Preserved Mummies in China Yield New Clues to Bronze Age Life


Hundreds of naturally mummified human remains in the Tarim Basin, part of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, have long perplexed archaeologists. The remains, which date from 2,000 BCE to around 200 CE, are confounding for their remarkable state of preservation, luxurious clothing, and their burial in boat coffins among miles and miles of sand dunes, far from any sea.

The Tarim Basin mummies do not resemble modern inhabitants of the region, leading different groups of researchers to posit that they may have hailed from near the Black Sea, or been related to a group hailing from the Iranian Plateau. 

A Tarim Basin woman mummified in Xiaohe, still with her hair and hat from life.
Photo: Wenying Li, Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology
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Recently, an international team of researchers analyzed the genomes of some of the earliest mummies from the Tarim Basin. They found that the people buried there did not migrate from the Black Sea steppes, Iran, or anywhere else—rather, the analysis suggests that they were direct descents of the Ancient North Eurasians (ANE), a human population widespread during the Pleistocene that is now mostly represented in genetic fragments in some populations’ genomes. The team’s research was published today in Nature.

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Excavation of burial M75 at the Xiaohe cemetery.
Photo: Wenying Li, Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology

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