Ni hao, Brute
November 28, 2010 6:31 AM   Subscribe

Genetic testing of villagers in a remote part of China has shown that nearly two thirds of their DNA is of Caucasian origin, lending support to the theory that they may be descended from a 'lost legion' of Roman soldiers.
posted by The Lady is a designer (27 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Fascinating. I'm not surprised someone's trying to make this into a movie. (previously)
posted by Doktor Zed at 7:11 AM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

warning: legion may have been mislabeled and not actually lost
posted by LogicalDash at 7:16 AM on November 28, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'm a bit confused about when the tests actually happened. It says they were conducted in 2005; Mefi heard they were going to be done in 2007. (The Telegraph used exactly the same picture back then.)
posted by Segundus at 7:24 AM on November 28, 2010

Somewhat related, look up the Lemba, the lost tribe of Israel living in Zimbabwe.
posted by hanoixan at 7:24 AM on November 28, 2010

Northwestern China is a fascinating area. Gansu province borders Xinjiang, which in turn borders Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan, and you see a fairly smooth continuum of physical appearance from east to west. Green eyes and light hair are not uncommon traits among Uyghurs (the majority population of Xinjiang) or Central Asians in general.

I traveled through Gansu and Xinjiang a few years ago and the first thing that struck me getting on the train in Xi'an were the hazel green eyes of one of the train attendants (who in her language and mannerisms was otherwise Chinese).

There has been a lot of cultural and genetic exchange through Central Asia and the Silk Road over the last millenia so I've always been surprised by the attention that the Tarim mummies or some remote people that look like Europeans garners in the West - cf. the Kalash of Pakistan.

As an aside, I've always been confused by the English usage of "Caucasian" in its meaning "of Western European appearance" as opposed to referring to the Caucusus countries - Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan. Especially in the context of genetic origin it can be confusing.
posted by pravit at 7:26 AM on November 28, 2010 [7 favorites]

The important thing is that we find out what happened to these people so we can finally give their families some respite.
posted by Eideteker at 7:31 AM on November 28, 2010 [10 favorites]

Interestingly enough, the village's name is derived from the Latin; roughly "Where the fuck are we now? Nice job losing the map, Gaius."
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 7:33 AM on November 28, 2010 [27 favorites]

And discussion of this without mentioning the Tarim Mummies is fundamentally misleading. The Roman story is a nice story, but evidence of Caucasian population around the Tarim Basin predates the supposed Roman legion by a thousand years. Have they compared the modern DNA to the mummies' DNA?

This smacks either of genuine ignorance (they somehow don't know about the Tarim Basin's ancient Caucasian population), or willful ignorance because they know that Roman Legions get headlines in the way that the Tarim mummies won't.
posted by Coobeastie at 7:35 AM on November 28, 2010 [4 favorites]

Sometimes you're in Rome, sometimes Rome is in you.
posted by nomadicink at 7:39 AM on November 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Also - is there anything more detailed about the genetic testing that was done, other than the ambiguous "56% Caucasian origin"? When you look at maps of mtDna and Y haplogroup distribution it doesn't really tell you a whole lot.
posted by pravit at 7:41 AM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

"There is no way I'm going back through Afghanistan! By Mars, those people scare the fuck out of me!"

"Fuck it, let's just stay here. How are you with chopsticks?"
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:56 AM on November 28, 2010 [21 favorites]

Colin Thubron writes at some length about this in his recommended 'Shadow of the Silk Road.' Fascinating and melancholy story.
posted by Haruspex at 8:17 AM on November 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

It was pretty easy to confuse the saturnicus navigatrix instructions back then.

Turn left after XVVIIX cubits is significantly different from turn left in XXVIIX cubits.
posted by srboisvert at 10:11 AM on November 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

Likely a load of old bollocks; as pravit notes, there's plenty of ethnic admixture in northern China and a long history of various peoples coming east down the Silk Road. You don't need fantasy Romans (the story itself isn't absolutely incredible, mind) to get populations with non-Han genes.
posted by Abiezer at 10:25 AM on November 28, 2010

I was disappointed that the "lost legion" link to did not actually contain military photos.
posted by rh at 10:51 AM on November 28, 2010

pravit: I searched and searched and didn't find anything about the DNA testing - I got the impression that there were two sets of researchers who set out independently to confirm this fact and perhaps that may be causing the confusion.

Also regarding the mummies, here's a complex thought piece on it, I'm excerpting the abstract:

Ancient Greek and Chinese historians had long referenced a unique cultural and ethnic group on its western frontier with red hair and blue eyes since the 3rd century BCE, a group that settled Afghanistan and forged a vibrant Buddhist empire that spread Buddhism to much of the the world through China and India. But when 3,800-year-old mummies were unearthed in the early 20th century in the Tarim Basin of the western Chinese desert with blatant "white" physiognomy and clothing of apparently European origin, historians, anthropologists, and archeologists were awestruck. The tenuous ethnocultural issue made this a serious issue: Europeans emphasized the role of "Europeans" in creating an ancient frontier civilization that brought a world religion to Asia; Chinese scholars refused to believe that significant foundations of their history were "imported," and the modern residents of the Tarim region (Xinjiang) -- the Muslim Uyghurs -- insist that they were the original natives of the region.

This analytical essay is divided into two parts. Firstly, an analysis of the 3,800-year-old white Europoid mummies in western China (Xinjiang province) and their possible culture and race. Second, an analysis of the history of the Kushan/Tocharian bringers of Buddhism to much of the world. If the original European mummies are related to these Kushan Buddhist missionaries with blue eyes and red hair, then the descendants of these European mummies forever shaped the cultural and religious evolution of Asia.

posted by The Lady is a designer at 12:32 PM on November 28, 2010

Even more previously from the previous thread linked in the first comment.
posted by The Lady is a designer at 12:36 PM on November 28, 2010

and as a side note, the Greeks in India
posted by The Lady is a designer at 12:37 PM on November 28, 2010

"So you're a Sicilian Chinese, huh?
posted by fullerine at 1:37 PM on November 28, 2010

Don't forget the ancient Israelites in Japan!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:15 PM on November 28, 2010

Aren't something like 2/3 of the world's population supposedly descended from Genghis Khan? So now we find that 2/3 of the world's population are descended from Taras Bulba. My grade school history book was right!
posted by gjc at 3:34 PM on November 28, 2010

Don't forget the ancient Israelites in Japan!

Well, that only makes sense, considering that's where Jesus is buried and all.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 3:40 PM on November 28, 2010

I'm gonna make you an offer that you can politely refuse three times before accepting.
posted by bwg at 4:22 PM on November 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

This seems like a case of hearing hoofs and thinking "zebra", what with the long ancient presence of the Tocharians and the Hephthalites/White Huns and probably other historical Caucasian visitors via the Silk Road.
posted by knoyers at 4:24 PM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

People have been traveling back and forth on the Silk Road for at least 2500 years - it's not as though one "lost legion" settled down someplace, and their descendants live on. There's been a lot of cultural interchange. Look at Bactria, a combination Hellenistic-Buddhist state.

There's a tomb mound just down the road from where I live in Japan that contains the remains of someone wearing Turkmen armour, and who had blond hair. He married one of the local Wa princesses, and it was pretty normal back then, 1500 years ago, to get visitors from all over the place, via the Silk Road.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:52 PM on November 28, 2010

This story pops up every few years, and as others have noted, it's almost certainly not true. Lanzhou University did a genetic study a few years ago that found locals to be more closely related to Chinese than to Central Asian or Western European groups. There was certainly plenty of traffic to and from that part of China, and there were Caucasoid people in the region -- c.f. Tarim Basin mummies, Tocharians, Sogdians, etc. -- but the evidence is against it here.

Also, seconding Haruspex's recommendation of Colin Thubron's piece on the area in Shadow of the Silk Road.
posted by bokane at 6:43 PM on November 28, 2010

"Don't forget the ancient Israelites in Japan!"

Ohhhhhhh ohhhh the Israelites.
posted by Eideteker at 7:56 PM on November 28, 2010

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