Tsrpmummies's Blog

02 – The Riddle

Much attention has been paid to the mummies from Xinjiang of the northern Silk Road, primarily based on the astonishing physical features of the mummies, which clearly resemble ‘Caucasoid’ or ‘European’ features; long noses, fair hair, deep-set eyes, staggering heights and long skulls.

The Riddle: Who are these mummies, how and why did they come to inhabit such easterly regions of Eurasia?

The questions that arise from this unanswered riddle are numerous, these questions are still being researched and deciphered, although I cannot answer them, I will provide some information on the research already done and published by renowned scholars.

Where did these groups of people originally come from?
Large groups of ‘Caucasoids’ were present in the Tarim Basin long before the coming of other peoples, there is also no convincing evidence of any earlier populations in the area. According to Han Kangxin and his colleagues, (physical anthropologists working in the Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing) the earliest known inhabitants of the Tarim Basin were almost exclusively Caucasoid, although they were Caucasoids they did not belong to a single homogeneous group. Mongoloid types are also among the early inhabitants but it is noted that they arrived much later and initially in small numbers. Han Kangxin and colleagues, present that the earliest inhabitants came from the North and the North-West before 1800 BCE, later on after about 500 BCE the Caucasoids show more affinities with people from the West and South-West. Then even later on, came the Mongoloids from the East.

From the evidence of their physical features, which span all across the map, how then did the Xinjiang inhabitants get to Xinjiang? It is speculated and supported with evidence that the groups were mobile and horse-riding cultures which also had wagons. Reminant artifacts of horse bridles, whips and wheels were found buried along side the mummies in their burial chambers.

What language did they speak?
The mummies of Xinjiang bear no physical records of their linguistic status, however, evidence of a long-extinct language that belong to the branch of Indo-European language family was found in central Asia. It is known as Tocharian and solid evidence for its existence can be found as far back as the third century.

Tocharian inscriptions from this period are also found painted in caves in the foothills of the mountains west of Ürümqi, along with paintings of swashbuckling knights wielding long swords. The knights are depicted with full red beards and European faces. Could the Xinjiang people have been their ancestors, speaking an early version of Tocharian? “My guess is that they would have been speaking some form of Indo-European,” comments Don Ringe, a historical linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, “but whether it was an early form of Tocharian or some other branch of the family, such as Indo-Iranian, we may never know for sure.”

(Hadingham, 1994)

Further evidence that supports the Tocharian hypothesis is in Old Chinese which has a large number of Chinese terminology(or loan words) derived from “an Indo-European language”. Lin Meicun lists some of the loanwords in Chinese which may have tokharian origins.

The Chinese word ‘qilian’ used as the name of a mountain (the Heavenly Mountain) in the Yuezhi people’s homeland may be derived from the Tokharian word for heavenly ‘qiloman’ and ‘klyom’ (holy, glory), related to the Latin ‘caelum’, which originally represented the luminous sky.

(Jacob, 2001)

What did they bring with them and how did this change the existing surrounding cultures?
Evidence in Chinese text that date as far back as the second century B.C., mention foreign peoples who lived on China’s far western borders called the Yuezhi and the Wusun. The texts state that these foreigners were regarded as troublesome “barbarians” and also described in detail as people with blue and green eyes, blond/fair hair, long noses, and pink complexion. Besides the riddle of their identity, another compelling question is what where these Caucasoid people doing in the remote Talkaman desert oasis. They most likely were never wealthy enough to own chariots, but they nevertheless possessed wagons, bronze technology (although not found in their burial chambers) and well-tailored clothes. Were they merely an agriculturalists and sheep herders? Or are they in fact the first to profit from or even control prehistoric trades along the route that later became the Silk Road? Some archaeologists have argued that these supposed barbarians might have been responsible for introducing the wheel and the first metal objects into China. If so, they probably helped in spreading the technology of wheels and certain metalworking skills into China. contrary to the belief that China was an introverted and independently developed culture.

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