These Remarkably Preserved Chinese Mummies Have a Surprise Ancestry

The mummies belonged to a population that is genetically isolated but culturally cosmopolitan.
Xiaohe cemetery, Xinjiang, mummy
A naturally mummified woman, dubbed the Beauty of Xiaohe, was unearthed from the Xiaohe cemetery in the Tarim Basin. Photo: Wenying Li, Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology

Archaeologists have found dairy proteins in the teeth of some of the oldest mummies in China’s far western region of Xinjiang, as they tried to reconstruct the cosmopolitan life of people who lived there some 4,000 years ago. 

A new study into mummies unearthed in the Tarim Basin in southern Xinjiang found the dead belonged to a genetically isolated but culturally well-connected Bronze Age population, according to a paper published in Nature this week. 

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Hundreds of human remains dating to around 2000 BC to AD 200, naturally mummified in the desert climate, have been discovered in the Tarim Basin since the late 1990s. One of the oldest and most prominent was the 3,500-year-old body of a woman dubbed “the beauty of Xiaohe,” who had retained her long hair, eyelashes and wool hat. 

Their Western physical features had previously led to hypotheses that they were descendants of steppe herders from southern Siberia or farmers from Central Asia. But by examining the genomes of the earliest Tarim Basin mummies, researchers determined that they belonged to an isolated gene pool, connected to a once widespread population that had largely disappeared by the end of the Ice Age. 

Xiaohe Cemetary

Mummies unearthed from the Xiaohe Cemetary belong to people who lived in the Tarim Basin nearly 4,000 years ago. Photo: Wenying Li, Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology

Despite being genetically distinct, the community behind the mummies appeared to have had extensive cultural links with other ancient populations. Their dental calculus, for example, contained traces of cattle, sheep and goat milk, suggesting they had adopted a pastoralist lifestyle. 

“In contrast to their marked genetic isolation, however, the populations of the Xiaohe horizon were culturally cosmopolitan, incorporating diverse economic elements and technologies with far-flung origins,” the researchers wrote. 

The Tarim people made cheese from ruminant milk using a kefir-like fermentation, perhaps learned from descendants of a steppe population, and they cultivated wheat, barley and millet, crops that were originally domesticated in the Near East and northern China, according to the study. The early Tarim people also buried their dead with Ephedra twigs in a style reminiscent of the oasis cultures from what is today’s Afghanistan. 

Meanwhile, they had developed their unique cultural elements, such as boat-shaped wooden coffins covered with cattle hides and marked by timber poles or oars, as well as an apparent preference for woven baskets over pottery. 

It remains unclear what kind of language the Tarim people spoke, since the new discoveries have challenged the assumed link between genetics, culture, and language of different populations at the time, the study says.

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