Ancient mummies found buried throughout the Takla Makan Desert in the 1970s and 1980s. Not only were the bodies amazingly well-preserved, but more incredibly, many were clearly Caucasians - Europeans who apparently lived in the heart of central Asia as far back as 4,000 years ago. No one is quite sure why they were there or why their culture disappeared. Researchers think they simply may have followed herds from the steppes of Eastern Europe and settled in the oases scattered throughout the huge desert. What they do know is that the mummies, essentially freeze-dried in the arid desert air, are a remarkable find that raises new questions about long-lost connections between East and West.

This photo shows the 4,000 year old mummy from Loulan who died when she was about 40. Next to her head there is a basket which contains grains of wheat.

Over the past 15 years Chinese and Western archaeologists have unearthed the preserved remains of bodies from the Tarim Basin in the Uyghur Region. Some of these well preserved bodies date back 4,000 years, possibly even older. They have caught the attention of archaeologists and anthropologists not only for their remarkable condition, but because of the appearance of Caucasoid features.

Caucasian, often light-haired and garbed in colourful twill of a European style, the corpses will cause both linguists and archaeologists to rethink their theories of the Indo-European homeland and cultural trade. Many different methods are being employed to better understand the mummies. Ancient documents are being examined, textile fragments are being compared for the style of their weave, DNA experts are employing the latest technology, anthropologists are studying their skulls and comparing them to samples from across Eurasia, and archaeologists are looking at the burials of the mummies for hints about where they originated.

In 1978, the first of the mummies was found by the Chinese archaeologist Wang Binghua at Qizilchoqa, east of Urumqi which is the capital of the Uyghur Region. In the early 1990s, several Western academics accompanied Wang to the region to observe the excavations. Among them were Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese literature at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Jeannine Davis-Kimball, executive director of the Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads and English archaeologist Charlotte Roberts.
According to Mair, there are no archaeological records from the digs which have only been conducted at cemeteries. Nor have settlements associated with the mummies have been excavated.

Since it was along the route of ancient Silk Road, the Uyghur Region became a passway for trade and commercial exchange between East and West, at the same time the melding and exchanges bewteen Asian and Euroupian Cultures. Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833 - 1905) considers the Valley of Pamir and Tarim in Uyghur Region to be the center of the first civilization. The desolate wastes of the Takla Makan Desert, Uyghur Region, at the heart of central Asia, are haunted by an ancient mystery. It was here, long ago, that East and West - two of the greatest civilizations on earth - made imperceptible contact.

Now, the echoes of voices long silent are offering startling testimony. Like other detective stories, this one begins with a dead body. This woman, and others like her, are as old as 3,800 years, yet remarkably well preserved. More startling yet, the mummies are clearly not Chinese, but they provide evidence to solve the riddle of ancient China’s interaction with the West. An expedition is now setting out into the Takla Makan, Uyghur Region headed far across the dunes and deep into a long lost past.

Beaten into the land by traders’ caravans and conquering legions about 2,000 years ago, it was the interstate highway of the ancient world, a bustling corridor where disparate cultures rubbed elbows and exchanged precious goods and ideas.

The Silk Road, 4,000 miles long, spanned the entire world as the ancients knew it - at one end, the great civilizations of Rome and Greece. From there, the route made its way across the near East and through the untamed Russian Steppes.

Those who survived the brutal winds and marauding pirates went on to confront forbidding mountains and white-hot dunes. Crossing the Takla Makan Desert was the final ordeal. Over the centuries, the Silk Road sprouted a civilization of its own. It was as fantastically long as it was oddly narrow, lined with imposing temples and thriving cities.

It was thought that these structures were built by the Chinese, but it now seems that the architects were a little-known local people known as the Tocharians, who seem to have appeared in these parts over 2,000 years ago. Some of their cities were located remarkably close to the ancient graveyards in the Takla Makan, suggesting that this mysterious tribe may be connected to the mummies.