Mystery of The Tarim Mummies

The Tarim Mummies constitute a baffling ancient world mystery, and one of the most remarkable archaeological finds of the 20th century. These amazingly well-preserved human remains were found in the dry salty environment of the vast Taklimakan desert, part of the Tarim Basin in western China. The bodies so far discovered have an extremely wide date range, from 1800 B.C. up until A.D. 400. But what has captured the attention of scholars all over the world is the fact that the mummies have distinctly European features, and seem to represent various Caucasian tribes who lived in this desolate area of western China up until 2,000 years ago, before mysteriously disappearing.

The mummies were first discovered in the early 1900s by Swedish explorer Sven Hedin, who was investigating the complex history of the Silk Road, an ancient series of routes which once led from China to Turkey and on into Europe. But without the necessary equipment to either preserve the bodies or transport them back to museums in Europe for study, they remained in situ and were soon forgotten. In 1978, Chinese archaeologist Wang Binghua excavated 113 of these bodies at a cemetery at Qizilchoqa, or Red Hill, in the northeast corner of the central Asian province of Xinjiang. Most of the bodies were later taken to a museum in the city of Urumqi. The Tarim mummies seem to indicate that the very first people to settle the area came from the west — down from the steppes of Central Asia and even farther afield — and not from the fertile plains and river valleys of the Chinese interior.
Tarim Mummies

In the last 25 years or so, Chinese and Uyghur archaeologists have carried out sophisticated excavation and research in the area, and there are now more than 300 of these mummies known to have been discovered in western China. In 1987, Victor Mair (a professor of Chinese and Indo-Iranian literature and religion at the University of Pennsylvania) was leading a group of tourists through the museum in Urumqi when he came upon some of the mummies excavated by Wang Binghua. He found it an unnerving experience. All were dressed in dark purple woolen garments and felt boots, and their bodies were almost perfectly preserved. Fascinatingly, all the mummies had European features: brown or blonde hair; long noses and skulls; slim elongated bodies; and large, deepset eyes.

Due to the political climate in China at the time, Mair was not able to do anything about the amazing finds, but in 1993 he returned with a team of Italian geneticists who had worked on the Ice Man. The group went back to Wang Binghua's Red Hill site to examine corpses that had been reburied due to lack of storage space at Urumqi Museum. Mair and his team took DNA samples from the bodies, which proved that the mummies were Caucasoid. Mair's research also seems to show that the earliest of these European mummies represented the first settlers in the Tarim Basin.

Dr. Elizabeth Barber, professor of linguistics and archaeology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, has made a detailed study of the textiles recovered from the Tarim Basin and found striking similarities to Celtic tartans from northwest Europe. She has also proposed that the tartan from the Tarim mummies and that from Europe share a common origin in the Caucasus mountains of southern Russia, where the earliest evidence for such fabrics dates back at least 5,000 years. The rich array of textile finds from western Chinese mummy burials includes robes, caps, shirts, cloaks, tartanweave trousers, and striped woolen stockings. At Subeshi on the northern route of the Silk Road, three female mummies, dating from around 500 to 400 B.C., were found with enormously tall, pointed hats, and have since become known as the Witches of Subeshi.

But who were these apparently European peoples and what were they doing in western China? The mummies are scatterred over such a wide geographical area and date range that there can be no question that they are a single tribe. They seem to represent several eastward migrations from different areas over a thousand or more years. There are some ancient sources referring to groups inhabiting the areas of the Tarim basin, where mummies have been found, which may give a clue to the origins of at least some of the mummy people.First millennium B.C. Chinese sources mention a group of "white people with long hair" known as the Bai people. The Bai lived on the northwestern border of China, and the Chinese apparently bought jade from them. Another group on the northwestern borders of China were the Yuezhi, mentioned in 645 B.C. by the Chinese author Guan Zhong. The Yuezhi also supplied the Chinese with jade, which they got from the nearby mountains of Yuzhi at Gansu. After being defeated by the nomadic Xiongnu people, the majority of the Yuezhi migrated to Transoxiana (part of southern Asia equivalent to modern Uzbekistan and
southwest Kazakhstan) and later to northern India, where they founded the Kushan Empire. 

Depictions of Yuezhi kings on coinage have suggested to some that this group may have been a Caucasoid people. The final group who inhabited this area were the Tocharians, who represent the easternmost speakers of an Indo-European language (a language group comprising most of the languages of Europe, India, and Iran). Some scholars argue that the Tocharians and the Yuezhi were in fact the same people under different names, though there is no proof of this at present. The Tocharians were described as having full beards, red or blond hair, deep-set blue or green eyes and high noses and with no sign of decline as attestation in the Chinese sources for the past 1,000 years. This was first noted after the Tocharians had come under the steppe nomads and Chinese subjugation. During the 3rd to 4th century CE, the Tocharians reached their height by incorporating adjoining states.

The areas of western China where European-type mummies have been found, in the northeastern part of the Tarim basin, and further east in the area around Lopnur, correspond well to the later distribution of the Tocharian language. Chinese writings mention that the Tocharians had blond or red hair, and blue eyes. Frescoes from Buddhist caves in the Tarim Basin dating to the ninth century A.D. show a people with distinctly European features. 

The Tocharians remained in the Tarim basin and later  adopted Buddhism from northern India, their culture surviving at least until the eighth century A.D., when they seem to have been assimilated by the Uighur Turks of the eastern Asian steppes.

Although no Tocharian texts have ever been found together with mummies in the Tarim basin, the almost identical geographical location of both, as well as depictions of Tocharians showing European features, strongly suggests that at least some of the mummy people of
the area were the ancestors of the Tocharians.

Dr. Elizabeth Barber hypothesizes that there may have been two migrations from the possible Indo-European homeland northwest of the Black Sea-one to the west, resulting in Celtic and other European civilizations; and the other migration, the ancestors of the Tocharians, moving east, and eventually finding their way into the Tarim basin of central Asia. In light of the finds of the Tarim mummies, the theory that east and west developed their civilizations in complete isolation from each other may have to be abandoned.

Hidden History: "Lost Civilizations, Secret Knowledge, and Ancient Mysteries" by Brian Haughton;;

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Hidden History: "Lost Civilizations, Secret Knowledge, and Ancient Mysteries" by Brian Haughton

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