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Boat Mummies

19 March 2010

This subject comes up on a regular basis but research by Chinese archaeologists have clarified some issues – but introduced other ideas. The New York Times (see www.nytimes.com March 17th) which begins by describing the location of the dessicated corpses (rather than real mummies) in a desert to the north of Tibet, and tells us that Chinese archaeologists have excavated an extraordinary cemetery – first excavated by Scandinavians some 50 years or so ago and off-limits to westerners for most of the time since then. The dry air of the Tarim Basin desert has preserved the bodies so well it can be seen they have brown hair and long noses – quite unlike Asian people for many miles around. Distinctly unlike the Han Chinese (recent imigrants) or the Uighur Turks (possibly of mixed ancestry but also fairly recent arrivals) who recently rebelled against Chinese inroads into the land they consider to be theirs, alone. The Tarim Basin is in Xinjiang province and previous reports have concentrated on their European appearance. However, that may be so but it is equally possible these were Indo European people of the steppe zone (stretching from southern Russia into southern Siberia). They dominated the steppe for thousands of years. That is the rational explanation, we might say, but the date assigned to these mummies encourages further possibilities. The earliest of them date back to around 2000BC. That means they had arrived in the region and had started to use the desert as a cemetery (their actual settlements are unknown) at a period shortly after large scale human migrations are known to have taken place in virtually every other part of the globe – presumably in response to events at 2300 and 2150BC. In other words, it is not inconceivable that humans migrated from somewhere in Europe as a result of catastrophic changes in the environment – possibly of a cosmic origin. Once this has been established it is possible to read the article with a more open mind as the journalist draws various comparisons with culture in Scandinavia (boat burials) and clothes (eastern Europe). The bodies are buried beneath what appear to be boats – in the desert. However, the cemetery is situated on the dry bed of what in 2000BC had been a river. The New York Times picks up on some comments by the Chinese and then launches into a claim the bodies were accompanied by ‘phallic symbols’ signalling an intense interest in reproduction and fertility (suggesting they were inbred and only some females could have children – completely made up and saying more about the actual journalist than it does about the burials).

Chinese DNA analysis suggests the mummies had a mixed ancestry – European and Siberian. On the steppe zone various tribes merged or absorbed each other and tribes defeated in battle often had the humiliation of their women captured and taken away by the victor tribe. This actually happened to Genghis Khan before he became a great leader and he enacted the same thing on those tribes he defeated (such as the Tatars). Hence, the genes of the defeated group would not disappear as far as genetic analysis is concerned – which opens a raft of further possibilities. The admixture had occurred prior to entry into the Tarim Basin – they may have fled to that region after a disastrous military encounter with other steppe groups. However, the mummies had felt caps, a tradition that survived in the region until the first millennium AD, with feathers tucked in the brims, and they wore huge woollen capes with tassels and leather boots. Felt hats are a feature of some eastern European peoples.

Apart from their attire it is the mode of burial that is most gripping. Sticking out above the boats were poles up to 13 feet high with flat blades at the top. These resemble paddles and appear, at first instance, to be an accourtrement of the boats. However, the Chinese archaeologists (I don’t know if they were influenced by weird British archaeological ideas that seem to have superseded the more prosaice commentaries of the 1980s and earlier) claim grave goods included wooden phalluses which led them to interpret the poles as phallic symbols too. This is of course open to conjecture but as sex is suppressed in China, in favour of low productivity, it may amount to wishful thinking – but the New York Times journalist swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. An anthropologist from Stanford University was consulted and he, naturally, purred with approval. The most interesting thing about these burials is the association with boats. Unfortunately, none of the (former) rivers of the Tarim appear to be linked to an outlet with the sea although it is just feasible that people could have moved from Scandinvia along the Arctic Ocean coast to the Yenisei River and then penetrated a long way into northern Asia – but that is a long shot. We can expect further investigation into the mystery of what are normally considered to be early Tocharians, an Indo European language spoke in the region thousands of year after the burials.

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