A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A solution to the puzzle of Indo-European origins?
The Indo-European problem is one of archaeology's oldest, most contentious questions. More than 200 years ago, in 1786, English jurist and scholar Sir William Jones realized that Latin and Greek shared a common origin with Sanskrit, the ancient language of Hindu law and religion. These three languages, he proposed, had developed from a single ultimate parent language, now called Proto-Indo-European. Linguists soon added most of the languages of Europe (including English), Iran, and northern India-Pakistan to the family, and eventually discovered several extinct cousins, including Hittite, spoken in Anatolia about 2000-1000 B.C., and Tocharian, a group of two (or possibly three) languages spoken about A.D. 500-800 in the Buddhist monasteries and caravan cities of the Tarim Basin in what is now western China. All of these languages still display telltale traces of the same Proto-Indo-European grammar and vocabulary. But where and when was the elusive mother tongue spoken? And by what historical circumstances did it generate daughter tongues that became scattered from Scotland to China?
In 1995, media reports brought to the public's attention astonishingly well-preserved remains of European-looking people, dressed in European-looking clothes, buried in the Tarim Basin between about 1800 B.C. and A.D. 500. This came about through the persistent efforts of Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese and Indo-Iranian literature and religion at the University of Pennsylvania. Long known to specialists but poorly understood and little studied, the Tarim mummies (not really mummies, but bodies preserved by dry conditions) quickly became the focus of intense interest and debate. Riveting photographs appeared in ARCHAEOLOGY (March/April 1995, pp. 28-35) and Discover. Academic papers on the mummies were edited by Mair for the 1995 Journal of Indo-European Studies. Film crews working for Nova and the Discovery channel soon followed Mair to the deserts of northwestern China; the Discovery show ("The Riddle of the Desert Mummies") was nominated for an Emmy. In 1996, Mair hosted a conference of 50 international experts on the archaeology, linguistics, and physical anthropology of the Central Eurasian societies related to the mummies; the proceedings were published in two dense and informative volumes in 1998, and textile specialist Elizabeth Barber issued a book on the Tarim textiles.
Now Mair has teamed with James Mallory, a distinguished Indo-European linguist and archaeologist at Queen's University in Belfast, to write The Tarim Mummies, which explores the difficult and controversial questions about the languages, identities, technologies, migrations, and physical traits of the mummies. It is a fascinating and readable account and presents a valuable compendium of recent research on a little-known region that has long been the focus of romantic speculation by travelers and explorers from Marco Polo to Aurel Stein. To determine the ethnic and linguistic identity of the Tarim mummies requires, as they say, "a feat of archaeological and linguistic legerdemain," but it is an intriguing game to follow, for it sheds light on the documentary, linguistic, archaeological, and skeletal evidence that must be used to attempt a linguistic and ethnic prehistory of eastern Central Asia.
In the end, their "working hypothesis" is that the earliest Bronze Age colonists of the Tarim Basin were people of Caucasoid physical type who entered probably from the north and west, and probably spoke languages that could be classified as Pre- or Proto-Tocharian, ancestral to the Indo-European Tocharian languages documented later in the Tarim Basin. These early settlers occupied the northern and eastern parts of the Tarim Basin, where their graves have yielded mummies dated about 1800 B.C. They did not arrive from Europe, but probably had lived earlier near the Altai Mountains, where their ancestors had participated in a cultural world centered on the eastern steppes of central Eurasia, including modern northeastern Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tadjikistan. At the eastern end of the Tarim Basin, people of Mongoloid physical type began to be buried in cemeteries such as Yanbulaq some centuries later, during the later second or early first millennium B.C. About the same time, Iranian-speaking people moved into the Tarim Basin from the steppes to the west. Their linguistic heritage and perhaps their physical remains are found in the southern and western portions of the Tarim. These three populations interacted, as the linguistic and archaeological evidence reviewed by Mallory and Mair makes clear, and then Turkic peoples arrived and were added to the mix.
David W. Anthony is a professor of anthropology at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, and codirector of excavations for the Samara Valley Project in Russia.