Map of the Tarim Basin (Picture Credit: used with permission of Professor Victor H Mair)
This map shows the location of ancient sites and present day communities in the Tarim Basin. The area has been home to mixed cultures for thousands of years. Picture used with permission of Professor Victor H Mair.

The Takla Makan mummies provide controversial evidence that China’s north western Xinjiang province was once settled by early Europeans. They are also at the centre of another ongoing dispute: Turkish speaking Uighurs, who have lived in the Tarim Basin since 842 AD, are using the mummies as justification for independence from the Chinese state. They claim the mummies show that Xinjiang is ethnically non-Chinese and so should be awarded independence.

The mummies are important as a source of information on early human migratory patterns according to Victor Mair, Professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania and leader of several expeditions to study the mummies. In an interview for Decoded Past, Professor Mair indicated: “I consider them very important for understanding early human migration, because the Tarim Basin was one of the last places on earth to be populated and they definitely show east-west admixture across Eurasia in pre-modern times.” Could the migratory patterns of the mummies contain useful lessons for the modern inhabitants of the Tarim Basin, and other areas suffering from ethnic discord?

Yingpan Man

The Yingpan Man was tall and wore clothing suggesting southern European ancestors. Caucasian features were hidden by a gold foil mask. Picture used with permission of Professor Victor H Mair.

From the evidence available,” said Professor Mair in a 2005 interview with the Washington Post, “we have found that during the first 1000 years after the Loulan beauty, the only settlers in the Tarim Basin were Caucasoid.” Following this period, the ethnic mix in the basin seems to have become more diverse. The best preserved, and most comparatively recent mummy in the Tarim Basin, was discovered in the Yingpan region in 1995, in what was once a caravan settlement along the ancient trade route. Two thousand years old, the Yingpan man died at around thirty years of age, and was buried in sumptuous style.

At six feet six inches, he is the tallest of all the mummies. But unlike the earliest mummies, his grave goods and clothing suggest a southern rather than northern European origin. His garments are still rich and elaborate: gold-embroidered red and maroon cloth-covered in figures of fighting men styled similar to Greeks or Romans.

A gold mask covers his bearded face, similar to those found in burials in ancient Greece, hiding, Professor Mair told me, distinctly Caucasian features. The professor believes Yingpan man was a Sogdian merchant, a group of famed Eurasian traders from middle Iran. Clearly, as time passed, the Tarim Basin became a cultural mixing pot.

Click to Read Page Two: DNA and Patterns of Migration