The Tarim Mummies:
Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West
by J.P. Mallory and Victor H. Mair
Thames & Hudson
I picked this book up at the Secrets of the Silk Road exhibition at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana. Despite whole heartedly recommending this exhibition to my readers, I maintain some reservations about the influence of the Chinese government on the content of the exhibition. This influence, led, in my mind, to an exhibition catalogue that borders on the worthless (again, a full page color photo of a chinese won-ton?) and led me to look elsewhere for the context I needed to understand the "Europoid" mummies of North Central Asia.
This book, written by two reputable professors, is probably the only book any non-specialist needs to read about the Tarim Mummies. J.P. Mallory is a professor of pre historic archaeology at Queen's University in Belfast, and Victor Hair is a Professor of Chinese Language and Literature at University of Pennsylvania. Furthermore, Mallory is the world's foremost non insane authority on the Indo Europeans. The Indo Europeans are the semi-mythical linguistic/ethnic group that spawned the languages and people that comprise essentially all of Europe as well as Sanskrit and it's derivatives and Iranian. The debate over these people's was badly tarnished by a century and a half of racist ideology (No one calls them the Aryans anymore, even though they called themselves Aryans.) Regardless of the historical baggage, it's an interesting area to read about. Mallory has written multiple books about the subject either by himself (In Search of Indo Europeans) or in conjunction with others (Oxford's Guide to Proto Indo European Linguistics.)
The Tarim Mummies reads like a synthesis of his theories about indo european linguistics, but here he has added the insight of Victor Hair, who is able to bring Chinese records into the equation.
According to Mallory, the Tarim Mummies emigrated into the Tarim Basin from the North West. His thesis is that they represent the Eastern fringe of a "centrifugal" migration of Indo Europeans south from their ancestral homeland in the Russian Steppes. In doing so, Mallory is advancing his long running thesis that places the indo european "home land" in the Asian-Russian steppelands of the North, as supposed to those who would place it the Caucauses, the western steppes or in south-eastern Europe.
This homeland debate is anachronistic in my mind- we have been so accustomed to fixed national borders that it seems foreign to think that entire nations migrated thousands of miles in the early period of civilization. In fact, settling down was a pretty good way to get wiped off the face of the map by nomads who kept their fighting spirit. Such was the case with the Tarim Mummy culture, who founded cities at the center of the silk road, only to be levelled by Ughyurs and ulitmately dominated by the Chinese.
Mallory's use of comparitive linguistics to buttress his arguments is fairly ingenious. I would like to see that technique applied to some other area of history besides the Indo European language question. It also helps take the matter out of the world of archeology. I have issues with the discipline of archeology, but that is not a subject for today.
Dedicated to classics and hits.
Friday, June 25, 2010
The Tarim Mummies:
Sunday, June 20, 2010
TARIM MUMMY WITH FELT HAT
Archeology has it's pluses and it's minuses. The main plus is that it is basically the only way for us to learn about cultures and peoples of pre or parahistory. The main "minus" of archeology is entire history, everyone who practiced it professionally prior to the last couple decades, everything that was written about archeology before the last couple decades and everything people think they know about archeology (Indiana Jones, for example.) What I'm saying is "archeology is fascinating, but you need to be super cautious before you accept an argument made by anyone about anything that relies on archeological evidence.
For my money, the biggest archeological discovery of the 20th century are the "Tarim Mummies" of the Xinjiang province in Western province. The significance of these mummies is that they were fair haired white people with blue eyes etc. These mummies have been displayed in China, Japan and Korea but the Chinese government hasn't allowed them into the West until now. And where might these mummies be found? Santa Ana, of course! At the Bowers Museum.
The Bowers Museum was itself a revelation, but the placement of an exhibit like this at a museum like that should clue everyone into the fact that Chinese carefully negotiated the parameters of this exhibit. For example, I though the name of the exhibit would be "HOLY SHIT IT'S THE WHITE MUMMIES FROM CHINA!!!" or something equivalent, but instead it's "The Secrets of the Silk Road" and the exhibit features just as much Chinese stuff from after the time of the Tarim Mummies then actually exhibits relating to the Tarim Mummies themselves.
In the exhibit, you proceed backwards in time, spending a couple rooms worth of time looking at fossilized chinese wontons. Chinese wontons? Seriously? Who gives a shit about a fossilized Chinese wonton from 1100 AD. I know all about the Chinese- hear about them everyday.
It isn't until the last room that you get the money shot. This money shot is entitled 61. The Beauty of Xiaohe c. 1800-1500 BC. She is generally regarded to be the most beautiful mummy out of all mummies which exist in the whole world. She has clearly reddish blond hair, and her features- perfectly preserved mind you- make her out to have the bone structure of a (white) hollywood starlet. She truly is exceptional, and that beauty, combined with the date of the burial, means that white people were smack dab in the middle of the silk road BEFORE other "indo european" cultures- Greek, Roman, Hindu, German, Celt had manifested themselves.
The Beauty of Xiaohe is not the only panty dropper in the Secrets of the Silk Road. Also particularly notable is 44. Bronze Figurine of a Kneeling Warrior c. 500 BC. What's amazing about this sculpture is that the subject looks like a Greek warrior. What was this guy doing in the middle of the Chinese desert in 500 BC?
The over all effect of the exhibition, despite it's small size and limited scope, is break taking. Truly, the Beauty of Xiahoe is a epoch making game changer in the world of pre-history. The process of learning about pre-history is reliant almost entirely on archeology, but archeology is such a young science that is only now growing out of a western dominated adolescence into a truly global way to learn about human cultures before writing. The truth of pre-history is as interesting as a writer of fiction could conjure up and this exhibit is conclusive prove of that fact.
For those who are reading this review but are unable to travel to Santa Ana, California and the Bowers Museum, please check out The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West by J.P. Mallory and Victor H. Mair- it is an excellent treatment of the larger questions surrounding the subject of the Secrets of the Silk Road exhibition.
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