The discovery of European-type corpses thousands of kilometers away provides a glimpse of the existence of a hitherto unknown link between East and West in the Bronze Age. The body of the man found mummified has reddish-brown hair dotted with gray, high cheekbones, a long nose, full lips and a red beard.
When he lived, 3,000 years ago, he was almost 2 meters tall. He was buried in a red double-breasted tunic and checkered breeches. Looks like a Bronze Age European.
In fact, he has everything of a Celt, even his DNA says so. But this is not a primitive inhabitant of central Scotland. It is the mummified corpse of the man of Cherchen, discovered in the desolate expanses of the Taklamakan desert. It now rests in a museum in the provincial capital of Urumqi. In the language spoken by the Uighurs of Xinjiang, Taklamakan means: “one enters so as not to exit”.
What is extraordinary is that the Cherchen man was found – along with the mummies of three women and a baby – at a burial site thousands of miles away, to the east of the main Celtic settlements, in France and the British Isles.
DNA tests confirm that, like hundreds of other mummies from the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang, he originated in Europe. No one knows how he got there, or why, or how long he and his family lived there.
But, as the name of the desert suggests, he never came out. One of the women sharing his grave has light brown hair that looks like it was brushed and braided just yesterday, for his funeral. Her face is adorned with painted symbols, and her magnificent red funeral dress has lost none of its luster over the three millennia during which this tall, fine-featured woman has rested under the sand of the Silk Road.
The bodies are much better preserved than the Egyptian mummies, and there is something poignant about the sight of the infants. The baby was wrapped in a rich brown cloth tied with red and blue cords, and a blue stone was placed over each eye. Next to him was a bottle with a teat made from the udder of a sheep.
From the mummy, the museum has reconstructed the appearance of the man of Cherchen and his way of life. The resemblances to the Celts of the traditional Bronze Age are striking. The analyzes also showed that the weaving of the fabrics was comparable to that of the clothes worn by the salt miners living in Austria in 1300 BC. J.-C.
At their height, around 300 BC. BC, the influence of the Celts extended from Ireland to southern Spain in the west, as well as the Po Valley, Poland, Ukraine and the central plain of Turkey, to the east. But these mummies seem to suggest that the Celts had penetrated deep into Central Asia, reaching the steps of Tibet.
The Celts gradually settled in Brittany [now Britain] between 500 and 100 BC. We cannot strictly speak of an organized invasion: they arrived at different times, and are considered as a group of peoples loosely linked by the same language, the same religion and the same culture.
Those of Cherchen were apparently peaceful: the graves contained very few weapons, and the indices which attest to the existence of castes are rare. At 4,000 years old, the Loulan Beauty is even older than the Cherchen finds. She has long blonde hair and is one of a series of mummies discovered near the town of Loulan.
One was the mummy of an 8-year-old child draped in a patterned woolen cloth, fastened with bone buttons. Loulan’s beauty features are Nordic. She was 45 years old when she died, and was buried with a basket of food for her life in the afterlife, which contained wheat, combs and a feather.
Over the past twenty-five years, the Taklamakan Desert has yielded hundreds of parched corpses. The discoveries made in the Tarim Basin are among the most significant of the past quarter century.
“From around 1800 BC. J.-C., the oldest mummies of the basin of Tarim are exclusively Caucasoid”, declares Pr Victor Mair, of the university of Pennsylvania, fascinated by these mummies since he saw them, in 1988, almost forgotten, in the back room of the old museum.
The subject obsesses him, and he has stopped at nothing, not even the worst political entanglements, to learn more and more about these remarkable people. He explains that immigrants from East Asia arrived in the eastern regions of the Tarim Basin roughly 3,000 years ago.
In China, it is traditionally said that, two centuries before the birth of Christ, Emperor Wu Di sent an emissary to the west in order to establish an alliance against the Huns, then installed in Mongolia.
The route that Zhang Qian, the ambassador, took through Asia later became the Silk Road. Centuries later, Marco Polo took the opposite route and the opening of China began.
The very idea that white people could have settled in an area of China thousands of years before Wu Di’s first contacts with the West and the voyages of Marco Polo has far-reaching political consequences. As for the fact that these Europeans would have lived in the restive province of Xinjiang hundreds of years before the East Asians, it is an explosive hypothesis.
Ji Xianlin, a Chinese historian, in his preface to archaeologist Wang Binhua’s book The Ancient Graves of Xinjiang, translated by Mair, says that China “supports and admires” the research done by foreign specialists on mummies.
“However, in China itself, a small group of ethnic separatists have taken advantage of this opportunity to stir up trouble and are behaving like buffoons. Some present themselves as the descendants of these ancient ‘Whites’ and have no other goal than to divide the homeland. But these evil acts are doomed to fail.”
It is therefore not surprising that the government has been slow to report these important historical findings, fearing to stir up separatist currents in Xinjiang. The Beauty of Loulan is thus claimed by the Uighurs, who have made her their emblematic figure, celebrated in songs and portraits.
Even if genetic tests now show that in reality it was European. In all, there are 400 mummies in various stages of drying out and decomposition. Added to this are thousands of skulls. Mummies have something to keep scientists busy for a long time.