Feature Articles 


White Masters in the deserts of China?

The discovery of Caucasoid mummies in China shows that East and West might have been meeting since the Bronze Age. Do they validate some of the ancient legends?

Philip Coppens

Cherchen Man mummy

Christopher Columbus is said to have been the first who broke down the barrier that was the Atlantic Ocean, that body of water that separated two continents. But no such barriers – whether natural or ideological – existed between Europe and the East – one could travel over land. Nevertheless, the discovery of Caucasoid mummies has provided not only indisputable evidence that Europeans travelled very far East, it has also created controversy. For in the end, it seems that everything in archaeology is also political.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the likes of Sven Hedin, Albert von Le Coq and Sir Aurel Stein travelled to the East in search of ancient civilisations, hoping to reach the then forbidden city of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and its ruler, the Dalai Lama. On their travels to this almost mythical region, they stumbled upon many ancient ruins and on occasion spoke about the discoveries of desiccated bodies.
In 1907, the Russian explorer Pyotr Kuzmich Koslov (1863-1935) actually reached Lhasa and met the Dalai Lama. Afterwards, he organised further expeditions and excavated Khara Khoto. Khara Khoto was a Tangut city founded in 1032 that had been ruined by the Ming Chinese in 1372. Koslov unearthed a tomb fifty feet below the ruins and found the body of a woman, apparently a queen, accompanied by various sceptres, wrought in gold and other metals. Though Koslov took numerous photographs that were published in “American Weekly”, he was not allowed to disturb or remove anything from the tomb, which was sealed again. His last expedition to Mongolia and Tibet occurred from 1923 to 1926 and resulted in the discovery of Xiongnu royal burials at Noin-Ula.
With news of such discoveries being reported back in the West, it was clear that there was a wide interest in the mysteries of the East, which even today remains largely beyond the reach of most tourists. And it were in these remote regions that James Churchward (1851-1936) felt he had found evidence of a lost civilisation: Mu. For Churchward, Mu was a lost civilisation and continent in the East, which he claimed was 50,000 years old and was the home of 64 million inhabitants. He claimed to have found evidence of this civilisation while speaking to a number of Indian men. Though Mu stretched from Micronesia in the West to Easter Island and Hawaii in the East in the Pacific Ocean, knowledge – if not descendents – of Mankind’s original homeland was also meant to be found in India and surrounding regions. He believed that the primary colony of Mu was the Great Uighur Empire and that Khara Khoto was its ancient capital and that the civilisation was at its height about 15,000 BC. Check any encyclopaedia, and you will find that Churchward “borrowed” that name from the historical Uighur, who today live primarily in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.

Churchward’s Mu was of course not too different from Blavatsky’s Lemuria and it was the American Theosophist Gottfried de Purucker (1874-1942) who published his thoughts upon Blavatsky’s doctrine in 1937. He argued that this region, this “enormous tract of country, most of it desert waste”, was once fertile and lush with cities and that it was here where one would “find the seat from which we came as a racial stock”, which was of course the Fifth Root Race. Blavatsky described the fifth root race with the following words: “The Aryan races, for instance, now varying from dark brown, almost black, red-brown-yellow, down to the whitest creamy colour, are yet all of one and the same stock – the Fifth Root-Race – and spring from one single progenitor, [...] who is said to have lived over 18,000,000 years ago, and also 850,000 years ago – at the time of the sinking of the last remnants of the great continent of Atlantis.”
Later, the French author Robert Charroux (1909-1978) wrote about his theory that the Gobi Desert had Magi that surpassed even those that were resident in Tibet. Stories go that these cities had ocean ports, and Edgar Cayce even argued that elevators would one day be discovered in a lost city here. Others have seen this region as the homeland of those ancient UFOs, the vimanas.

But whereas it is the Gobi Desert that might still hold some secrets, it is the Taklamakan Desert that has provided us with revelations. The Taklamakan Desert is a large sandy desert, part of the Tarim Basin, a region roughly between Tibet and Mongolia, in Western China, and crossed at its northern and southern edge by the Silk Road. Conditions are so harsh that travellers avoided the desert as much as possible, but in millennia gone by, the region was populated and habitable – very much like de Purucker argued.
In recent decades, however, the desert has once again become an oasis… for archaeologists and anomalists, as it is here that hundreds of Caucasoid mummies have been found. The most notable mummies are the tall, red-haired “Cherchen man” (dated to ca. 1000 BC), the “Hami Mummy” (c. 1400­800 BC) and the “Witches of Subeshi” (4th or 3rd century BC), who received their name because of the tall pointed hats they wore. However, the oldest mummy of all, is the “Loulan Beauty” (1800 BC).

The Tarim Basin

Though not the oldest, one of the most famous mummies of the Taklamakan Desert is that of “Cherchen Man”. This European’s body was placed in a poplar-wood box, lowered into narrow shaft grave and left for eternity. It were the climatic circumstances that make this region so inhospitable today that preserved these corpses over the millennia, turning them into mummies.
Cherchen Man is six feet 6 feet tall, was around fifty years old at the time of his death, has reddish brown hair, a long nose, full lips and a ginger beard. He was buried in a red twill tunic and tartan leggings and his body is far better preserved than the notorious Egyptian mummies everyone stumbles across everywhere. Most interestingly, Cherchen Man too was buried with no less than ten hats, one which looks Roman, another looking like a beret, a cap, and even a conical “witch” hat – which is therefore something of a common feature of several of these mummies. His body dates back to 1000 BC and DNA analysis has shown that he was a Celt.
Next to him were found the mummies of three women and a baby. One of the women is dressed in a red gown, wearing tall boots, her hair brushed and braided. She has a red yarn through her ear lobes and – like the man – has several tattoos on her face. All mummies were painted with a yellow substance, believed to help in the preservation of the body. The baby, probably 3-4 months old, is wrapped in brown blankets, tied with blue and red cord, with a blue stone placed on each eye.

The oldest of the mummies is the 4000 year old “Loulan Beauty”, a mummy that was discovered in 1980, in the ancient Chinese garrison town that was discovered by Hedin on March 28, 1900. The town was located near the Lop Nor marshes, on the north-eastern edge of the Lop Desert. Hedin was able to recover many manuscripts, which stated that the culture was wiped out by a large seismic occurrence, which drastically changed the climate of the area and turned it into a desert it remains today. But that was several millennia after the Loulan Beauty lived. This female mummy has long, fair hair. She was 45 when she died and was buried with a basket of food, containing domesticated wheat, combs and a feather. No doubt, these nourishments were for the afterlife.
At 1800 BC, the Beauty is the oldest mummy found in the Tarim Basin. But she is not a lone European to have lived here in those days: the cemetery at Yanbulaq contained no less than 29 mummies, which date from 1800-500 BC, 21 of which are Caucasoid. Best preserved of all the corpses is “Yingpan Man”, who is also known as “the Handsome Man”, a two metres tall, 2,000 year old Caucasian mummy that was discovered in 1995. His face was blond and bearded and was covered with a gold foil death mask, which is a Greek tradition; he also wore an elaborate golden embroidered red and maroon wool garments with images of fighting Greeks or Romans. His head rests on a pillow in the shape of a crowing cockerel.
Elsewhere in the Tarim Basin, hundreds of other mummies have been found, all of which are known to have been of European origin. Some of the mummies are thought to have possibly been sacrificial victims. A young woman was found partially dismembered, her eyes gouged out. A baby boy had apparently been buried alive. But the question is whether the latter was sacrificial, or whether he was “merely” buried with his dead mother.

However intriguing the local setting might be, the interest in these mummies exists largely because they are out of place remains. Not only is there the DNA evidence that shows that these people were from Europe, analyses such as the weave of the cloth have also shown that it was identical to those found on the bodies of salt miners in Austria, dating from 1300 BC. The wooden combs buried in Asia are also identical to those found in Celtic countries. So are the stone structures on top of their burial sites – similar to the dolmens of Western Europe.
But despite such certainties, archaeologists and historians have been unable to fill in the “soft evidence” – which are nevertheless the most important questions: how did they go to China, why did they go to China?

Yingpan mummy

That we know about these European visitors to China at all is largely thanks to the work of Dr. Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His fascination began when he toured the Urumchi Museum, where some of these mummies are on display. He then invited Dr. Elizabeth W. Barber of Occidental College (California) to visit the mummies and give her expert opinion on the weaving that was on display.
“From around 1800BC, the earliest mummies in the Tarim Basin were exclusively Caucausoid, or Europoid,” says Mair. East Asian migrants arrived in the eastern portions of the Tarim Basin about 3,000 years ago, while the Uighur peoples arrived after the collapse of the Orkon Uighur Kingdom, based in modern-day Mongolia, around the year 842. In short, Mair leaves little doubt that we are confronted with a “lost civilisation”, existing of a group of European settlers in a region millennia before the history of this region started to be written.
The important question is whether we are in the same bailiwick as Churchward, who saw this region as being of central importance. That answer, it seems, is negative. Mair believes that early Europeans headed in all directions, some travelling west, into Western Europe, but others heading east, eventually ending up in Xinjiang.
His opinions tally with those of textile expert Barber, who in her book “The Mummies of Urumchi” examined the tartan-style cloth and concluded that the garments can be traced back to Anatolia and the Caucasus, the steppe area north of the Black Sea. She argues this group of people divided, starting in the Caucasus and then splitting, one group going west and another east – conform to Mair’s opinion.

So, what do we know about these people? We know that they were horsemen and herders, using chariots and may have invented the stirrup. We know that they had arrived in this region by 1800 BC. That around 1200 BC, the Indo-Europeans were joined by another wave of immigrants, from what is now Iran (the so-called Saka branch).
In fact, the Saka nomads had high-pointed hats – like the ones found next to Cherchen Man – as displayed on the Persepolis reliefs in southern Iran. A bronze statue found in the Altai Mountains from the 5th century BC wore a similar hat. Most important is the fact that the statue had Caucasoid features, and showed similarities in dress to Cherchen Man. It is therefore clear that apart from “hard” DNA evidence, there is much other incontrovertible evidence that makes this European presence in China a hard fact. The discovery of these mummies indeed rewrote history – whether some like that or not.

The current conclusion drawn about these mummies and the waves of settlements is therefore that it was only until several centuries BC that the eastward movement of the Western race to Xinjiang was more rapid than the western movement of Mongoloid people and that the region became “Chinese”.
When T.D. Forsyth reported on his 1875 mission to the region, he stated that these people were still tall, fair-faced, with light eyes and sandy whiskers and hair. He added that they “only require to be put into coat and trousers to pass, so far as outward appearance goes, for the fairest Englishman.” Two millennia before, Pliny the Elder in “Taprobane” wrote about the Seres, which were described to the Roman Emperor Claudius by an embassy from Taprobane (Ceylon). He said that they “exceeded the ordinary human height, had flaxen hair, and blue eyes”, a description which comes close to those people living in the Tarim Basin. Pliny the Elder also said they had an “uncouth sort of noise by way of talking, having no language of their own for the purpose of communicating their thoughts”.
Though no Tocharian texts were found in relation to the Tarim Mummies, it is now largely accepted that these European emigrants spoke a language known as Tocharian (the Chinese called them Yuezhi), which has proven to be close to the languages of western Europe. Today’s Uighur are therefore known to be more than half Caucasian and travellers through the region remain often stunned as to how European the locals look.

Loulan Beauty

If one were to find a Bronze Age seafarer in America, it would obviously create worldwide controversy. The discovery of Europeans on Chinese soil has also had major political implications. The region is rife with separatist movements and the government fears that promoting a truly unique archaeological find might result in serious social and political unrest. And that is one of the main raisons why the Terracotta Warriors are far more famous than the Tarim mummies!
Social unrest is the greatest between the Uighur and the Han Chinese. In their drive to lay claim to the region, the “Loulan Beauty” was even raised to the status of racial icon by the Uighur, who call her “mother of the nation” – without little supporting evidence.
The Chinese historian Ji Xianlin, writing a preface to “Ancient Corpses of Xinjiang” by Wang Binghua, says that China “supported and admired” research by foreign experts into the mummies – i.e. Mair and Barber. “However, within China a small group of ethnic separatists have taken advantage of this opportunity to stir up trouble and are acting like buffoons. Some of them have even styled themselves the descendants of these ancient ‘white people’ with the aim of dividing the motherland. But these perverse acts will not succeed,” Ji wrote.
In comparing the DNA of the mummies to that of modern day Uighur, Mair’s team found some genetic similarities with the mummies, but “no direct links”. The Han Chinese meanwhile consider themselves to be occupiers of the centre of the world. Everyone else were savages, so the discovery of Europeans on their territory, the remains furthermore older than anything the Han Chinese could point at in the archaeological record, meant that some mental gymnastics had to be performed to preserve their cherished self-opinion. But the fact of the matter is that neither the Uighur nor the Han Chinese seem to be directly related to these ancient settlers – and that both are but modern additions to a region that was populated millennia earlier. In short, the discoveries have made it hard on both groups to continue to ratify their claim to the region.
In fact, what the discoveries suggests is that both immigrants and modern local Chinese are a mixture of races. “While it is clear that the early inhabitants of the Tarim Basin were primarily Caucasoids,” Mair has written, “it is equally clear that they did not all belong to a single homogeneous group. Rather, they represent a variety of peoples who seem to have connections with many far-flung parts of the Eurasian land mass for more than two millennia.” He adds: “Modern DNA and ancient DNA show that Uighurs, Kazaks, Kyrgyzs, the peoples of central Asia are all mixed Caucasian and East Asian. The modern and ancient DNA tell the same story.” It underlines, once again, that so many cultures, whether ancient or modern, are genetically a mixture of so many races, contrary to so many political ideas of “pure genes”.

One of the Cherchen mummies

What brought these Europeans here? It is known that the southern Taklamakan Desert was an area where China’s Silk Road once flourished and prosperous cities were built. In Khotan, two large rivers were channelled, creating an oasis that grew wheat, rice, corn, cotton, grapes, peaches, and melons, while sheep were grazing. It is clear that life must have been good in those days, and that these Europeans had everything they cherished. However, because of gradual climate change, many such cities were abandoned and subsequently eaten by the dunes.
The Silk Road was an ancient caravan route that connected China to the West. The European mummies in this part of the world might suggest that this trade route is indeed older than previously thought – very much like transoceanic contact might be several millennia older than Columbus’ first voyage to America.
The Silk Road was not just a conduit for silk; many other products were transported and traded and the routes were not merely travelled by merchants, but anyone wanting to go East – or West. The routes should therefore be seen as the ancient “highways” between China and the Mediterranean Sea.
Trading between the East and West occurred from the dawn of civilisation – if not before. Between 6000 and 4000 BC, people in the Sahara were already importing domesticated animals from Asia. By 3000 BC, lapis lazuli – the only known source of which was Badakshan, in northeastern Afghanistan – was found in Egypt. Most specifically, the supply of Tarim Basin jade to China from ancient times is well established. Nephrite jade from mines in the region of Yarkand and Khotan – not too far from the lapis lazuli mines of Badakshan – was found in China. Xinru Liu writes: “It is well known that ancient Chinese rulers had a strong attachment to jade. All of the jade items excavated from the tomb of Fuhao of the Shang dynasty, more than 750 pieces, were from Khotan in modern Xinjiang. As early as the mid-first millennium [BC] the Yuezhi engaged in the jade trade, of which the major consumers were the rulers of agricultural China.”

The Tarim Mummies have destroyed the idea that the West and the East developed independently and that they only relatively recently made contact. The discovery of these mummies has driven the final nail in this coffin – almost literally. Science, it is clear, has shown a clear link between these mummies and Celtic inhabitants of Europe. The question, however, is whether Europeans went east – or a Caucasoid group of people, perhaps native to the Tarim Basin, went to Europe.
Turning the path of travel in the opposite direction would offer some confirmation for the speculation that this region was indeed a “homeland” to our early ancestors and that they spread to other regions – specifically Europe – from here out.
With so little known about Bronze Age Celts both in Europe and Asia, no firm conclusions can be drawn either way – and perhaps never will. However, the Book of Manu (also known as the Laws of Manu), one of the supplementary arms of the Vedas, states that the “Uighers had settlements on the northern and eastern shores of the Caspian Sea” and German anthropologist Max Muller (1823-1900) wrote that “the first Caucasians were a small company from the mountains of Central Asia”. These conclusions are obviously “old” – but should they therefore be erroneous? Written more than a century before the Tarim Mummies were discovered, they actually did speak of the presence of Caucasians in China. And if they got that right, is it possible they got other things right too?

One final question that therefore needs to be added to the long list of questions about these mummies is in which direction the Caucasians travelled. Could the Caucasian mummies of the Taklamakan Desert be native, rather than European visitors? Only the future, and future discoveries, is likely to tell. But it is at least an undeniable fact that there was contact between Bronze Age Europeans and China, along the Silk Road. The evidence is for all to see in the Urumchi Museum.

This article appeared in New Dawn, Volume 10, Number 12 (January - February 2009).