The Riddle of the Tarim Basin Mummies

By Jacob, Alexander | Mankind Quarterly, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

The Riddle of the Tarim Basin Mummies


Jacob, Alexander, Mankind Quarterly


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

Ed. V.H. Mair

Washington, D.C.: Institute for the Study of Man, 2 vols., 1998

The recent discovery of four thousand year old Europoid mummies in the Tarim basin (in Sinkiang, north of Tibet) has been one of the most extraordinary anthropological revelations of this century. For it demonstrates a very ancient Indo-European presence in China which may indeed have been responsible for the transmission of chariotry, metallurgy and weaving techniques to the Mongoloid peoples of the region. However, the exact Indo-European identity of the mummies has not yet been ascertained and scholars still wonder whether they were proto-Scythians or proto-Kelts or both.

The earliest of the mummies found in the Tarim Basin can be dated to around 2000 B.C., that is, before either the earliest Indic Mitanni kingdom in Western Asia (ca. 1600 B.C.) or the full flower of the Indo-Aryan culture in the Indus Valley (ca.1500 B.C.). However, the mummies bear no records of their earliest linguistic or spiritual status, and the Indo-European Tokharian language of the region is attested from a much later date (6th-8th c. A.D.) than the mummies, which can only tentatively be identified as belonging to the ancestors of the Tokharian speakers. Tokharian itself is a centum language unlike the satem Indo-Iranian languages.1 The pictorial representations of the historical Tokharians however exhibit Indo-Iranianan attire, while the Tokharian texts themselves are related to the Indic Buddhist religion, which the Tokharians may have been instrumental in conveying to their Chinese neighbours.

The collection of scholarly essays edited by Prof. Mair in The Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Peoples of Eastern Central Asia sheds some focussed light on the mysterious origins of the Tarim Basin mummies. These two volumes indeed continue an earlier collection of essays edited by Prof. Mair which appeared in the Journal of Indo-European Studies, 23, 3.4. (Fall/Winter 1995) on the same subject of the Europoid mummies and their possible links to the Tokharians. The earlier collection contains some valuable studies by J.P. Mallory, D.Q. Adams, and D. Ringe on the archaeological and linguistic affiliations of the Europoid peoples of Eastern Central Asia and of the Tokharians, as well as an intriguing article by James Opie on the probable connection between the Tokharians and the Guti and Tukri tribes of western Iran, who were called, in ancient Greek records, the Getae. The Getae, or the Guti, were a mountainous tribe who were feared and hated by the Babylonians, who were ruled by them for a century towards the end of the second millennium B.C. When they were driven out of Iran by the Babylonians, the Guti, according to Opie, split into the Getae of Thrace (who were certainly Kelts), the Thyssagetae (the Wild Getae) of the Ishimskay Steppe, and the Massagetae (the Great Getae) of northwestern China, who were in all probability the proto-Tokharians.

The Proto-Indo-Europeans and Proto-Tokharians

The present collection of essays begins with an archeological reconstruction of the proto-Indo-European and proto-Tokharian peoples. Of particular note in the first section of the collection is Elena Kuzmina's article on the "Cultural Connections of the Tarim Basin and Pastoralists of the Asian Steppes in the Bronze Age". The earliest Central Asian presence of the ancient Indo-Europeans is traced back by Kuzmina to the Yamnaya culture (3500-2500 B.C.) in the steppes of southern Russia which, by the third millennium B.C., occupied the territory from the Danube to the Urals (p.71). Deriving from the Yamnaya culture is the Afanasievo culture "localized in the Altai and the Yenisei Basin as well as in Tuva and western Mongolia", dated to the second half of the third and the beginning of the second millennium B.C. Kuzmina conjectures that the Proto-Tokharians are connected to the "migration of the Yamnaya group of tribes eastward in the third millennium BCE" (ibid. …

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