URUMQI, China — After years of controversy and political intrigue, archaeologists using genetic testing have proved that Caucasians roamed China’s Tarim Basin 1,000 years before East Asian people arrived.
The research finding — which the Beijing government apparently delayed releasing, fearing it could fuel Uighur Muslim separatism in China’s western-most Xinjiang region — is based on a cache of ancient dried-out corpses that have been found around the Tarim Basin in recent decades.
The discoveries in the 1980s of the undisturbed 4,000-year-old “Beauty of Loulan” and the 3,000-year-old body of the “Charchan Man” are legendary in international archaeological circles for the fine state of their preservation and for the wealth of knowledge they bring to modern research.
In historic and scientific circles, the discoveries along the ancient Silk Road were on a par with finding the Egyptian mummies.
But the separatists in Xinjiang have embraced the Caucasoid mummies as evidence that the Uighurs do not belong in China, forcing Beijing to slow the research.
“It is unfortunate that the issue has been so politicized, because it has created a lot of difficulties,” said Victor Mair, a specialist in the ancient corpses and co-author of “The Tarim Mummies.”
The desiccated corpses, which avoided natural decomposition because of the dry atmosphere and alkaline soils in the Tarim Basin, have given historians a glimpse of life in the Bronze Age.
Mr. Mair, a University of Pennsylvania professor who played a pivotal role in bringing the discoveries to Western scholars in the 1990s, has struggled to take samples out of China for genetic testing. One recent expedition was allowed to take five samples out.
“From the evidence available, we have found that during the first 1,000 years after the Loulan Beauty, the only settlers in the Tarim Basin were Caucasoid,” Mr. Mair said.
East Asian peoples began showing up in the eastern portions of the Tarim Basin only about 3,000 years ago, he said, while the Uighurs arrived after the collapse of the Orkhon Uighur Kingdom, largely based in modern-day Mongolia, about the year 842.
A study last year by Jilin University also found that the mummies’ DNA had Europoid genes.
Meanwhile, Yingpan Man, a nearly perfectly preserved 2,000-year-old Caucasoid mummy, was allowed this month to leave China for the first time, and is being displayed at the Edo-Tokyo Museum.
The Yingpan Man, discovered in 1995 in the region that bears his name, has a gold foil death mask — a Greek tradition — covering his blond bearded face, and wears elaborate golden embroidered red and maroon garments with seemingly Western European designs.
His nearly 6-foot-6 body is the tallest of all the mummies found, and the clothes and artifacts discovered in the surrounding tombs suggest the highest level of Caucasoid civilization in the ancient Tarim Basin region.
When the Yingpan Man returns from Tokyo to Urumqi, where he has long been kept out of public eye, he is expected to be finally put on display when the Xinjiang Museum opens this year.