DNA reveals the unexpected origins of mysterious Tarim mummies buried in a boat in a Chinese desert. Hundreds of mummified bodies dating back approximately 4,000 years have been discovered in the Tarim Basin of Xinjiang, northern China. At approximately 2000 BCE, the agropastoral Tarim population that the earliest mummies belonged to resided in a freshwater habitat that has since been desertified.
The ancestry of hundreds of mummified individuals found buried in boats in a harsh desert region of northwest China has left archaeologists perplexed and confused. Mummies’ bodies and garments are shockingly intact despite being up to 4000 years old, having been discovered primarily in the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang in the 1990s. Though “buried in boats” seems like a strange choice, it turns out that the area was home to a sizable lake before 645 CE.
The desert air has naturally preserved these mummies, revealing their facial features and hair color. Their Western appearance, felted and woven wool garments, and the cheese, wheat, and millet found in their peculiar graves indicated that they were long-distance herders from the West Asian steppe or migrating farmers from Central Asia’s highlands and desert oases.
The latest research by Chinese, European, and American researchers that studied the DNA of these 13 mummies and sequenced their genomes for the first time has revealed an entirely distinct picture. Their findings indicated that the remains did not belong to outsiders, but to a local community descended from an ancient ice-period Asian population.
Since their discovery, the mummies have attracted both scientists and the general population. Aside from being exceptionally preserved, they were discovered in a highly unusual situation and exhibit various and far-flung cultural characteristics,” said Christina Warinner, an associate professor of anthropology at Harvard University.
We discovered compelling evidence that they are a very genetically isolated, small population. In contrast to their genetic isolation, they appear to have actively welcomed new ideas and technologies from their herder and farmer neighbors, as well as generating distinct cultural characteristics shared by no other communities.
Researchers examined genetic material from the earliest Tarim Basin mummies, which ranged in age from 3700 to 4100 years old, as well as genomes sequenced from the remains of five people from the Dzungarian Basin, located further north in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The oldest human remains discovered in the region date back between 4800 and 5000 years.
Prehistoric DNA can provide compelling evidence regarding people’s migrations when written records or other clues are limited, according to Vagheesh Narasimhan, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has studied genetic samples from Central Asia. He was not involved in the study and described it as “interesting.” The study discovered that the Tarim Basin mummies exhibited no signs of mixing (the scientific term for having babies) with other cultures that existed at the same time.
Moreover, these mummies were direct descendants of a group that was once common throughout the Ice Age but had mostly vanished by the end of that period, roughly 10,000 years ago. Traces of this hunter-gatherer population remain only in the genomes of modern populations, with Indigenous people in Siberia and the Americas having the greatest known percentage. It was surprising to find them in the Tarim Basin and date them back to these years.
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DNA reveals the unexpected origins of mysterious Tarim mummies buried in a boat in a Chinese desert.
DNA reveals the unexpected origins of mysterious Tarim mummies buried in a boat in a Chinese desert.


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