The Silk Road: A Timeless Story

This blog entry deals with our current Secrets of the Silk Road exhibit. It connects several topics, all related to our current exhibit. We start with the stars at the center of the show: people, and the history of their presence in the region. Next topic: the stuff we humans carry with us and eventually leave behind. We all know that the amount we accumulate in our lifetime can be quite considerable. Can the same be said about the ancient inhabitants of the Tarim Basin?  We end with some observations about the museum aspect of putting an exhibit like this together.

Topic One: the people along the Silk Road and the history of human presence in the region.

Human presence in this part of the world goes back thousands of years; if one were to include earlier human ancestors, we can extend that time frame to hundreds of thousands of years, when Homo erectus lived in China. Interesting as this great antiquity of human presence in Asia might be, the time frame covered in this exhibit starts a “little” later.

The title of our current exhibit is “Secrets of the Silk Road.” I find it interesting that historians have come up with start and end dates for the Silk Road. They argue that the year 138 BC marked the beginning of the Silk Road. For almost a millennium and a half afterward, the land-based Silk Road was a conduit along which people, objects, languages, customs, and religions moved around. According to historians, by 1368 AD the land-based Silk Road withered away. Soon thereafter, the so-called Maritime Silk Road picks up where the other one left of.

Anyone interested in maritime history, and especially maritime archaeology, will know the there is an excellent program at Texas A&M University. It will therefore not come as a surprise that a Chinese underwater archaeologist, trained in Texas, was instrumental in raising a ship dating back some 800 years. It plied its trade as part of this Maritime Silk Road. (As an aside, the early 15th century also saw massive fleets of exploration leave China, a topic explored in a wonderful National Geographic exhibit a few years ago.)

While we can marvel at the certainty with which historians pinpoint the start and end of the Silk Road’s existence, we should not forget that modern humans (as opposed to Homo erectus mentioned earlier) were migrating from west to east and vice versa almost 2000 years before the Silk Road officially opened. These mummies found in Xinjiang cover a broad range of phenotypes, another way of saying that some look more Caucasoid and others more Mongoloid or East Asian. About 400 mummies are known today. Most of them are in the museum in Urumqi, others can be seen in smaller regional museums in the Tarim Basin.

That makes the observation made earlier about the time frame of the Silk Road and the precedence of the mummies doubly interesting. Not only do we know of people following a pathway that eventually will become the Silk Road, most of the known mummies also do not look like the ethnic Han Chinese we associate with the area known today as modern China.

Uyghur man.
Image courtesy of Victor H. Mair

Add to that mix the story of the Uyghur population and their claim that the Tarim Basin mummies are their ancestors. That claim has now been proven to be incorrect. The Uyghurs, on the other hand continue to hold fast to that belief, scientific evidence notwithstanding.

Lately, there was more media buzz about the origins of the Uyghur people. Newspaper and magazine articles published during the month of November 2010 highlighted suggestions that the physical appearance of some Uyghurs could be due to the fact that they are descendants of Roman POW’s that were brought to the region. Green eyes, long noses and even fair hair, all fuel speculation that some Uyghurs have European blood.

However, scholars like Dr. Maurizio Bettini, a classicist and anthropologist from Siena University, dismissed the Roman legion theory as a ”fairytale.” He told La Republica: ”For it to be indisputable, one would need to find items such as Roman money or weapons. Without proof of this kind, the story of the lost legions is just a legend.”  Medical scientists have concurred with this assessment, after an analysis of Y chromosome material. And so we have another interesting story that gets relegated to the category of myth.

Can’t see the video? Click here: Secrets of the Silk Road: Genetics.

Topic Two: the artifacts left behind by the people.

During the countless millennia that people have been moving through this region, as well as settling in this region, they have left lots of material clues behind. This helps us in many ways to reconstruct what they were doing, even where they came from. At the same time, for every question answered, there a ten more questions raised.

 A 1000-year old wonton on display

Archaeologists have long known that people bury their dead with all kinds of gifts. They might reflect people’s daily occupation, they might be mementos of the family they left behind; sometimes there was food left with the deceased. We have some of these food items on display.

Having trouble imagining what a 1000 year-old wonton looks like? Come see it at the museum. The act of placing food in the tomb was intentional. Sometimes, however, objects are preserved accidentally. Consider this: we are all familiar that sometimes people use newspaper to pad their shoes, to make them fit more easily. It appears that sometime during the middle of the 7th century AD, this was also practiced in the Tarim Basin. We have on display, a U-shaped document, containing a list of names of households and their property in Xizhou Prefecture. Even though the document was cut to size, historians were still able to extract a good bit of information from the document.

 Household declaration of Gaochang County, Xizhou Prefecture
Can’t see the video? Click here: Secrets of the Silk Road: The Exhibition.

Topic Three: how does one put all of that together in an exhibit?

  Dr. Victor H. Mair

As with all museum exhibits, it takes a long time to prepare for exhibits like these. Our current exhibit was put together by the staff at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California. They were the ones who reached out to Chinese museums and develop the storyline.

One of the leading scholars in the field, Dr. Victor Mair, associated with the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia, put together the catalogue.

When Dr. Mair visited Houston, he marveled at the care that went into the exhibit. We have, for example, an equestrian statue on display. It shows a well to do woman traveler wearing a broad-rimmed had. There is a veil hanging from the rim of the hat. This statue, veil included is more than a 1000 years old. Dr. Mair complemented the diligence and care shown by all museum specialists in packing and displaying such a fragile item. I could not agree with him more.

 Equestrian statue

Secrets of the Silk Road: Trade

Silk Road Object38
A rectangular piece of tapestry
identified as coming from Sampul, in
the Xingjian Uyghur Autonomous
Region of China.

When an archaeologist is asked what he or she does, a short answer might be: “we try to reconstruct past behavior using evidence coming from the material record.” In plain English, we look at a culture in the past and ask basic questions such as “How did they live? What did they eat?” Sometimes, we can go beyond asking these basic questions and investigate how people interacted. As we shall see below, there are many forms of human interaction, some violent, and some of a more commercial nature. In the following paragraphs, I will review evidence of both categories.

First this general observation: when we compare the answers against our own behavior, we end up realizing that throughout history we humans have faced similar problems, and we have come up with a multitude of answers to these challenges.

I will start with a simple observation: all humans require food, shelter, and clothing. Material evidence related to these needs goes back tens of thousands of years, sometimes even more. For example, we have evidence for hunting behavior going back half a million years. A fortuitous discovery of well-preserved wooden spears in Germany, and the identification of a spear wound in a fossilized horse shoulder blade in the UK point to humans pursuing these animals. We have evidence of shelter and clothing of great antiquity as well.

Archaeologists like to start with the observable facts and come up with an initial statement “people were hunting so many years ago in this place.” Then the bigger picture – often referred to as “context” kicks in. Context allows us to amplify our statement about people hunting, by saying something about the kinds of spears that were used, or how the spears may have been made (with a fire hardened point, or fitted with a stone tip). Every answer we come up with inevitably leads to more questions. Sometimes we are lucky and can answer those additional questions, and sometimes we are not.

Our current Secrets of the Silk Road exhibit has a good example of the latter. It involves a tapestry found in Sampul, and the inclusion of a part of it in someone’s trousers.

Can’t see the video?
Click here: Secrets of the Silk Road: Trade.

In the first section of the Silk Road exhibit visitors will see a rectangular piece of tapestry, with decorative elements displayed in two different registers. The tapestry is identified as coming from Sampul, in the Xingjian Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.

The bottom section of the tapestry displays a face of a man, looking to his left, wearing a headband of some sort. Resting on his proper right shoulder is a spear. The very tip of the spear point protrudes into the upper register. This upper portion is decorated with floral designs and a centaur playing what looks like a flute.

The two registers were recovered separately and sewn into the pants of a male individual who had been buried in a mass grave.  They were removed from the surrounding pants fabric (which must have looked very bland in comparison with these fragments) and stitched back together. This is the condition in which they are on display.  This tapestry fragment raises several questions.

Who was the individual that sowed these tapestry fragments into his pants?

We can only guess where the tapestry came from: the abode of a well-off individual. Where might this house have been located? The imagery of a centaur and the male face seem to point to a locale west of the Pamir Mountains, rather than further east.

Who was the original owner of this tapestry and where did he live?

The tapestry itself, dating to the period between the 2nd century BC and the 2nd century AD symbolizes wealth; very likely generated through trade related to the Silk Road. Settlements attract those who want part of that wealth that accumulates in shops and houses. Very likely we are looking at a decorative element that was taken from the house of a trader who made his fortune by tapping into the Silk Road trade. As to where the community was located, we can only make the most general observations and suggestions. The art forms and the physical appearance of the individual in the tapestry point to a location west of the Pamir mountain range. More we cannot say.

Who stole the tapestry? What happened to him?

Given that the individual’s body was retrieved from a mass grave, he may have died a violent death, or else have been the victim of disease. There are straightforward physical anthropology techniques that would allow us to answer these questions. However, at the time of writing, none of these tests have been applied; we do not know how he died.

The field of archaeology is full of these mysterious discoveries, where items are found in places where we would not expect them. No doubt, that is one of the reasons why people love archaeology so much.

Coins are another clear indicator of trade along the Silk Road. Several of these are on display in the exhibit. In contrast to our society, where each country has its own currency and where one needs to buy foreign currency when traveling abroad, the ancient travelers up and down the Silk Road did not have such worries. One coin tells an interesting story.

Silk Road Object21-1
This coin dates to the late 7th – early 8th
century AD. The obverse shows the bust of
a Sasanian ruler, either Kushro II or
Yazdgerd III, while the reverse side has an
image of a Zoroastrian fire altar.

This coin dates to the late 7th – early 8th century AD. The obverse shows the bust of a Sasanian ruler, either Kushro II or Yazdgerd III, while the reverse side has an image of a Zoroastrian fire altar. Around the edge of the coin one can also see an Arabic inscription, “Bismillah,” or “In the name of Allah.” The latter is a clue that the coin was struck in the years following the demise of the Sasanian Empire, when it was replaced by an Arabian empire. It appears that the new rulers kept minting the same coins, adding the Arabic writing as a finishing and identifying touch. The coin on display was found in Ulugchat (Wuqia) county in Xinjiang. The Sasanian Empire and the Arabian Empire that replaced it were located well to the west and southwest of the Tarim Basin.

Sasanian empire
Location of the Sasanian empire

Finally, the clothing and grave goods associated with the Yingpan man are another good indication of the extensive trade contacts that existed between east and west. It is said that among the grave goods encountered in the tomb, there was one piece of Late Roman Glass, likely of Syrian manufacture. Although no image of this item seems to exist, one can form a good idea of what Late Roman glass looked like by accessing the Corning Museum’s website on the subject matter.

With these three examples, fragments of a tapestry sewn into someone’s pants, coins that continued being minted long after the empire they belonged to was gone, and the presence of fragile glass in a tomb we have prime examples of how past human behavior can be quite confusing to us.

In the end, however, I would suggest that there is one common denominator to all of these examples: trade. The tapestry was a luxury in someone’s house; a luxury afforded perhaps through success in trade. Coins were the preferred medium to acquire goods with and the Roman glass was on its way east.

I cannot wait to read about the next discovery from the Tarim Basin.

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.