Shhh… Science in action

This story starts in Italy and will then take us to the Tarim Basin in Northwestern China. It features a well-known mummy (Oetzi) and one of the best preserved mummies in the world (The Beauty of Xiaohe). It contains data from in-depth DNA analysis performed on one mummy and holds the promise of similar date generated in the near future on another set of mummies. Fasten your seatbelts, here we go.

During the month of August 2010, several stories hit the wire that the DNA of Oetzi, the famous Iceman mummy had been sequenced. The Iceman was discovered emerging from a glacier on the border between Austria and Italy. His mitochondrial DNA is now the oldest complete H. sapiens mtDNA genome generated to date.

This is where we segue to the Tarim Basin mummies, discovered thousands of miles away from the Alps. As it turns out, Oetzi’s find spot was very close to Alpine pastures where Dr. Victor Mair’s family once took their animals to graze, and that brings us to the Tarim Basin Mummies, a long term focus of Dr. Mair’s research.

A gratuitous link between these two areas, you say? Not necessarily, if one considers what has just been announced in Italy and the potential of what could happen with the mummies in China. Moreover, one of the reasons Dr. Mair got to be so interested in ancient human remains was the discovery of Oetzi in 1991. This occurred a few years after he had seen the Tarim Basin mummies on display in a museum in Urumqi.

 The Beauty of Xiaohe. Courtesy of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Museum in Urumqi.

Oetzi lived about 5000 years ago; while the Beauty of Xiaohe lived about 1,000 years later, around 2000 BC.  In both cases, DNA research has been carried out on these early human remains. It seems that the Beauty of Xiaohe and her kinfolk had very close links with areas to the west of the Pamir Mountains. (In a previous blog, the Pamirs are mentioned as part of the geography of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region).  Specifically, “Mitochondrial DNA analysis showed that the Xiaohe people carried both the East Eurasian haplogroup (C) and the West Eurasian haplogroups (H and K), whereas chromosomal DNA analysis revealed only the West Eurasian haplogroup R1a1a in the male individuals.”

Oetzi is of European origin; the Tarim Basin Mummies are often referred to as Eurasian, and Caucasian, without much further information about where they may have originated from, other than “west of the Pamir mountains.” This is where the reference made above, to the potential of future research comes in. The techniques exist to investigate the Tarim Basin mummies in much greater detail. The research has not happened yet.

In addition, there are ways to establish where individuals were born and raised, one of the most famous examples being the remains of an archer found close to Stonehenge. Tests showed that he originated in the Alps, probably Switzerland, Austria or Germany. He somehow made his way into what is now the United Kingdom, where he was buried. A similar scientific approach could be applied to the Xiaohe remains. I am sure that one day this will happen.

Currently the Beauty of Xiaohe is receiving visitors at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Oetzi, on the other hand, remains safely ensconced in his refrigerated display unit in Bolzano, Italy. No word yet if he is interested in coming over to visit his long lost relative.

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.

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 Mount Elbert, at 4402 m above sea level. The tallest mountain in the US, Mount McKinley, is 6193 meters high.

The basin gets its name from the Tarim River, the longest inland river in China and the second largest inland river in the world (second only to the Volga River). Fed by the melting snows from the mountains, the river never reaches any ocean, instead disgorging its waters in the Taklimakan Desert itself . About a century ago, the river reached as far as Lop Nor, now a dry lake and home to the Lop Nor salt works.

Given the remoteness of this area, Lop Nor also served as China’s nuclear weapons testing grounds. Our upcoming exhibit, Secrets of the Silk Road pre-dates the nuclear age by several millennia. In a next installment, we will tackle the topic of the Silk Road, starting with “what does Silk Road mean?”