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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.

Full length image of a Tarim mummy.

Full length image of a Tarim mummy. (imgur)

The most we can say about the mummies is that they were Indo-European and have more in common with central Asian populations than with the populations living in the river valleys of the Yellow and Yangtze rivers that later founded Chinese civilization. It is increasingly common among scholars to question the position that the Chinese civilization was entirely self-contained. Evidence that the wheel was introduced from the west and the presence of these mummies both suggest that China may have learned more from the outside than is often assumed.

Top image: A Tarim mummy. Source: imgur

By Caleb Strom


Thornton, Christopher P., and Theodore G. Schurr. "Genes, language, and culture: An example from the Tarim Basin."  Oxford Journal of Archaeology 23.1 (2004): 83-106.

Di Cosmo, Nicola. "Ancient city-states of the Tarim Basin."  A Comparative Study of Thirty City-State Cultures (2000): 393-407.

Hong, Zhang, et al. "A preliminary study of oasis evolution in the Tarim Basin, Xinjiang, China."  Journal of Arid Environments 55.3 (2003): 545-553.



Bruce Nowakowski's picture

Otzi had similar tattoos on his skin. I remember reading an article where his tattooes where right on the accupuncture meridians and had various resins etc. found in healing plants

Bruce Nowakowski's picture

It is interesting.  Also interesting is Slavic is one of the few European groups whose root name for 100 starts with an S sound instead of a K (Cent in old Latin had a hard C like a K).  In the History of English podcast, the narrator mentioned that the S tended to go East and the C went west

The Plaid pattern in their clothing also resembles what Slavs have and their DNA is also what Slavic people have and ancient chariot of the Eurasian steppe of the Scythians.

I’ve been reading & seen tv programs on the mummies of the Tarim Basin for years. What the article didn’t mention that these people also used the distinct plaid pattern in the weave of their clothing; similar to what some Celtic people had.  They were also a horse-people riding mounted & not via chariot as in the  ancient Mediterrean/Near East people. In the photo of the tatooed mummy hand shows a connection with the Neolithic Europeans who apparently also tatooed themselves as a health treatment that seemed close to the Chinese art of acupunture.  Indo-Europeans  moved west into Europe, South & East into the Near East & India & it seems one group settled into  the far eastern Tarim Basin.

Caleb Strom's picture


Caleb Strom is currently a graduate student studying planetary science. He considers himself a writer, scientist, and all-around story teller. His interests include planetary geology, astrobiology, paleontology, archaeology, history, space archaeology, and SETI.

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