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DRAGON SCIENCE: Time Travelers

Scientists were astonished when they realized that mummies found in Xinjiang Province might be of Caucasian origin and not ethnic Chinese. Victor Mair, a China scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, has been working with other scientists to solve the riddle of these ancient remains. Who were these people, and what were they doing in northwestern China? Scientific research has unearthed some of the answers. Irene Good, an archaeologist specializing in textiles at the University of Pennsylvania, provides more clues.

Curriculum Links
Activity: Make a 3-D Skull Model
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skeletal system





Silk Road


To most anthropologists and paleontologists, the skull is the most valuable part of the skeleton. A skull provides clues to a person's physical form, ethnic origin, behavioral patterns, health history and even social standing. The skulls of the Xinjiang mummies surprised the scientists who found them. The nasal bones and eye orbits were not typical of a mongoloid stock (ethnic Chinese people). Instead, these skulls shared anatomical traits with the skulls of Caucasians (physical anthropologists refer to the cranial structure as caucasoid).

lateral Materials:
  • 1/4-inch foam core
  • modeling knife
  • ruler
  • pencil or marker
  • modeling clay


In this activity, you will build a 3-D representation of a human skull that you can use to study skull anatomy. Your "model" at size should be six to eight inches; it will represent the skull of a typical young child; human skulls vary in size, as you will observe if you measure your classmates' heads and compare with those of children and/or adults. You will need to consult an anatomy book to complete the activity and identify the bones of the skull. NOTE: To display a right side view of the skull, copy the scale drawing onto transparency paper and project the flipped image. Poster board and scissors may be substituted for foam core and modeling knife.

anterior Procedure:

  • Use a pencil or marker and a ruler to draw a 1" x 1" grid pattern on foam core for both the anterior view (front view) and the lateral view (side view).

  • The images are drawn 1/2 scale. (1/2" = 1") Using the scale drawing as a guide, draw in the skull lines over your 1" grids.

  • Cut out the outlines of the sections. Cut along the dotted lines and join the sections by their slotted openings. Steady your model by placing the back end in a small lump of clay.

  • Use information from a variety of sources to locate and label the following skull bones:
      a. occipital
      b. parietal
      c. frontal
      d. lacrimal
      e. sphenoid
      f. malar
      g. mandible
      h. maxilla
      i. nasal
      j. temporal
      k. ethmoid

    1. Which skull bone(s) listed in step 4 are not illustrated in the anterior skull view?

    2. Which bones form a protective enclosure for the brain?

    3. Which bones most define an organism's facial features?

    4. Would you classify the frontal bone as facial or braincase (cranium enclosing the brain) bone? Explain.

    1. Occipital, parietal, frontal, temporal, sphenoid, and ethnoid.
    2. Nasal, maxilla, mandible, malar, lacrimal, and occipital.
    3. Both; it forms the front part of the braincase and shapes the forehead and brow region.

    • Create a rear view (posterior) of the skull. Include the position and names of all bones that would be visible.
    • Advanced students should be able to identify, locate and label these additional skull parts:

        a. zygomatic arch
        b. styloid process
        c. coronal suture
        d. squamous suture
        e. mastoid process
        f. mental foramen
        g. infraorbital foramen
        h. supraorbital foramen

      • When did the Chinese invent printing? Gunpowder? Paper?

      • Investigate mummification procedures used in ancient Egypt. How are Egyptian mummies similar to the ones unearthed in Xinjiang? How are they different?

      • Prepare a parallel timeline to show what was going on in other cultures at the time the Xinjiang bodies were buried.

      • Compare research and findings of Xinjiang mummies with work done on the Ice Man found in the Alps.


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.