CM – New research reveals surprising origins of millennia-old mummies found in China


The deceased, once mistaken for migrants from West Asia, were in fact direct descendants of a local Ice Age population, as suggested by DNA analysis

Livia Gershon

Decades ago, researchers discovered hundreds of naturally mummified corpses buried in boats in a barren desert in northwest China. The mummies’ clothing and burial objects were dated to 4,000 years ago and led some scholars to believe that they were migrants from western Asia. But new DNA evidence published in the journal Nature suggests that the so-called Tarim mummies actually descended directly from a population that lived in the region during the Ice Age.

« We found strong evidence of this that they are actually a highly genetically isolated local population, ”study co-author Christina Warinner, an anthropologist at Harvard University, told CNN’s Katie Hunt.

The group known as the Ancient North Eurasier (ANE) spread over a large area during the Ice Age, but had largely disappeared about 10,000 years ago. Scientists have found small traces of their genetic ancestry in modern humans, especially among indigenous peoples in Siberia and North America.

« Archaeogeneticists have long searched for Holocene ANE populations to better understand the genetic history of interior Eurasia, » says Co -Author Choongwon Jeong, geneticist at Seoul National University, in a statement from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. « We found one in the most unexpected place. »

The human remains found in several cemeteries in the Tarim Basin of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of the Uyghurs were discovered over a long period of about 2000 BC. through 200 C.E., Isaac Schultz reports for Gizmodo. They were first discovered in the early 20th century, with most excavations completed in the 1990s. The 13 Tarim mummies, whose DNA researchers sequenced for the new study, are among the oldest in the group and are between 4,100 and 3,700 years old, writes Smriti Mallapaty of Nature News.

Thanks to the dryness of the basin, the Mummies are remarkably well preserved, often with their hair and clothing still intact. Their culture seems to have been distinctive. Although they lived in a desert area, they were buried in boat-shaped structures covered in cowhide with oar-shaped grave markings – a practice most commonly associated with the Vikings.

« They bury their bodies in Boot, and nobody else does, « Michael Frachetti, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis who was not involved in the study, told CNN. « That means where this tradition comes from remains one of the biggest mysteries to this desert population, who would be the last community in the world to do so. » Fishing were used in rivers that flowed through the desert, reports Tom Metcalfe for Live Science. Warinner says the boats may have acted as a tribute to the importance of these rivers, creating oasis environments conducive to survival in an inhospitable climate.

The wool, felt, and leather clothing of the mummies was common to the region unusual. Some of the deceased appear to have red or light hair and facial features that are unusual for the Asian population. And some of the newer mummies were buried around their necks with pieces of cheese that may have been intended as food for the afterlife. Together, these factors led some archaeologists to hypothesize that the puzzling individuals were migrants from southern Siberia or the Central Asian mountains.

The new study compares the Tarim mummies to similarly ancient human remains found in the Chinese region Dzungaria were found on the other side of the Tianshan Mountains. The Dzugarian people were descended from both ANE and Afanasievo herders from southern Siberia, while the Tarim people remained genetically isolated.

“We speculate that the harsh environment of the Tarim Basin may be a barrier to gene flow educates, but we can’t be sure about this right now, « Jeong told Live Science.

The Tarim people apparently mingled culturally with their neighbors and adopted such practices as herding cattle, goats and sheep as well the cultivation of wheat, barley and millet.

« Despite genetic isolation, the Bronze Age peoples of the Tarim Basin were culturally remarkably cosmopolitan, » says Warinner in the statement.

The teeth of the mummies showed evidence of proteins from dairy products, which suggests that their civilization began early with the introduction of herding.

« This founding population had already integrated dairy farming into their way of life, » says Warinner ge across from Nature News.

Livia Gershon


Livia Gershon is the daily correspondent for Smithsonian. She is also a freelance journalist based in New Hampshire. She has written for JSTOR Daily, Daily Beast, Boston Globe, HuffPost and Vice, among others.

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