Thursday, November 15, 2007

Oh Mysterious Mummy!

More than a thousand years before any known contact between East and West, hundreds of mummies, many with blue eyes and light hair, were buried in a Chinese desert. It’s a discovery that could substantially rewrite the history of contact between East and West and challenge the assumption that China developed largely in isolation. On Sunday, December 2, at 9 p.m. ET/PT, the National Geographic Channel’s Explorer: China’s Secret Mummies goes on a unique forensic journey to determine who these people were and where they came from.

The Tarim Basin in western China is an arid, forbidding landscape long thought to be one of the natural barriers that enabled the East to develop separately from the West. But a remarkable archaeological find by a Chinese expedition in 1978 — a series of mummies, many with Caucasian features — called into question theories about East/West migration. The mummies remained in a regional museum, all but hidden for a decade, until Victor Mair, an expert on ancient Chinese texts, chanced upon them and realized their importance. Examining their clothes and the artifacts buried near them provided some clues about their origin. It wasn’t until earlier this year that Spencer Wells, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and director of National Geographic’s Genographic Project, went on a mission to use advanced DNA-analyzing technology to decode the mummies’ genetic identities.

The desert conditions of the Tarim Basin provided natural mummification, which helped prevent rotting and disintegration. China’s Secret Mummies helps put the significance of these mummies into perspective. The wool cloth, for example, demonstrated that sheep-herding, which originated in the Fertile Crescent, had progressed eastward. And bronze implements buried in the same vicinity as the mummies raised tantalizing possibilities that these people introduced bronze to the Chinese.

But where did these people come from? The weave in many of their garments, recognizable as plaid, suggested a European origin, but definitive answers were elusive. While the physical evidence provided many clues, it raised as many questions as it answered. The investigation then looked to DNA analysis, which offered more promise of determining the origin of these enigmatic mummies.

Earlier this year the Chinese government allowed Wells and other scientists a limited opportunity to examine the mummies, with the hope of finding useable DNA samples. China’s Secret Mummies details the scientists’ efforts to locate DNA samples within leathery inner tissue that had not degraded over the millennia. The scientists were ultimately able to extract enough material to yield some intriguing results. The genetic trial suggested that far from being an isolated outpost, this section of the Tarim Basin was constantly inhabited for some 1,700 years until around 300 B.C. Preliminary results also hinted that these people came from all over the map: Europe, Mesopotamia, India and elsewhere. Overall, such findings bolster the idea that China did not develop in complete isolation from the rest of the world, and that, indeed, outsiders might have impacted its development.