A Tarim mummy

Where the West Actually Meets the East—The Tarim Mummies

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Ancient Rome and China were on opposite sides of the world as far as both civilizations were concerned. Although both cultures were aware of each other’s existence because of the Silk Road, each considered the other to be a distant rumor. To the Chinese, the Romans were simply barbarians beyond the civilized world with whom they had trade relations. To the Romans, the Chinese were just barbarians living beyond the civilized world that happened to have valuable trade goods such as silk. However, recent discoveries of mummified remains in the Xinjiang province of China have led to speculation that there might have been more contact between China and the West than is generally assumed.

These mummies are not intentionally mummified, but rather have been preserved due to the desert location in which they were found. Because of the arid conditions of the Tarim Basin, the chemical processes that lead to decomposition are drastically slowed, causing corpses to remain in remarkably good conditions even thousands of years after the death of the individual. This is also seen in the hyper-arid Atacama Desert in Chile.

A Tarim mummy.

A Tarim mummy. ( imgur)

Mummy Discoveries

Some of the first mummies were found near an Uyghur village. They date to between 2000 and 4000 years before the present. The clothing has been well-preserved, and a notable find is that one of the female mummies wears a conical hat which may have been a sign of considerable status. What is most remarkable about these mummies, however, is that they look physically Caucasian. They have elongated bodies, sunken eyes, long noses, and their lightly colored hair is still preserved. These individuals, as a result, stand out from much of the modern population of China.

The desert is very dry, which helped preserve the mummies.

The desert is very dry, which helped preserve the mummies. (imgur)

Wheeled carts have also been found in association with the mummies. Most scholars today believe that the wheel was introduced to China from farther west rather than being independently developed there. The clothing worn by the mummies is also made with techniques that may have a common origin with the methods involved in the making of European textiles which originated during the Neolithic period.

These archaeological findings have led some to speculate that these mummies may be from Europe. Some even go as far as to try to connect them with a lost Roman legion, part of which fled the battle field after the defeat of General Crassus.

Europoid Mask, Lop Nur, China, 2000-1000 BC.

Europoid Mask, Lop Nur, China, 2000-1000 BC. (PHGCOM/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Searching for the Mummies’ Origins

Although it is possible that they could have come from Europe, it is not necessary to go all the way to Europe to find people who could be related to them. Archaeological and linguistic evidence indicate that, before the rise of the Han Chinese Empire, what is now the Xinjang province was originally settled by Indo-European speaking populations that migrated there from central Asia, including the Tocharians. The Tocharians first entered the region around 2000 BC. In addition to speaking an Indo-European language, they had a more Mediterranean or Middle Eastern appearance and are depicted in artwork possessing full red beards too.

"Tocharian donors", with light hair and light eye color, 7th century AD fresco, Qizil, Tarim Basin, Xinjiang, China.

"Tocharian donors", with light hair and light eye color, 7th century AD fresco, Qizil, Tarim Basin, Xinjiang, China. ( Public Domain )

By the 1st century BC, the Tocharian communities had developed into city-states which were important waystations along the Silk Road. They are mentioned in Roman records in late antiquity. The Tocharians flourished for a couple of centuries, but were ultimately overshadowed by the Chinese Empire in the east and warlike nomads to the north. In the mid-first millennium AD, populations from the northeast began to enter the Tarim Basin. They intermarried with the Tocharians and other Caucasian groups in the region. A popular theory is that this mingling produced the Uyghurs, an ethnic group that now lives in the Xinjiang province. The Uyghurs vary in physical appearance - with some looking more Caucasian and others having a more east Asian appearance.

Recent genetic studies of the mummies show that they have a significant genetic connection with regions farther west. It is possible that they are of Roman descent, but the range of regions to which they have genetic connections suggests that they could really be from any Indo-European population. On the other hand, it is also not clear whether they spoke Tocharian or were part of a different closely related group. The genetic evidence shows that although they could have come from Europe, they could just as easily have originated somewhere in south or central Asia. It is also more likely that they came from a proximal region considering that a journey from Europe to Xinjiang would be more difficult than a journey from central Asia to Xinjiang.

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