While I was at the Bowers Museum in California this past weekend giving a talk on mummies, Peter Keller called me into his office to take a gander at something remarkable. Keller is the director of the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California, and the man who succeeded in bringing the very famous Tarim Basin mummies and their associated artifacts to North America for the exhibition, Secrets of the Silk Road: The Mystery Mummies of China. These European looking mummies, some as old as 4000 years, have never travelled outside Asia.
Keller had just located the earliest known necropolis in the Tarim Basin, the site known in English as Small River Cemetery No. 5 and in Mandarin as Xiaohe, on Google Earth. And the two of us spent a good half hour or so examining the area with researcher Victor Mair. This made a great impression on me.
The Tarim Basin lies at the very heart of Asia, nearly encircled by steep snow-capped mountains. It is an exceptionally harsh, forbidding land. In summer, temperatures there can soar as high as 125 degrees Fahrenheit; in winter, they plummet to minus 40. And it is one of the most arid places on Earth, right up there with the Atacama Desert. For all these reasons, modern humans took their time settling the Tarim Basin. Indeed Victor Mair, the sinologist at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied these mummies for nearly twenty years, suggests that the Tarim Basin was the last place on Earth to be colonized by humans. And this didn’t happen until some 4000 years ago.
In the reign of Mao Tse-tung, the Chinese government put all this harshness to work. It constructed labor camps in the Tarim Basin, knowing that the desert would be a powerful deterrent to escape. And it built a nuclear testing range there, confident that no one would dream of crossing the barrens to spy.
It is one thing to know all this intellectually. It is quite another to see all the desolation of the Tarim Basin on Google Earth. Small River Cemetery No. 5, named for a stream that no longer exists, is surrounded by miles and miles of sand dunes, dried river and stream beds, and pure nothingness. If you’d like to see for yourself what I’m talking about, here are the coordinates: 40 degrees, 20 minutes, 11 seconds North and 88 degrees, 40 minutes and 20.3 seconds East. (And if anyone knows how I can embed the Google Earth photo of the site in this blog, please leave a comment below.) I can give you these coordinates without any fear of encouraging looting, as Chinese archaeologists have now completely excavated Small River Cemetery No. 5, and reconstructed the site, with its remarkable phallic looking wooden posts.
Surveying the area via Google Earth has given me a whole new appreciation for the Bronze -Age Europeans and Asians who colonized this region some 4000 years ago. Mair believes that water would have flowed then along many of the small streambeds that meander through the desert. I’m sure he’s right: how else could the colonists have survived there?
But life must have been a daily grind in the Tarim Basin, and I often wonder if the early migrants didn’t drift off to sleep each night dreaming of their greener and gentler homelands.