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Mystery of the mummies

By Ellen O'Brien

Oh, Mummy!

Four thousand years ago, a community lived in the Tarim Basin -- in what is now the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China -- in the heart of Asia.

The Tarim Basin people thrived there for at least 1,500 years. There are indications that they survived as a culture even into the second century.

Then they disappeared.

Now their remains are being reclaimed from the sands, and the people of that extinct nation are challenging scientists and scholars to fathom who they may have been, and -- if an answer can be found -- where, in prehistory, they came from.

According to sweeping physical evidence, they were not Chinese. They were not even Asian.

They were Caucasian.

For Victor Mair, a specialist in Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, the naturally mummified bodies unearthed in the basin's Taklimakan Desert have become a passion.

"The question is whether these people were there for a long, long time, or whether they migrated in from somewhere else," he said.

Where did they come from, and why?

Those questions also possess Dolkun Kamberi, a Uygur archaeologist who grew up in the region and has recovered several of the preserved corpses.

Kamberi grew up hearing folk stories about non-Chinese people who had settled the region in some unrecorded time, and about foreign archaeologists who had found grave sites in the province during the last century.

As a native Uygur, he has medium brown hair and non-Asian features; he believes the Tarim Basin people's history is his history.

Some scholars believe the Tarim Basin people probably migrated through central Eurasia to the land that, centuries later, became known as the southern leg of the famous Silk Route linking East and West.

MORE: Learn more about the Silk Road

But Kamberi believes the Tarim Basin people existed as a tribe in the region from time-before-time; he has discovered a single piece of human skull in the mountains near there that dates back a half-million years, he said.

"We can't say anything about its ethnic background," Kamberi said of the skull fragment."But at least it gives us evidence that 500,000 years ago there were people there."

Learning who the Tarim Basin's inhabitants might have been, he said, is "very important for writing Asian history, and world history. In my opinion, without that region, there would be no Asian history."

For the last two years, Mair has been organizing an international conference on the Tarim Basin people. It will run from Friday through Sunday at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, hosting scholars from Europe, Asia and the United States. The Sunday afternoon session is open to the public.

"I think it's premature to draw hard-and-fast conclusions as to who these people were, and what language they spoke . . . ," Mair said."Why I'm running this conference is to get as many people as I can . . . to come in and lay it all out."

Still, Mair -- who saw the original collection of mummified corpses in 1987, at the region's provincial museum -- will never forget his own haunting first impression of them.

The bodies, recovered from graveyards long overblown with sand, were exceptionally preserved by the dry climate and the salt deposits in which they had been buried.

"I was thunderstruck. . . . I just stood there for a couple of hours. I almost thought it was some kind of hoax," he said."All of their bodies were completely intact. They just looked so alive."

And with features so stunningly non-Asian.

They were clearly the remains of a Caucasoid people, with dark blond or yellowish-brown hair, deep-set eyes, and long limbs.

Among the corpses Mair saw that day were the mummies of a man and woman from a joint grave and an infant that had been buried nearby. All three had been discovered about 10 years earlier, by Kamberi and his colleagues.

MORE: Compare with the Egyptian Mummy of King Ramsses II

"So far, 100 bodies have been excavated . . . ," Kamberi said."I believe that in the next 100 years, the land of Central Asia will become an archaeologist's dream land."

In fact, archaeologists have unearthed at least 1,000 more skeletons in the region, and countless sites remain unexcavated throughout the shifting desert sands, Kamberi said: The provincial government does not have enough money to house and protect all the ancient remains.

In one grave, excavators discovered a saddle cover and a pair of trousers"with human on one leg -- one face had blue eyes," Kamberi said."On the other leg was a horse's body, with a human hat. It's some mystery we can find in the Greek mysteries -- a Greek tale.

"All of them worshiped the sun. . . . We cannot tell if they worshiped the horse," he said."But they buried the horse -- not the whole horse each time, but the skull and a leg." Archaeologists don't know what that ritual symbolized.

The early Tarim Basin people tended sheep and cattle and horses, practiced some form of farming, and wove intricately designed cloth from their sheep's wool. They dyed the woolen strands brilliant colors; they stamped careful patterns on the woolen felt they made by hand.

They used wheels. They erected round houses and culled river reeds for house-thatch.

They may have worshiped the bull as well as the sun.

And they buried their dead with ritual and tenderness. The infant recovered by Kamberi had been buried with a leather "bottle" attached to a sheep's teat. Both the man and woman had been adorned on their faces with ochre symbols that archaeologists believe represented the sun.

In some graves, Mongoloid and Caucasoid bodies were buried side-by-side. Other graves contained petrified rack of lamb -- complete with barbecue skewers. And in clothes materials, Mair said, some weaving techniques appear to be "so Celtic, it's mind-boggling."

"What I'm not going to do is say what I think," Mair said of the three-day conference, which will include ancient-textile specialists and linguists as well as genetic scientists and scholars.

"I consciously sought out people who have differing opinions. I don't want any gospel statements," he said.

That attitude is probably the safest Mair could adopt: The ancient nation of the Tarim Basin is wrapped as much in controversy as it is in mystery.

Writing about the desert excavation in the March issue of National Geographic magazine, Thomas B. Allen describes a Chinese government official pocketing a shard of pottery that contained a thumbprint -- and never mentioning the piece again -- after Allen indicated that an American forensic anthropologist might be able to determine from the print"if the potter was a white man."

In an article Mair wrote for Archaeology magazine last year, he, himself, says: "The new finds are also forcing a reexamination of old Chinese books that describe historical or legendary figures of great height, with deep-set blue or green eyes, long noses, full beards, and red or blond hair. Scholars have traditionally scoffed at these accounts, but it now seems that they may be accurate."

Even the language that the Basin people may have spoken is in dispute. Did it come from Turkic roots -- which is the language of the Uygurs who have occupied the region for centuries -- or from Indo-European roots?

In Archaeology, Mair writes of the mummies: "Judging from their physical appearance, which ranges from Chinese-looking Mongoloids to European- and Afghano-Persian-looking Caucasoids, substantial elements of the original population were absorbed by the Uygurs." As that happened, did the language of the earlier people die?

MORE: Compare with Egyptian Mummies

The nation of 16 million Uygurs, who have lived in the region for 12 centuries, know that their first settlements absorbed an earlier group -- the Tocharians.

The Tocharians spoke a language that was closer to German and Celtic than to less-distant Indo-Europeans.

But beyond that, much of the Uygurs' history has been shrouded in folk tales and legends.

In Chinese, Xinjiang means"new territory." Since the 1950s, about 6 million ethnic Chinese, known as Han, have settled in the Xinjiang Uygur region.

As an archaeologist, Kamberi feels compelled to unearth, literally, some knowledge of his Uygur ancestors -- before the Uygur culture is swallowed up completely by the Han Chinese culture.

Mair became besotted with Asia as a Peace Corps volunteer in the mid-'60s; he has since become an expert in early Chinese vernacular manuscripts, and is editor of the Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature.

He invited Kamberi, who has taught at Columbia University and worked as special consultant to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, to spend a year at Penn as a visiting scholar, and to help organize the weekend conference.

For both men, the conference is a collaboration driven by a sense of duty -- as well as an opportunity to reach beyond academia-laden seminar debates and establish the world-wide importance of the Tarim Basin excavations.

Mair obtained permission from the Chinese government in 1993 to bring the Italian geneticist Paolo Francalucci with him into the Tarim Basin's archaeological fields.

He speaks carefully about the research there. The Chinese government is scrupulous in overseeing its interests.

But the questions that revolve around the Tarim Basin people are rippling outward, beyond the desert- and-mountain region where they originated, in a widening reach.

Did these people emigrate to Asia in the cloudy period before the beginnings of what we call history? How far had they wandered? From southern Russia? From the Ukrainian steppes? From Iran? From Turkey? What links did they have to the Europeans so far to the west?

Mair may not propound his own theories in public with a hammer or a drum. But surely, he has theories, and they have been simmering for years.

He became determined to hunt down the Tarim Basin people's history in the early 1990s, after the frozen 4,000-year-old body of a man was found preserved in the Alps on the Austria-Italy border. That well-publicized discovery was just up the mountainside from the Austrian village where his grandfather had been born.

When Mair speaks at the conference on Sunday, he said, he plans to bring with him, for display, three felt caps.

One is from a village in southern China. Another is from his grandfather's Austrian village. The third is from the Tarim Basin.

All three are identical, he said.

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