Arid plateaus, pebble-strewn plains, and desert basins seem unpromising places to look for signs of prehistoric humans. Yet earlier this century, major international expeditions, including those of Roy Chapman Andrews for the American Museum of Natural History, scoured the wastelands of Mongolia and western China for fossils, under the assumption that central Asia was the cradle of humanity. As far as early human fossils are concerned, these expeditions returned empty-handed. We now know that the earliest human ancestors lived in Africa, as long as three million years ago, while their descendants left no clear traces in Asia before about one million years ago.
But some of the world's best preserved specimens of our ancestor Homo erectus, which arose in Africa about 1.6 million years ago, have been found in East Asia. Among these are the remains of Peking man from Zhoukoudian in northern China, where cave deposits have yielded fossils of at least forty-five individuals, along with thousands of stone tools and other cultural debris. Other finds come from northern India and the western regions of central Asia, especially Uzbekistan. As uninviting as they seem today, the regions in between must have been traversed in ancient times, or even occupied.
Hoping to uncover some overlooked prehistory, I have been investigating the southern margins of the Tarim Basin, a 130,000-square-mile depression in China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The basin contains one of the most formidable arid areas on earth, the Taklimakan Desert. Larger than New Mexico, the Taklimakan figured prominently in China's dynastic history as a barrier to East-West communications. The great Silk Road, which once linked the Chinese and Roman empires, divided on the eastern edge of the basin, passed along its northern and southern margins, and joined again on the western periphery, near what is now the frontier between China and Kirghizstan. Many of the spring-fed oases that once served as caravansaries along the southern arm of the Silk Road have been swallowed by the shifting sands, evidence that the desert has spread in historic times. Even the once-great trading center of Loulan, located just wet of an ephemeral lake, Lop Nur, was apparently unable to support its burgeoning population when the lake became permanently dry, and was abandoned in the early fourth century A.D. When Marco Polo passed through his "ghoul-infested Desert of Lop" in 1224, Loulan had already lain beneath the sands for nearly a thousand years. Today China tests her nuclear weapons in this region.
Numerous archeologists have explored the southern Silk Road searching for artifacts from the early Chinese dynasties, the Han (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) through the Tang (A.D. 618-907). Beginning in the midnineteenth century, scholars from nearly every corner of Europe, America, and Japan flocked to northwest China to investigate claims of ruined cities and richly furnished burial grounds in the heart of the Taklimakan Desert. One after another, leading explorers of the day such as Przewalsky, Hedin, Stein, Pelliot, Otani, and Le Coq found peasants' reports of lost cities and cemeteries to be true, and all carried off vast quantities of Chinese relics to adorn the exhibit cases of their national museums. Since proper archeological procedures were not yet developed, let alone followed, this flurry of antiquarian inquiry destroyed many of the important clues that are uncovered during excavation; it also failed to yield any substantial evidence of the Tarim Basin's earliest populations.
The Taklimakan Desert proper--a nearly featureless expanse of sand with dunes up to 300 feet high--is uninhabited; a popular Chinese term for the area is siwang zhi hai, or "sea of death." Early explores, often wrote in awed tones of the much-feared kara-buran, or "black storms," that engulfed whole caravans during some seasons of the year and were, in part, responsible for giving the Taklimakan Desert its evil reputation among travelers. …