Tarim Basin, Xinjiang, China; Studies on well preserved mummies reveal that they had origins in Europe, central/eastern Siberia and southern/western Asia

This post is a summary of information on the Tarim Basin mummies; research shows that admixture of Western and Eastern Eurasian populations must have taken place at some point deep into Antiquity.

Within a Bronze Age cemetery first discovered by Swedish archaeologists in 1934 and rediscovered by the Xinjiang Archaeological Institute in 2000, researchers have found the oldest and best-preserved mummies in the Tarim Basin area of China.

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The region borders numerous countries and was historically a part of the Silk Road trade route between the West and the East, so people and artifacts have moved through the Tarim Basin for thousands of years.

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One hypothesis suggests that the earliest settlers of this part of Asia were nomadic herders from the steppes of Russia and Kazakhstan, while the other suggests that people came first from the oases of Bactria, or modern Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan. While both hypotheses have support in archaeological findings such as burial customs, clothing styles, and animal bones, previous genetic evidence from human remains, which came from a cemetery called Gumugou on the eastern edge of the Tarim Basin, was inconclusive.

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Writing in the journals BMC Genetics and BMC Biology, Chunxiang Li, an ancient DNA specialist at Jilin University, and colleagues report on their analysis of human remains from the Xiaohe tomb complex also on the eastern edge of the basin. Dating to about 4000 years before present, the site boasts notable artifacts like “numerous large phallus and vulva posts made of poplar, striking wooden human figurines and masts, well-preserved boat coffins, leather hides”, as well as grain and other preserved organic material, they write. More importantly, Xiaohe has produced the oldest, best-preserved mummies in the Tarim Basin, ideal for testing hypotheses about the origins of these people, and the site spans a millennium, making it ideal for looking into population interaction after initial settlement.
chinese mum date unknown

From the earliest layer of burials, Li and colleagues tested 20 individuals who produced affinities with 5 different mitochondrial DNA haplogroups, or major branches on the female side of the genetic family tree. “The dominant haplogroup”, they write, “in the Xiaohe people was the East Eurasian lineage C” which corresponds with a likely origin in South Siberia. But there were also “two West Eurasian mtDNA haplogroups H and K.” In looking more closely at the lineages and mutations, however, Li and colleagues noted that several of the samples had mutations that are either rare in modern people or are not found in modern gene banks. They further analyzed Y chromosome haplogroups to attempt to identify major branches of the male line. But all seven males in the study belonged to a haplogroup that is widely distributed throughout Eurasia.

Considering the presence of haplogroups H and K in the Xiaohe people and the geographical distribution of shared sequences, we conclude that the west Eurasian component observed in the Xiaohe people originated from western Europe, and maternal ancestry of the Xiaohe people might have close relationships with western Europeans”, Li and colleagues note. By the Bronze Age, the people buried at Xiaohe cemetery were already “admixed”, coming together millennia earlier in Siberia and Mongolia.

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In order to delve more deeply into population movement along the Silk Road, Li and colleagues examined dozens more samples from three later time periods at Xiaohe. Again, the most common mtDNA haplogroup was C, suggesting origins in southern Siberia. These more recent burial layers “confirmed that the origin of the mitochondrial lineages is more widespread”, the researchers write, including six west Eurasian lineages, five east Eurasian lineages, and one Indian lineage. In particular, the “west Eurasian genetic components in the Xiaohe people corroborate the ‘steppe hypothesis’ ”.

Reconstructing a possible route by which the Tarim Basin was populated, Li and colleagues write that “people bearing the south/west Asian components could have first married into pastoralist populations and reached North Xinjiang through the Kazakh steppe following the movement of pastoralist populations, then spread from North Xinjiang southward into the Tarim Basin across the Tianshan Mountains, and intermarried with the earlier inhabitants of the region, giving rise to the later, admixed Xiaohe community”.

The populations from the Russian steppe seem to have contributed more genetically to this population than did the populations from the oases of Bactria. “The groups reaching the Tarim Basin through the oasis route”, the researchers note, “may have interacted culturally with earlier populations from the steppe, with limited gene flow, resulting in a small genetic signal of the oasis agriculturalists in the Xiaohe community”.

(Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2015/07/18/these-red-haired-chinese-mummies-come-from-all-over-eurasia-dna-reveals/#443343713e2c)

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Abstract The Tarim Basin in western China, known for its amazingly well-preserved mummies, has been for thousands of years an important crossroad between the eastern and western parts of Eurasia. Despite its key position in communications and migration, and highly diverse peoples, languages and cultures, its prehistory is poorly understood. To shed light on the origin of the populations of the Tarim Basin, we analysed mitochondrial DNA polymorphisms in human skeletal remains excavated from the Xiaohe cemetery, used by the local community between 4000 and 3500 years before present, and possibly representing some of the earliest settlers.

Our results indicate that the people of the Tarim Basin had a diverse maternal ancestry, with origins in Europe, central/eastern Siberia and southern/western Asia. These findings, together with information on the cultural context of the Xiaohe cemetery, can be used to test contrasting hypotheses of route of settlement into the Tarim Basin.

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Discussion Our previous analysis of DNA from the deepest layer of burials of the Xiaohe site revealed that the first settlers had European paternal lineages, and maternal lineages of European and central Siberian origin, consistent with the “steppe hypothesis” of the origins of the first inhabitants of the Tarim Basin. In the present study, analysis of the remaining four, more recent burial layers, confirmed that the origin of the mitochondrial lineages is more widespread, and we detected west Eurasian lineages H, K, U5, U7, U2e, T, east Eurasian lineages B, C4, C5, D, G2a, and Indian lineage M5. Haplotypes H, K, U5 and T are found mostly in Europe, suggesting genetic affinities with Europe. While Xiaohe U2e haplotype has not been observed in living populations, the hg U2e is thought to have originated in Europe, from where it had been spread into central Siberia in the Bronze Age. The distribution of these haplogroups overlaps with the regions of the Afanasievo culture, Andronovo culture or Yamna culture, but is remote from the Oxus civilization. These west Eurasian genetic components in the Xiaohe people corroborate the “steppe hypothesis”.

However, layers 1–4 also had individuals with hgs U7 and M5, common in west/south Asian populations today, but rare in Europeans and Siberians. Although the genetic structure of the oasis people in the Bronze Age is unclear, archaeological evidence indicates that settled populations of the oasis civilization in central Asia descended from farmers from the southwest. These ancient central Asians had been in contact with south Asians and likely received a genetic contribution from them. Considering the archaeological materials and the environmental similarities between central Asia and the Tarim Basin, hgs U7 and M5 observed in Xiaohe people more likely originated from the oasis peoples but not directly from west/south Asians. This suggests populations from the oasis may have made a later contribution to the gene pool of the Xiaohe people, giving some credence to the “oasis hypothesis”. The later Xiaohe people (layers 1–4) carried diverse east Asian maternal lineages, including the predominant C4, as well as C5, which has a similar geographical distribution to C4, suggesting links with Siberia, especially central/south Siberian populations. Although hgs B, D and G2a are common in East Asians and Mongolians besides Siberians, except for broomcorn millet (P. miliaceum), there was no archaeological or anthropological evidence in the Xiaohe cemetery for links with East Asia. However, hgs C and D have also been observed in Bronze Age human remains from North Xinjiang (Hami), a place where culture and human features appear to indicate a blend of both east and west. DNA analysis showed that the Hami people had close affinities with Neolithic people in Ganqing region of China. Recently archaeobotanical analysis considered that East Asian domesticated broomcorn likely was introduced into Central Eurasia via the route of North Xinjiang from Ganqing region at middle third millennium BC. Therefore, some eastern components in the later Xiaohe people may have derived from North Xinjiang and have an ultimate origin in East Asia but not central/southern Siberia, something still consistent with the “steppe hypothesis”. This was indicated by the close relationship of the Xiaohe population with populations of Xinjiang in the PCA graph.

Xiaohe people displays higher and higher levels of haplotype diversity (fifth layer Hd = 0.7381, fourth layer Hd = 0.9004, layers1-3 Hd = 0.9890) from earlier to later, suggesting multiple population incursions into the Tarim Basin after its initial settlement. People carrying European maternal lineages may have spread east into south Siberia, where they mingled with local populations and eventually spread south into Xinjiang via the Ertix River. However, ancient DNA analyses indicate that the west Eurasian lineages observed in ancient south Siberia were associated with the eastward spread of Europeans of the Afanasievo culture. This suggests that the European components could have reached north Xinjiang later, via the Kazakh steppe northwest of the Tarim Basin. Interestingly, the cattle excavated from the Xiaohe cemetery carried mainly lineage T3, typical of European cattle. These diverse lines of evidence support the“steppe hypothesis”. In contrast, people bearing the south /west Asian components could have reached the Tarim Basin through the Pamirs, moving eastward along the south or north edges of the Tarim Basin. Recently one study showed that agricultural populations had contact with nearby mobile pastoralists at the beginning of the second millennium BC in Central Asia, indicating that genetic components of agriculturalists might also introgress into pastoralist populations. This was confirmed by the evidence that one Indian haplogroup was found in ancient Kazakhstan. Therefore, people bearing the south/west Asian components could have first married into pastoralist populations, and reached North Xinjiang through the Kazakh steppe following the movement of pastoralist populations, then spread from north Xinjiang southward into the Tarim Basin across the Tianshan Mountains, and intermarried with the earlier inhabitants of the region, giving rise to the later, admixed Xiaohe community. Given that the south/west Asian components are relatively minor in the Xiaohe population, it is likely that nomadic herders from northern steppe had a greater impact on the eastern Tarim Basin than the Central Asian oasis farmers.

The archaeological evidence for woolen textiles and the medicinal plant Ephedra in the earliest Xiaohe layer and the Gumugou site indicate that the oasis culture had reached the Tarim Basin in the early Bronze Age. It is well known that Ephedra was used by oasis farmers, whereas it does not grow in the Russo-Kazakh steppe, nor is associated with the Afanasievo or Andronovo cultures. Furthermore, the wheat excavated from Xiaohe was hexaploid bread wheat, a cereal grain cultivated originally in the Near East. Therefore, it is possible that the oasis route may have been significant in the peopling of Xinjiang in the early Bronze Age, at least northern or western Xinjiang. This was supported by the evidence that Indian haplogroup M25 was observed in one ancient individual from later Neolithic Ganqing region (data unpublished). The groups reaching the Tarim Basin through the oasis route may have interacted culturally with earlier populations from the steppe, with limited gene flow, resulting in a small genetic signal of the oasis agriculturalists in the Xiaohe community.

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Conclusion Our data indicate multiple population influences in the Tarim Basin during 4000–3500 yBP, consistent mainly with the “steppe hypothesis”, but with elements of the “oasis hypothesis”. Meanwhile, we can’t exclude the possibility that East Asians had an indirect impact on the Tarim Basin at Bronze Age.

(Source: “Analysis of ancient human mitochondrial DNA from the Xiaohe cemetery: insights into prehistoric population movements in the Tarim Basin, China”, by Chunxiang Li et al.)

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Abstract The Tarim Basin, located on the ancient Silk Road, played a very important role in the history of human migration and cultural communications between the West and the East. However, both the exact period at which the relevant events occurred and the origins of the people in the area remain very obscure. In this paper, we present data from the analyses of both Y chromosomal and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) derived from human remains excavated from the Xiaohe cemetery, the oldest archeological site with human remains discovered in the Tarim Basin thus far.

Our results demonstrated that the Xiaohe people were an admixture from populations originating from both the West and the East, implying that the Tarim Basin had been occupied by an admixed population since the early Bronze Age. To our knowledge, this is the earliest genetic evidence of an admixed population settled in the Tarim Basin.

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Discussion The Xiaohe cemetery is the oldest archeological site with human remains discovered in the Tarim Basin todate. Our genetic analyses revealed that the maternal lineages of the Xiaohe people were originated from both the East and the West, whereas paternal lineages discovered in the Xiaohe people all originated from the West.

The East Eurasian lineage C, which was widely distributed in modern Asian populations, was the dominant haplogroup in the remains recovered from the lowest layer of the Xiaohe cemetery. This lineage is most frequently found in modern Siberian populations (Evenks, Yakut, Evens, Tuvinian, Buryat, Koryak and Chukchi) and to a lesser extent in modern East Asian (Mongolian, Daur and Korean) and Central Asian populations. It was also found in the ancient Qinghai (4000BP) of China and ancient South Siberian populations. In order to trace the original wellspring of lineage C in the Xiaohe population, a phylogenetic tree was constructed using 14 ancient Xiaohe samples and 522 modern haplogroup C samples from surrounding areas of the Xiaohe cemetery, including Siberian, Mongolian, Central Asian, northern Chinese and northern minorities of East Asia. The phylogenetic network displays a star-like distribution within the South Siberian population, which has an ancestral haplotype motif 16223-16298-16327. The ancestral haplotype was found mainly in South Siberian whose diversity of haplotypes C is very high.Therefore, the original source of haplogroup C was inferred to South Siberian. It is important to note that the C haplotypes of the Xiaohe people had only a single mutation compared with the ancestral haplotype. The shared sequences of the Xiaohe C haplotype (S1) were distributed in southeastern Siberia. It implies that the east Eurasian component in the Xiaohe people originated from the Siberian populations, especially the southern or eastern Siberian populations.

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The mtDNA haplogroup H is the most common mtDNA haplogroup in Europe, especially in northwestern Europe, and its frequency can be as high as 65% in Iberia. Frequencies gradually decrease from the north-west to the southeast of Europe. By contrast, the frequency of haplogroup H rises to only 20% in the Near East, and to less than10% in Central Asia, and is very low in East Asia. All of the shared sequences of the Xiaohe H haplotype, however, were distributed inWestern Europe. Haplogroup K is also common in Europe, particularly around the Alps and the British Isles. It is found with less frequency in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Considering the presence of haplogroups H and K in the Xiaohe people and the geographical distribution of shared sequences, we conclude that the west Eurasian component observed in the Xiaohe people originated from western European, and maternal ancestry of the Xiaohe people might have close relationship with western European.

Regarding the Y chromosomal DNA analyses, the seven males identified all belonged to haplogroup R1a1a. It is most frequently found in Eastern Europe, South Asia and Siberia. In contrast, it is relatively uncommon in Middle Easterners and rare in East Asian. It is thought to be a trace of the migration events of early Indo-European. The presence of haplogroup R1a1a in the ancient Xiaohe people implies that the parental ancestry of the Xiaohe people originated from somewhere in Siberia or Europe, which is consistent with the origin of maternal ancestry.

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It is generally agreed that the origin of modern populations in Xinjiang and Central Asia is the result of the admixture of people from the West and the East. When and where this admixture first occurred has long been of interest to geneticists and archaeologists. The year 132 BC is often considered to be the beginning of contact between the East and the West along the Great Silk Road, since the Chinese explorer Zhang Qian went westward into Central Asia at that time. However, Mair has suggested that the date should be even earlier, based on the fact that silk appeared in Europe at 1000 BC. In this study, the East and West Eurasian lineages are seen to coexist in the Xiaohe people, implying that the East had contacted the West during the early Bronze Age. It is noteworthy that the maternal lineage of five male individuals (106, 111, 115, 136 and 139) originated from East Eurasian, whereas their paternal lineage originated from the West Eurasian, implying that the Xiaohe population had been an admixture of people from both the West and the East. Given the unique genetic haplotypes and the particular archaeological culture, the time of this admixture could be much earlier than the time at which the Xiaohe people were living at the site. This means that the time of their mingling was at least a 1000 years earlier than previously proposed.

However, the mtDNA haplogroups H, K and C all are very ancient lineages, over 10,000 years old in vast north Eurasia, whereas the civilization of the Tarim Basin, according to the archaeological materials, arose very late. The admixture therefore probably occurred elsewhere, before immigration into the Tarim Basin. TheXiaohe people might well have been an admixture at the time of their arrival. Where did the initial admixture occur?

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The admixture from people of the West and the East was also found in ancient Central Asia, Siberia, and Mongolia. The extent of the admixture varied in different regions and at different periods. Central Asia has always been the crossroads of contact between the West and the East. Lalueza-Fox et al. proved that Eastern lineages coexisted with Western lineages in Central Asia after 700 BC, whereas the West had met the East in south Siberia in the BronzeAge, and even earlier at Lake Baikal. Xinjiang and the surrounding areas, especially south Siberia, were places at which the contact between western and eastern populations occurred earlier than in Central Asia. Given the fact that the mtDNA haplogroup C was distributed mainly in south Siberia, and that haplogroups H, K and R1a1a already had spread eastward into south Siberia during the Bronze Age, it is possible that the initial admixture occurred somewhere in southern Siberia. Considering that the cultural characteristics of the Xiaohe cemetery are similar to those of the Andronovo or Afanasevo culture that appeared throughout the southern Russian steppe, Kazakhstan, and western Central Asia during the second millenniumBC, the admixed population might have had relationship with populations settled South Siberia during the Bronze Age.

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Conclusions Our results demonstrated that the Xiaohe people was an admixture from populations originating from both the West and the East, implying that the Tarim Basin had been occupied by an admixed population since the early Bronze Age. Considering the unique genetic haplotypes and particular archaeological culture, the admixed population might have had relationship with populations settled South Siberia during the Bronze Age. To our knowledge, this is the earliest genetic evidence of an admixed population settled in the Tarim Basin.

(Source: “Evidence that a West-East admixed population lived in the Tarim Basin as early as the early Bronze Age”, by Chunxiang Li et al.)

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Abstract Archaeological researches in Xinjiang in the last century have revealed that the
region was a crossroad of cultures as early as prehistory, but it is only in the last thirty years that its crucial importance has come to be recognized. From the 1980s an increasing number of studies have put forward cultural categories and spatial temporal frameworks to organize Bronze Age and Iron Age remains in Xinjiang but due to several problems, such as scarce publications and scant reliable dating, there is still a lack of clear standards for establishing the cultural and temporal attributions of the sites. Nevertheless, the contribution given by debates among scholars on the subject is remarkable and needs to be evaluated in greater detail, in order to gain a clearer understanding of early Xinjiang. This paper aims to be a qualitative study on the current research on Bronze Age and Iron Age cultures in Xinjiang. It provides a retrospective review of the studies on the subject with special reference to selected works since the 1980s, in the hope of enhancing the understanding of Xinjiang and Eurasian prehistory.

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Conclusion: New Approaches and New Perspectives

Judging from the current state of the research on prehistoric Xinjiang ,the main current problems are the lack of clear standards for establishing archaeological cultures within the context of prehistoric Xinjiang, on one side and the failure in re-examining microscale research in the wider Eurasian context, on the other.

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Therefore, in the light of this study and considering the directions for future research, some major issues need to be emphasized:

1. The paleoenvironment, essential for arranging a safe ecological context for prehistoric cultures, is too little documented;

2. The establishment of a secure temporal framework is hampered by the low number of C14 analyses. Relative chronologies are also difficult to formulate, due to the lack of stratigraphic studies;

3. Excavation reports are not regularly published and are often concise, neglecting pictures and drawings, preventing in some cases the correct interpretation of the remains. Scarcity of information also involves Stone Age remains depriving the research on the Bronze and Iron Ages of reliable bases;

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4. Archaeological research is impacted by the “methodological weakness” detected by Roberts and Linden: despite being in theory based on the combination of several data, archaeological cultures have been often defined according to a single category of evidence, namely pottery for later prehistory. Discoveries in Xinjiang revealed a general scarcity of pottery, compared to other cultures, and in some cases, such as in Gumugou cemetery, no pottery was found. So, although it is clear that pottery alone cannot be the basis for identifying cultural groups in Xinjiang, an alternative is still to be found.

5. Because of the peculiar position of Xinjiang, prehistoric remains should be properly re-evaluated in the broader context of Eurasia. It is evident that nomad populations of Central Asia and western Siberia greatly contributed to the spread of cultural and technological innovations through different kinds of relationships with local people. The involvement of Xinjiang cultures in this system of connections is demonstrated by the presence of Afanasevo, Okunevo Andronovo cultural remains in the region. However numerous “missing links” still hamper the understanding of the scale, patterns, and mechanisms of these interactions, as well as the directions of the spread of cultural and technological innovations. To this respect communication and exchange of material among scholars from China, Russia and the rest of the world should improve, overcoming nationalistic sentiments and language barriers.

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Despite the extraordinary scholarly effort in studying the complicated context of Xinjiang prehistory, much more is still to be learned: a multidisciplinary approach should be adopted, on one hand, while indigenous developments and external influences need to be equally investigated on the other. In doing so, a closer collaboration among scholars should be encouraged.

(Source: “Prehistoric Cultures in Xinjiang: Retrospect and Prospect”, by Marcella Festa)

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Abstract Cosmetics have been studied for a long time in the society and culture research, and its consumption is regarded as a cultural symbol of human society. This paper focuses on the analysis of the red cosmetic sticks, found in Xiaohe Cemetery (1980–1450BC), Xinjiang, China. The structure of the red cosmetic sticks was disclosed by SR-μCT scanning (Synchrotron Radiation Micro-computed Tomography), while the chemical components were characterized by FTIR (Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy), Raman Spectroscopy and Proteomics. The results suggested that the cosmetic sticks were made from the cattle heart and covered with a layer of hematite powders as the pigment. Given the numerous red painted relics in Xiaohe Cemetery, this kind of cosmetic sticks might be used as a primitive form of crayon for makeup and painting. The usage of cattle hearts as cosmetic sticks is firstly reported up to our knowledge, which not only reveals the varied utilizations of cattle in Xiaohe Cemetery but also shows the distinctive religious function. Furthermore, these red cosmetic sticks were usually buried with women, implying that the woman may be the painter and play a special role in religious activities.

(Source: “Characterization of cosmetic sticks at Xiaohe Cemetery in early Bronze Age Xinjiang, China”, by Huijuan Mai)

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Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Maximus E. Niles

 

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