Digging Up The Genetic Origins Of Inner Asia’s Mummies

Genomic analysis of the Tarim Basin mummies has revealed their origins as a local group in China’s Xinjiang region, rather than a migratory population.

AsianScientist (Nov. 17, 2021) – While there are no mummies coming to life here, an international team has unearthed the genetic origins of human remains from Tarim Basin in China’s Xinjiang region. The findings, published in Nature, revealed the population’s deep Asian roots, dispelling previous notions of the group being migrants from the West.

In the heart of Inner Asia, the Xinjiang region serves as a crossroad between the East and West, part of the intersecting trade routes along the Silk Road. But the poor preservation of human remains has limited prehistoric research in the area. The Tarim Basin is an exception, though, with cemeteries containing hundreds of naturally mummified humans that date back to the Bronze Age around 2,000 to 4,000 years ago.

The enigmatic Tarim mummies wore colorful threads made of West Eurasian sheep wool, had a West Asian cuisine of wheat and dairy and used medicinal plants from Central Asia. Moreover, their use of boat coffins covered with cattle hides was a unique burial practice unlike those from other Inner Asia groups that dug pebbled tombs or cremated their departed.

Theories had placed the Tarim group as descendants of migrating herders from southern Russia; Central Asian oasis farmers with genetic links to the Iranian Plateau; or agro-pastoral communities from the Inner Asia Mountain Corridor (IAMC) on Xinjiang’s west border.

Now, new genetic analyses have resolved the mummies’ puzzling hereditary origins, in a study led by researchers from China’s Jilin University, South Korea’s Seoul National University and Germany’s Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

By mapping the entire DNA sequence from 13 of the earliest known mummies and five from a later time period, the team discovered that the Tarim mummies were not newcomers in the region, but a local indigenous population. Their genetic data closely matched the ancient North Eurasians that disappeared before the last Ice Age—a population with barely any surviving genetic traces among present-day groups.

The Tarim group also showcased an extremely isolated gene pool, meaning they had rarely mixed with other populations, if at all. Rather than genetic interactions, the speculated linkages with groups like the IAMC populations may have solely served as an avenue for cultural and economic exchange leading to Xinjiang’s culturally cosmopolitan mummies.

“The paleogenomic data we present here suggest a very different and more complex population history than previously proposed,” the authors wrote. “The Tarim mummy genomes provide a critical reference point for genetically modeling Holocene-era populations and reconstructing the population history of Asia.”

The article can be found at: Zhang et al. (2021) The genomic origins of the Bronze Age Tarim Basin mummies.


Source: Jilin University; Photo: Li Wenying.
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