The Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Peoples of Eastern Central Asia

Mankind Quarterly, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

The Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Peoples of Eastern Central Asia


The Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Peoples of Eastern Central Asia

Victor H. Mair (Ed.)

Institute for the Study of Man, 1998

ISBN 0-941694-63-1 Clothbound 2-volumes pp. iv + 912, with maps and illustrations. $165.00

These two large volumes, consisting of over 900 pages, constitute the most comprehensive body of scholarly investigations on the prehistoric and early historic inhabitants of the Tarim Basin and surrounding areas. The excavation of over 200 such burials has revealed information vital to the understanding of early cultural contact between Eastern and Western Eurasia. This is a new field of research - prompted by the recent discovery of abundant and extremely well-preserved human remains in the region which has important implications for the origins of the Indo-Europeans and the development of civilization in East Asia. Distinguished authorities from a dozen nations have contributed a total of 46 substantial papers on archaeology, migration, nomadism, linguistics, genetics and physical anthropology, metallurgy, textiles, geography and climatology, history, and mythology and ethnology. A noteworthy feature of the publication is a detailed examination of the relevance of Tocharian for the ancient peoples of Eastern Central Asia by six of the world's most distinguished linguists who specialize in this extinct language. The two volumes include over 200 figures and maps, plus an appendix of place, people and site names, as well as a lengthy index.

The Tarim Basin finds are significant not only in revealing the presence of a Caucasoid population in that area some 2-4 though years ago, but in providing evidence for the influence of Western Eurasia on the cultural development of eastern Asia, and subsequent interaction between East and West by way of the steppeland corridor that later came to be called "the silk route."

Scholars for many decades noted the sudden efflorescence of Chinese civilization with the sudden arrival of the bronze age, fully developed, complete with wheeled chariots, swords and a substantial complex of cultural artifacts such as could already be found in Western Eurasia. Early Central Asian explorers had commented on some of the archaeological finds unearthed in the Tarim Basin (Sinkiang), but only in the last part of the present century has extensive archaeologicalinvestigation unveiled the extent of the West/East Asian connection - which appears to be ancestral to the coming of the bronze age to China, Korea and Japan.

Recent investigative technology, such as DNA studies, has also expanded our ability to interpret the remarkable range of skeletal data. We find that this parallels the characteristics of the contemporary peoples of Central Europe; and analysis of their well-preserved clothing indicates similar cultural parallels. To heighten the level of speculation, linguists had already determined that Tocharian, a language known to have been spoken in this same area in historical times, half a millennium later, is best classified as a West Indo-European language rather than an East Indo-European language, notwithstanding later contacts and possible migrations from the area of Persian (West Indo-European) influence.

Volume I comprises a series of papers on Archeology, Migration and Nomadism and Linguistics, and contains an admirable introduction by the editor, Victor H. Mair, a sinologist well-acquainted with Western China, which summarizes the significance of the finds for our understanding of early Oriental culture and history. HE Dexiu describes the mummies; AN Zhimin outlines the identifiable cultural complexes in the Bronze Age Tarim basin and surrounding Areas; David W. Anthony describes pastoralism and the opening of the Eurasian Steppes four thousand years ago; Elena E. Kuzmina reveals how pastoralism carried Bronze Age technology eastward via the steppes; and Asko Parpola discusses the Aryan languages that the pastoralists brought with them and the archeology of Sinkiang. …

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