Wednesday 19 November 2008
URUMQI, China — An exhibit on the first floor of the museum here gives the government’s unambiguous take on the history of this border region: «Xinjiang has been an inalienable part of the territory of China», says one prominent sign.
But walk upstairs to the second floor, and the ancient corpses on display seem to tell a different story.
One called the Loulan Beauty lies on her back with her shoulder-length hair matted down, her lips pursed in death, her high cheekbones and long nose the most obvious signs that she is not what one thinks of as Chinese.
The Loulan Beauty is one of more than 200 remarkably well-preserved mummies discovered in the western deserts here over the last few decades. The ancient bodies have become protagonists in a very contemporary political dispute over who should control the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
At the heart of the matter lie these questions: Who first settled this inhospitable part of western China? And for how long has the oil-rich region been part of the Chinese empire?
According to J.P. Mallory, the Chinese sources describe the existence of “white people with long hair” or the Bai people in the Shan Hai Jing, who lived beyond their northwestern border. The very well preserved Tarim mummies with Caucasoid features, often with reddish or blond hair, today displayed at the Ürümqi Museum and dated to the 3rd century BC, have been found in precisely the same area of the Tarim Basin. Various nomadic tribes, such as the Yuezhi were part of the large migration of Indo-European peoples who were settled in eastern Central Asia (possibly as far as Gansu) at that time. The Ordos culture situated at northern China east of the Yuezhi, are another example.
DNA sequence data shows that the mummies had haplotype characteristic of western Eurasia in the area of south Russia.
A team of Chinese and American researchers working in Sweden tested DNA from 52 separate mummies, including the mummy denoted “Beauty of Loulan”. By genetically mapping the mummies’ origins, the researchers confirmed the theory that these mummies were of West Eurasian descent. Victor Mair, a University of Pennsylvania professor and project leader for the team that did the genetic mapping, commented that these studies were:
…extremely important because they link up eastern and western Eurasia at a formative stage of civilization [Bronze Age and early Iron Age] in a much closer way than has ever been done before.