Reporting from Urumqi, China —
Almost invariably when visitors approach the middle-aged woman enshrined in a climatized exhibit case in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region Museum, they pause and do a double take. What gets the most attention is her nose: high-bridged, slightly hooked, the sort of nose that reminds you of Meryl Streep.
Then a little gasp. "Weiguoren!" (A foreigner!), one young woman exclaimed to her friends. They were touring the museum earlier this month on a Chinese public holiday.
Nearly 4,000 years after her death, the so-called Beauty of Loulan still has the ability to amaze.
She is one of hundreds of Bronze Age mummies discovered in the shifting desert sands of northwestern China's Xinjiang region, where thousands more still lie buried. Unlike the embalmed mummies of ancient Egypt, they were preserved naturally by the elements, which in some ways makes them more interesting. They represent an extended span of history dating from 1800 BC to as recently as the Ching dynasty (1644-1912) and a range of human experience. Some were kings and warriors, others housewives and farmers.
"They were ordinary people who lived and died in Xinjiang over the ages,'' said Wang Binghua, a retired archaeologist who exhumed many of the mummies.
The most famous of them, the Beauty of Loulan, was unearthed in 1980 by Chinese archaeologists who were working with a television crew on a film about the Silk Road near Lop Nur, a dried salt lake 120 miles from Urumqi that has been used by the Chinese for nuclear testing.
Thanks to the extreme dryness and the preservative properties of salt, the corpse was remarkably intact — her eyelashes, the fine hair on her skin, even the lines on her skin were visible. She was buried face up about 3 feet under, wrapped in a simple woolen cloth and dressed in a goatskin, a felt hat and leather shoes.
But what was most remarkable about the corpse — believed to date to about 1,800 BC — was that she appeared to be Caucasian, with her telltale large nose, narrow jaw and reddish-brown hair.
The discovery turned on its head assumptions that Caucasians didn't frequent these parts until at least a thousand years later, when trading between Europe and Asia began along the Silk Road. And it added another bone of contention to the raging ethnic conflict in Xinjiang, where Uighurs, a Turkic speaking people, consider themselves to be the indigenous population and the Han Chinese foreign invaders from the east. Since Uighurs themselves often resemble Europeans rather than Chinese, many were quick to adopt the Beauty of Loulan as one of their own.
"If you went to see the mummy in the museum, a Uighur would come up to you and whisper proudly, 'She's our ancestor,'" said Victor H. Mair, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Pennsylvania. "It became a political hot potato."
For years, the Chinese government tried to thwart foreign scholars from looking too deeply into the mummies' origins. In 1993, the government confiscated tissue samples from Xinjiang mummies that Mair and an Italian geneticist, Paolo Francalacci, had collected with permission. (A Chinese scientist, whom Mair declines to name, later slipped the samples into their hands as they were preparing to leave.) Although DNA testing was not as advanced as it is today, the scientists were able to trace a genetic link to Europe.
Their findings were confirmed by a more comprehensive study published in February based on genetic tests of remains from a nearby archeological site — Xiaohe ("Small River"), which lies about 100 miles west of Loulan. Geneticists from China's Jilin and Fudan universities concluded that the ancestors of these ancient people had indeed come from Europe, possibly by way of Siberia.
Not only were the mummies not Chinese, but they weren't Uighur either — although their descendents might have eventually been assimilated into the Uighur population, according to Mair, who consulted on that study. "We deflated that bubble,'' he said.
The result is that the mummies have shed some of their political sensitivity, allowing them to come out of the closet of China's ethnic troubles. For the first time this year, two mummies traveled to the United States as part of an exhibit titled "Secrets of the Silk Road: Mystery Mummies of China" at Santa Ana's Bowers Museum. The show is now at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, where it will remain until early next year, when it travels to the University of Pennsylvania.
The mummies are also star attractions within China, the centerpiece of the recently refurbished museum in Urumqi, and another in the oasis town of Turpan, 140 miles from Urumqi, where ethnic Chinese mummies discovered in the region are on display.
Although the terrain nowadays is so dry and wind-swept as to be almost uninhabitable, this area known as the Tarim Basin was once laced with rivers and dotted with oases hospitable enough for settlement. As a crossroads between Europe and Asia, it was home at different times to an astonishing mix of peoples — Europeans, Siberians, Mongolians, Han Chinese.
There was a man who lived in the 3rd or 4th century AD who was 6 feet 6 and dressed in magnificent red and gold embroidered clothing; a 3-month-old baby (8th century) with a felt bonnet and small blue stones covering the eyes, which were possibly the same color. Some of the men have red beards; the women have long blond braids.
All the mummies tell a story. In an ancient graveyard in Astana, near Turpan, a man and a woman are buried together in an underground crypt that dates from the Tang dynasty (AD 618-906) and is one of the few places that the public can see mummies in their original graves.
The woman looks younger than the man. Her mouth is in a grimace; forensic specialists say her arm and neck were broken shortly before her death. "We think she might have been beaten and buried alive to be with her husband. He died naturally,'' said Bai Yingcai, a tour guide and mummy expert who was taking visitors through the crypts.
Often, the mummies' accessories are more interesting than the bodies themselves. Some have high pointed hats; another, possibly a healer, was buried with a bag of marijuana.
In one cemetery in Hami, in northeastern Xinjiang, archaeologists found plaid fabric similar to what you'd see on a Scottish kilt. Elizabeth Barber, a professor emeritus at Occidental College and a leading expert on ancient textiles, used the cloth to surmise that the mummies shared Celtic ancestry with the Scots. In fact, the cloth was almost the same as samples found in ancient salt mines in Hallstatt, Austria, an area once inhabited by early Celtic tribes.
Wang, the Chinese archaeologist, says people have been too distracted by ethnic issues to focus on what the mummies can teach about ancient lives: "You can study the mummies to learn what these people ate, how they dressed, their social life, their standards of beauty, how they interacted with others. This information is very precious.''
The Loulan beauty, despite her fine features, lived a hardscrabble life. Her shoes and clothing had repeatedly been mended. Her hair was infested with lice. She had ingested a considerable amount of sand, dust and charcoal, and lung failure most likely caused her to die in her early 40s.
"You can see that even back then, pollution was a problem," said Wang.
Demick is The Times' Beijing bureau chief.
Nicole Liu of the Beijing bureau contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times