Silk Road Trivia

I’ve been meaning to blog about this article for a while now, and since I am utterly bored here in Bangkok–I mean, anyone who blogs about Thomas Friedman and evolutionary questions concerning Battlestar Galactica in a single 24 hour period must have too much time on his hands–I figured now would be a good time to do so.

It’s unfortunate that Chinese imperial politics are keeping the Tarim Mummies away from the scientific community. The proper study of the mummies would more than likely reveal that their origins are from a far, far earlier period than either the Uighurs would be happy with or the Chinese.

In fact, the vast majority of the oldest mummies are more than likely of Indo-European extraction who probably spoke some form of Tocharian. The Tocharian language, the language of the Tarim Basin until the 10th century when the Uighurs invaded, is a distant cousin of the modern Indo-European languages. What’s even more interesting about Tocharian is that it has more in common with the Celtic languages that are now mostly extinct than with the Indian or even Iranian languages one would expect them to share affinities with. This doesn’t mean the mummies are the long lost ancestors of Molly Magee, however. It does mean that at the time when they broke off from the main body of Indo-European speakers was about the same time the Celts did.

Their languages evolved in similar ways, but that’s a whole ‘nother post on linguistics, one where I’d have to get into the whole raging debate about Indo-European languages, their origins and whatnot. I just don’t want to go there today, bored or not.

Another interesting aspect of this is Mair’s contention–a scholar I was unaware of before reading the article–is that human migrations are far more common than previously believed. As the article notes:

he says that he has been obsessed with pinpointing the origins of the mummies, intent on proving a theory dear to him: that the movement of peoples throughout history is far more common than previously thought.

I personally find this quite fascinating because in the course of researching my own book on the Silk Road I developed a similar thesis to his. Similar but not quite the same. Mine is also based on the findings of a Danish archaeologist named Karl Randsborg, who has a novel but quite compelling theory on human migrations and barbarian invasions. You’ll be able to read about it more when the book is finished. Needless to say, all this is very inconvenient to the Chinese in their claim that the Tarim Basin has been as indisputable part of the Chinese empire since General Pan Chao conquered the area in the first century AD.

The historical record is much at odds with the official Chinese line. There has been consistent Chinese influence in the region since Pan Chao’s time, but it has been punctuated by stretches of time–some of them quite long–when the Tarim Basin was ruled by nomads, Buddhists, Manicheans, Nestorians, city states, Mongols and Turks. To this day, massive Chinese immigration aside, it remains a melting pot.

If only history, even our own, would just fit nicely into the party line then everything would be ok, you know what I mean?

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