Roman descendants found in China?
February 4, 2007 11:24 AM   Subscribe

Roman descendants found in China? DNA tests will be done in a remote Gobi village to see if the blond-haired Chinese residents are related to Crassus' lost legion of c. 53 BC, as suggested by historian Homer Dubbs in 1957 and debated since.
posted by stbalbach (33 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
That's fascinating, but aren't a lot of phenotypes such as minor albinism, green eyes (Lo Pan must marry a woman with green eyes!), and blonde hair pretty recessive traits?

It'd be interesting to see if there's a genetic connection to Romans of antiquity or if these phenotypes arose spontaneously.
posted by porpoise at 12:01 PM on February 4, 2007

It will be interesting to see what the tests show; I'd heard this story a while ago, and thought it possible, if a little far-fetched at first blush.
There's a set of (b&w unfortunately for the claims about eye colour) photos of Liqian villagers here, who I must say don't look that madly different than you average bunch of northwest farmers to me.
The controversy reminds me of the similar fuss about the mummies in Xinjiang.
posted by Abiezer at 12:14 PM on February 4, 2007

There is some evidence of Sino-Roman relations going back to about 200 BC. This isn't as far-fetched as it at first seems.

I had an idea of writing a novel about a Roman embassy in Chinese territory... seems like a situation ripe for drama. But then, I have a lot of ideas.
posted by synaesthetichaze at 12:21 PM on February 4, 2007

Green eyes? Don't tell Lo Pan.
posted by Iridic at 12:33 PM on February 4, 2007 [2 favorites]

I figure stuff like this happened all the time throughout history. With the Roman Empire especially, considering the sheer vastness and the extraordinarily long times for continental travel.

How many groups were written off as lost or casualties of battle that could have just as easily been absorbed into the local populace?
posted by Ynoxas at 12:37 PM on February 4, 2007

Even closer than Italy, is Afghanistan, who has some of the most amazing green eyes, ever.
posted by Oyéah at 12:38 PM on February 4, 2007

Somewhere in my pile of photos from Beijing is a picture of a man (presumably Uighur) selling Halal meat from a cart. He had dirty blond hair, blue eyes and a very caucasian face. These features aren't exactly as rare in China as this theory would make it out to be.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 12:42 PM on February 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Previous post on the Takla Makan mummies.
posted by homunculus at 1:04 PM on February 4, 2007

You were not put on this earth to "get it", Mister Burton!
posted by Flunkie at 1:12 PM on February 4, 2007

Expletive, it's thought that Uighurs are partly descended from the Tocharians, who were the easternmost speakers of an Indo-European language. Xinjiang is pretty far from this village--could be two separate populations.
posted by A dead Quaker at 1:34 PM on February 4, 2007

Uh-huh. So these soldiers were captured by the Parthians, then captured by the Huns, then captured by the Chinese, and allowed to settle & procreate? That's a pretty amazing run of luck.

The map isn't all that detailed, but it looks pretty much like the town is slap bang on the spice route, which skirted the Taklamakan desert north of the Himalaya, before ending up in China. Plenty of Europeans & Central Asians would have passed through that area throughout the centuries.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:48 PM on February 4, 2007

Previously on Mefi -- I think this is the same place they're talking about, yes?
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:24 PM on February 4, 2007

D'oh! Spice Route Silk Road, I should have written. You know what I mean. The Romans certainly traded with China - their first encounter with silk (a Chinese monopoly at that stage) was when one of their armies was routed by a much smaller Persian (?) force, after the Persians unfurled some huge silk banners - the Roman soldiers thought they were some kind of magical weapon & panicked. It didn't take long for silk to became de rigeur toga material for the well-to-do Romans.

Great story about the Roman soldiers in China, though. Reminds me of Alexander's lost division hanging out in the Hindu Kush.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:10 PM on February 4, 2007

Michael Palin was on Sky a while ago, in the Himalayas. He came across the Kalash, a pretty remote tribe who sometimes have blonde hair/blue eyes etc. The link is to the relevant page of photos on Palin's website.
posted by cardamine at 4:11 PM on February 4, 2007

In fact, UboRoivas just mentioned them...
posted by cardamine at 4:12 PM on February 4, 2007

Fascinating post stbalbach, thanks. Amazing Mediterranean-Chinese face. One of the sources of this speculation is the Italian Archeological site. Written about (in Italian) by Raffaele Adinolfi and on another site. Discussed on the Orbis Quintus site.

There were Greek conquests in India. I've been interested in/curious about the Mediterranean looks of the often green-eyed Gaddi shepherds in Chamba (Northwestern India) for a few decades.

Previously, about the Greeks in Asia/Afghanistan on MetFilter. If ancient Greeks were in India, why not Romans in China? Christ's disciple, Thomas travelled from the Mediterranean to Southern India and it has been continuously Christian there in Kerala for about 1900 years.

A bizarre but still interesting article: Is there a connection between ancient Indian and the Hebrew language? from a history-as-tabloid journalism spurious source, the ViewZone.
posted by nickyskye at 5:16 PM on February 4, 2007

nickyskye: yes, St Thomas' Mount just outside Chennai is said to be where he was killed. Executed by spear, if I remember correctly.

And how interesting that I was just the other week traipsing around Seuna-Desa (Zion Land) without realising it*. Except that the viewzone theory looks like a crock of shit. You can make any argument you like out of proper nouns if you try hard enough, and are selective enough in your comparisons. There have also been millennia of cultural exchange between the subcontinent & the middle east, so there is no surprise that certain things will be named similarly.

Hopefully, el SprachChapeau can enlighten us on the prevailing linguistic theories, but rather than "the similarity of these Indian and Hebrew names certainly traumatiz[ing] European colonists", I understand that it was actually the similarity between Sanskrit & ancient Greek that was first noticed by a British expat, leading to the theory behind the aryan / indo-european language group originating somewhere in Central Asia & spreading eastwards & westwards from there. I can vouch that there is certainly a significant overlap between Hindi & Latvian, for example.

In contrast, I was just reading in this book about how the Jews were actually pretty much exactly the same as all their near-neighbours in the Middle East, and basically invented their concept of difference as a means of retaining cohesion in their Babylonian exile, and also as a way of justifying their right to return to Israel & kick out the inhabitants who had filled their place in their absence.


* D'oh - I didn't realise Yeola is so close to Shirdi. There is an important Sai Baba temple in the latter town (that's the old bandana Sai Baba, not the younger Afro one). Not that I am a devotee or anything, but it would have been interesting...
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:55 PM on February 4, 2007

I wondered if maybe some of it was leftover from the Mongol empires, and the constant movement of captive people then...but how surprising: Genghis Khan is often described as tall, with red hair and blue-green eyes, but otherwise Asian features.

But I think it was probably just constant long-distance trade, centuries and centuries of it, not one (or three or five) big lost group(s).
posted by dilettante at 6:20 PM on February 4, 2007

There was the "Greco-Bactrian" kingdom, and a wide-ranging slave trade during the Abbasid era (the mothers of many caliphs were European slave girls, surely these weren't the only "white chyx" around), etc. etc. etc. Considering the 3000 years of onging relations it'd be more surprising if no "Orientals" had green eyes.
posted by davy at 6:31 PM on February 4, 2007


UbuRoivas, Pity the ViewZone history as gossip site reads so skanky, some fun stuff there. But it's like reading the National Enquirer. yeah, Where is el SprachChapeau when we need him in a geo-genetic quandary like this? Dang, so what were you doing in Seuna-Desa? You know that's my fave part of the planet along with NYC.

I found there is quite a bit of overlap between Hindi and Serbo-Croatian too. I figured it's the old Sanskrit mother of a lot of languages thing.

Apparently Saint Thomas was shot with an arrow and died on what is now named St. Thomas Mount, near Chennai.

The history of the Jews in India is very interesting.

Not only Romans, there were also Jews in China.
posted by nickyskye at 7:20 PM on February 4, 2007

Where is el SprachChapeau when we need him in a geo-genetic quandary like this?

Peh. Who needs him, when wikipedia tells me that Hebrew is a Semitic language of the Afro-Asiatic language family, totally unrelated to the Indo-European & Dravidian languages of the subcontinent? I am sure he would agree, though, that grammar & etymology are probably the main ways of telling if languages are related, and not the fact that you can find occasional similarities between place names. Most cultures prefer to name their towns with simple one or two syllable names, and there are only limited permutations so coincidences will occur. (On the other hand, some bizarre cultures like to name their towns things like Nahasapimapetalanallamipuram)

Dang, so what were you doing in Seuna-Desa? You know that's my fave part of the planet along with NYC.

What? That particular little corner of Maharashtra? Naturally, I was doing what the Seuna-Desans do: chewing paan & colouring every corner in sight with brilliant red spittle.
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:35 PM on February 4, 2007

(actually, SprachChapeau should be summoned: I am interested to know where the name Seuna-Desa supposedly comes from. Googling only brings up around 20 results, all of which seem to be mirrors or discussions of the linked article. Presumably, it is a transliteration from either Hebrew, Marathi or Hindi, with Seuna = Zion, and Desa = old or ancient, although Desa also suggests Desi...)
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:18 PM on February 4, 2007

UbuRoivas, (interesting the differences in paan culture). Splats. I thought the author referred to Seuna-Desa, meaning India, not just that part of Maharashtra, which it turns out was called Seunadesa (supposedly "after king , Seunchandra of the Early Yadava dynasty ". No, I love the whole dang sub-continent, not just a small part of it.
posted by nickyskye at 1:59 AM on February 5, 2007

It's a fascinating idea, but until the results are in this is pre-news and hype, which irritates me somewhat. I would've preferred to read about it in a month's time when they know the result of the DNA test.

(Good post though.)
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 2:01 AM on February 5, 2007

Great post!

also, the fact that "Big Trouble in Little China" is quoted and referenced more than once makes my heart glad on this cold, snowy monday
posted by Merlyn at 9:15 AM on February 5, 2007

There's also a village named Shingo where they claim Jesus lived after escaping the cross. They claim Christ is buried here.
posted by daHIFI at 12:12 PM on February 5, 2007

Bah! Everyone knows that all lost Roman legions eventually ended up in Africa, only to be rediscovered by a certain Lord Greystoke. Ungowa!
posted by Midnight Creeper at 1:45 PM on February 5, 2007

The Suena dynasty claimed descent from the Chandravanshi Yadavas of north India. According to the verse 21 of Vratakhand (a Sanskrit work by Hemadri), the Seunas were originally from Mathura and later moved to Dwaraka. Hemdari calls them as Krishnakulotpanna (i.e. descendants of Lord Shrikrishna). The Marathi saint Dnyaneshwar describes them as yadukulvansh tilak as well. Some of their inscriptions call them Dvaravatipuravaradhishvaras.

Hm. That seems to seal it. While the Bible clearly describes the epic battle between the Kauravas & the Pandavas as part of ancient Jewish lore, nowhere does it mention Krishnakulotpannas, Yadukulvansh Tilaks or Dvaravatipuravaradhishvaras. This linking of the Seuna Yadava Dynasty with ancient Zion is obviously highly fanciful.

And those Thai betel-girls seem highly fanciable. I have indeed seen them in Bangkok, and have no doubt they would give the paan-wallahs a run for their money if they set up shop ricketty stall in Hindustan.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:27 PM on February 5, 2007

daHIFI, that was such an amazing article about Jesus' supposed Japanese grave. wow. Enjoyed that. Thanks so much! Dang, the things one learns here.

UbuRoivas, I'm totally impressed by your research skills and great sorting out the truth from the bs. I love that!

Weren't those pics of the betel girls great? Yeah, they'd be a hit with a little wooden crate and a scrap of wet burlap on a Indian city pavement.
posted by nickyskye at 6:48 PM on February 5, 2007

*an Indian city pavement.
posted by nickyskye at 6:49 PM on February 5, 2007

Yes! And I have already scouted out the most auspicious location!
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:45 PM on February 5, 2007

posted by nickyskye at 5:53 AM on February 6, 2007

it was actually the similarity between Sanskrit & ancient Greek that was first noticed by a British expat, leading to the theory behind the aryan / indo-european language group


I am sure he would agree, though, that grammar & etymology are probably the main ways of telling if languages are related, and not the fact that you can find occasional similarities between place names.

Emphatically. When place names aren't transparent, their origin is often unrecoverable, and people love to play silly games trying to explain them.

Hebrew/Indic is very silly.
posted by languagehat at 9:00 AM on February 6, 2007

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