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The Mummies of the Tarim Basin
August 7, 2000 5:37 AM   Subscribe

The Mummies of the Tarim Basin were discovered fifteen years ago by Chinese archaeologists working in the salty deserts of far western China. These bodies date from between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago and have been preserved so well in the extremely dry salty conditions that some of them look like they're still alive. Even more remarkable is that their clothing is still intact including tapestries and tartans. Finally these people were six feet tall, had long noses and fair hair and there is strong evidence that they spoke a language whose closest relatives are Celtic and Latin.
posted by lagado (10 comments total)

Celtic, eh? Tartans? Wow. So it turns out the Chinese invented WASP culture too? Damn.
posted by chicobangs at 7:46 AM on August 7, 2000

Yes, unfortunately this discovery has been noticed by various distinctly contemporary nasty people (who I won't link to here). But the significance of the find is that it throws new light on dating the origins and expansion of the Indo-European language family which includes English, Celtic, Greek, Latin, German, Russian, Persian and Hindi.
posted by lagado at 8:21 AM on August 7, 2000

The Discovery Channel had a great special about these mummies on a month or so ago. What struck me is the postulation that at some point, as these caucasian tribes moved across lower Asia, the first time they met with fellow human beings must have been extrodinary.

In modern times it has become nearly unfathomable to me what it must have felt like to walk for a lifetime across continents and one day meet a race of clearly human, though clearly different looking, people.
posted by Awol at 11:11 AM on August 7, 2000

(Just wrote a long, pedantic opus here and then the browser crashed. I'll try again.) The linguistic claims here are all mixed up, specifically the idea that Tocharian was somehow closer to Latin and Celtic that to other Indo-European languages. Here's the story, as painless as I can make it.

In the nineteenth century, it was thought that Proto-Indo-European first broke up into two smaller language families, known as centum (Celtic, Italic (including Latin), Greek and Germanic) and satem (roughly Baltic, Slavic, Indo-Iranian, Armenian). This split supposedly reflected the fact that Proto-IE *k (the * means the sound is reconstructed rather than attested) shows up as /k/ in centum languages but /s/ in satem. Notice that the centum/satem split is roughly east-vs-west.

So when Tocharian was discovered in the 1920s, it was a bombshell. It was farther east than just about any other IE language, but had the characteristic feature of western IE, that is, it was centum. Thus the claim that its "closest relatives" were in the west.

It was soon realized that the whole centum/satem thing was just bogus. In fact, it's very common for /k/ to turn into /s/--Latin itself had done it as it developed into French (compare Latin centum with French cent), but no one claimed that French was more closely related to Hindi than to Latin. There has been a very strong consensus for over fifty years to this effect. Tocharian is not very well understood (we have only a limited number of documents, and there is some influence from other languages, among them Sanskrit/Pali and perhaps some Turkic language), but its position within IE is clear. It's just one of twelve or so major subfamilies of IE.

Sorry if it seems like I'm making a fuss about this. It's a pet peeve of linguists (much like astrology is a pet peeve of many scientists in general): someone hears a garbled, out-of-date version of some technical detail, amateur anthropologists claim that they find "tartans" on a mummy from central Asia (do you think Celts wore "tartans" 4000 years ago?), some credulous journalist picks it up and suddenly the public thinks they're hearing exciting new discoveries from the frontiers of scholarship. We've seen Incas on Easter Island, ancient Japanese in the American Southwest (Zuni), blue-eyed Welsh Indians (Mandans) in pre-Columbian North America. The Tarim Basin mummies are interesting enough without adding more mysteries.

Lagado--none of this is meant to be any kind of criticism! Thanks for the link. Who are the "nasty people" you mention?

Awol--don't you think the continent was already peopled? There were probably (at least) proto-Finns, proto-Turks, Iranians, and Tibetans and Chinese all over the place already. Here a nice set of maps if you're interested.
posted by rodii at 1:28 PM on August 7, 2000

One of the things which was used to demonstrate the origin of these people was a close analysis of the cloth they were wearing. Among other things, it turns out to have used a weaving pattern common in Europe but otherwise unknown in China. Weaving patterns are often not just simple cross-weaves; by that time they'd gotten rather sophisticated, and they can be identified and traced.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 1:46 PM on August 7, 2000

thanks rodii, no offence taken, far from it. I'm keen to learn all I can and as a total lay person in all of these fields, I really appreciate your explanation. That's the first time I have heard that Tocharian's grouping into western Indo-European is probably spurious, so there you go. I'm basing a lot of this on Elizabeth Wayland Barber (the Mummies of Urumchi, Macmillan). While she is not a linguist, she has examined the mummies and done an analysis of the textiles they were wearing. As Steven Den Beste points out there's a lot that can be learned about these people by looking at their sophisticated weaving technique and compare them with their contemporaries in mesopotamia and egypt. Were the Celts wearing tartans 4000 years ago (actually the oldest tartan around around 3000 years old) should rather be were probably Indo-European speaking wool spinning people wearing tartans 3000 years ago? Definitely yes. Are there strong corelations between the weaving techniques and technologies used in these fabrics and those found in celtic fabrics preserved in Austria (Hallstadt salt mines) dating around 1000 BC, yes. I'm not wanting to imply much more than than that. I noticed your map places the proto-Indo-European homeland as the Ukraine, but surely even that is still somewhat controversial, others put it in eastern anatolia. As for the nasty people I was referring to I was referring to the various lovely WASP hate sites. Sadly, when searching the web for historical references these sites are too damned easy to find.
posted by lagado at 7:03 PM on August 7, 2000

Yeah, just about everything about the PIE homeland is controversial--plus Russians tend to want it to be in Russia, Armenians in Armenia, etc. That muddies the waters a lot. The interesting thing about the maps I linked to is that there's a real attempt to link the linguistic and archaeological evidence. Linguists tend to be purists about these things and pooh-pooh any so-called "external" evidence. The fabrics are fascinating, though--I would genuinely love to find out more about the Celtic weaving tradition.

(Disclaimer: I'm a linguist, but not an Indo-Europeanist--though I did write a paper about Turkic borrowings into Tocharian, long long ago.)
posted by rodii at 9:40 AM on August 8, 2000


We all came from

1) the same vat of primordial ooze
2) Adam & Eve
3) a crackerjack box

anyway. So what does it matter?
posted by ZachsMind at 9:48 AM on August 8, 2000

I'm a linguist, but not an Indo-Europeanist--though I did write a paper about Turkic borrowings into Tocharian, long long ago.
very cool, rodii
posted by lagado at 5:09 PM on August 9, 2000

posted by rodii at 8:27 PM on August 11, 2000

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