Day By Day

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Archaeology and politics -- the case of the Xinjiang mummies

Khaleej Times reports:
URUMQI, China - After years of controversy and political intrigue, archaeologists using genetic testing have proven that Caucasians roamed China’s Tarim Basin 1,000 years before East Asian people arrived.

The research, which the Chinese government has appeared to have delayed making public out of concerns of fueling Uighur Muslim separatism in its western-most Xinjiang region, is based on a cache of ancient dried-out corpses that have been found around the Tarim Basin in recent decades.

Archaeologists are an excitable lot, at least that is how they present themselves to the press. They are forever being excited by their discoveries, no matter how obscure they may be. One set of discoveries that generated a lot of excitement, and deservedly so, was the excavation about three decades ago in the Tarim Basin of Western China of several extremely well-preserved mummies.

At the time what struck the excavators most was the fact that these early inhabitants of China had European physical features [blond hair, beards, etc.] What is more, they were extraordinarily well preserved due to local climate and soil conditions.
The desiccated corpses, which avoided natural decomposition due to the dry atmosphere and alkaline soils in the Tarim Basin, have not only given scientists a look into their physical biologies, but their clothes, tools and burial rituals have given historians a glimpse into life in the Bronze Age.
Unfortunately, the region was under the control of the Chinese government, and there was a strong separatist movement among the local Muslim Uighur population, many of whom exhibit European physical features. The separatists turned the discoveries to their advantage, claiming to be descendants of the original inhabitants of the region seeking liberation from their alien Chinese rulers. Not surprising then that China began to seriously discourage further study of the mummies and their culture. It was even suggested that Chinese scholars were systematically removing and destroying the heads of corpses with distinctive European features.

Despite governmental interference, western scholars pursued their inquiries. They were able to show that certain burial practices paralleled those of ancient Europe and that textiles found on the mummies exhibited weaving techniques and artistic motifs that were characteristically European. These suggested that there existed a relatively coherent culture zone stretching all the way from Europe to Western China more than 3,500 years ago.

Now, finally, DNA analysis on some of the mummies has suggested a solution that all sides seem to find acceptable, thus opening the way to further research. Victor Mair of the University of Pennsylvania, who excavated many of the original finds and heads the current effort, will announce the results soon.
“My research has shown that in the second millennium BC, the oldest mummies, like the Loulan Beauty [~ 4000 PB], were the earliest settlers in the Tarim Basin.

“From the evidence available, we have found that during the first 1,000 years after the Loulan Beauty, the only settlers in the Tarim Basin were Caucasoid.”

East Asian peoples only began showing up in the eastern portions of the Tarim Basin about 3,000 years ago, Mair said, while the Uighur peoples arrived after the collapse of the Orkon Uighur Kingdom, largely based in modern day Mongolia, around the year 842.

“Modern DNA and ancient DNA show that Uighurs, Kazaks, Krygyzs, the peoples of Central Asia are all mixed Caucasian and East Asian. The modern and ancient DNA tell the same story,” he said.
This is a politically correct announcement. It supports the existence of Caucasian populations in the area from the earliest time, but at the same time undercuts Uighur claims to be the descendants of the original inhabitants. Admittedly it is based on very few samples -- several were collected but most were confiscated by Chinese government authorities. Perhaps further investigation will show something else. But for now what is important is that it opens the way to resume studies that have been suspended for many years.

Read the whole thing here.


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