The Takla Makan Mummies: Human Migration and Ethnic Discord

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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

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.


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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.

DNA and Patterns of Migration

DNA has helped to unravel the migratory patterns of these early incomers, and the complexity of the cultural mix. “Since 1993, there have been a variety of samples taken from many mummies from diverse sites.” Professor Mair told me, “we’ve looked at both mitochondrial and Y chromosome DNA. We do have some conclusive evidence of Caucasian origin.”

While analysis of the DNA of the mummies is compatible with European DNA types, this does not mean they were direct European migrants. Findings published in 2010 by Jilin University demonstrated that the mummies had Eurapoid genes and European and Siberian markers. The Y chromosomes of the men indicated origins in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Siberia, while the women’s mitochondrial DNA suggested Siberia and Europe. According to Dr Zhou, who conducted the research, the two groups probably intermarried before reaching the Tarim Basin, suggesting that it was just part of a much longer, ongoing migration.

Experts now believe that the early mummies represent Anatolian tribes that migrated in two separate waves a thousand years apart. On each occasion, the groups split, some going east into China, others to Europe. A second wave of incomers followed from Iran.

But Professor Mair also believes that over a period of two millennia, smaller migrations from other directions accompanied these two main waves of incomers. “There were several waves coming at different times and from different places,’” he said. “Some of the important ones did come from eastern Europe but there were others from different places that lay to the northwest, west and southwest. I do think that many of the most important and earliest groups came along the steppe route from the west.”

The Taklamakan Desert in the Tarim Basin. Image courtesy of NASA (Visible Earth)

This is the Taklamakan Desert in the Tarim Basin as seen from far above. Image courtesy of NASA (Visible Earth)

Land and Ethnicity

The mummies show that, at one time, the Tarim Basin was a melting pot for incomers from different lands and cultures long before the Uighurs and later Han Chinese settled the area. They serve as a reminder that we are all ‘migrants’ no matter how well established we may be in a region or country, and that claims to that land by any one ‘ethnic’ group are ultimately futile.


Mair, V. H. The Mummies of East Central Asia.  (2010). Expedition 52:3. Accessed May 2, 2013.

Wade, N. A Host of Mummies, A Forest of Secrets. (15/3/2010). The New York Times. Accessed May 2, 2013.

The Washington Times. Caucasians Preceded East Asians in Basin. (19/4/2005). Accessed May 2, 2013.

Wayland Barber, E. The Mummies of Urumchi.  (1999).  W. W. Norton and Company, Inc.


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© Copyright 2013 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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