"Mysterious Mummies of China"

PBS Airdate: January 20, 1998
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ANNOUNCER: Tonight on NOVA...

VICTOR MAIR: He was buried alive, and he's howling. And he's screaming.

ANNOUNCER: In the heart of central Asia, ancient bodies offer puzzling clues.

VICTOR MAIR: They say that they had red hair, bluish-green eyes. It's a European type of person.

ANNOUNCER: What became of their lost civilization?

MAN: Oh, God. Amazing.

ANNOUNCER: NOVA takes you where few outsiders have ever gone: to unearth the secrets of the Mysterious Mummies of China.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Park Foundation. Dedicated to education and quality television.

This program is funded in part by Northwestern Mutual Life, which has been protecting families and businesses for generations. Have you heard from the Quiet Company? Northwestern Mutual Life.

And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and viewers like you.

NARRATOR: The desolate wastes of the Takla Makan Desert, at the heart of central Asia, are haunted by an ancient mystery. It was here, long ago, that East and West—two of the greatest civilizations on earth—made imperceptible contact. And here the faint traces of ancient life have long pressed a deep and vexing enigma. Did the civilization of ancient China arise in isolation? Or was there an unremembered link with the cultures of the West? Now, the echoes of voices long silent are offering startling testimony. Like other detective stories, this one begins with a dead body. This woman, and others like her, are as old as 3,800 years, yet remarkably well preserved. More startling yet, the mummies are clearly not Chinese, but they provide evidence to solve the riddle of ancient China's interaction with the West. An expedition is now setting out into the Takla Makan, headed far across the dunes and deep into a long lost past. The quest to reclaim the mummy peoples' story began when Chinese scholar, Victor Mair, virtually stumbled on the most important find of his career.

VICTOR MAIR: In 1987, I went into the museum in Ürumchi. I walked into this room that was full of mummies, and I couldn't believe what I saw. The label said that they dated back to 1000 B.C. They looked as fresh as though they had just been exhumed a week or two ago. From that moment forward, I was totally enchanted with the mummies.

NARRATOR: Also here is archaeologist Jeannine Davis-Kimball, who specializes in ancient nomadic peoples. Charlotte Roberts, forensic anthropologist, will be helping to decipher the ancient remains. The mummies are rarely made available for outside scrutiny. But the Chinese archaeologist who found this woman lying exposed on the desert sands allows the team to see her.

VICTOR MAIR: This corpse was found on the surface, close to the surface of Tomb 2. According to Mr. He, it was partially dismembered and was a sacrificial victim for the main occupant of the tomb. He believes that this person was from another tribe and was sacrificed in respect for the main occupant of the tomb. Her eyes have been gouged out, she's lacking her arms beneath the elbow joints, and from the pelvis down below, there is nothing remaining.

CHARLOTTE ROBERTS: Can we actually look at the pelvis?

MR. HE: (Chinese)

CHARLOTTE ROBERTS: So, there were no leg bones at all?

VICTOR MAIR: No leg bones at all. They've been jerked out, or yanked out, according to Mr. He.

CHARLOTTE ROBERTS: Well, looking at the pelvis, she's quite young, actually. If you look at the surface here, if you see a ridge and furrow pattern, which is characteristic of a young person. Yeah. So, there were no leg bones at all?


NARRATOR: It is a fascinating, yet oddly intimate encounter with a woman who lived and suffered more than 3,000 years ago. More chilling yet is the fate of an infant child, found buried below the woman on the surface.

VICTOR MAIR: Charlotte, how old would you say this child is?

CHARLOTTE ROBERTS: Well, I can just see the incisor teeth in the lower jaw. This would indicate a person about the age of one year, but could be as young as eight months or as old as 16 months.

VICTOR MAIR: This little baby boy was found in a hole over the main occupant of the grave. His head was inserted head first, and his feet were sticking up. So, according to Mr. He, he was buried alive, and he is howling, he's screaming. Also, Mr. He says that there are traces of mucous coming out of his nostrils and traces of tears, so according to Mr. He, this child was sacrificed again before the priestess.

MR. HE: (Chinese)


CHARLOTTE ROBERTS: Oh, I can see the hand there.

VICTOR MAIR: Little hand, clenched.


NARRATOR: The visitors' attention is drawn to the fabric wrapping the tiny body. It was not made by the Chinese, who hadn't yet acquired the craft of weaving wool with such sophistication. Where did the little boy come from?

CHARLOTTE ROBERTS: And very fair-haired, too.

JEANNINE DAVIS-KIMBALL: Mmm-hmm, almost reddish.

CHARLOTTE ROBERTS: If you actually look at the profile, the nose is quite large and long.

JEANNINE DAVIS-KIMBALL: Long nose, mmm-hmm.

CHARLOTTE ROBERTS: Yeah. Although at this age, we wouldn't really want to say much about ethnic affiliation.

NARRATOR: There is no uncertainty about the ethnic origins of the body buried in the main chamber below the other two. This perfectly preserved mummy was a woman of about 40.

MR. HE: (Chinese)

VICTOR MAIR: It's a European type of person.

MR. HE: (Chinese)

VICTOR MAIR: So, she's quite tall. She's 1.72 meters.

MR. HE: (Chinese)

VICTOR MAIR: Her nose is very high.

NARRATOR: These mummies were not embalmed. Their amazing preservation is due to the dryness and salinity of the desert soil.

VICTOR MAIR: This is the mistress, or the lady of the main occupant of the tomb.

MR. HE: (Chinese)

VICTOR MAIR: He thinks that there was a war, and that these other sacrificed victims were captured in the war and then, out of respect for her, they were buried with her. From this cemetery, there have been 17 desiccated corpses found, all in quite a good state of preservation. But the most beautiful one is this in our museum.

MR. HE: (Chinese)

VICTOR MAIR: When I brought her out of the grave and held her in my arms, I realized —

MR. HE: (Chinese)

VICTOR MAIR: —I realized that she was the most beautiful woman on earth.

MR. HE: (Chinese)

VICTOR MAIR: I was startled. I was holding the most beautiful woman on earth.

MR. HE: (Chinese) (laughter)

VICTOR MAIR: If she were alive today, or if I were alive 3,000 years ago, I would certainly make her my wife.

NARRATOR: But how could a Chinese man like Mr. He have met a blond woman 3,000 years ago? According to many scholars and predominant Chinese belief, China's civilization was essentially evolving in isolation from the West. Though it concerns a distant past, the question resonates in the present. Most of the people who dwell in China's westernmost regions don't look especially Chinese. Many of these people, known as Uyghurs, don't think of themselves as Chinese, either. In recent years, some have called for autonomy from China, and to them, the mummies are proof the their ancestors were an ethnically distinct group, here long before the arrival of Chinese conquerors. As a result, the question of the mummies' ethnic identity is a sensitive matter. No one disputes that eventually China's isolation was broken, and a lively traffic in commerce and culture flowed between East and West. To this day, weathered beacon towers rise from the arid wastes, drawing the traveler's eye to the path of the fabled Silk Road. Beaten into the land by traders' caravans and conquering legions about 2,000 years ago, it was the interstate highway of the ancient world, a bustling corridor where disparate cultures rubbed elbows and exchanged precious goods and ideas. The Silk Road, 4,000 miles long, spanned the entire world as the ancients knew it—at one end, the great civilizations of Rome and Greece. From there, the route made its way across the near East and through the untamed Russian Steppes. Those who survived the brutal winds and marauding pirates went on to confront forbidding mountains and white-hot dunes. Crossing the Takla Makan Desert was the final ordeal, leading at last to China's frontier. Tales of the grueling trip have surely lent credence to the view that ancient China was beyond the reach of Western influence. Over the centuries, the Silk Road sprouted a civilization of its own. It was as fantastically long as it was oddly narrow, lined with imposing temples and thriving cities. It was thought that these structures were built by the Chinese, but it now seems that the architects were a little-known local people known as the Tocharians, who seem to have appeared in these parts over 2,000 years ago. Some of their cities were located remarkably close to the ancient mummy graveyards in the Takla Makan, suggesting that this mysterious tribe may be connected to the mummy people. To explore this idea, the team has asked its Chinese hosts to take them to a mummy burial site. Since the whole issue of the mummies is laden with political stakes, they are constantly accompanied by two Chinese officials. The cemetery outside the oasis village of Wupu has already yielded many mummies. Jacob Satuhola, Regional Director of Archaeology, extends a warm welcome. Then, he explains that even though the central government has forbidden any more mummy excavations, he will make an exception. In the interest of international cooperation, he allows them to dig up a grave. Only about one grave in six actually contains a mummy at this site. And many of the graves have been disturbed by grave robbers. Victor senses this one has not been spared.

VICTOR MAIR: There's no question in my mind that the grave had been disturbed. The timbers covering the roof of the grave were inverted from their normal position. There were no reeds or branches or other materials to cover over the grave that would prevent the sand from falling down into the chamber.

JEANNINE DAVIS-KIMBALL: The lowest point is where the grave goods should be. We're not quite down to that point yet. I can't tell what this is over here, Charlotte. Can you tell? In this corner here? Is that a pelvis, or is it...?

CHARLOTTE ROBERTS: There's been some disturbance.

JEANNINE DAVIS-KIMBALL: It's been disturbed. Right.

CHARLOTTE ROBERTS: There's something else coming out there, as he's brushing.

JEANNINE DAVIS-KIMBALL: Normally, we would see the skull or the head before we see the chest because the head is higher, thicker, and we would see that. And so far, we've seen a chest and a hand that I've seen.

CHARLOTTE ROBERTS: And a bit of a forearm and part of a leg. But that's about all we can see at the moment.

JACOB: (Chinese)

JEANNINE DAVIS-KIMBALL: This is a piece of textile, but it's not a woven piece. It's done in a different technique that's sort of like a braid. And it probably was a piece of—like a piece of belting used on some part of their clothing. It feels like wool.

JACOB: (Chinese)

JEANNINE DAVIS-KIMBALL: Oh, yeah. This is wool that's been spun. Uh-huh, sheep wool spun into yarn. And let's see, is it woven? No, there's no weaving on it yet. It's just twisted.

NARRATOR: For a moment, a scrap of wool distracts the visitors. But Victor suspects something is amiss.

VICTOR MAIR: Peering down into the grave, I saw fungal growth on the corpse, which would indicate that it had probably previously been located elsewhere than in that grave. And the fact that the corpse itself was quite well preserved but it was headless is inexplicable, unless there was disturbance.

NARRATOR: It seems the Chinese had planted a headless body here, to avoid the risk of unearthing a European-type face. They may not have anticipated that the visitors would explore other avenues in their search for clues to the origins of the mummy people. Victor, once again, has unearthed a major find without having to dig at all. In an obscure, local museum, he finds two mummies from the cemetery: an adult man, and a girl, surrounded by objects from her grave.

CHARLOTTE ROBERTS: She's quite young. And from what I can see, looking at the edge of the pelvis, there's a bit there that usually fuses around the age of 25, and that certainly hasn't fused. So, she's probably around 18 to 20 years of age. If you look at her face, she's got a pretty flat face and high cheekbones, a short nose which isn't very protruding. She looks very similar to people who live in this area today, although we notice she's got an overbite, if you look at the teeth. Can you see the teeth?


CHARLOTTE ROBERTS: Usually, many people in this area have an edge-to-edge bite, and she has got an overbite, which tends to more European in nature.

VICTOR MAIR: So, it would be unusual, unusual for the—Yeah.

CHARLOTTE ROBERTS: We've got some preservation of hair here. And look at the fingernails. Can you see them?

VICTOR MAIR: Very long. Yeah.

CHARLOTTE ROBERTS: They're quite long, and don't look like they've been cut for a long time. Interestingly, this young person looks like she's quite emaciated. Now, that might be something to do with the mummification processes —

VICTOR MAIR: Desiccation, yeah.

CHARLOTTE ROBERTS: —desiccating the skin. But maybe she was ill for a long time. But certainly, there's no evidence to suggest by just looking here what caused her death.

VICTOR MAIR: She has very little flesh. Her fingers are very skinny.

NARRATOR: Beside the girl is a water bucket.

JEANNINE DAVIS-KIMBALL: And then, on top of it is a piece of bread, and this whole apparatus, including the halter for the donkey, which lies beside her, indicates that they place things in the burial for her trip to the next world or to use in the afterworld, which were very important, like the bucket which held a liquid, the bread, and the bridle for transportation.

NARRATOR: The male body, which was discovered in the late 70s, is faring far worse than it would buried in sand. The curators lack the funds to prevent the gradual disintegration of some of the most important human remains ever found. But this ancient man can still offer precious clues about his people. An oval face and reddish hair suggest European roots. His bronze earring and leather boots show his people were skilled artisans.

VICTOR MAIR: They were buried wearing their clothing. They wear boots with felt stockings, caftans, trousers. So, we know what they would have looked like when they were walking around and alive.

NARRATOR: The objects they cherished in death begin to create a picture of the mummy peoples' lives. They were farmers who kept domestic animals, and worked a land thousands of miles away from their ancestral turf.

VICTOR MAIR: This is a food item for the local people, and it's made from barley. And they came in many different shapes.

CHARLOTTE ROBERTS: So, it's in effect, bread?

JEANNINE DAVIS-KIMBALL: Bread of some sort.


JEANNINE DAVIS-KIMBALL: And you'll notice the curvature on this piece of bread.

JACOB: (Chinese)

VICTOR MAIR: A wooden basin with legs on the bottom.

JACOB: (Chinese)

VICTOR MAIR: Oh. It's a vessel for daily use?

JEANNINE DAVIS-KIMBALL: Yes, it's a vessel for daily use, but it's also placed in the burial. And it could have held bits of food, or intended to hold food for use in their next world, also.

NARRATOR: Noted archaeologist, Wang Binghua, found further evidence.

WANG BINGHUA: (translation) We even found some farming tools. The woolen and leather clothing came mainly from sheep, so they must have had quite large flocks. Handicrafts were also well developed. For example, they could make clay pots.

JEANNINE DAVIS-KIMBALL: This was probably used by the priestess or the shaman—the shamanka, the female priestess—to cure people. There's still evidence, and this is very possibly a little cultic cup made from clay, fired clay, fired very nicely. And it has an extremely thin wall, and we have this...

VICTOR MAIR: Expanding spiral.

JEANNINE DAVIS-KIMBALL: The spiral. Right. This is very typical of nomadic people, also.

VICTOR MAIR: It's hard to believe it's 3,200 years old.

NARRATOR: Cowrie shells from the sea, not naturally found within thousands of miles of this vast desert, give up a crucial piece of the puzzle.

VICTOR MAIR: They must have been engaged in long distance trade, because we see in their graves sometimes things like cowries. They would have had to acquire such things from distant peoples.

JEANNINE DAVIS-KIMBALL: These are actually the spindles, and this is the spindle whirl. This one is made out of wood while this one is made out of bone. And they are different weights, so they would be used to spin different weights of wool yarn.

NARRATOR: Of all the finds here, the woolen textiles are the most impressive. Woven into twill and tartan patterns, these are among the oldest fine woolen clothes ever discovered.

WANG BINGHUA: (translation) This one has beautiful and harmonious colors. It has blue, white, and red. Also, the design and weaving is so wonderful. This piece is 3,000 years old.

NARRATOR: Strikingly similar to Celtic tartans from Northwest Europe, the patterns in the weave are like ancient DNA, waiting to be decoded. Are they evidence that the mummy people share common origins with the people of western Europe? Scientific reconstruction of the heads of the mummies produces a face that strongly resembles ancient Celts and Saxons. The mummy people buried their dead in the barren desert, but lived in the oases along its edges. These islands of green are still home to farmers who have little contact with the outside world, and use tools and methods that have barely changed over the centuries. Could their way of life harbor its own living relics, fragments of an ancient time preserved like the mummies themselves? The team sets out to explore a nearby village. Charlotte wants to find out about patterns of health and nutrition, since those leave indelible marks on corpses and skeletons.

VICTOR MAIR: What can you see? What can you see?

CHARLOTTE ROBERTS: Are there any general health problems? Is there any dental disease?

JACOB: (Chinese)

NARRATOR: Problems that afflict present day locals might explain defects found on the mummies, and shed light on their way of life.

VICTOR MAIR: Colds and flues and just general, minor illnesses, but nothing major.

CHARLOTTE ROBERTS: Nothing major. Yeah.

VICTOR MAIR: Yeah. But you can see, like the one woman, she has a thyroid condition.

CHARLOTTE ROBERTS: Yes. I wondered if there was an iodine deficiency in the water.

NARRATOR: It turns out the local people enjoy good health, sustained by a balanced diet of cereals, fruit, vegetables, and meat from their livestock. But the condition of the livestock itself prompts an important insight about the past.

JEANNINE DAVIS-KIMBALL: Looking at the animals today, their wool is very, very poor quality, and in contrast, the textiles that we found in the burials are made from very, very fine quality wool. So, that would indicate to me that they had trade with nomadic people who were living in the Tienshan who were in an environment that would produce a very fine quality wool.

NARRATOR: Today's farmers do in fact buy wool, meat, and timber from herders who live high in the mountains. Could this pattern date back to the mummy people?

JEANNINE DAVIS-KIMBALL: I believe that the mummy people must have had summer contact with ancient nomadic herders to weave such fine textiles.

VICTOR MAIR: There's a lot about this cart that looks like the very ancient remains that we've found.

NARRATOR: The ways of the living echo those of the past. The mummy people, like the people of the Russian Steppes to the north and the west, used donkey carts similar to those found here today.

VICTOR MAIR: There's a piece of wood in one of the burials that's almost identical with these pieces here.

NARRATOR: The changeless nature of their design is revealed by these artifacts found in their graves. The mummy people used the wheel long before it was known in China, and may have played a role in introducing it to Chinese civilization. In another reflection of the past, fir trees from the Tienshan mountains are used to fashion vessels and boards like those the local women used for bread-making.

VICTOR MAIR: When we were working at Wupu at the graveyard, we found a similar bowl, smaller in size, but made with identical techniques.

NARRATOR: Even the curved bread resembles the ancient loaf, similarly baked on the oven wall.

VICTOR MAIR: In some ways, when you go into the modern village of Wupu, you feel like you're entering into the ancient period in which you—when you look at the artifacts, you feel like you're recapitulating that. There are so many similarities.

NARRATOR: But the scholars need to set their gaze beyond the village to explore the interdependence of local farmers and mounted nomadic herdsmen. After centuries of self-sufficiency, the mummy people grew increasingly reliant on goods provided by nomads, who found in the higher reaches of the Tienshan mountains pastures rich enough to raise high quality livestock. Until recently, this area was off-limits to foreigners. And the visitors were not prepared for what they saw.

JEANNINE DAVIS-KIMBALL: Much to our utter surprise, we found magnificent grasslands that are so immense, it boggles the mind. And they go very high. One could not possibly take advantage of this territory without having had a horse. There's no doubt that horseback riding had a great impact upon the expansion and occupation of the territory in this region.

NARRATOR: But could horseback riding have reached these parts centuries before it was known in China? Victor's friend, archaeologist Lü Enguo, is a leading expert on the ancient nomads. His spectacular finds are revealing the nomads were expert riders as early as 800 B.C.

VICTOR MAIR: The 4th Century B.C. horse saddle that we found doesn't have any metal or wood on it. It's upholstered, as you can see, white leather. As far as we know, it's one of the earliest saddles in the world. It's so perfectly preserved. We can see that it's been mended here, patched up. It has beautiful bone fittings on the edges to tie the straps on.

CHARLOTTE ROBERTS: And at the back here.

VICTOR MAIR: Yeah, also. And the bridle and the bit, things like this we found a lot from those 7th and 6th Century Chawuhugou burials.

CHARLOTTE ROBERTS: The bit at the bottom, and you've got the headband up here.

VICTOR MAIR: The cheek pieces are wooden sticks. The snaffle bit is made of iron, and we have the leather straps, the bridle.

CHARLOTTE ROBERTS: And this is the rein.

VICTOR MAIR: And this rope.

CHARLOTTE ROBERTS: And the rope must be for tethering the animal.

VICTOR MAIR: It's just like it's brand new. It's still very flexible. It could take a lot of weight. The introduction of horseback riding to this region meant that the people had vastly increased mobility. That means that they could take advantage of more distant pastures, they could move their yurts, their houses, to farther away. That means that the pastures that they could utilize were vastly extended.

NARRATOR: To survive the bitter winters high up in the mountains, the nomads relied on extremely well insulated but portable homes called yurts.

JEANNINE DAVIS-KIMBALL: This is the flap that covers the door of the yurt, and it's done with felt, and it's quilted to make it much firmer, because the felt otherwise, with all the wear and tear, would pull apart. Then, it's edged with a nice braided wool edging. Down at the bottom is this nice woven band. It goes around the complete circumference to hold the felt in place. We've seen all of these techniques in the mummies. We've seen the braided bands. We've seen the quilted band and the felt. All of this was influenced from the nomadic people down to the lowland sedentary people.

NARRATOR: The yurt and its occupants' way of life have changed little in 2,000 years.

CHARLOTTE ROBERTS: I'm interested to know what kind of diet they have. What do they have in their normal diet?

VICTOR MAIR: Very—almost no vegetables, mostly milk products.

CHARLOTTE ROBERTS: And we see some of them on the table here, don't we? Yeah.

VICTOR MAIR: And some meat, a bit of meat.

NARRATOR: Charlotte learns that this family of nomads exchanges meat and wool for grain, which they add to their own food products. Without this carbohydrate supplement, they would suffer from crippling malnutrition. If the ancient nomad population was healthy, they too must have traded with outsiders for grain.

VICTOR MAIR: They don't have many illnesses. They just have flues, colds, that sort of thing. They have 500 sheep and goats, 500 sheep, 100 cows, cattle, and...80? Eighty horses.

NARRATOR: But exactly who were the nomads? And where did they come from? Archaeologist Lü Enguo suggests they try to locate a mysterious site dating from the time of the ancient nomads. Perhaps it will yield some clues.

VICTOR MAIR: Oh, God! Amazing! Look at that!

JEANNINE DAVIS-KIMBALL: Oh, look at those!

NARRATOR: A colossal rock face, covered with elaborate engravings.

LÜ ENGUO: (Chinese)

VICTOR MAIR: This mountain is the perfect setting for a reproductive fertility rite ceremony. There's a lot of grass here. It's very lush. And the mountain itself is so grand that it's natural that people would want to come here and have ceremonies.

JEANNINE DAVIS-KIMBALL: I see females performing a very ritual dance, and some of them even falling into ecstasy during the dance time, and the copulation between the male and the female are prominent in these scenes.

NARRATOR: These 3,000-year-old dancing women with their narrow waists and stylized gestures are nearly identical to figures found in Bulgaria and in the Ukraine, dated to about 1,000 years earlier. There too, the dancers celebrate fertility and reproduction. These figures have large noses, long faces, and round eyes. The nomads are thought to have Iranian origins. Here, their Western roots are literally carved in stone. Eager to establish if the nomads traded for grain with the mummy people, Charlotte and Lü try to figure out how well the ancient herdsmen ate by studying their skeletal remains.

LÜ ENGUO: (translation) In a healthy human body, this bit of the pelvis should be separate from the sacrum and able to move freely. But this half is fused.

CHARLOTTE ROBERTS: I suspect this is probably due to injury. And again, this may well be related to their lifestyle, maybe to horse riding. And on the back of the mandible, you'll see a very large hole there, which indicates that the bone has got infected inside. The pressure has built up, and the pus that's formed inside the bone has forced it's way out.

LÜ ENGUO: (Chinese)

CHARLOTTE ROBERTS: That exposes the pulp cavity. The center of the tooth, which you can see there, and infection gets into the roots of the teeth and causes destruction of the bone. I would suggest that this is associated with walking up and down steep mountainsides, being in the hills a lot. I don't see much evidence in the nomadic skeletons I've looked at of nutritional deficiencies. So therefore, they must have been getting additions to their main part of the diet from a source, and that's probably from the agriculturalists. And they would have been trading their animals for things like grain, fruit, and vegetables.

NARRATOR: It now seems certain that the nomads bartered with the mummy people for food. But it turns out they became far more enterprising, wide-ranging traders. Their graves contain such items as a 3,000-year-old makeup stick, and numerous bronze objects made hundreds of miles away.

JEANNINE DAVIS-KIMBALL: We have evidence of long distance trade across the mountains and Steppes. So, we have bronze knives, which show a very strong affinity with the Steppe nomads on the northern side of the Tienshan and clear as far north as southern Siberia.

NARRATOR: At the time bronze was spreading eastward, the Chinese recorded their first descriptions of European-looking nomads.

VICTOR MAIR: They say that they had red hair, bluish-green eyes, and they looked like monkeys, and they had long noses. And they looked like monkeys, hairy all over.

LÜ ENGUO: (Chinese)

VICTOR MAIR: A bow and some arrows.

NARRATOR: Later nomad finds include artifacts that were not intended for sale. These swift riders became masters of archery, ready to trade in violence when it suited their interests.

VICTOR MAIR: Very powerful.

NARRATOR: Before long, the threat of their powerful, serpentine bows would profoundly affect the course of Chinese history.

LÜ ENGUO: (Chinese)

VICTOR MAIR: There are several kinds of arrows. This one has an iron tip.

NARRATOR: The bow was found during Lü's most recent excavations, which have yielded many spectacular finds dating to about 300 B.C. They are kept in a locked storeroom, and until now, have never been filmed by outsiders. One of the most important discoveries is a fully clothed woman wearing a conical hat. Symbolic of a high priestess of the nomads, it would one day become the hallmark of witches in Europe. Most startling of all is a male mummy bearing marks unlike any seen before. The man's chest had been incised, possibly due to lung disease, and then sewn up with horsehair sutures. By this time, the distinction between farmers and nomads was blurring.

VICTOR MAIR: They lived in tents. They followed the grasses and waters. They had considerable knowledge of agriculture. They owned cattle, horses, camels, sheep, and goats. They were proficient with bows and arrows. They seemed to be both nomadic and agriculturalist at the same time, so I believe that they were able to adapt to different kind of circumstances, and that those who found themselves in oases, for example, became farmers. And those who were in upper pastures or in grasslands either maintained a nomadic lifestyle, or they became nomads.

NARRATOR: Up in the high mountains, the nomadic population expanded rapidly and soon reached the Chinese frontier. Trading directly with the Chinese, they fell in love with their superb silks, to this day, dearly prized by the region's nomadic Kazakhs.

JEANNINE DAVIS-KIMBALL: The nomads had extensive trade networks from about 1000 B.C. But the trade in silk began around 300 B.C. and spread right across the Steppes to Central Asia, to Persia, and to Europe. This was the luxury item they really coveted.

NARRATOR: If the Chinese refused to supply them, the nomads bargained even harder, waves of horsemen laying waste to border towns. The Chinese cavalry was not powerful enough to chase them. But they did have superb engineers. The Great Wall of China was linked up in the 3rd Century B.C. from sections that had been built earlier. It was not yet the Wall we see today, but it was large enough to impress the nomads. Along the emerging Silk Road, the Chinese erected watch towers to warn travelers if marauding nomads approached. In time, cities sprang up along the Road. But who built them? Victor believes that at least one city, Jiaohe, may have originally been founded by the ancestors of the Tocharians, a mysterious people possibly descended from the ancient mummies. In fact, the European-looking bodies recently discovered by Lü lived near Jiaohe, and date to about 300 B.C., when the town was first settled. Victor's research shows that Tocharians were living here as early as the 3rd Century B.C. Several hundred years later, when ethnic Chinese first arrived, most of the inhabitants were still Tocharian. Who were these enigmatic people? If Victor can corroborate his hunch that they descended from the ancient mummy people, a startling conclusion would be inescapable. This region, on the very doorstep of ancient China, was continuously populated by people of European origin from as early as 1800 B.C., through the boom days of the Silk Road. The team requests permission to visit a remote site, never before filmed by foreigners. There, they may be able to glimpse the real faces of the Tocharians. This temple complex, carved out of sandstone cliffs, is riddled with caves where Buddhist monks made their homes.


VICTOR MAIR: It's very small.


VICTOR MAIR: It's the 7th Century.


NARRATOR: The walls of the caves are like mirrors, indelibly reflecting the different peoples who passed through the temple. Could they provide clues to the appearance of the Tocharians?

CHARLOTTE ROBERTS: And look at that. You see? Somebody in a coffin.

JEANNINE DAVIS-KIMBALL: Uh-huh. And it looks to me like they're lowering the coffin into the burial. See the ropes around it, the green ropes? They're putting it down into the burial.

VICTOR MAIR: The clothes they were wearing are the clothes of the local people here in Kucha at the time, and it's similar to Iranian clothes of that period.

JEANNINE DAVIS-KIMBALL: Oh, look! Look up there. You see the guy with the horse and the pointed hat?


JEANNINE DAVIS-KIMBALL: There's three of them on that horse. There's three Saka there, with the pointed hats? Three Saka nomads.

NARRATOR: Many of the faces on the walls have Indian characteristics and caste marks. Others are plainly Europeans, painted in the style of classical Greece and Rome. There are also mounted warriors wearing trousers and boots, their bow cases slung over their saddles.

VICTOR MAIR: I would also like to point out the recurved bow in this individual kneeling up here. I think that's fascinating. You see a hunting scene of a man with a recurved bow shooting.

NARRATOR: In the gloomy recesses of one of the caves, the scholars find a crucial clue to the identity of the Tocharians: not a painting, but script. Amazingly, the Tocharian tongue is more closely related to the languages of Western Europe—with their Indo-European origin—than to those of Asia. More than likely, the speaker of this Western tongue were of Western provenance themselves. The puzzle is coming together. Tartan textiles, European faces, shared ritual practices, and now a close affiliation with European languages. They belong to a people related to those who lived in eastern Europe in a region around the Urals and the Black Sea. Most of their common ancestors migrated west. The mummy people went east, through the Russian Steppes, to the Takla Makan. But how long did they survive here? Were the Tocharians in fact their descendants? There's no way to be sure without seeing an authentic likeness of the Tocharians. The guide knows an isolated cave with portraits of the individuals who sponsored the cave building. It's a dangerous climb, more than 100 feet above the valley floor.

JEANNINE DAVIS-KIMBALL: Isn't that something? Up the ladders and across that ledge?

CHARLOTTE ROBERTS: Well, that was a bit of a climb! Do you think it was well worth it now you've seen the place?

VICTOR MAIR: Oh, well, I would say so. There are some pretty impressive features in this cave. In this vaulted ceiling above us, we have a lot of Buddhas with kneeling figures beside them. And the kneeling figures look like they're Tocharians. So, he's a local person, a Tocharian, but wearing elements of costume.

NARRATOR: In a small passage at the back of the cave, Victor hits pay dirt.

VICTOR MAIR: I see the red beard and the red hair parted in the middle. It's a distinctive style of Tocharians. He's wearing a coat with wide lapels on both sides, and then folded over. It's a shame that these figures have all been defaced by people of other faiths at some time in the past. But still, it's very easy to see what they looked like, and we can tell who they were.

NARRATOR: The Tocharian figures are strikingly similar to the mummies that lived in these parts 1,000 years earlier. Victor's quest has come full circle.

VICTOR MAIR: And the wide lapel, folded back. He's got the red beard, red hair parted in the middle. This one has blond hair and a long nose, and an Indian caste mark, which we call a tika. So, he's a local person, a Tocharian, but wearing elements of costume that are Sassanian or Persian influenced. And he has an Indian caste mark, so we see it's a culmination of various traits which the Tocharians have adopted. By about the 10th Century, the Tocharians had almost disappeared from the stage of history. We don't find any more documents written in Tocharian, and also, we don't have any references to them in historical texts after that period. I suspect that what happened to them is that they were primarily absorbed by the Turkish peoples who were moving into this area and replacing them. I believe that the legacy of the earliest inhabitants of the Tarim Basin survive in the current modern populations. We can sometimes see individuals with blond hair, with light eyes, very fair skin. And where did they come from? I think these are the vestiges of the ancient peoples. They now believe that they are Uyghurs, or Tajiks or some other group. But in my estimation, these are just carrying on the old Tocharian influence.

NARRATOR: A people long dead and neglected have emerged to reclaim their place in history, and radically change our view of a critical time. Inhabitants of the Takla Makan desert, ethnically European people, breached China's fabled isolation 1,000 years earlier than previously thought. Laying the foundation for the Great Silk Road, the mummy people shaped the very future of civilization. The mummies are a unique and irreplaceable treasure. Though we now understand something of their role in history, scientific examination of their bodies will doubtless yield invaluable insights. But inadequate conservation imperils the mummies' condition. No one knows how long before these ancient mortals disintegrate and crumble into dust, anonymous and evanescent as the drifting sands.

Preserved in the bogs, frozen in ice. Embalmed on the banks of the Nile. Mummies across the ages. Preserved forever on NOVA's web site,

To order this show for $19.95 plus shipping and handling, call 1-800-949-8670. And to learn more about how science can solve the mysteries of our world, ask about our many other NOVA videos.

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Mysterious Mummies of China

Written, Produced
and Directed by
Howard Reid

Stacy Keach

Peter Spenceley

Gerry Pinches

Production Manager
Letitia Knight

Associate Producers
Ian Charlton
Sun Shuyun

Sound Recording
Steve Higgs

Francis Shaw

Jane Thompson
Leila Reid

Assistant Camera
Chris Bairstow

Additional Editing
Stephanie Munroe

Production Assistants
Tara Lee
Andrea Cross

Anxi Clinton

Sound Mixers
Chris Phinikas
John Jenkins

Online Editors
Richard Haywood
Mark Steele
Jim Deering

Executive Producer,
Union Pictures
Geoff Deehan

NOVA Series Graphics
National Ministry of Design

NOVA Theme
Mason Daring
Martin Brody

Closed Captioning
The Caption Center

Production Secretaries
Queene Coyne
Linda Callahan

Paul Marotta
Lisa Cerqueira

Unit Managers
Laurie Cahalane
Amy Trahant

Business Manager
Janel Ranney

Nancy Marshall

Post Production Assistant
Pamela B. Jacobson

Associate Producer
Post Production
Kimberly Schaffer

Post Production Editor
Rebecca Nieto

Post Production
Mark Geffen

Coproduction Coordinator
Stephen Sweigart

Senior Producer
and Acquisitions
Melanie Wallace

Series Producer
Beth Hoppe

Managing Director
Alan Ritsko

Executive Producer, NOVA
Paula S. Apsell

A production by Union Pictures for NOVA/WGBH and Channel 4.

© 1998 WGBH Educational Foundation
© 1998 Channel 4
All rights reserved.


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