The Mystery Behind the 5,000-Year-Old Tarim Mummies

Image: Aurel Stein

A Tarim Basin mummy photographed circa 1910

The door creaked open, and there in the gloom of the newly opened room, perfectly preserved despite the passing of thousands of years, a red-haired mummy with Caucasian features stared back. It was a life-changing moment for archaeologist Professor Victor Mair, and ten years on it still gave him chills. Mair had stumbled upon the recently discovered corpses of a man and his family in a museum in the Chinese city of Ürümqi, but the shock waves of the find would be felt far and wide.


The 3000-year-old Cherchen Man discovered with his family

Mair had encountered the Cherchen Man, one of dozens of 3000-year-old Caucasian mummies to have been unearthed in remote parts of the Tarim Basin in what is now the Xinjiang region of China. The fact that the remains of people of Indo-European origin could be found so far east flew in the face of received wisdom about the lack of cultural exchange between early European and Chinese populations. Equally amazing was the fact that the mummies had withstood the rigours of time so well.