The combination of ancient mummies and exotic languages, of seemingly familiar tartans and unknown China, of the exploits of early 20th-century European adventurers and the most recent analysis of mitochondrial DNA - all this makes for a gripping tale, one that J. P. Mallory and Victor H. Mair tell with verve and good sense.
This book provides a clear introduction to the questions that surround the Tarim mummies. At the same time, it is an invaluable resource for experts in a number of fields because its breadth makes it the most comprehensive survey available of early linguistic and cultural interactions between East and West in the proverbially forbidding sands of the Takla Makan desert.
Mummies exert an irresistible appeal, and the revelation that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of bodies of ethnically non-Chinese people in and around the Tarim Basin, some nearly 4,000 years old and in a spectacular state of preservation, has sparked interest and speculation of the sort normally reserved for the curse of King Tut.
Along with interest has come controversy: because the majority of the people are identifiably "Caucasoid" rather than "Mongoloid" and because many of them had red or blond hair and, quite possibly, blue eyes, westerners may conjure up visions of prototypical "Aryans" and all too easily make unsavoury associations. But viewed from the perspective of China, it seems that there is something of an ethnic tug-of-war over the mummies between, on the one side, functionaries who would suppress anything that highlights hu ("barbarians") rather than the dominant Han, and on the other, Uighur nationalists who with some genetic justification but arguably misplaced pride claim the mummies for themselves.
If Mallory and Mair's focus is on western (Indo-European) peoples, an unusual feature of their book is the significant attention they devote to China. Overall, their account is admirably unbiased - and no less thrilling for it.
The book succeeds because of the authors' complementary talents: Mallory, professor of prehistoric archaeology at Queen's University, Belfast, is an expert on Indo-European migrations, Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, is a Sinologist with a general interest in cultural contact in Asia. Their specialties meet along the Silk Road, in that part of northwest China (Xinjiang province) that was once the home of perhaps the most enigmatic of Indo-European peoples, the Tocharians, whose language, attested from the 6th to 8th centuries AD in at least two distinct dialects, was unknown a century ago. Mallory and Mair make the strongest case yet for identifying at least a great number of the mummies with ancestors of the Tocharians.
The authors open with a discussion of the recent events that have led to the flurry of interest in the mummies and then look at the evidence from the points of view of linguistics, archaeology, physical anthropology and genetics, an impressive range of disciplines that shed light on the history and prehistory of eastern Central Asia. They also devote a chapter to the production and spread of textiles ("Tartans in the Tarim"), the principal subject of The Mummies of Ürümchi by Elizabeth Wayland Barber (1999). Their treatment of the material I know best (Indo-European and Tocharian linguistics) is excellent, and I have every reason to believe that specialists in the other fields with which the authors are concerned will applaud their work.
I learnt a great deal from this book and recommend it to everyone from bright teenagers to professional Tocharianists.
Joshua T. Katz is assistant professor of classics and a member of the programme in linguistics, Princeton University, New Jersey, United States.
The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West
Author - J. P. Mallory and Victor H. Mair
ISBN - 0 500 05101 1
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £28.00
Pages - 352