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Worker from the West July 10, 2006

Recently doubts have been raised concerning the results of this DNA analysis. See "China's DNA Debate" for more about it.

Are new DNA findings a surprise or just one more piece of evidence for China's early connections?

(Courtesy Victor Mair)

According to a news report from China, DNA analysis indicates that at least one of the workers who constructed the tomb of Qinshihuang, the first emperor of China, was in fact of west Eurasian ancestry. ARCHAEOLOGY talked to the University of Pennsylvania's Victor Mair about this announcement and its implications for understanding ancient connections between China and the West. A professor of Chinese language and literature in the university's department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Mair may be familiar to some ARCHAEOLOGY readers from his account of the discovery of mummies in western China. For those of you who have not yet encountered these remarkable Bronze Age and Early Iron Age inhabitants of eastern central Asia, perhaps the best place to turn is the article he wrote in ARCHAEOLOGY (March/April 1995) entitled "Mummies of the Tarim Basin."

People are familiar with Qinshihuang, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty (260-210 B.C., r. 247-221 B.C.), in large part because of his army of terra-cotta warriors. Chinese archaeologists have refrained from excavating the emperor's tomb, so where was the "worker" found?

The remains of the individual in question were discovered in a mass grave about 500 meters in front of the museum housing the pits in which the famous terra-cotta warriors are arrayed. Judging from the jumbled manner in which the bones were found, these were workers engaged in the construction of the massive tomb complex. Apparently the grave contained the skeletons of 121 different persons. Physical anthropologists have determined that the individuals buried in the grave were males ranging in age from 15 to 55, with an average age of 24.

How do we know this individual was a worker, as opposed to a craftsman or soldier or anything else?

Unfortunately, the news reports that have been made available so far are still sketchy. In early September, I will visit the lab at Fudan University in Shanghai where the genetics research was done. At that time, I hope to find out many more details, including exactly what the evidence is for calling the grave in question a workers' grave. For the moment, one can only assume that this determination was made on the basis of the cramped, undignified manner of burial. In this context, it may be worth mentioning that the First Emperor mobilized approximately a million men to build his tomb complex; this could hardly have been done without a large measure of coercion and deprivation. The same all-powerful ruler also forced hundreds of thousands of laborers to link up the local defensive walls into the forerunner of what is now known as the Great Wall, and there are many heart-rending tales of those unfortunate souls who died while building it.

Did these men perish during construction of the tomb, or were they done in after it was competed and buried all at once?

This is another question that merits further investigation. The excavation of the mass grave that yielded the recently studied skeletal remains took place in 2003, so by now there should be archaeological records, and perhaps also reports, that explain the grounds for referring to this as a "workers' grave." I intend to acquire whatever materials are available during my forthcoming trip to China.

DNA analysis from archaeological remains can be very tricky. What can you tell us about the researchers involved with this case?

For the present time, I will say this about the genetics research that forms the basis of the recent announcement. First of all, it was done in the very best population genetics lab in China, that of Prof. Jin Li at Fudan. This is a state of the art facility. I have visited it several times, and I can attest that the equipment and skills of the researchers there are at a world standard. I know Xu Zhi and Tan Jingze, both of whom were quoted in the reports. These are careful, serious scientists. Incidentally, early DNA specialists from Jilin University in northeast China are also working on the Tarim Basin mummies at the moment. I have visited that lab too, and I am certain that it will be the source of equally remarkable news before long.

Was just this one set of remains tested?

Of the 121 shattered skeletons, 15 were tested, but so far only one of them appears to have a west Eurasian genetic profile. It is said that his genetic features mark him as belonging to T-genodeme, which unmistakably belongs to a western haplotype. Specifically, Chinese geneticists say that this links him with people living to the west of the Pamirs: the Parsi (Persians) in India and Pakistan, the Kurds in Turkmenistan, and the Persians in Iran.


Was this discovery surprising to you?

I'm not the least bit surprised by the report of a supposedly Iranian "worker" having been buried next to the tomb of the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty. After all, at this time and even earlier, we've got Iranian peoples--Wusun, Scythians, and others--running all over the Eurasian steppes from the Black Sea to what is now northern China. We have nearly contemporaneous physical descriptions of Europoid individuals--including Wusun--in Chinese historical sources. Not too much later, we have the Khotanese and Sogdians, and no one denies that these Iranian peoples were active in the East Asian Heartland (EAH). It's also easy to document the presence of Persians and Sassanians in China. Furthermore, back in 1990, I published an article in Early China that provided many different types of evidence indicating that Iranian magi were present at the Zhou Dynasty capital circa 800 B.C., about six centuries before the time of the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty.

What's the early literary evidence for foreigners in China?

Among other texts, the official histories, including Records of the Scribe (Shi ji) and History of the Han (Han shu) have numerous references to individuals from the "western regions" with large noses, deep-socketed eyes, and full beards. These persons are generally called hu, which is loosely translated as "barbarian," but there are many specific names for different groups as well.

And the early archaeological evidence for foreigners in China?

To be brief, there are figurines, sculptures, wall paintings, and a host of artifacts (coins, textiles, glass, silver vessels, etc.) that either depict persons from abroad directly or indirectly indicate their presence.

What was the nature of these early interactions between western and central Eurasia and East Asia? Was most of the interaction based on the transfer of human labor, or was there trade as well?

I doubt that the transfer of human labor was a very significant factor in the interaction between West and East at this time, in the third century B.C. Rather, the main driving force was trade. In this sense, we should not think of the period before the opening of the so-called Silk Road during the second century B.C. as one devoid of long distance exchange. To give but a single example, jade from eastern Central Asia has been found in Shang Dynasty tombs in Henan (central China) dating to the twelfth century B.C.

What's the importance of this find? Do the new genetic findings support the existing evidence from other sources of this east-west interaction?

The genetic evidence, while sensational, is by no means indispensable in building a case for the active presence of foreigners in early China. Indeed, it only adds to a large body of evidence from history and archaeology.

How might this "foreign worker" have arrived in the Shaanxi Province? Was it likely that he was a captured nomad, or might he have arrived in China under different circumstances?

It has been speculated that the individual in question may have been captured during one of the many border conflicts that perennially plagued the inhabitants of the EAH. That is entirely within the realm of possibility, since the people of the EAH, as far back as the Shang Dynasty, are known to have enslaved captives taken in war. On the other hand, I think it just as likely that this individual may have come to China to engage in business, but--for one reason or another--ended up staying in East Asia. Or perhaps he was the descendant of a family from abroad who had settled in China for generations. This certainly was the case during the late classical and early medieval periods that followed the era of the First Emperor, for we have abundant information concerning non-Sinitic peoples from abroad living in the EAH during these times. I see no reason to believe why this would not have have been the case during the third century B.C. and even before.

What impact might these findings have on the perception of early foreign contacts and presence in China?

The immediate impact is undeniably great, for genetics research adds a new, scientific dimension to the already strong case for early foreign activity in the EAH that has been building for the last decade and more. I wish, however, to stress that this is only a single individual. Furthermore, the results have to be duplicated independently by at least one more reputable genetics laboratory; this is a standard protocol in ancient DNA studies. Ideally, it would be good to have similar findings for at least a dozen or so different samples. But I certainly cannot complain! In fact, I must confess that I'm delighted that our Chinese colleagues are carrying out these investigations, and I'm truly grateful that the authorities are permitting these potentially unsettling revelations to circulate freely, both inside and outside China. I look forward eagerly to the publication of further studies on these extremely important materials in the coming months and years.

The Tarim Mummies

Victor Mair will be traveling to China in September to visit the genetics laboratory at Fudan University in Shanghai, where research is being conducted on the foreign skeleton, and will be updating ARCHAEOLOGY readers on his finds. Please stay tuned for his follow-up to this remarkable story!

For those who would like to learn more about the Tarim Basin mummies that Mair reported on for ARCHAEOLOGY, he highly recommends the volume that he wrote in collaboration with J. P. Mallory, The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West (London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000).

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America