Chinese research on Xinjiang mummies seen as promoting revisionist history — Radio Free Asia

A new Chinese study of the ancient populations of Xinjiang claims to show that modern residents descend from a mix of ethnicities, but scientists and experts in the region have warned that the results are being used to support the policy of forced assimilation of China towards the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs.

The study by the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology is based on 201 ancient human genomes from 39 different archaeological sites in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

Scientists have analyzed the genetic composition, migration and formation of ancient inhabitants of Xinjiang during the Bronze Age, which lasted 5,000 to 3,000 years, the Iron Age, which lasted between 3,000 and 2 000 years, and the historical era, which began about 2,000 years ago.

They published their findings in the April edition of the journal Science in an article titled “Bronze and Iron Age Population Movements Underlie the Population History of Xinjiang”.

The report states that the ancestral population of the region in the Bronze Age was linked to four different major ancestors – those from the Tarim Basin, which includes present-day Xinjian; Central Asia; and the central and eastern Eurasian steppes.

“Archaeological and mitochondrial studies have suggested that BA [Bronze Age] the people and cultures of Xinjiang are not derived from any indigenous Neolithic substrate, but rather from a mixture of West and East Eurasian peoples, whereas BA burial traditions suggest connections to North Eurasian steppe cultures and the Central Asian BMAC Civilization,” the report states, referring to the Central Asian Archaeological Complex of Bactria-Margiana (BMAC) to the south.

Further mixing between Middle and Late Bronze Age steppe cultures continued into the Late Bronze and Iron Ages, along with an influx of East and Central Asian ancestry, indicates The report.

“Populations from the historic era show mixed and diverse ancestries similar to those of present-day populations in Xinjiang,” the report said. “These findings document the influence that East and West Eurasian populations have had over time in different regions of Xinjiang.”

The Chinese Academy of Sciences study comes at a time when the Chinese government has stepped up its assimilation of predominantly Muslim Uyghurs to instill a common identity in Uyghurs with other ethnicities in the country. The government rejects claims that the minority ethnic group has its own history, culture, language and way of life.

The beauty of Xiaohe, a mummy discovered in the Tarim Basin in northwest China, is featured in the “Secrets of the Silk Road” exhibition at the China Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. ‘University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on February 18, 2011. Credit: Associated Press

“You have to think carefully”

After the start of the mass internment campaign targeting Uyghurs and other Turkish minorities in April 2017, Chinese archaeological and anthropological research in Xinjiang has entered a new phase. The XUAR Communist Party Committee has set a political goal for archaeological research to combat “separatism” and stressed that cultural relics should serve the concept that Xinjiang has always been an inseparable part of China.

On March 22, 2017, then-Party Secretary Chen Quanguo said at a conference on archaeological work that “archaeological work is necessary to establish and advance socialist values ​​in Xinjiang, to deepen the patriotic education and to fight against separatist ideas”.

But a US-based expert on ancient Central Asian population genetics says the report’s findings do not differ significantly from findings on the Bronze Age published recently by a group of international researchers.

Vagheesh Narasimhan, an assistant professor in the Department of Integrative Biology and the Department of Statistics and Data Science at the University of Texas at Austin, told RFA that the findings of the Science article are similar to those published late last year by international researchers.

“A few months ago there was a report of the sequencing of some Bronze Age Tarim Basin mummies,” he said. “In this document [from April 1], they also added 200 genomes from different time periods from all over Xinjiang. They co-analyzed the data from the previous analysis with the analysis in this paper, and they tried to draw conclusions by combining the data from the international team’s previous paper with the data from this group.

Narasimhan said both studies found similar genetic ancestry in Xinjiang since the Bronze Age.

But he said the results do not refute the idea that Uyghurs are a distinct ethnicity.

“You can’t think two groups are the same just because they have common ancestry; in this case, every person in the world would have a common ancestry from Africa,” he said. “We have to think carefully about the population they are actually using as a reference.”

In his analysis of the Iron Age population of Xinjiang, the Science The article points out that the iron materials found at this time were related to the Saks, or Scythians, an important nomadic culture at the time.

He also notes that many archaeological finds related to the group have been found in the Ili River Valley and the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang, and that a diverse conglomeration of many nomadic tribes, including the Saks, Huns, Paziriks and the Taghars, appeared in the region.

The Science the article also indicates that among these groups, the Saks were the descendants of the Andronova, Srubnaya and Sintashta peoples of the later Bronze Age periods and that the other ancestors of the Saks are related to the populations of Bayqal Shamanka and Bactria – Margiana and are related to the Hotan language, which was part of the Indo-European family. But around 2,200 years before, the area had become a point of conflict between the Yuezhi (Yawchi or Yurchi), Huns, Han and Turks.

“Thus, Xinjiang represents a key area for studying the past confluence and coexistence of populations with dynamic cultural, linguistic and genetic backgrounds,” the report said.

Members of the media look at an infant mummy discovered in the Tarim Basin in northwest China during the exhibition
Members of the media look at an infant mummy discovered in the Tarim Basin in northwest China during the ‘Secrets of the Silk Road’ exhibit at the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology in China. ‘University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, February 18, 2011. Source: Associated Press

Suspicious corpses

A Uyghur expert questioned the premises underlying the Chinese researchers’ analysis.

Erkin Ekrem, an associate professor of history at Hacettepe University in Turkey, told RFA that China is attempting a revisionist history that eradicates the region’s unique characteristics by describing East Turkestan, the Uyghur’s preferred name for the XUAR, as a Métis region.

“I’m a little suspicious,” he said. “What kind of corpses exactly were given to the researchers?” We don’t know at the moment. »

“In its research on races – not nations, but races – in East Turkestan, China always says that the inhabitants of the region are of Indo-German, Caucasian, Siberian, even Han and Mongoloid type,” he said. -he declares. “It’s as if they are portraying East Turkestan as a place where every race and every nation blends together, as if they are working to eliminate the distinctiveness of this place.”

Ekrem has also argued that Chinese scholars’ mention of the Hans, along with the Huns and Turks, as peoples who influenced the legacy of the region’s ancient population is historically inaccurate.

Neither the Han nor later dynasties of China had populations in the region who would have been able to influence local populations, he said.

“There are no archaeological or historical sources that support what the Chinese are saying,” Ekrem said.

“The concept of people is different from the concept of race as studied through DNA, he said. same people, because peoples mix over time. This is the nature of history. To say [what China is saying] is to mix nationalist notions with historical notions, and to put them at the service of nationalism.

Jennifer Ring (C) and Hu Guizhen (L) examine the beauty of Xiaohe, a 3,800-year-old mummy discovered in the Tarim Basin in northwest China, during the exhibition
Jennifer Ring (C) and Hu Guizhen (L) examine the beauty of Xiaohe, a 3,800-year-old mummy discovered in the Tarim Basin in northwest China at the ‘Secrets of the Silk’ exhibition Road: Mystery Mummies from China” at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California, March 24, 2010. Credit: Associated Press

“Very problematic”

German researcher Adrian Zenz, who provided crucial evidence to a 2021 Uyghur court on Chinese government atrocities against Uyghurs and efforts to reduce Xinjiang’s predominantly Muslim population, told RFA that the findings of the article , which are politically motivated, would not be publishable in an appropriate peer-reviewed scholarly journal or context.

“But the Chinese do it themselves and [do] their own study,” he said. “That could, of course, be looked at in detail by a Western expert, and I’m sure we’d have some interesting conclusions about that.”

“These efforts they are carrying out are, in my view, obviously very problematic, all designed to prove Xi Jinping’s strategy for Xinjiang, to assimilate ethnic groups,” said Zenz, who was sanctioned by the Chinese government for his research on Xinjiang.

James Millward, a history professor at Georgetown University who specializes in Central Asia, the Silk Road and Xinjiang, dismissed claims by Chinese scholars that modern XUAR has been part of China since the Antiquity.

“People traveled either through the northern steppes, across the plains, [or] they traveled along desert roads to oases in what is now southern Xinjiang,” he told RFA. “And then there was a significant amount of travel that Silk Road mythology tends to remember.”

“There is also a lot of exchange of people and a lot of different languages ​​were represented.

Millward compared Xinjiang during the medieval period to Grand Central Station in New York and Heathrow Airport in London.

“People [went] through there on their way to other places in all different directions, and that left a legacy of great cultural diversity that is reflected in those different languages ​​and different scripts that we recorded there.

Translated by FRG Uyghur. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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