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How an American researcher put himself at the center of an ethnic conflict in western China


More than 4,000 years ago, a group of people with cultural and genetic ties to Europe made their way to the Xinjiang region in western China, bringing domesticated plants and animals. Mummies like the Beauty of Xiaohe are at the center of a controversy over who has ancestral rights to Xinjiang. (Courtesy Wang Da-Gang)

On a hillock overlooking a broad expanse of desert in China's Xinjiang region, mourners worked swiftly in the cold some 3,500 to 4,000 years ago, preparing a dead woman for the difficult voyage ahead. Those assembled looked decidedly European, with wavy, auburn hair, round eyes, and long, protruding noses. Following the ancient ritual, they swaddled the dead woman's shapely body in a woolen cloak, tucked her feet into warm leather boots, and pulled a felt cap over her long, auburn hair to protect her ears from frostbite. Satisfied, they lowered her into the ground between two pieces of timber curved like parentheses, and gazed one last time at her fragile beauty. Only then did they bid her farewell, stretching hides from freshly killed oxen over the timber to make a coffin. When they were done, her resting place in the sand resembled an overturned coracle—a round or oval boat paddled in western Eurasia at least 2,700 years ago. Archaeologists have dubbed her "the Beauty of Xiaohe."

The region's fierce winter freeze-dried many of the bodies buried by the ancient desert dwellers, preserving them for millennia. And in the early twentieth century, scientific teams led by British-Hungarian archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein and others began stumbling on these naturally mummified cadavers in an arid expanse known as the Tarim Basin. Stein, who was searching for historical texts along caravan routes in the region, took time from his studies to excavate and photograph some of the bodies. "It was a strange sensation," he later wrote, "to look down on figures which but for the parched skin seemed like that of men asleep."


For decades, Chinese archaeologists assumed that these isolated finds were just a few lost travelers. But in the 1970s, construction workers laboring on housing developments, roads, and industrial sites in the region began uncovering hundreds of Western-looking human remains—some mummified, some not. The latest dated to around A.D. 500, a time when the Silk Road was flourishing. But the earliest inhabited the region 4,000 years ago, at the height of the area's Bronze Age—roughly 2,000 years before Han Chinese began migrating in significant numbers into Xinjiang. The discoveries created a controversy in Xinjiang, a region that was churning with ethnic unrest. Who, wondered many local inhabitants, had the strongest ancestral claim to the Tarim Basin? Was it the 7.5 million Han Chinese who reside in Xinjiang? Or was it the 8.3 million Uyghurs—Muslims who speak a language related to Turkish and Kazakh, some of whom look European. Many Uyghurs have long dreamed of separating from China and transforming Xinjiang into an independent state. They saw the mummies as vital proof of their ancestral claim to the region.

No sooner did these mummies surface than Chinese authorities had them swiftly reburied—this time in the back rooms of a museum in Ürümchi, the capital of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, as the Chinese government calls it. It was a politically convenient place to stow the evidence and stonewall all the inconvenient questions they posed. But in the late 1980s, as China was starting to open Xinjiang to foreign tourists, the government decided to put a few of these stunning finds on display.

Heather Pringle is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.