Cat Imposter: Guess what x-rays reveal about our feline mummy ‘fake-out’

In Cairo, I’m out of touch with what’s shown on TV, but I always know when something about Egypt has been broadcast. On slow news days, Facebook, Twitter, and my work email all light up with inquiries.

In May, there was a mini-boom in Egyptian interest following a BBC programme  on animal mummies. The headlines promised to reveal an ancient ‘scandal’ – who wouldn’t be intrigued by this?

Mummified animals – most typically cats and small birds with beautifully patterned and decorated wrappings sometimes buried in wooden or metal containers – are some of the most recognizably ‘ancient Egyptian’ objects in museums. They encapsulate two of the biggest modern clichés of ancient Egyptian culture: the Egyptians’ love of death, and their weird animal-headed gods. Add to this the fact that a lot of them are small enough to transport easily. No wonder most museums have them on display. And we’re no exception at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Cat mummy3

Animal mummies, statues, and containers, Hall of Ancient Egypt, HMNS.

The ‘scandal’ the BBC referred to was that only a third of the animal mummies studied and scanned by a research project contained the ‘right’ remains at all, with exterior wrapping and interior contents matching up. Another third contained partial remains – body fragments rather than a single intact body – and the last third contained nothing at all inside.

While the study cited is the most recent, and one of the most thorough, investigations into animal mummies, its results are no great surprise. Researchers have long known that the insides of animal mummies can be surprising. Prof. Salima Ikram, touched on this at a recent lecture at HMNS, and an updated edition of her book on the topic is coming out later this summer.

There are some other things that one could say about the ‘scandal’ of the empty mummies, but now I’ve got a question to ask: what’s inside our funny mummy?

Cat mummy 1

Photo Courtesy Michael C. Carlos Museum

We received this cat mummy on loan from the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University. On the ouside, it’s a fair example of the medium size of cat mummies – which tend to come in small, medium, and large – and has an unusual piece of blue-bordered linen among its wrappings (and a rather disappointed look painted on its face). So far, so good.

When the mummy was x-rayed, however, it became clear that the tidy outside wasn’t matched by a tidy inside. Rather than a cat skeleton, you can see that there’s a large broken bone at the bottom end, and a mass of something at the ‘top’ end.

cat x ray

© Emory University Hospital, courtesy of the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University

We’ve got our own ideas about what made up the ‘cat’, but before we reveal them we’d like to open it up and crowd source some identifications. What’s your best guess? Let us know what you think the cat mummy was actually made of and enter it into the comments below.

Editor’s note: Tweet your guess to HMNS or post below, and we’ll mention the winner in Tom’s next blog.

Human Evolution: The Year 2010 in Review (Part 2)

Make sure you check out part one of my blog, published two weeks ago.

Teeth came up in another story in 2010. Researchers were quoted as saying that modern humans, traditionally thought to have evolved roughly 200,000 years ago in East Africa, now might be 400,000 years old. In addition, they may have evolved in Israel rather than Africa. Twice as old and not from Africa, was the message spread by the media. The evidence? A few teeth found in Qesem Cave.

However, a word of caution is in order here. What was reported in the media was not what the scientists had said. In fact, they had implored the members of the press not to engage in hyperbole and present hypotheticals as proven facts. They were ignored. Someone called the media on this and chastised them for engaging in “science by press release.”

DNA made the headlines several times this past year.  In August scientists announced that they had decoded famous ice man Oetzi’s genome. This is interesting in itself; it would be even more interesting if we could compare his genetic makeup with the genome of the Tarim Basin mummies.  Such a genome has not been decoded yet, so we will have to wait. Imagine, however, the potential such a comparison would present to evaluate the origins of these Caucasoid mummies.

Oetzi the Iceman: as exhibited in Museum Bélesta (Ariège), France;
reconstruction of his equipment. Photo by: Gerbil

What lessons can we draw from all this?

First, it seems that a lot of trailblazing research is now based on minute amounts of evidence, a finger bone here, and a few teeth there.

Second, the fact that we are dealing with minute amounts of information does not detract from the importance of the scientific contributions these data have made.

Third, some of the data are microscopically small. Size notwithstanding, DNA and DNA analysis have become a very valuable component in retracing human origins.

I would like to end with an observation and a comment.

In March 2010, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History proudly opened its doors on the completely renovated David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins. It is a wonderful exhibit, sharing with millions of visitors the scientific basis of our understanding of human evolution.

On display for the first three months were three original fossils, one Cro-Magnon and two Neanderthals. Their presence was announced with great pride in the original press release.  A review by a leading US newspaper stated:  “Because of the fragility of human remains, only a handful of actual fossils are on display, diminishing the sense of wonder the real thing always inspires.”

Interestingly, the reference to the original fossils was missing in other (presumably later) online versions of that same announcement. Instead, we only find a reference to “a display of more than 75 skulls (exact replicas).”

Here is a photograph as it appeared in the media (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin), showcasing two of the three original skulls on display.

Treasured Neanderthal and Original Cro-Magnon
Creative Commons License photo credit: Ryan Somma

The caption read :
“Fossil skulls of La Ferrassie Neanderthal, left, and Cro-Magnon, that are on a three-month loan from the Musée de l’Homme in France, are seen in the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington. Scientists think DNA analysis of Siberian genetic material may have revealed yet another branch of the human tree.”

In an age where the human attention span seems to be measured in minutes, let alone days or even years, it is good to remember that in 2007, there was another original fossil on display in the US. The venue was the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The original fossil involved was that of Lucy.

In a very savvy media campaign, several leading paleoanthropologists engaged in variations of an ad hominem attack, and used rather unfortunate language to refer to the museum, as well as the curator of the exhibit.

The scientists who opposed Lucy going on display all invoked the same document, a 1998 statement drafted by the International Association for the Study of Human Paleontology. The second resolution in this document declares:

“We strongly recommend that original hominid fossils should not be transported beyond the country of origin unless there are compelling scientific reasons which must include the demonstration that the proposed investigations cannot proceed in the foreseeable future in the country of origin.”

Less than three years after invoking this document, the National Museum of Natural History now finds itself doing the very same thing it once so vehemently opposed. Moreover, an internet search in the days following the opening of the new hall in Washington failed to identify any criticism by the same individuals who in the previous case had brought out the big guns. As the first anniversary of the hall is just around the corner, still not a word of criticism has been uttered.

As someone once said: “Isn’t that special?”

Of Chinese mummies, and a relative of a famous German WWI fighter pilot

While I was reading up on the archaeology of the Tarim Basin for our new exhibit, Secrets of the Silk Road, I kept thinking of “the artist formerly known as Prince.” Why? What in the world does he have to do with 4000-year old mummies? The answer is simple. There is one aspect he and the Xinjiang sites have in common: they have an awful lot of names. Over the years, sites have been named in various languages, English, Chinese and Uyghur; occasionally they have also been named after individuals. Anyone interested in this subject matter may at first be very confused by these multiple names.

 Sven Hendin

Let me start out, however, with a much simpler explanation about the origin of the expression Silk Road. The term Silk Road is the English translation of the German “Seidenstrasse,” a term coined in 1877 by Freiherr Ferdinand von Richthofen. This German geologist and uncle of famous World War I fighter ace, Manfred von Richthofen, chose silk to symbolize the trade items that made it from China to the Mediterranean and this term has been used ever since. Ferdinand von Richthofen’s legacy extends beyond contributing the terms Silk Road; one of his students was a Swede named Sven Hedin. Sven became a very accomplished student of the Tarim Basin history, as we shall see below.

Scientists have been able to collect and study to some degree about 500 mummies (Mallory and Mair 2000, pp. 179 – 180). We know that the remains of thousands of people were buried in the desert in the course of several millennia before the arrival of the Han Chinese in the region. Some of these individuals remain at rest, others have been found by looters and their tombs were ransacked in a futile attempt to find treasure.

The mummies have been found in various cemeteries in the Tarim Basin. In the next paragraphs, I will review some of these burial places, concentrating on those where mummies with Caucasian features have been found.

One of the two mummies currently on display at the museum is known as the “Beauty of Xiaohe,” named after the Xiaohe cemetery. The Xiaohe cemetery goes by several names. In 1934, Swedish archaeologist Folke Bergman reached a site in the Lop Nor area; this settlement contained a cemetery on a hill marked by wooden posts. (An example of this burial arrangement is on display at the museum as well.) The site was close to a river bed, which Bergman named Xiaohe, or “Small River.” The cemetery itself got several monikers, starting with “Ördek’s necropolis,” after a Uyhgur guide by that name who had discovered the site in the 1910s, while working for the above mentioned researcher, Sven Hedin. Researchers established that the settlement and the associated cemetery belonged to the Gumugou culture, also known as the Qäwrighul culture. Another “beauty” found in the region, a mummy known as the “Beauty of Loulan,” also belonged to this culture (Romgard, 2008, p. 13).

After its initial discovery, the Xiaohe site drifted back into anonymity. It was rediscovered in 2000. A Chinese translation of Bergman’s book (Bergman, 1939) became available in 1997. It brought the site to the attention of Chinese scientists, who were able to re-discover the site (Romgard, 2008, p. 20, n. 38).

 Hedin with Folke Bergman on Hedin’s final expedition, 1934
© The Sven Hedin Foundation

The Xiaohe cemetery contains the largest number of mummies ever found at a single site (Romgard, 2008, p. 20). A total of 167 tombs were excavated, many of them containing mummies with clear European features. The earliest graves date back to ca. 2000 BC (Romgard, 2008, p. 21). The presence of woolen garments is a good indicator of very early links between West and East, as sheep did not exist in early China (Romgard 2008, pp. 21-22).

Northeast of Lop Nor, near the oasis town of Hami, archaeologists encountered a small number of mummies of Caucasian origin at the Yanbulaq cemetery. Eight out of a total of 29 examined human remains were identified as such (Romgard 2008, p. 22). This cemetery, dated back to the Bronze Age as well, contains further proof of western cultural traits moving from west to east. The presence of people of Caucasian extraction, as well as woolen knit-ware and mud brick architecture spread eastward to the Tarim Basin and then China (Romgard 2008, p. 22).

Qäwrighul Cemetery, located close to Bosten Lake in the Tianshan Mountains, is part of the Chawuhu culture (Romgard, 2008, pp. 15- 16, 23-24). It dates to 1000 – 400 BC. Human remains encountered here display a mix of Caucasian and Mongoloid features. The people who were buried here lived in an area that served as a passageway between the eastern parts of the Tarim Basin and parts further northwest. Similarities in material culture between this culture and areas in Siberia and Kazakhstan imply that migrations occurred in this part well before the official opening of the Silk Road (Romgard, 2008, p. 24).

The idea that some of the basic building stones of civilization came from the west into China did not receive a universal welcome among Chinese scholars. As late as December 1999, Chinese scholars argued that the reverse had happened, that prehistoric cultures from China had gradually advanced to the West (Romgard 2008, pp. 29 – 30). However, the pendulum is now swinging in the opposite direction, and acceptance of western influences on the genesis of Chinese culture is growing (Romgard 2008, pp. 30-32).

Scientists now feel confident enough to state that “the idea of a European entry either directly from the West or from the steppe cultures in the north is [today] the prevailing theory (Romgard 2008, p. 33).

In the course of more than a century, explorers have mapped sites in the Tarim Basin; they published their findings and then there was a long hiatus. Both World Wars impeded research, and the civil war in China following WWII made any scientific efforts in that part of the world impossible to pursue. It was only after China opened to the West, and travel to the Tarim Basin  became easier, that progress was made once again. The translation of research journals from European languages into Chinese rekindled that effort as well. One wonders what the next century will bring.


Bergman, Folke, 1939. Archaeological researches in Siankang. (Reports from the Scientific Expedition to the North-Western Provinces of China under the Leadership of Dr. Sven Hedin. The Sino-Swedish Expedition. Publication No. 7), Bokförlags Aktiebolaget Thule – Stockholm.

Mallory, J.P. and Victor H. Mair, 2000
The Tarim Mummies. Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West. Thames and Hudson, London.

Romgard, Jan, 2008. Questions of Ancient Human Settlements in Xinjiang and the Early Silk Road Trade, with an Overview of the Silk Road Research Institutions and Scholars in Beijing, Gansu, and Xinjiang. Sino-Platonic Papers, Nr. 185.  

Silk Road Q&A with Curator Dirk

Last month we did an online Q&A with our curator Dirk Van Tuerenhout on our new exhibition, Secrets of the Silk Road. Visitors to this free event were able to ask Dirk questions about the mummies and other unique artifacts currently on display at HMNS. The questions and answers are listed below (the subject is bolded, the questions are italicized, and the answers are in plain text.)

Details of Mummies
How many mummies are in the show? How many mummies were found in this area?

Photo courtesy of Mu Xinhui.

There are two mummies in the exhibit. One is that of an adult woman. She lived around 1,800 – 1,500 BC and her remains were found in the Xiaohe (Small River) cemetery. The second mummy is that of an infant, sex unknown, who lived during the 8th century BC. This infant was found in Zaghunluq, several hundreds of miles removed from the Xiaohe location.

In their book, The Tarim Mummies, Mallory and Mair estimate that the number of known mummies is “on the order of 500” (pages 179-180).

What are the average length, height and weight of the mummies discovered?

This is a hard question to answer. A good example as to why this is so can be found at the museum: we have an adult woman and a child less than a year old. There is quite a difference in height in these two individuals. In terms of weight, I do not know if anyone has weighed them.

Life of Mummies
What languages do you think they might have spoken?

Interesting question, and difficult to answer. We should take note of the great number of languages that at one point were spoken and written in the Tarim and Turpan Basins. For example, when the Berlin Ethnological Museum unpacked the materials that they had excavated in the years 1902 – 1914 in the Tarim and Turpan Basins, they announced that they had evidence of 17 languages recorded in 24 different scripts (Mallory and Mair, The Tarim Mummies, p. 102).

Who first found the mummies, was any “looting” involved, and how many have been found so far?

Knowledge of the cemeteries containing mummies goes back many centuries, as does evidence of looting. The latter activity has continued until today, sad to say. In terms of who first alerted the outside world to the existence of these mummies, there are European and American researchers who worked in the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th. People like Aurel Stein of the Smithsonian, and the Swedes Sven Hedin and Folke Bergman, just to name a few, explored these remote areas and encountered mummies. While they made note of their existence, they did not undertake scientific studies, partly because their initial research focus was a different one, and partly because of the logistics involved. Most often the mummies were excavated, photographed and then re-buried. In all we know of about 500 mummies. There must have been many thousands more that once lived and were buried.

What is the fortification-looking area in the slide show, and where is it located? Are those the remains of boats around it?

Photo courtesy of Mu Xinhui.

The fortification-looking area is in fact a cemetery. What looks like a palisade is a series of wooden poles found marking the cemetery. A coffin often used in this cemetery is one called a “boat coffin,’ because of its apparent similarity with a small boat. They never served as a boat, as one can easily observe when looking at a boat coffin currently on display at the museum.

Were there writings in tomb objects? Tokens of religious or religion?

Texts were found in the tombs dating to the period when the Silk Road was in existence ( 138 BC – 1368 AD). We now of 17 languages written in 24 different scripts; most of the evidence for these comes from funerary contexts. However, the mummies on display at the museum are prehistoric, date to the period before the Silk Road opened up. They were not found with “letters in their pockets.”

What weapons were found?  Composite bows?

The period covered by the exhibit is quite extensive, going from 1,800 BC through the 14th century. References to and information about weapons abound during these three millennia. For example, arrows and arrow heads have been found in various cemeteries, including Xiaohe and Kucha. As far as the presence of composite bows is concerned, I came across a paper by Andrew Hall and Jack Farrell originally published in The Society of Archer-Antiquaries, #51, 2008, pp. 89-98. It discusses composite bows found in the Tarim basin. (You can find an online version of this paper here). Composite bows have also been linked with Subeshi.

Photo courtesy of Mu Xinhui.

What are the materials of the clothing and ropes made of?

Clothing ranges from woolen cloaks, fur boots, to silk robes. I do not have reliable information on the ropes.

How close is the clothing to Celtic clothing of the same period?

Here is a passage from Mallory and Mair, The Tarim Mummies, that you will find interesting (pp. 217 – 219):

“Although dating to the same period as Zaghunluq, the cemetery at Qizilchoqa to the northeast near Hami yielded different weaves for which far-reaching historical connections have been suggested. The precise date of the Qizilchoqa cemetery is problematic: the initial dates place it at about 1200 BC, contemporary with the later period of the Yanbulaq culture, but a new radiocarbon date of c. 800 – 530 BC suggests that it belongs to the later Tort Erik (Sidaogou) culture. The abundant evidence for dress here revealed a variety of clothes, including woolen robes with colored belt bands and fur coats (the fur turned inside) with integrated gloves, which fastened with wooden buttons. But our main story lies with the woolen textiles.

Irene Good made a detailed examination of a textile fragment (15 cm by 19 cm – 6 in by 4 in) from the site. The main here was normal diagonal twill, but the decoration involved the production of plaid, the same type of decorative technique one might expect on a Scottish tartan. This involved the wide and narrow color strips on both the warp and the weft and here the colors employed were threads of blue, white and brown, each thread made up of some 30 to 40 fibers. The white and brown thread are natural the blue thread is dyed. This small strip of cloth has been invested with heavy historical implications.

The earliest twills known derive from the region between Turkey and the Caucasus where they were dated to the late 4th – 3rd millennium BC, and they are found in abundance from the late 2nd millennium BC in Europe, particularly at the site of Hallstatt. Here miners left residues of their clothing (and, occasionally, themselves) in the protective environment of Austrian salt mines. As the Hallstatt culture occupied a territory which classical authors would associate with Celts only a few centuries later, it is generally presumed that the miners here (and the warriors and others buried in the neighboring cemetery) were also Celts or proto-Celts. The easternmost finds of twill, dating from the centuries around 1000 BC (or somewhat later), are the fragment from Qizilchoqa and many others like it from the same cemetery (some very Scottish looking); true twills are unknown in China until well into the 1st millennium AD. The Qizilchoqa twill is virtually identical to the textile fragments recovered from Hallstatt with respect to both style and technique (hence one of the arguments employed by the tabloid press for placing kilted Celts in the Tarim Basin). We are not talking simply of the diffusion of a particular weaving and color pattern. As Elizabeth barber writes: “the regular combination of plaids and twills n the same cloth and the similar play of wides and narrows in the plaids moves us into a border zone where it’s harder to imagine the sum total as accidental.” There is also a similarity in the weight of the cloth. Of course there are differences between the Hallstatt and the Qizilchoqa materials, for example, Hallstatt employed only two colors while the Qizilchoqa plaids used from three to six colors. In addition, there are even differences among the Tarim plaids. Irene Good has noted that the weaving traditions of Zaghunluq and Qizilchoqa are themselves considerably different even though they both ate to the period before the middle of the first millennium BC. The Qizilchoqa (Hami) fragment appears to derive from a hairy rather than a wooly fleece and would seem to come from a different breed of sheep than that found at Zaghunluq; there are also differences in the crafting of the cloth, e.g. the Zaghunluq twill involved hopping over three stems of the warp rather than the more typical two as found at Qizilchoqa. In weighing the similarities between the European and East Central Asian material, Barber concludes that the two are related yet also makes it clear that neither is derived from the other. How do we connect the two textile traditions?

Elizabeth Barber has deduced that the twill plaid recovered from the northern Tarim may be placed within the context of Indo-European migrations. As we have already recounted, one of the most popular theories of Indo-European origins would locate their homeland in the steppelands encompassing Ukraine and southern Russia, a region which would have been in direct contact with the Caucasus whence we obtain some of our earliest evidence for twills. In this model, the earliest Indo-Europeans would have known plaid and carried it west into central and western Europe where it would later emerge among the Celts of the Hallstatt culture; it would also have been carried eastward across the steppe where it would have been introduced by Indo-Europeans, here identified as the Tocharians, into the Tarim Basin.”

How do you keep the mummies preserved while they are on display?

We maintain a constant temperature and humidity within the museum and the exhibit hall.

Are these mummies considered to be the best preserved in the world?  Even better than the Egyptian mummies?

They are among the best preserved mummies in the world. This makes them stand out, not only for this reason, but also because these individuals were mummified by nature rather than by human agency.

What role did the climate play in preservation?

Climate and the environment were the main reasons some of the remains became mummies. The best preserved mummies tend to be dressed very warmly. This has led archaeologists to suggest that these individuals died in the winter. Their bodies would then have been freeze-dried first, then cooked and parched during the summer. If any moisture was left in the bodies, that would have been removed by the minerals present in the desert. The rivers descending from the mountains carry lots of minerals.

Were both the Y chromosome and Mitochondrial DNA analyses done on the male mummies?

My understanding is that they were not. mtDNA analysis allows one to retrace the lineage of the individual studied through the maternal line. While it would connect a male to his female ancestors, it would not provide a link with his descendants, since none would have inherited his mtDNA.

 Creative Commons License Photo credit: Wang Da-Gang

Is the baby linked by DNA to the woman?

The baby is about 1000 years younger and was buried in a cemetery about 250 – 300 miles away from that where the woman was found. They were not immediate family. They could be distant relatives like you and I would be.

Have studies been done to determine where the mummies were born or grew up? Are they all considered to have been born and raised where they were found?

That type of study is referred to as isotopic analysis and it can tell us where a person grew up. To the best of my knowledge this has not been done yet on these mummies.

Has any testing been done in the region to determine if the Y chromosome markers from the male mummies are present in the living population?

In paper published in early 2010, we find that Y chromosome research was carried out of seven male individuals from the Xiaohe cemetery. The paper is available online in open access format at the time of writing this reply. (Go here.)

The researchers state (p. 6): “The Y chromosome haplogroup of the seven males were all assigned to haplogroup R1a1a through screening the Y-SNPs at M89, M9, M45, M173 and M198 successively. Haplogroup R1a1a is widely distributed in Eurasia: it is mainly found in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, South Asia, Siberia, ancient Siberia, but rare in East Asia.”

In other words, the Y chromosomes found in the Xiaohe mummies were compared with those found in contemporary male populations world-wide. I do not know if in that sample, males from the Tarim Basin were included.