The Politics of China’s Tarim Mummies

Tarim Mummy

Originally uploaded by Thomas Roche

There is a fascinating story in the New York Times about the politics of China’s Xinjiang Uighur’s Autonomous Region, as seen through the exhibiton of the more than 200 “Tarim mummies” from the area. The Chinese government faces a separatist movement of the Uighurs or Uyghurs, a Muslim people who speak a Turkic-Altaic language. The Chinese government claims that the region, which lies in Central Asia in the far West of China, was first settled by people from the Chinese interior. Most scholars think the Uighurs ended up in Xinjiang in the 10th Century.

But the oldest mummies, which date back to the early 2nd millennium BCE, appear to indicate that the first settlers of the area were, in fact, from the steppes further to the West. The Tarim mummies have become a symbol of Uighur pride, and there’s even a nationalistic pop song about one of them, the “Loulan Beauty,” a female mummy of which the Times says “her high cheekbones and long nose the most obvious signs that she is not what one thinks of as Chinese.” Other data seems to indicate that the early settlers of the region were from actually from all over the place — that, situated on the Silk Road, Xinjiang was a melting pot.

The Chinese government, as it turns out, “has been unwilling to give broad access to foreign scientists to conduct genetic tests on the mummies,” since the question of who first settled Xinjiang is perceived as lending credence to one side or the other in the struggle for political control of the province.

Image: Tarim Mummy, photographed by Aurel Stein circa 1910, from Wikipedia.

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