DNA experts reveal China's ancient open door to West
FOR four millennia their secrets lay hidden beneath the desert sands, the final resting place of a mysterious civilisation. And since their discovery in 1934, the Tarim mummies in China have perplexed historians and archaeologists.
• A 3,800-year-old mummy, known as the Beauty of Xiaohe. Picture: Liu Yu Sheng/NYT/Complimentary
But a remarkable new study has found that the origins of the inhabitants of the ancient graveyard in the Taklimakan desert north of Tibet lie in Europe.
A team of Chinese geneticists have analysed the DNA of the Bronze Age cadavers and found that they are of mixed ancestry, displaying both European and Siberian genetic markers.
One expert in Chinese history at the University of Edinburgh said the tests revealed a "fascinating development". Professor Paul Bailey said the findings confirmed long-held suspicions that they had travelled to the autonomous region of Xinjiang from the West, well before the opening of the Silk Road in the 2nd century BC.
The graveyard of more than 200 mummies, known as Small River Cemetery No. 5, lies near a dried-up riverbed in the Tarim Basin, an inhospitable region encircled by mountain ranges.
The site was discovered by Folke Bergman, the Swedish archaeologist, in 1934 but then lay forgotten for 66 years until a Chinese expedition relocated it using GPS navigation.
Carbon testing carried out at Beijing University has dated the oldest of the mummies as far back as 3,980 years. However, until recently the history of how they came to be buried in the desert in upside-down boats was unclear.
That many of the mummies – well preserved thanks to the dry air and salty sands – displayed fair skin, brown hair, and long noses led to some educated guesses.
Bailey, professor of modern Chinese history at Edinburgh University, said: "There has always been talk of blue-eyed people inhabiting that area of China."
Confirmation came thanks to a team led by Dr Hui Zhou of Jilin University in Changchun. All the men who were analysed had a Y chromosome that is now mostly found in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Siberia, but rarely in China.
The mitochondrial DNA, which passes down the female line, consisted of a lineage from Siberia and two that are common in Europe.
Since both the Y chromosome and the mitochondrial DNA lineages are ancient, Dr Zhou and his team concluded the European and Siberian populations probably intermarried before entering the Tarim Basin 4,000 years ago.
Dr Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania, who translated the studies by Dr Zhou's team, said several items in the graveyard resemble artefacts or relate to customs familiar in Europe, including the use of boats in burials, string skirts, and phallic symbols.
The findings, published in the BMC Biology journal, turn on its head the notion that the Far East was an isolated realm before the early Europeans ventured east for trade.
"Historians of early China are sympathetic to the view that there was interaction between what we could call China today and central Asia and further afield, both in terms of cultural transmission but also in terms of the transmission of technology," Bailey said. "The likes of bronze making and the use of the horse did not simply happen overnight in China."
Such a subject has caused considerable controversy in China, where the official account has it that Zhang Qian, a general of the Han dynasty, led a military expedition to Xinjiang in the second century BC.
Today the area is occupied by Turkish-speaking Uighurs, who have been joined in the past 50 years by Han settlers from China. Ethnic tensions have recently arisen between the two groups, with riots in Urumqi, the region's capital.
Bailey suggested that, although only a few decades ago the DNA results would have sparked anger in China, a new generation will be "interested" to learn of its early links with Europe.
"Twenty or 30 years ago this research would have been considered an abhorrent and controversial view that would have undermined Chinese pride in its indigenous cultural development," he said.
"But the situation is different nowadays, and I think this will be viewed positively. China is interested in its historic links with the rest of the world, and this development shows that the country had close ties with other areas, it wasn't closed off."
Work will now continue to uncover more details of the Tarim mummies. Already archeologists have found hundreds of poles, each 13ft tall, around the burial site, described as resembling oars from a galley. Clothes have also been recovered, including felt caps with feathers, woollen capes with tassels, and leather boots.
Their language remains unknown, but Dr Mair, an expert in the prehistory of the Tarim Basin, believes it could have been Tokharian, an ancient member of the Indo-European family of languages.
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