China history unravelled by mummiesBy Benjamin Robertson in BeijingMonday 15 May 2006, 2:38 Makka Time, 23:38 GMT 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 ever found.
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.
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 Man.
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.
In 2004, Chinese scientists at Jilin University in eastern China also concluded that the mummies' DNA came from Indo-Europeans, and not East Asians.
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.
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, (206BC-AD220).
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 direct links".
"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 country.
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.
Latest stories in this section: