aerial view of a cemetery that marks graves using upright paddles

Who were the Tarim Basin mummies? Even scientists were surprised.

The enigmatic, extremely well-preserved mummies still defy explanation—and draw controversy.

Hundreds of bodies have been excavated from cemeteries like this one around the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang, a region of western China. Known as the Tarim Basin mummies, these people lived some 4,000 years ago—and their ancient DNA has yielded surprising insights.
Photograph by Wenying Li, Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology

Though they died thousands of years ago, hundreds of bodies excavated in East Asia’s Tarim Basin look remarkably alive. They retain the hairstyles, clothing, and accoutrements of a long-past culture—one that once seemed to suggest they were migrant Indo-Europeans who settled in what is now China thousands of years ago.

But the mummies’ seemingly perfect state of preservation wasn’t their only surprise. When modern DNA research revealed the preserved bodies were people indigenous to the Tarim Basin—yet genetically distinct from other nearby populations—the Tarim Basin mummies became even more enigmatic. Today, researchers still ask questions about their cultural practices, their daily lives, and their role in the spread of modern humanity across the globe.

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How were the Tarim Basin mummies found?

Buried in a variety of cemeteries around the basin as long as 4,000 years ago, the naturally mummified corpses were first unearthed by European explorers in the early 20th century. Over time, more and more of the Tarim bodies were unearthed, along with their spectacular cultural relics. To date, hundreds have been found. The earliest of the mummies date to about 2,100 B.C., while more recent mummies have been dated to about 500 B.C.

Who really were the Tarim Basin mummies?

At first, the mummies’ Western-like attire and European-like appearance prompted hypotheses that they were the remains of an Indo-European group of migrant people with roots in Europe, perhaps related to Bronze-Age herders from Siberia or farmers in what is now Iran.

They had blond, brown, and red hair, large noses, and wore bright, sometimes elaborate clothing fashioned from wool, furs, or cowhide. Some wore pointed, witch-like hats and some of the clothing was made of felted or woven cloth, suggesting ties to Western European culture.

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Still others wore plaid reminiscent of the Celts—perhaps most notably one of the mummies known as Chärchän Man, who stood over six feet tall, had red hair and a full beard, and was buried over a thousand years ago in a tartan skirt.

Another of the most famous of the bodies is that of the so-called “Princess” or “Beauty” of Xiaohe, a 3,800-year-old woman with light hair, high cheekbones, and long, still-preserved eyelashes who seems to be smiling in death. Though she wore a large felt hat and fine clothing and even jewelry in death, it is unclear what position she may have occupied in her society.

But the 2021 study of 13 of the mummies’ ancient DNA led to the current consensus that they belonged to an isolated group that lived throughout the now desert-like region during the Bronze Age, adopting their neighbors’ farming practices but remaining distinct in culture and genetics.

Scientists concluded that the mummies were descendants of Ancient North Eurasians, a relatively small group of ancient hunter-gatherers who migrated to Central Asia from West Asia and who have genetic links to modern Europeans and Native Americans.

How were they mummified?

These bodies were not mummified intentionally as part of any burial ritual. Rather, the dry, salty environment of the Tarim Basin—which contains the Taklimakan Desert, one of the world’s largest—allowed the bodies to decay slowly, and sometimes minimally. (The extreme winter cold of the area is also thought to have helped along their preservation.)

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How were they buried? 

Many bodies were interred in “boat-shaped wooden coffins covered with cattle hides and marked by timber poles or oars,” according to researchers. The discovery of the herb ephedra in the burial sites suggests it had either a medical or religious significance—but what that religion might have been, or why some burials involve concentric rings of wooden stakes, is still unclear.

What did they eat?

Masks, twigs, possibly phallic objects, and animal bones found at the mummies’ cemeteries provide a tantalizing view of their daily lives and rituals. Though most questions about their culture remain unanswered, the burials did point to their diets and the fact that they were farmers. The mummies were interred with barley, millet, and wheat, even necklaces featuring the oldest cheese ever found. This indicates that they not only farmed, but raised ruminant animals.

What were their daily lives like? 

The Tarim Basin dwellers were genetically distinct. But their practices, from burial to cheesemaking, and their clothing, which reflects techniques and artistry practiced in far-off places at the time, seem to show they mixed with, and learned from, other cultures, adopting their practices over time and incorporating them into a distinct civilization.

Researchers now believe their daily lives involved everything from farming ruminant animals to metalworking and basketmaking—helped along by the fact that the now-desolate desert of the Tarim Basin region was once much greener and had abundant freshwater.

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Researchers also believe that the Tarim Basin residents traded and interacted with other people in what would eventually become a critical corridor on the Silk Road, linking East and West in the arid desert.

But archaeologists still have much to learn about what daily life was like for these ancient humans, including who they traded with, what religious beliefs they adopted, and whether their society was socially stratified.

Why are the Tarim Basin mummies controversial? 

The amazingly preserved mummies have long fascinated archaeologists. But the Tarim Basin mummies have also become political flashpoints. The Tarim Basin is located in the modern-day Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, land claimed by China’s Uyghur minority. Uyghur nationalists claim the mummies are their forbears, but the Chinese government refutes this and has been reluctant to allow scientists to study the mummies or look at their ancient DNA.

In 2011, China withdrew a group of the mummies from a traveling exhibition, claiming they were too fragile to transport. Some research about the mummies’ DNA has been criticized as downplaying the region’s distinctness in support of China’s attempts to assimilate Uyghur people. Just as more remains to be learned about the enigmatic mummies, their future as political and national symbols remains disputed too.

Editor's note: This piece originally misstated the year that the earliest of these mummies lived. It has been corrected. 

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