May 14, 2001
7:14 AM   Subscribe

Last summer, lagado posted a link on some interesting mummies found in a Chinese desert. This is an article on the ensuing (and continuing) political problems they've caused.
posted by CRS (9 comments total)
Great post. were these the original silk road travelers? It is like Cheng ho ships in San Francisco harbor. I have never believed that most civilazations flourish in a vaccum.
posted by clavdivs at 8:39 AM on May 14, 2001

Loved these links... *sigh* I wish the community would respect these links more... I pay more attention to these interesting posts (This and the one a few days ago with the Russian photos) than all of the political posts that are made here, combined.
posted by SpecialK at 1:49 PM on May 14, 2001

SpecialK, I agree with you about the quality of this link. I was left wanting to learn more for sure.
posted by trox at 2:10 PM on May 14, 2001

Hey, there was a show on TLC last night about these guys. I unfortunately fell asleep halfway through, but to answer clavdivs, it appeared that the mummies were originally from Europe (the pattern, weave and fabric of the clothing found on one of the mummies was suspected to be a tartan from Ireland originally) but the carbon-14 dates spread over a few hundred years, which to my tired brain suggested a colony.

It makes sense, really. The silk road had a whole bunch of outposts and communities along it.

What I thought was super-cool about them is that no effort was made to mummify them, it was a pretty standard burial, a hole in the ground covered by wooden beams and dirt, basically. The mumifications were far better than any of the egyptian ones I've seen.
posted by cCranium at 2:33 PM on May 14, 2001

I've always felt that we're really a mobile species and always have been. The traditional models sort of suggested that there were these early mobile people who would move a few miles in one direction and spread out from there, again and again and again. But history shows tremendous instances of whole societies picking up and moving to another region, for better food and fields, trade, or military conquest. The Jared Diamond school (Guns Germs and Steel) gives good support to this concept, pointing out how the introduction of new technology can spread like lightning within geographic borders -- for instance, what's called the Eurasian grain "package" that spread prehistoriclaly across the entire swathe of the megacontinent from the Fertile Crescent all the way West and all the way East, long before there was so-called trade.

At the same time there are strong cultural imperatives to prove one thing or another. As a part Swede, I probably give more credence to stories of small Viking bands in North America; here, I have that same eerie sense of identification that Mair talks of, obviously without the personal contact, but just a sense of rightness that there would be Northern Europeans spreading across Asia. Just as this article criticizes insular Chinese attitudes, we should be careful that as Westerners we're not reading things into this that aren't there: the Aryanism trap.

cCranium: the mummifications were deliberate, just pretty low-tech, using alkaline soil and the arid climate to achieve what they wanted. The sheer volume of corpses seems to suggest not even a colony but an entire civilization.
posted by dhartung at 3:35 PM on May 14, 2001

I also agree with the quality of this link...i read the article then severals others linked around the same subject, and between that and work it just took a long time to get back here to post a comment that was worthwhile....fascinating articles, and a pleasure to read the other comments here.
posted by th3ph17 at 5:31 PM on May 14, 2001

cCranium, the tartan weave does not indicate that they came from Ireland only that they probably were probably Indo-europeans and therefore (distantly) related to the Celts. I recommend reading rodii's comments in the original thread.

The Indo-european language group is thought to have originated near the Black Sea. It spread westwards into Europe and eastwards into central asia and notably south eastwards into India. Nearly all the languages of Europe, Iran and India today are Indo-european.

It's therefore wrong to think of these people as Europeans, they would be better described as "Indo-europeans" or simply as an early original stock of Central Asians. China only spread its control into this area in recent millennia (Xinjiang literally means "New Territories").

They are likely to be closely related to the BMAC people mentioned in a recent thread.

The importance of these finds in terms of galvanizing the nationalist aspirations of the inhabitants of far western China should not be underestimated, however. There are still "Europeans" living in Xinjiang, they're called the Uyghurs.
posted by lagado at 6:10 PM on May 14, 2001

Yeah, the timing is just right for the BMAC.

If you go east across Asia from, say, Ur, you eventually run into this tremendous knot of mountains--the Pamirs, Altai, Tien Shan, Karakorum, Himalaya, Tibet--which make direct overland travel to China just about impossible. At that point you can go south through Baluchistan and the Khyber Pass into the Indus valley (home of one of the great civilizations of the ancient world). Or you can go north and then through the passes into Xinjiang, and thence, skirting the Tarim basin desert, to China, which in this time period was much smaller, as Lagado notes. (It's really worth looking at a map if you don't have a sense of the scale here--this is just a vast system of trade.) This means that the crossroads area, around Samarkand, Merv, Bactra, where the roads to China, India and the Middle East met, became an important meeting place of cultures. That was where, and it seems, when, the BMAC happened. It really all fits together--the extension of the Mesopotamian trade system eastward to become the silk road, the flourishing of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, the rise of China, and the Tarim Basin mummies. Very cool.

How all this fits together with the migrations of the Indo-Europeans is unclear. One of the sources I posted in the BMAC thread claimed that the early BMAC probably weren't IE speakers, but the later ones were (probably the culture where Zoroastrianism originated). Then there's the continuing mystery of who the Tocharians were (long-lost isolated IE-speaking people who lived in the Tarim basin). And if there was one long-lost people there could easily have been more--we only know Tocharian because of the fluky survival of a bunch of Buddhist manuscripts sealed up in some abandoned monasteries. All that's clear to me is that there is a *lot* of history we don't know about yet in Central Asia.

Clavidvs: Cheng Ho, yeah!
posted by rodii at 6:34 PM on May 14, 2001

The Silkroad foundation has a site worth exploring, including some maps: (the big picture) & (central Asia).
posted by rodii at 7:01 PM on May 14, 2001

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