Science

Look: Mysterious mummies represent an ancient "cosmopolitan" culture

Their odd, boat-shaped coffins are just the beginning.

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Wenying Li, Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology

This boat-shaped coffin, complete with an oar, is the final resting place of a person who died up to 4,000 years ago in modern-day China’s Uyghur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang.

It’s just one of the hundreds of graves in the Xiaohe cemetery, which sits in the arid Tarim basin.

Wenying Li, Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology

Wenying Li, Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology

The graves are unique, but the bodies inside are even more so: they’ve been extremely well preserved, thanks to the region’s extremely dry, cold climate.

Though the Tarim Basin mummies were discovered over 100 years ago, researchers are just now beginning to understand their past.

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Wenying Li, Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology

Previous studies suggested they may have been distantly related to a group of Siberian herders or farmers from the Iranian Plateau.

But a new analysis, published by an international research team on October 27 in the journal Nature, challenges those narratives about the groups’ origins.

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Many of the bodies are wrapped in bright clothing made of wool from sheep that typically came from west Eurasia.

Combined with their unusual burial practices, researchers had reason to believe that they were outsiders.

“The individuals’ paddleboat-shaped wooden coffins, covered by cattle hides, are unlike any other type of burial custom from Inner Asia.”

Archaeologist Paula N. Doumani Dupuy

Wenying Li, Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology

Hypotheses suggested that Xiaohe people originated from another region — either north, east, or west of the Tarim basin.

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But the Nature study, which details genomic analysis of 13 Tarim mummies, found they are likely a genetically isolated population that just mingled a lot with their neighbors.

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Xinjiang was known to be a melting pot where travelers from Asia and Europe intersected along the Silk Road from 130 BCE to 1435 CE.

The Xiaohe people have little in common, at least genetically, with their closest neighbors in the northern Dzungarian Basin.

But they embraced different aspects, such as farming, diet, and fashion, from cultures other than their own.

Wenying Li, Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology

“The Bronze Age peoples of the Tarim Basin were remarkably culturally cosmopolitan – they built their cuisine around wheat and dairy from the West Asia, millet from East Asia, and medicinal plants like Ephedra from Central Asia.”

Anthropologist and study author Christina Warinner

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