A group of ancient Chinese mummies found in China have long fascinated experts and the public, largely because the bodies look more distinctly European (or even Celtic) than Asian. Now a new scientific report published last month says the oldest of these mummies dating back almost 4,000 years likely originated outside of China, from a mixture of places such as Europe and Siberia. What’s more, these ancient people had an “obsession with procreation”, burying their dead alongside symbolic vulvas and giant phalluses.
For decades now, the ancient corpses have been found in Chinas Tarim Basin, a desert region near the western frontier of the country. The dry climate of the area has kept the bodies well-preserved, leaving the hair and skin, as well as their clothes, intact.
The oldest known grave site containing the so-called mummies is Xiaohe cemetery, Small River Cemetery, which is located near a dried-up river bed. Tests show that the site was used as early as 3,980 years ago.
A team, largely made up of Chinese scientists, analyzed the DNA from 30 of the oldest mummies found at Small River Cemetery. The results suggest that the people were of mixed ancestry, carrying DNA from populations based in Europe, Central Asia and Siberia. The report adds that intermarriage between these people had probably begun before before they entered the Tarim Basin 4,000 years ago.
Tarim Mummies & Blatent Sexual Symbolism
The work at Small River Cemetery has also uncovered more about the culture surrounding the people buried there. Archaeologists have found a field of long wooden poles, about 13-foot in height, standing erect at the site. They concluded that the poles are likely phallic symbols and show the culture’s infatuation with procreation and sex.
An article in the New York Times online quotes archaeologist Victor Mair’s view of the ancient people’s obsession with procreation, saying: The whole of the cemetery was blanketed with blatant sexual symbolism. They write:
Looking again at the shaping of the 13-foot poles that rise from the prow of each womans boat, the archaeologists concluded that the poles were in fact gigantic phallic symbols… The mens boats, on the other hand, all lay beneath the poles with bladelike tops. These were not the oars they had seemed at first sight, the Chinese archaeologists concluded, but rather symbolic vulvas that matched the opposite sex symbols above the womens boats.
Mair, who is also one of the authors of the recently published scientific report, called it “a gigantic breakthrough” in the study of the mummies’ DNA.
In a brief interview with Heritage Key, Mair said that the culture of the people buried at Small River Cemetery derived from the West, even as part of their DNA can be traced to South Siberia. In his previous research papers, Mair has noted that the felt hats and string skirts worn on the mummies resembles that of clothing worn in ancient European cultures.
As for what language the earliest mummies spoke, Mair believes it was Tocharian. The language, which is now extinct, likely died out in the 9th century AD, but was used by people in the Tarim Basin.
Mair added that as far back as 4,000 years ago, people were already moving through what would become the Silk Road. But he said that this movement was largely heading from West to East. Not until the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD) did the movement begin shifting the other direction.
Mair, who has written a book about the fascinating mummies of the Tarim Basin, will present his findings and theories in a lecture at the Bower Museum on 27th March.