This is Cherchen Man. He stood about six feet tall, had light hair and fair skin, and he lived about 3,000 years ago in what is today the Xinjiang region of western China. He sports facial tattoos. And the world’s oldest surviving pair of pants.
He’s among a group of mummies found in the Tarim Basin dating from between about 1900 B.C. and 200 A.D. I’ve wanted to write about them for a while.
I recently watched China’s Secret Mummies, a National Geographic video available on the Penn Museum’s website. It’s about 45 minutes long; unfortunately, more than half of those 45 minutes are eaten up by bullshit reenactment footage and suspense-making editing. But it’s still a good overview of the mummies, and it reveals what researchers from National Geographic’s Genographic Project were able to learn from their DNA.
What they found was surprising. After the mummies were discovered, their Caucasian facial features and woolen (sometimes plaid) textiles led many to speculate that they came from Europe, or—more fancifully—were Celts.
Sidenote: As a former Celticist (air quotes), I find this conclusion funny. I refuse to think of “Celt” as anything more than a linguistic designation, or something denoting a discrete genetic or cultural group. (Interesting and surprising read: The Origins of the British: A Genetic Detective Story by Stephen Oppenheimer.)
Anyway, like I said, the DNA results were surprising. Cherchen Man and his mummy-buddies showed east Asian genetic markers, leading the researchers to revise their understanding of the Tarim people. Likely, they were a mixed group—different cultures from east and west coexisting (and sleeping together) at a crossroads—rather than a western transplant culture hanging on in an unlikely eastern outpost, as had been previously thought.
Hope to post about some of the other Tarim mummies in the near future.
Image Source: Uyghur American Association.