Mummies of the Tarim Basin

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).

Secrets of the Silk Road: The Tarim Basin

As we prepare to host an exciting exhibit on Western China, one of the main attractions will be two mummies found in the Taklimakan desert. I anticipate that a lot of attention will be showered on the Beauty of Xiaohe and on a child mummy. In this blog I would like to talk about the Tarim Basin and the Taklimakan Desert, backdrop to the mummies and the artifacts in the exhibit.

Now, imagine a place far, far away….

Creative Commons License photo credit:Kmusser
Map of the Tarim Basin in Western China

The Tarim Basin is located in China’s far western the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and measures 400,000 km2 (150,000 sq mi). This makes it similar in size to Germany and Switzerland combined or 57 % of the size of Texas.

Taklamakan desert in Xinjiang Uyghur
Autonomous Region.
Creative Commons License photocredit:Pravit

Geography buffs will know that it borders on Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, India and China-administered Tibet. It is home to the world’s third lowest point below sea level, with Lake Assal in the Afar Depression making up the second lowest) and the Dead Sea being the lowest point on Earth.

The Talkimakan (or Taklamakan) desert makes the area one of the driest in the world as well, with an annual rainfall of 0.5 inch. The Taklimakan has an arid continental climate with long cold winters and short hot summers. This is the result of its location in the interior of Asia and near enclosure of the basin by some of the highest snow-covered mountains on Earth.  The satellite image below illustrates this point well.

Among these mountain ranges we find (starting in the south and moving clockwise on the first map shown in this blog): the Kunlun Shan, the Pamir and Tien Shan Mountains. The Kunlun Shan mountain range counts four mountains higher than 7,000 m, the Pamir range counts two such mountains and the Tian Shan mountains has one. In comparison, the tallest mountain in the Rocky Mountains is