Western China’s Seriously Mysterious Mummies

Western China’s Seriously Mysterious Mummies

When travelers in China visit the modern Xinjiang Regional Museum in Urumqi, they beat feet to the second floor where they find a selection of mysterious mummies enclosed in glass cases. Their dry, leathery skin is stretched across their skulls and stiff, parched hair escapes from their headgear.

Dehydrated, yet DapperNot your everyday bandage-wound embalmed variety, these mummies were naturally desiccated by the high temperatures, arid climate and high salt content of Western China’s Tarim Basin, a waterless depression that includes the shifting dunes of the Taklamakan Desert.

Their sandy graves were discovered in several locations around the edges of the desert, some of them beneath what look like wooden boats. They’re not Chinese and they’re not Uighur (the minority Turkic people who live in Western China). They appear to be European, with long noses, round eye sockets, light-colored hair and beards.

Some of these nearly 4,000-year-old Bronze Age people are dressed in brilliant woven wool clothes and jaunty felt hats that have survived with their colors intact, probably because of the salty sand of their desert burial ground.

But strangest of all, quite a few of them are adorned with what has turned out to be chunks of ancient cheese.

Mummy MysteriesThis brings up three pressing questions that have still to be answered:

  1. Where did these fashionable people come from?
  2. How come they had boats in their desert graves?
  3. What’s with the cheese?
Chinese Mummy<br>Photo credit: Xinjiang Grandworld International Tours

Well-dressed long-nosed mummy in Xinjiang
Photo credit: Xinjiang Grandworld International Tours

Puzzle Pieces: Where did these fashionable people come from?

This turns out to be a politically delicate question, given the unrest in Xinjiang, the nearly-Alaska-sized region of Western China disputed by the Turkic Uighur people who call it home. Uighur separatists would like to claim the Caucasian-appearing mummies as ancestors, proving that they were established in the region long before the Chinese arrived.

The Chinese government, even though they would prefer that the mummies were ethnically Chinese, gamely had their DNA tested in 2007. The results pleased neither group – the mummies had genetic markers from south Siberia, Central Asia and Eastern Europe, making them appear to be unrelated to either the Uighurs or the Han Chinese majority.

Sand Boats? How come they had boats in their desert graves?

Good question. The best answer so far seems to be that when they settled here, the people buried in the Small River Cemetery (where the largest concentration of mummies was discovered) found shallow rivers and brackish lakes where there are now only shifting sand dunes.

Some scholars have drawn comparisons between the Small River people and the Nordic Vikings based on these boats and other artifacts discovered near the graves, but so far all is still conjecture. No trace of a town, fortress, or agriculture – nothing but the gravesites – has been found.

Cheese, Please, Mummy: What’s with the cheese?

We know that ancient people liked to bury their loved ones with things they might need on the journey to the afterlife. Clothing, weapons, eating utensils, grains, jewelry, coins and sometimes horses or cattle have been found in rich gravesites the world over.

But these are the first ancient mummies used as human hors d’oeuvre trays, with strings and “lumps of yellowish organic material” laid carefully on their chests and around their necks. In 2014 the strange yellow material proved to be the oldest cheese ever found. Made according to the same ancient recipe from which kefir is still made today, the Bronze-aged cheese was nice and fresh when it was lovingly arranged on the deceased’s body. Perhaps lots of ancient burials included a cheese course, and ancient vermin cleaned it up before it could be discovered by modern archaeologists. Will we ever know?

Scientists are still searching for answers to these and many other questions arising from the discoveries of the desiccated remains of a mysterious and well-dressed desert civilization.

Mummy in Urumqi<br>Photo credit: Xinjiang Grandworld International Tours

Who moved my cheese?
Photo credit: Xinjiang Grandworld International Tours

Travel to China with MIR

MIR has more than two decades of experience handcrafting tours to China. Our full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”

You can see the mummies at the Xinjiang Regional Museum in Urumqi on two of MIR’s small group tours: 

You can also opt to travel on your dates and at your pace on a private journey to Western China’s complex Xinjiang Autonomous Region – customized to your desired dates and style.

Chat with one of our destination specialists by email or by phone at 1-800-424-7289 to start planning your travels today.


(Top photo credit: Paul Schwartz)

PUBLISHED: October 30, 2014

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