Mummies of the Tarim Basin

September 8, 2010

Mummies of the Tarim Basin
Who Were They?
by Bob and Rima Blanc – HMNS Guild Members

Explorers have been studying several sites in the Tarim Basin in northwestern China along the route of the Silk Road since the middle of the 19th century. The most important sites were at Ǘrümchi, Chärchän, and Turfan to the east of the basin. Numerous Bronze Age sites contained burials of more than 2,500 people, many of them interred with magnificent textiles of non-Asian origin. The great surprise was the European features of the mummies, and in the case of Chärchän man, his 6’6” height. What could they have been doing there, more than 1,000 miles from settlements of similar-looking people?

In 1934, Swedish archaeologist Folke Bergman explored the lost Xiaohe cemetery in the Tarim Basin of the Taklimakan desert of northwest China. He reported his findings in 1939. Due to the onset of World War II and the subsequent closing of China to Western scientists, Xiaohe was not studied again until 2000, when the Xinjiang Archaeological Institute “rediscovered” it. The burial site consists of 167 graves, many of them intact, from the late Bronze Age nearly 4,000 years ago. The Europoid mummies found at the site exhibit blond hair, long noses, and slender bodies and are in many cases completely preserved and appear lifelike. This preservation is due to the arid, saline conditions in the desert.

The Xiaohe cemetery is the oldest archaeological site with human remains discovered in the Tarim Basin. Genetic analysis, performed by Chinese scientists in 2009, revealed that the maternal lineages of the Xiaohe people originated in both the East and the West, whereas paternal lineages originated solely in the West. Because the genetic data showed that the mixed lineages were much older than the settlement of the Tarim Basin, it seems likely that the Xiaohe people migrated from northern steppe cultures. Genetic markers suggest even older origins, perhaps from eastern European Mesolithic or Neolithic cultures.

Like other northern Tarim sites, the Xiaohe people exhibit features of both the Afanasevo culture (3500-2500 BCE) and the Andronovo or Sintashta-Petrovka culture (ca. 2300-1000 BCE) on the steppe and in Siberia. These high, broad inter-mountain valleys of the Tangri Tagh, known in Chinese as the Tian Shan (Celestial Mountains), were home to nomadic cultures quite like those on the steppe.

Of the fifteen burial sites uncovered thus far, Xiaohe remains the oldest. The 167 excavated graves yielded more than a thousand artifacts from the period 2000 to 1450 BCE. Victor Mair notes:

There were five levels of burials in coffins in the shape of overturned boats. Live oxen were slaughtered at the site and their still-wet hides were used to wrap the coffins. After they had dried, the hides sealed the coffin tight as a drum, so that not even a speck of sand could enter the burial (Mair 2010, 47).

At the surface, large wooden obelisks were driven into the ground. Those accompanying the tombs of females are pointed in angular fashion, while those over male graves are shaped like paddles. Speculation based on similar grave decorations in northern Europe suggests the possibility that each obelisk is a sexual symbol, perhaps to demonstrate the individual’s virility or fertility.

 Xiaohe Cemetery Obelisk

The most famous of the mummies from Xiaohe is the Beauty of Small River. She is 1.52 meters in height (about 5 feet) and wears a fine felt hat and fashionable leather boots. Around her waist is a white woolen string skirt, and she is shrouded in a bulky woolen cloak with tassels. She was covered with ephedra branches and grains of wheat. The presence of ephedra, a mildly psychoactive medicinal plant used by numerous Central Eurasian peoples, suggests that she was being conveyed to the spirit world.

Beauty of Xiaohe 
© Wang Da-Gang

Archaeologists have not been able to find any trace of settlements within several kilometers of the cemetery, adding to the mysteries of who these people were, where they came from, and what happened to them. The 2008 discovery of the Northern Cemetery, about fifteen kilometers to the southwest of Xiaohe cemetery, revealed such close similarities between its occupants and those of Xiaohe that archaeologists believe that the peoples were of the same or similar cultures. Had they both been located near oases or tributaries of now-dry branches of a river? Only future excavations and analysis will shed light on these mysteries.

Don’t miss Secrets of the Silk Road, open now at HMNS. See strikingly well-preserved mummies, tall in stature and fair in complexion, that have lain in the parched Tarim Basin of western China for 3,800 years along with 150 objects drawn from the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Museum and the Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology in Urumqi.


Mair, Victor. “The Archaeology of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.” In Secrets of the Silk Road (Exhibition Catalogue), 27-52. Santa Ana, CA: Bowers Museum, 2010.

Li, Chunxiang et al. “Evidence that a West-East admixed population lived in the Tarim Basin as early as the early Bronze Age.” BMC Biology 2010, 8:15 (February 17, 2010). (accessed May 1, 2010).

Nicholas Wade, “A Host of Mummies, a Forest of Secrets,” New York Times, March 15, 2010. (accessed May 1, 2010).

Authored By Steven Cowan

Steven never dreamed his first job out of college would be in public relations, and on top of that working for one of the top museums in the country. After all, he majored in History at Vassar College. Within three months of graduation, he landed a spot in the PR department and has not looked back since. He is fast becoming a communications fanatic, spending a tremendous amount of his time promoting the museum and all it has to offer.

3 responses to “Mummies of the Tarim Basin”

  1. Amanda says:

    Are these not the ancestors of the Turkish (a.k.a. white) Mongol Hordes? If the Mongol tribes were known for stealing one another’s wives during raids on enemy tribes, this would explain the occasional recessive traits of green eyes, red hair, and European-like features showing up in modern Asiatic Mongol descendants, would it not?

    Even further pre-dating the Turkish Mongols, these are Kenites (a Hebrew word meaning sons of Cain) who migrated “east of Eden” approximately 6000 B.C. The date and location would certainly fit. I’ve read it is thought they were nomadic (vagabonds) which would also fit both said theories. They were not Europeans at all but descendants of brothers by the same mother.

  2. Dirk Van Tuerenhout says:

    Hello Amanda,

    Thanks for your comment and question. Others have made similar suggestions. This is a debate that will only be settled when we can compare genetic material from the mummies with others we think might be related to them. In addition, we must have a good grip on the chronology of the region and of the people we want to compare. There is a wide gap between the time these mummies lived and that of the Mongols. We know that this region was a conduit for trade, religions and people. There are gaps in our knowledge of the archaeology of the region. There may be other populations who are the ancestors of the Mongols that you refer to. I would suggest we carefully weigh what we know now and see what additional excavations as well as genetic tests can tell us.

    Dirk Van Tuerenhout

  3. this is so wonderful. I kinda chuckle a little when we make such discoveries its kinda weird that peoples of long ago had such knowledge abd could live in such hostile places. I remember reading years ago about these disc thing being found in a cave in China, they were very old bt looked all the world like a modern CD. I have been trying to find more4 about that but to no avail. Thanks for letting give my two sence. What is this Silk road thing look interesting. Judith

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