It was a surprise to American historian Victor Mair. When he first saw the mummies of the Xiaohe culture, in 1988, he thought they were fakes. The corpses were found in the Taklamakan desert in western China. They were about 4,000 years old, but amazingly well preserved. They had brightly colored clothes and sophisticated ornaments. They almost looked like living people. The strange modern-looking mummies were Caucasian. How did they get to the heart of Asia?
The truth of DNA
The origin of these mummies has always been controversial. One theory says they came from migrant shepherds from southern Siberia. The other two theories claim that they were farmers from the mountains of Central Asia.
Scientist Christina Warinner’s team believes that none of the three hypotheses is correct. Scientists have now analyzed DNA from 13 Tarim mummies. Their results suggest that it was an indigenous population. It had no major admixtures for more than 9,000 years. Its members cultivated wheat, barley and millet. They also made cheese using a fermentation similar to kefir. And they buried their dead with sprigs of ephedra, a medicinal plant from Central Asia.
“The contrast between their genetic isolation and their cultural connections is striking,” Warinner admits. The study was published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
Rest of the mummies
The search for the mummies’ roots has been inflammatory from the beginning. The Uighurs are a Turkmen-speaking, ethnic Turkmen Muslim minority living in the region today. They want independence from China. That’s why they immediately embraced the unique Tarim mummies. Their 4,000 years of antiquity would (supposedly) give them priority over the Han ethnic group. The Han are the majority ethnic group in the country, but arrived some two millennia later, they claim.
In other words, the strange modern-looking mummies are still stirring up questions and passions thousands of years later. However, it is known that the members of the Xiaohe culture were “a peaceful and egalitarian people”. They do not seem to have been interested in the conflicts of the 21st century.