• Otávio Santiago

Western China’s mysterious mummies were local descendants of ice age ancestors

The Tarim Basin mummies have been a mystery ever since European explorers discovered them in northwestern China in the early 20th century. They were tall, wore wool felt hats and leather booties, and some had fair hair—all suggesting they were strangers from a strange land.

But a new study of the mummies’ DNA finds they were locals with deep roots in the region. Indeed, they appear to be relics of an ancient population that disappeared in Eurasia after the last ice age—one that was ancestral to Indigenous peoples living in Siberia and the Americas today.

It’s “fantastic” to learn that these mummies were local Asians, says Alison Betts, an archaeologist of Scottish descent at the University of Sydney who was not involved with the work. “Honest to God, one looks like my granny, with her very elegant bone structure … and her legs in woolen leggings, with blue and orange wrapping and boots like Uggs.”

Anthropologists have floated many theories about the Tarim Basin mummies. One is that they were descendants of the Yamnaya and Afanasievo nomadic herders from the steppes of the Black Sea region of Russia, because of their unusual height, woven woolen clothing, and cattle-centric culture. (The mummies were found in wooden boats covered with cow hides and adorned with horned cow skulls.) Another hypothesis is that they descend from farmers who migrated from desert oases of Bactria, or what is now modern Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, based on similarities of agricultural and irrigation systems. Both ideas suggest these people brought Tocharian, an extinct branch of Indo-European languages, to the region.

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