shangshung was still independent of Tibet. How far Shangshung stretched to the north, east and west is a mystery…. We have already had an occasion to remark that Shangshung, embracing Kailāśa sacred Mount of the Hindus, may once have had a religion largely borrowed from Hinduism. The situation may even have lasted for quite a long time. In fact, about 950, the Hindu King of Kabul had a statue of Vişņu, of the Kashmiri type (with three heads), which he claimed had been given him by the king of the Bhota (Tibetans) who, in turn had obtained it from Kailāśa.”

Zhangzhung Kingdom Ruins

Zhangzhung Kingdom Ruins (Nyima County, Nagchu Prefecture, three hours drive from Nyima, 500 kilometers northwest of Lhasa) can now be visited. A legend says there are two ruins of the Zhangzhung Kingdom of the Bon. One set of ruins is the site of Zhangzhung's ancient capital, located in the Qionglong silver city in Zhada County, Ngari Prefecture. At the Zhada Clay Forest, there are many relics of early human caves and paintings on rocks. The famous Qionglong City was found in a basin surrounded by mountains. The ruins stand on a cliff, facing east and dotted with caves. The ruined walls and stones lend a mysterious atmosphere. [Source:,, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

Another set of ruins is at Qongzon, near the Ombu Office in Nagqu, where many relics of the Zhangzhung Kingdom have been found, including a temple near the most sacred lake of the Bon followers. The ruins consist of many caves dug into the Daguo Mountains, covering one square kilometer. Old trees and caves on surrounding cliffs are the most striking features.

The Ngari Prefecture has opened a special route to the ancient Zhangzhung ruins, offering more chances to experience the grandness of this mysterious ancient kingdom. The 380-kilometer route runs through Burang and Zanda counties in the western part of Southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region. There are many ruins of the ancient kingdom along the way.Nevertheless, the Zhangzhung Civilization still remains a mystery.


Ancient Cliff-Side Caves in Mustang

Mustang is a former kingdom in north-central Nepal just south of the Tibet border. Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic: It “is home to one of the world’s great archaeological mysteries. In this dusty, wind-savaged place, hidden within the Himalaya and deeply cleaved by the Kali Gandaki River—in spots, the gorge dwarfs Arizona’s Grand Canyon—there are an extraordinary number of human-built caves. Some sit by themselves, a single open mouth on a vast corrugated face of weathered rock. Others are in groups, a grand chorus of holes, occasionally stacked eight or nine stories high, an entire vertical neighborhood. Some were dug into cliffsides, others tunneled from above. Many are thousands of years old. The total number of caves in Mustang, conservatively estimated, is 10,000. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, October 2012 -]

The caves were painstakingly hand-dug from the brittle stone. “No one knows who dug them. Or why. Or even how people climbed into them. (Ropes? Scaffolding? Carved steps? Nearly all evidence has been erased.) In the mid-1990s, archaeologists from the University of Cologne and Nepal began peeking into some of the more accessible caves. They found several dozen bodies, all at least 2,000 years old, aligned on wooden beds and decorated with copper jewelry and glass beads, products not locally manufactured, reflecting Mustang’s status as a trade thoroughfare. -

“Pete Athans first glimpsed the caves of Mustang while trekking in 1981. Many of the caves appear impossible to reach—you’d have to be a bird, it seems, to gain entry—and Athans, an exceptionally accomplished alpinist who has stood atop Everest seven times, was stirred by the challenge they presented. During visits between 2007 and 2011 Athans and his team had made some sensational finds. In one cave they discovered a 26-foot-long mural with 42 exquisitely rendered portraits of great yogis in Buddhist history. In another was a trove of 8,000 calligraphed manuscripts—a collection, most of it 600 years old, that included everything from philosophical musings to a treatise on mediating disputes. The most promising site was a cave complex near a tiny village called Samdzong, just south of the Chinese border. Athans and Mark Aldenderfer of the University of California, Merced; had visited Samdzong in 2010 and found a system of funerary caves.

History of the Cliff-Side Caves in Mustang

Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic: “Early Mustang, it’s thought, was ruled by powerful kings....Seven hundred years ago, Mustang was a bustling place: a center of Buddhist scholarship and art, and possibly the easiest connection between the salt deposits of Tibet and the cities of the Indian subcontinent. Salt was then one of the world’s most valuable commodities. In Mustang’s heyday, says Charles Ramble, an anthropologist at the Sorbonne in Paris, caravans would move across the region’s rugged trails, carting loads of salt. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, October 2012-]

“Later, in the 17th century, nearby kingdoms began dominating Mustang, says Ramble. An economic decline set in. Cheaper salt became available from India. The great statues and brilliantly painted mandalas in Mustang’s temples started crumbling. And soon the region was all but forgotten, lost beyond the great mountains. -

“Aldenderfer divides cave use in Mustang into three general periods. First, as long as 3,000 years ago, the caves were burial chambers. Then, around 1,000 years ago, they became primarily living quarters. Within a few centuries, the Kali Gandaki Valley—the neck in the hourglass connecting Asia’s highlands and lowlands—may have been frequently battled over. “People were scared,” Aldenderfer says. Families, placing safety over convenience, moved into the caves. Finally, by the 1400s, most people had moved into traditional villages. The caves were still used—as meditation chambers, military lookouts, or storage units. Some caves remained homes, and even today a few families live in them. “It’s warmer in winter,” says Yandu Bista, who was born in 1959 in a Mustang cave and resided in one until 2011. “But water is difficult to haul up.” -

What Athans and the scientists wanted most was a cave with items from before the era of written records to shed light on the deepest mysteries: Who first lived in the caves? Where did these people come from? What did they believe? Most of the caves Athans had peeked into were empty, though they showed signs of domestic habitation: hearths, grain-storage bins, sleeping spaces.

Tombs in the Ancient Cliff-Side Caves in Mustang

On a cave later named Tomb 5, Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic: “Athans, dangling on the green rope, maneuvered nimbly into the smallest cave. He had to crouch to get in—it was only five feet high and roughly six feet wide and six feet deep. This cave, it was clear, was once a hidden shaft tomb, or mortuary cave, dug in the shape of a wine decanter. When it was excavated, only the very top of the shaft was visible. Bodies were lowered down the sewer-pipe-size shaft, and the hole was backfilled with rock. When the cliff face collapsed, the entire cave was exposed, creating a cross-sectional view. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, October 2012-]

“A large boulder, once part of the ceiling, had landed on the cave’s floor. If there was anything in the cave, it was beneath that rock. Athans tugged at it, levering it gradually toward the cave’s mouth. Then he shouted, “Rock!” and the boulder thundered down the wall, kicking up a cloud of amber dust. Fifteen centuries or so after it was sealed, as carbon dating later proved, the cave was once again clear of debris. The first thing Athans found in the closet-size chamber—later designated Tomb 5—was wood, superb dark hardwood, cut into various planks and slats and pegs. Aldenderfer and Mohan Singh Lama of Nepal’s Department of Archaeology eventually fitted the pieces together, creating a box about three feet tall: a coffin. It was ingeniously constructed so that the sections fit through the tomb’s narrow entrance and then could easily be assembled in the main chamber.” Painted on the box, in orange and white pigments, was a rudimentary but unmistakable image: a person riding a horse. “Probably his favorite horse,” Aldenderfer guessed. Later, as if to confirm the man’s status as an equine aficionado, a horse skull was found in the cave. -

“On the 2010 trip to Samdzong, in the two biggest caves on the cliff wall, the team had located human remains from 27 individuals, including men, women, and one child. There were bedlike or rudimentary coffins in those caves as well, but they were made of much inferior wood and far simpler construction, with no paintings. Tomb 5, Aldenderfer theorized, was the burial plot of a high-ranking person, perhaps a local leader. The tomb, it turned out, held two bodies—an adult male and a child, maybe ten years old. The youth was a source of much speculation. “I don’t want to characterize the child as any kind of sacrifice or slave because I really don’t have a clue,” says Aldenderfer. “But a child in there does suggest a complex ritual.” -

Human Remains and Artifacts in the Mustang Cliff-Side Caves

Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic: When Jacqueline Eng of Western Michigan University, “the team’s bone sleuth, took a close look at the remains, she made a startling discovery: The bones of 76 percent of all the individuals she examined bore the unmistakable scars of knife slices. These marks, says Eng, were clearly made after death. “This wasn’t hacking and whacking,” she says. The bones were relatively whole and lacked signs of deliberate breakage and burning. “All the evidence,” Eng notes, “indicates there was no cannibalism here.” [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, October 2012-]

“The bones date from the third to the eighth centuries—before Buddhism came to Mustang—but the defleshing may be related to the Buddhist practice of sky burial. To this day, when a citizen of Mustang dies, the body may be sliced into small pieces, bones included. These are all swiftly snatched up by vultures. In the age of the Samdzong cave burials, Aldenderfer posits, the body was stripped of flesh but the bones were still articulated—“like a Halloween skeleton,” he says. The skeleton was lowered into the tomb and folded to fit in the wooden box. “Then whoever was down there with him,” says Aldenderfer, “climbed back out.” Before doing so, the ancient burial crew had made sure the corpse was regally adorned for the great beyond. As Athans hunched inside Tomb 5, sifting through dust for hour upon hour, he discovered these adornments. “It was so mesmerizing,” he says, “that I forgot to eat or drink.” -

“A trove of beads, the garment they’d been sewn on long disintegrated, was scooped up by Athans and placed in plastic sample bags. Singh Lama painstakingly sorted them. There were more than a thousand beads, made of glass, some as minuscule as poppy seeds, in a half dozen hues. As lab studies later showed, the beads were of various origins: some from what is now Pakistan, some from India, some from Iran. Three iron daggers, with gracefully curved hilts and heavy blades, also emerged. Then a bamboo teacup with delicate circular handle. A copper bangle. A small bronze mirror. A copper cooking pot and a ladle and a three-legged iron pot stand. Bits of fabric. A pair of yak or cow horns. An enormous copper cauldron, roomy enough to boil a beach ball. “I’m betting that’s a chang pot,” said Aldenderfer, referring to the regional beer made of fermented barley. -

“Finally Athans sent down a funerary mask. It was made of gold and silver pounded together, with high relief facial features. The eyes were rimmed in red, the mouth was slightly turned down, the nose was linear; there was a hint of a beard. Pinholes outlined the edge. Likely the mask was sewn to fabric and draped over the face. The beads had been part of the mask. Aldenderfer, normally restrained and scholarly, could not contain himself as he cradled the mask in his palms. “It’s stunning,” he marveled. “The workmanship that’s involved, the obvious wealth it represents, the colors, the delicateness—it’s the best thing ever found in Mustang. Period.” -

“Nearly all the items in the cave had been imported from elsewhere. Even the coffin’s wood had come from a tropical environment. How could a person from this place—today so bereft of resources that merely accumulating firewood requires hours of effort—gather such riches? Salt, most likely. Controlling a piece of the salt trade may have been the current equivalent of owning an oil pipeline.” -

Climbing to the Ancient Cliff-Side Caves in Mustang

Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic: “Mustang’s cliffs are gorgeous beyond measure—the immense walls appear to be melting like so much candle wax under the intense high-elevation sun. The ridgelines have eroded into wild shapes: bony fingers supporting colossal rocky basketballs, towering tubes arrayed like an endless pipe organ. The color of the rock, shifting as the day passes, seems to encompass every shade of red and ocher and brown and gray. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, October 2012-]

“But the climbing is horrible. “Pure thuggery,” says Athans. “Industrial, inelegant—the Dumpster diving of climbing.” The rock, fragile as peanut brittle, breaks off with every touch. It’s extraordinarily dangerous. A few months earlier, Lincoln Else, a videographer, was struck in the head with a rock shortly after he’d removed his helmet. His skull was fractured. He underwent emergency brain surgery in Kathmandu and survived. In 2010, Cory Richards, a climber as well as a photographer, tumbled and broke a bone in his lower back. Like Else, he had to be evacuated from Mustang by helicopter. -

“To access Samdzong’s caves, Athans and Hesser, the team’s chief climbers, hiked around the back side of the cliff and reached a flat area above the caves. Here, with special permission from authorities, they hammered several long pieces of rebar into the rock and tied on a rope. Athans was going to entrust his life to this anchor. There was a discussion of what to do if the rebar started to loosen. Hesser suggested that he shout an expletive at the top of his lungs. “That will work,” said Athans. He then calmly rappelled off the edge. A rain of dirt and rocks clattered off the dome of his helmet. -

“Below, on flat ground, sat Aldenderfer held a small monitor that received a wireless feed from Athans’s video camera, allowing the anthropologist to direct the search from a safe position. Nearby, sitting cross-legged in his maroon robe, was the local lama, 72-year-old Tsewang Tashi. He lit a small juniper twig fire and filled a chalice with holy water from an old plastic Pepsi bottle. Then he chanted softly while ringing a brass bell and dipping his fingers in the water—a Buddhist protection ceremony to remove troublesome spirits that could endanger the team’s work.” -

Image Sources: Purdue University, University of Washington

Text Sources: 1) "Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China", edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, ~; 3) Ethnic China *\; 4); 5), the Chinese government news site | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2020

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