Map of the Tarim Basin (Picture Credit: used with permission of Professor Victor H Mair)
Both ancient and modern communities surround the Taklamakan Desert in the Tarim Basin. The climatic conditions here have preserved some human remains for thousands of years. Map used with permission of Professor Victor H Mair.

The Takla Makan desert is a barren area of the central Tarim Basin in the northwestern Chinese border district of Xinjiang. Almost in the centre of the Eurasian landmass, it was once part of the ancient Silk Road running from east to west.

The desert is an arid salt pan, with a temperature range of between -40º to 40º  Celsius. Since the early 1900s, a number of bodies, mummified by the dry heat and alkaline conditions, have been recovered from the area, .

The earliest examples date to around 2000 BC and are the remains of the earliest settlers of the Tarim Basin. With perfectly preserved clothing, hair and skin, the mummies are excellent specimens for the study of Bronze Age textiles and burial practices.

These mummies have also proven to be a conundrum. Despite beliefs that Europeans only entered the Tarim Basin via the Silk Road in the 12th Century AD, the mummies have distinctly Caucasian features, a fact the Chinese government has been reluctant to admit.

Who were these early European settlers of China?  And why did they make the Tarim Basin their home?

The Beauties of Loulan and Xiaohe

The Tarim Basin was not always so barren, which is one explanation for its settlement. Two thousand years ago, a city existed in the Loulan area, situated on the Silk Road running between China and the Roman Empire. Originally sustained by the waters of the Tarim River, Loulan was abandoned in the 4th century AD when the course of the river altered, leaving it without water.

The Beauty of Xiaohe (Picture Credit: Used with permission of Professor Victor H Mair)
The Beauty of Xiaohe was buried in woolen clothes and a hat with a feather in it. In life, her hair was long and fair. Picture used with permission of Professor Victor H Mair.

Two of the earliest Takla Makan mummies come from the area around Loulan; however, they predate the city by 2000 years. Buried between 2000 and 1500 BC, the artifacts found in their graves show a shared agrarian lifestyle and distinct northern European cultural markers.

Found in 1980, the Beauty of Loulan is so called because of her auburn hair and delicate features. Aged around 40 when she died, she has been dated between 2000 and 1800 BC.

Her grave goods show she came from an agricultural community that grew wheat and herded sheep. She was buried in woolen clothing, including a skirt, fur-lined leather ankle boots and a woolen felt cap with a feather. Although her clothing is predominantly brown, the cap was edged with a cord of plaited blue and red cords. Items she may have used in daily life, a woven basket for carrying grain, a winnowing tray and a comb, were placed above her head.

The Beauty of Xiaohe dates to around 1800–1500 BC. She was found buried at Small River Cemetery 5, a site to the west of Loulan. Like the Beauty of Loulan, she is well preserved, with long fair hair and eyelashes still in place. Her grave goods reflect a similar lifestyle to the Beauty of Loulan. She was buried with a woven basket and in woolen clothes, including a felt hat with a feather and an unusual string skirt, suggesting she came from an agricultural community.

The appearance of the two graves, and the women themselves, shows links to northern European cultures. Elizabeth Wayland Barber, a textile expert, has linked the cloth types to examples from the Caucuses. The style of clothing of the two beauties, as well as phallic poles running through the graves of Small River Cemetery 5, are also found in northern Europe. These indicators, along with the appearance of the two women, suggest that they were early European incomers.

Click to Read Page Two: The Cherchen Mummies