The surprising origin of the mummies of the Tarim Basin in China


A scientific team has determined the genetic origins of the most enigmatic mummies in Asia, those found in the Tarim basin (China). In their day they were believed to be Indo-European speaking immigrants from the West; however, they have turned out to be a local indigenous population with deep Asian roots and a taste for distant cuisine.

This finding, published in the journal Nature and made thanks to the analysis of their DNA, it contradicts previous hypotheses that affirmed that these mummies descended from populations that migrated from what is now southern Siberia, northern Afghanistan or the mountains of Central Asia.

The remains were found buried in ship coffins in a barren desert and have long puzzled researchers, as well as inspiring numerous theories about their enigmatic origins.

The remains were found buried in ship coffins in a barren desert and have long puzzled researchers, as well as inspiring numerous theories about their enigmatic origins.

Since the late 1990s, their discovery, which consisted of hundreds of naturally mummified human remains dating from between 2000 BC and 200 AD. In the Tarim basin in China, it has attracted much attention due to its so-called “western” physical appearance, its woven and felt woolen clothing, and its agro-pastoral economy that included cattle, sheep and goats, wheat, barley, millet and even kefir cheese.

Clothing and food that puzzled scientists

As part of the Silk Road and situated at the geographical intersection of Eastern and Western cultures, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has long been an important crossroads for trans-European exchanges of people, cultures, agriculture and languages.

The cattle-centered economy of this population and their unusual physical appearance have led some scholars to speculate that they were descendants of the Yamnaya migratory herders, a highly mobile Bronze Age society hailing from the steppes of the Black Sea region. , in southern Russia.

The cattle-centered economy of this population and their unusual physical appearance have led some scholars to speculate that they were descendants of Yamnaya migratory herders.

Others have placed it among the Central Asian desert oasis cultures of the Bactriana-Margiana Archaeological Complex, a group with strong genetic ties to the early farmers of the Iranian plateau. Controversially, they are also frequently credited with spreading the first branching Indo-European language, Proto-Tacharian, in East Asia.

Genetic analysis of mummies

To better understand the origin of the founding population that first settled in the region in places like Xiaohe and Gumugou around 2000 BC, a team of international researchers from Jilin University and the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of China, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Germany), Seoul National University (Korea) and Harvard University (USA) generated and analyzed the genome data of thirteen of the earliest known mummies, dated between 2100 and 1700. BC, along with five individuals dated between 3000 and 2800 BC in the neighboring Dzungarian Basin.

This is the first genomic-scale study of prehistoric populations in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and includes the first human remains discovered in the region.

“Archeogeneticists have long searched for Holocene populations to better understand the genetic history of inner Eurasia. We have found one in the most unexpected place, “he says. Choongwon Jeong, lead author of the study and professor of Biological Sciences at Seoul National University.

This is the first genomic-scale study of prehistoric populations in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and includes the first human remains discovered in the region.

Therefore, they were not at all a newcomer population to the region, but they would be direct descendants of a population of the Pleistocene that was very widespread and that had largely disappeared at the end of the last Ice Age.

These individuals, known as the ancient North Eurasians (ANEs), only survive fractionally in the genomes of current populations, in indigenous individuals from Siberia and America.

In contrast to current populations, the mummies show no evidence of mixing with any other Holocene group, indicating a hitherto unknown genetic isolation, which likely suffered a prolonged and extreme genetic bottleneck before settling in the Tarim basin. .

These findings contribute to our understanding of the eastward dispersal of Yamnaya ancestry and of the scenarios in which mixing occurred when they first encountered the Inland Asian populations, “explains Chao Ning, study co-author and professor. from the School of Archeology and Museology at Peking University.



Its neighboring towns

Unlike the Tarim basin, the early inhabitants of neighboring Dzungarian were descended not only from local populations, but also from western steppe herders, specifically the Afanasievo, a group of herders with strong genetic ties to the Bronze Age Yamanya. Early

The genetic characterization of the early Bronze Age Dzungarians also helped clarify the ancestry of other herding groups known as the Chemurchek, which later spread north to the Altai Mountains and Mongolia.

These groups appear to be the descendants of the early Bronze Age Dzungarians and the Central Asians of the Inner Asian Mountain Corridor.

These findings of extensive genetic mixing throughout the Tarim basin throughout the Bronze Age make it even more surprising that the Tarim mummies do not show any evidence of genetic mixing. However, although these groups were genetically isolated, they were not culturally isolated.

“Despite being genetically isolated, the Bronze Age peoples of the Tarim Basin were culturally very cosmopolitan: they built their cuisine around West Asian wheat and dairy, East Asian millet, and medicinal plants like ephedra from Central Asia, “adds Christina Warinner, lead author of the study, Professor of Anthropology at Harvard University and head of the MPI-EVA research group.

The proteomic analysis of their dental calculation confirmed that the founding population already practiced cattle, sheep and goat breeding, and that they were well acquainted with the different cultures, cuisines and technologies in their environment.

“Reconstruction of the origins of the Tarim Basin mummies has had a transformative effect on our understanding of the region. We will continue to study ancient human genomes in other eras, to gain a deeper understanding of the history of migration. human in the Eurasian steppes, “concludes Yinquiu Cui, lead author of the study and a professor at the Faculty of Life Sciences at Jilin University.

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