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Tarim Basin Mummies

30 October 2021

At https://phys.org/news/2021-10-tarim-basin-mummies.html … the Silk Road and it many routes through central Asia, brought east and west together in a vibrant trading system. The Yinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region was a crossroads. Back in the 1990s discovery was made of hundreds of naturally mummified human remains dating between 2000BC and AD200, in what is known as the Tarim Basin. They seemed to have a western Asian look to them, sparking various theories on their origin. Buried in what looks like boat coffins, they occur in an otherwise barren desert, adding further to the mystery. They also had a cattle focussed economy and it has long been thought they were descendants of Yamnaya herders who lived on the steppes of southern Russia, in the Bronze Age. These people are known to have migrated westwards into Europe and southwards into the Near and Middle East, at various points in the second half of the Holocene. An international team of investigators has collected and analysed the DNA of 13 of the mummies, dating between 2100 and 1700BC. You may note this is shortly after the upheavals associated with the end of the EB age in western Asia and the end of the Neolithic in western Europe. This  explains their arrival, it could be argued – but it seems it does not. They also looked at the DNA of five individuals from the nearby Dzungarian Basin, who did definitely arrive at this time, and the theory is they influenced, culturally, the people of the Tarim Basin, bringing a pastoral lifestyle into the region, as we shall see.

The long and the short of it is that the Tarim Basin boat coffin people were not newcomers to the region but were direct descendants of a Late Pleistocene population of Siberia and central Asia that Paul Reich christened the 'Ancient Northern Eurasians' that were thought to have disappeared completely at the end of the Ice Age. Well, not completely as their genes live on in other groups such as some of the modern Siberians and the Native Americans. In North America, up to 40 per cent of the genes of this ancient population survive, and to a lesser degree, in Europe. It was one of the most illuminating parts of the Reich genetic research as outlined in his book [reviewed in SIS a few years ago]. However, in the Tarim Basin, they survived intact – at least, down to AD200. Further research may take place on modern populations in the region. It is a fascinating discovery and took the researchers by surprise. What is most remarkable, they add, is the Tarim Basin people show no sign of genetic admixture with newcomers into their neck of the woods. They do not seem to have mixed with any other group during the Holocene, indicating the region remained remote until the opening up of the Silk Road. They are a genetic isolate, or relic population. Further, they add, they appear to have experienced an extreme genetic bottleneck prior to settling in the Tarim Basin – presumably at the end of the last Ice Age [when northern Siberia froze over]. In contrast, the Dzungarian Basin population were related to pastoral groups such as the Chemurchek and the people of the 'Inner Asia Mountain Corridor'. These people probably introduced the pastoral economy to the Tarim Basin people as well as other cultural traits, not just wheat and dairy but millet from east Asia. They were open to cultural influences from both west and east, yet somehow remained genetically pristine.

See also www.nature.com/articles/s41586-021-04052-7

PS … the Tarim Basin is a dried up former inland sea and boat coffins were accompanied by wooden poles that appear to represent oars. It is this feature, more than anything, that led to the DNA research. How long ago was the Tarim Basin an inland sea? Was Inner Siberia a wet and warmish habitat during the Late Glacial Maximum. Were their ancestors able to paddle across the sea from Siberia to North America? In more recent times the region was home to the Uighurs, a Turkish tribe, but in the first millennium BC the region was also associated by the Persians with the Saka tribes, or Scythians, thought to be a multicultural group of pastoralist tribes.

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