aljazeera.net, 15 May 2006
China history unravelled by mummies
By Benjamin Robertson
[image] Tests say the Beauty of Loulan is of Indo-European descent
In a find that could turn conventional history on its head, scientists
using genetic testing have discovered that Caucasians lived in western
China's Tarim Basin a thousand years before East Asians arrived.
Unearthed lying on her side as though in sleep, a single tuft of red
hair falling across her head and ragged moccasins on her feet, the
Beauty of Loulan is considered to be one of the best preserved mummies
Roughly 3800-years-old and discovered in the sands of Xinjiang province
in western China, her emaciated features betray a facial bone structure
that is surprisingly similar to Caucasian looking women.
A team of American and Chinese researchers working in a laboratory in
Sweden used DNA samples to date and profile her mummy, confirming she
and other mummies are of Indo-European descent.
Project leader Victor Mair told Aljazeera.net his work on helping to
fill in the genetic jigsaw puzzle of human migration is "extremely
important because they link up eastern and western Eurasia at a
formative stage of civilisation (Bronze Age and Early Iron Age) in a
much closer way than has ever been done before".
Central Asian migrants
A professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of
Pennsylvania in the United States, Mair and his researchers now believe
that the mummies' ancestors migrated from Central Asia into the Tarim
Basin approximately 5000 years ago.
[image] The Tarim Bain's alkaline soils and dry air are ideal for mummies
Crossing the forbidding Pamir Mountains, which border modern day
Pakistan and China, they then settled on the edge of the basin before
slowly fanning out across the Taklamankan desert.
In more recent times the location for China's nuclear weapons tests,
Mair wrote, "the fact people can subsist in the Tarim Basin at all is
due to their intrepidity and adaptability".
Though inhospitable, the dry atmosphere and alkaline soils are a key
factor in the preservation of hundreds of mummies discovered there since
the 1970s, including the extremely well-preserved 3000-year-old Cherchen
First investigating the mummies in the late 1980s when he came across
them in a museum in Xinjiang, it was only recently that Mair was allowed
to remove bone samples for testing overseas.
Earlier tests on the clothing of the mummies had already linked the
particular twill weave of their garments to similar textile designs
found in ancient tombs in central Europe.
But what was still needed was a DNA test to confirm everyone's suspicions.
Often hesitant to let foreign researchers take archaeological remnants
out of the country after witnessing the pillaging of national monuments
by foreign troops and archaeologists in the nineteenth century, the
Chinese government has also been reluctant to release the samples for
fears they would bolster the claims of Uighur groups seeking
independence from China.
[quote] "In terms of contemporary nationalism it really is irrelevant...
It is always fallacious to use these kinds of materials to substantiate
contemporary claims" Dru Gladney, Xinjiang specialist at the University
Though unlikely candidates for nationalistic ping-pong balls, the almost
4000-year-old corpses have become a symbol for activists hoping to
discredit China's claim to the region.
In 2004, Chinese scientists at Jilin University in eastern China also
concluded that the mummies' DNA came from Indo-Europeans, and not East
Dru Gladney, a Xinjiang specialist at the University of Hawaii, told
Aljazeera.net that when the mummies were first found, "Uighur
nationalists hoped this would irrefutably document that they were the
indigenous peoples of Xinjiang rather than the Chinese".
"In terms of contemporary nationalism it really is irrelevant. Chinese
claims are from the Han dynasty while Uighurs want to claim direct
descent from the Uighur kingdom. It is always fallacious to use these
kinds of materials to substantiate contemporary claims," he adds.
Campaigning for an independent East Turkestan - a reference to a short
period in modern history when the region declared independence from
China - Uighur websites have claimed the mummies as the forefathers to a
Uighur kingdom founded in the seventh century BC in an area now
straddling modern day Mongolia and Xinjiang.
[image] Scientists hope to unlock more mysteries with easing restrictions
Uighur activists believe the mummies undermine China's ties to the
region, which Beijing says were cemented as far back as the Han Dynasty,
Comparing the mummies' DNA with that of present day inhabitants of the
Tarim Basin, Mair found the modern day Uighur, Kazakh and Kirghiz ethnic
groups did carry some genetic similarities with the mummies, but "no
"Central Asia is a zone of admixture, not a heartland or reservoir for
genetic diversity," wrote Mair.
Science beats politics
An apparent victory for science over politics, in recent years a cooling
of rhetoric over the nationalistic relevance of 4000-year-old human
remains has meant that scientists have been able to carry out further tests.
Writing how "any attempt at a serious and impartial inquiry into the
origins and identity of the mummies must simply remain oblivious to such
tendentiousness and calumniation", Mair told Aljazeera.net that earlier
attempts to take samples had met with resistance.
On one trip collecting 52 samples from the mummies, officials suddenly
changed their minds and would only permit him to take five out of the
Mair says much still remains unknown about the mummies' backgrounds and
is hoping with the lifting of political red tape, he may finally unlock
mysteries buried for thousands of years.
with kind regards,
Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)
To (un)subscribe or to access the searchable archive please go to:
For postings earlier than 2005-02-23 please go to: