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Geneticists Have Finally Uncovered the Mystery of the Tarim mummies

They have puzzled archaeologists for a long time - the answers come from Seoul National University

Photo Credit: Wenying Li, Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology

The mysterious origins of the Tarim mummies

The mysterious Tarim mummies, discovered in the Tarim basin in modern-day Xinjiang, China, have puzzled researchers for a long time. Buried in boats in the northwestern deserted region of China, the surprisingly intact mummies date back to 2100 and 1700 BC. They have divided archeologists over the nature of their origin being strikingly distinct from the wider region. Whether they are Bronze Age remains of migrants coming from thousands of kilometers to the west, or local to the region, are points that have been proposed until the present.

Not migrants from the far west

Geneticists at Seoul National University, in a recent study, have finally been able to answer who the people of the Xiaohe were, who disappeared thousands of years ago. Since the local climate is very arid, any burials automatically turn into mummification, which has saved a lot of valuable material for scientists. The study by these geneticists is not the first, but provides a strong degree of certainty about their origins:

They were not migrants from the far western parts, but rather “a genetically isolated local population“.

The main difficulty with identifying the mummies was their diversity – they had both Caucasoid and Mongoloid features in their appearance. They used cuisines from different parts of the world, a wide range of primitive technologies, spoke and wrote an extinct Tocharian language from the Indo-European group and had a complex culture with many borrowings. The impression was that the people were the result of a mixture of North and South, with the addition of Oriental influences and a desert way of life.

However the genetic analysis gave a discouraging result – not only did these people not mix with other peoples, they generally lived in isolation for at least 7000 years straight. This is despite the fact that the Tarim Basin was inhabited as early as 40,000 years ago, and the region itself lies at the crossroads of ancient caravan routes. It is most likely, geneticists say, that large community of hunter-gatherers came from Northern Eurasia and decided to settle down. They traded and interacted with their neighbors, adopting their experiences, but they did not intermarry and managed to keep their gene pool unchanged.

Case closed? Not quite. While the study provides the strongest case as of yet, it only looked at a single site, and further research into the wider region may provide other points of contention.

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