Found in China Are
A Puzzle to Scholars
By Erich Smith Associated Press
[Press image for a larger view]
For as many as 4,000 years, the salty sand of the
in China held a secret-unusually well-preserved mummies wearing
robes, boots, stockings and hats.
Today, the mummies still hold a mystery: The people were Caucasian, not
"We are trying to figure out, from many different angles, who these
people were and where they came from," Dr. Victor H. Mair said. "It's
important to the question of how civilization developed across
More than 40 scholars from around the world presented papers recently
the "Mystery Mummies" at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.
Archaeologists have been exhuming the desiccated bodies in the Tarim
of Xinjiang province since the late 1970s, but the conference was the
organized exchange of information about them, according to Mair, the
professor coordinating the conference.
Even a novice can see the mummies' Caucasian characteristics-
hair, deep-set eyes and long noses and faces. Dr. Han Kangxin of the
Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing reached the same conclusion by
skulls over 10 to 15 years.
The discovery could have political implications in Xinjiang. National
magazine writer Thomas B. Allen, in a March 1996 article about the
recalled finding a potsherd bearing the fingerprint of the potter.
When he asked to take the fragment to a forensic anthropologist, Allen
said a Chinese official asked whether the scientist "would be able
to tell if the potter was a white man."
When Allen said he did not know, the official pocketed the fragment.
For centuries, the majority population of Xinjiang has been Uighurs,
who speak a Turkic language. Since the 1950s, millions of ethnic
have moved to the territory, and the Uyghurs have felt the pressure.
One mummy of a woman found in 1980, known as "the beauty of Kiruran,"
has become a favorite of Uighurs viewing the remains in the Xinjiang
"I have been in the museum when Uighurs come up to the display case
and call her 'our ancestress.' This shouldn't be a political issue.
unfortunate, but unavoidable," Mair said.
The racial question seems absurd to Dr. Dolkum Kamberi, a visiting
scholar at Penn. Kamberi, a Uighur archaeologist who has recovered
of the mummies, said he prefers to call them "Taklimakanians,"
for the desert where they are found.
"Everybody tried to claim that these mummies belonged to their group,"
he said. "They lived there (in the desert), and after they passed
away, they were buried there. They belonged there."
Mair believes that Beijing recently has become less sensitive about the
issue and noted that five major archaeologists at the conference came
China. Others came from Italy, Russia, Finland, Germany, France,
Taiwan and Hong Kong.
"This will impact the whole study of humanity"
Textiles also were a major topic at the conference. Some of the weaving
in the mummies' garments has been described as diagonal twill, very
to a type found in Europe before 500 B.C.
-DR. DOLKUM KAMBERI
Other papers looked at chariot designs, metallurgy and genetic
There is a downside to all this discovery.
The exhumed mummies, no longer under a protective blanket of sand, are
being exposed to humidity, mold spores and other hazards of modern
"It's enough of a threat that it's better now to not to dig up any
more," said Mair. "Occasionally now, when archaeologists come
across a new corpse, they put it back in the ground.
"We know where many corpses are located, but we are leaving them in
Kamberi, who grew up listening to legends about his ancestors and
peoples, said the stories inspired him to study archaeology. He
that modern people can learn from the mummies of ages past.
"This will impact the whole study of humanity," he said. "Without
Uighur history, there can be no central Asian history. Without central
Asian history, there can be no Asian history. Without Asian history,
can be no world history."