Mummies a Mysterious Link to Xinjiang’s Past

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Even for experienced China travelers, the vast region of Xinjiang in the country’s northwest is full of surprises. One of the bigger surprises is the mystery of the dried corpses known as the Tarim mummies, which are on display in museums throughout Xinjiang.

Two of the mummies have traveled to the US as part of an exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, where their Caucasian features are making museumgoers look at China’s history from a different angle.

The mummies – a 3,800-year-old woman with auburn hair and a 2,800-year-old infant – have Caucasian characteristics that are considered by experts to be proof that western peoples migrated eastward along the ancient Silk Road that connected China and Europe via Central Asia and Middle East.

The woman, nicknamed “the Beauty of Xiaohe” (pictured above) is wearing a felt hat that resembles those traditionally found in alpine Europe. The baby is wrapped in a blanket reminiscent of ancient northern European burial shrouds.

Mummies preserved by Xinjiang’s extremely arid conditions first began to be discovered by explorers in the early 1900s. It is unclear exactly where these people came from, due to a lack of DNA testing.

Today Xinjiang is one of China’s most remote and least understood regions. It is believed that the Uighur ethnic group that now calls Xinjiang home migrated to the area after the arrival of the Caucasians who eventually became the Tarim mummies.

Nowadays Xinjiang is known by travelers for its stunning desert and mountain landscapes plus the fascinating culture – and delicious food – of the Uighurs. But, as the Tarim mummies illustrate, this is only part of the picture. Xinjiang is steeped in a forgotten history that the world is only beginning to wake up to.

The exhibition “Secrets of the Silk Road” runs at the University of Pennsylvania through March 15. For more information about WildChina journeys to Xinjiang, click here or contact us directly.

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