A great story from the New York Times about the Ürümchi Mummies is a classic clash of archaeology, ethnic identity and modern politics.
A while back a series of mummies with red and blonde hair were found buried in the deserts of Western China. For obvious reasons, this was sensational news, and a fascinating glimpse into population movements.
Who were these people and how did they “disappear”? Did they leave or did their descendants intermarry into other populations? A lot of people speculate that they might be an Indo-European speaking population who survived to become the Tocharians, but it’s hard to know for sure. There is evidence from the surviving textile of a possible West to East movement, but that doesn’t establish a language.
The current local population, the Uighurs would like to claim them as ancestors because they are evidence of a non-Chinese regional identity. Interestingly, although the Uighurs speak a non-Chinese language, it is not Indo-European either, but a Turkic language related to Turkish and Tatar.
Once upon a time the Chinese government might not have cared one way or another – it is a hostile desert on the border to the “barbarian lands.” But this desert has something valuable for the 21st century – OIL! It is important now than ever that this province be established as “Chinese.”
At this rate, it will be a while before we can get a clear idea who these people are. Ironically the answer to the identity of the mummies may be “None of the Above.”