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.
Tocharian man with red blond hair and visibly European features
In the early 20th century, European explorers such as Aurel Stein recounted their discoveries of desiccated bodies found in their journeys through Central Asia. Since then, many more mummies have been dug up and examined, with the late 1980s a high point for this archaeological eye-opening. The bodies were preserved so well not due to deliberate mummification – these were no elite class like those entombed in Ancient Egypt – but simply because they were buried in parched, arid desert where they rapidly dried out.
The Beauty of Loulan, the oldest mummy found in the Tarim Basin
The earliest of these long-dead corpses have been shown to be Caucasoid in their physical make-up. One of the most famous, the so-called Beauty of Loulan, discovered at the eastern edge of the Taklamakan Desert, was alive as early as 2000 BC. A mummified one-year-old boy believed to have been a sacrificial victim was found buried alongside a female with long blonde hair in 1989. And a man with red-blonde hair and clearly European features visible after almost 3,500 years is another of the best preserved.
Tocharian Nordic mummy found in 1989: Disfigured female with blonde hair
So what were a group of Indo-Europeans doing so many thousands of miles east of their established territory? From their full beards, deep-set eyes and high noses – as well as associated texts and artefacts found with the mummies – it is thought they were Tocharians, herders who travelled east across the Central Asian steppes and whose language was Indo-European in kind. Some speculate that these Tocharians may have profited from prehistoric trade along a route that would later become the Silk Road.
Mummified boy, roughly one year of age, found in the same grave
Tocharian people might thus be credited with helping spread inventions to China such as the saddle and even the wheel, as well as certain metal working skills. Professor Mair is an advocate of the idea that ancient communities were much more interrelated than was previously believed. For him, the evidence suggests that the first people to roam the Tarim Basin were Europoid, and that with the arrival of settlers from the east, a connection was made. Whether this is true or not, one thing is certain: many of the mummies of the Tarim Basin look like they were buried years, not millennia, ago.