Mummies in China Were European Cheese Makers?


Ever since the mummies of Taklamakan were first discovered, there has been a great mystery surrounding their origins, particularly due to their seemingly European appearance, but could the recently found cheese make way for a series of new evidence? Are these mummies perhaps descended from a group of European bronze age merchants that ventured out on the silk road to trade with the orient? A lot has been discovered, but a lot of pieces are still missing from the puzzle.

Ever since the first mummies were discovered in the 1930’s, there have been several additional findings as well as other discoveries made in the region and as of today, it seems as if researchers are getting ever so close to being able to assemble the clues, facts, evidence and historical accounts in order to construct a solid picture of the history of this area. However, there appears to be one tiny problem when it comes to these mummies: Everybody seems to be claiming them.

See, there’s apparently a slight political issue involved here. The Turkic speaking Islamic Uyghur tribe, that has populated the area reportedly since around the mid 800s AD, and the ethnic Chinese population that came into the area with the expansion of the Chinese Empire under the Qing dynasty. With many of the Uyghurs feeling invaded by the Chinese and wanting independence, there is tension, and being able to claim the mummies might perhaps, to either side, count as a valid argument to claim rightful inheritance of the region. Then of course, the Europeans claim them too. A grey area that seems to make it even more complicated is that several of the mummies are said to have Asiatic features, and thus, the tribe may have been an intermarried mixture.

In addition to the physical features, there are a lot of other attributes that scientists identify as seemingly European, such as clothes, some artifacts and the fact that they were buried in boats, something that correlates with the Viking ship burial mounds. The cheese might possibly fit into that section as it is more often linked to the middle east and Europe around that time in history. Other finds include woven grass baskets and carved masks. Bundles of ephedra have also been found, the herb possibly used for medical purposes or in rituals even.  If the cheese would now turn out to be similar to European made cheese, the ancestors of the mummies may have been merchants who brought a trace of their roots with them to China.

There have been a lot of hypothetical theories about the origin of the mummies, and many of those have to do with language. Linguists have examined and proposed possible links to the speakers of the Tocharian languages, an Indo-European language related to bronze age Celtic, Greek, Latin and Germanic, who lived in the same area until the arrival of the Uyghurs in the 800s and perhaps they still do as a part of the Uyghur genome. Other possibilities connecting the mummies with possible Indo-Iranian tribes have also been explored, but nothing appears to have been considered evident enough to be a fact.

A genetic research was conducted on the mummies in 2009. The result of that research was that the male Y chromosome was haplogroup R1a1a, a strain of the R1a, common in west Siberia, eastern Europe and Scandinavia. The female mtDNA was mostly haplogroup C, possibly from north-eastern Siberia and haplogroups H and K, common in Europe. This suggests an admixture.

The mummies might quite possibly be descended from Europeans who ventured out on the silk road in pursuit of happiness and intermarried with locals in China, but whoever they were, much like people today, they apparently liked making good cheese.

Editorial by Halldor Fannar Sigurgeirsson

NY Daily News
NY Times
Khaleej Times
The DNA test (PDF)
Nathan Light’s blog post

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