Tag Archives: Tarim Basin

Bronze-Age Europeans in China

Both the Grey Lady,  the New York Times,  and USA Today,  have run stories (here and here) this week on the forthcoming exhibition of China’s famous Tarim Basin mummies and their gravegoods and possessions at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California.  The three mummies in the exhibit are European in appearance and date back as early as 4000 years,  long before the opening of the Silk Road in the 2nd century B.C.

I have a very short interview with Victor Mair,  a Sinologist at the University of Pennsylvania and the leading  expert on these mummies, coming out in Science magazine later today.  In addition,  I have penned a feature article for Archaeology on Victor Mair and the latest research  in the Tarim Basin,  which will hit newstands in June.

But I will be attending the opening of the exhibition next weekend as a guest of honor,  as the Bowers Museum has invited me to give a talk on mummies on Sunday,  March 28th.   So I will be posting here on my impressions on this major new exhibition.   Chinese authorities have never before permitted any of the Tarim Basin mummies to travel outside Asia.

I should mention, however,  that I have  seen some of these mummies before.  A decade ago,  I joined Victor Mair and a geneticist colleague in Shanghai while they were trying to obtain permission to sample some of the mummies for  DNA testing.  At that time,  I was fortunate enough to be taken down into a basement room at Shanghai’s Museum of Natural History,  where one of the Tarim Basin mummies lay in a glass case.  Later,  I  wrote a chapter in my book,  The Mummy Congress,  on the finds from the Tarim Basin.

These are extraordinary mummies.  Their preservation is superb and they are daily revealing more about the lives of Bronze Age European migrants to Central Asia.  I’ll have a lot more to say about this in a week’s time!

Photo by Wang da Gang

Soma, Ephedra and Journeys to the Next World

For the last few days  I have been reading a superb book  about a harrowing journey that 26 undocumented Mexican migrants took  in May 2001 across the Sonora Desert in hopes of reaching Arizona,  and last night it got me thinking, strangely enough,  about soma,  an ancient intoxicating ritual drink mentioned frequently in the Vedas and other sacred texts in Iran.  What’s the connection?  Well,  bear with me.  I think you’ll find this interesting.

The book in question is Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway,  and it’s a riveting account of the perils that this ill-prepared group of Mexican men and boys faced on their lethal trek through the Arizona desert.  As Urrea points out, many of the guides who accompany such parties into the desert insist that their charges pop fistfuls of ephedra-based diet pills.  The pills,  says Urrea are  a “chemical prod to speed up their walkers….A dose of eight pills at a time really gets them hustling. ”

The mention of ephedra really caught my attention.  There are several species in the genus Ephedra,  but they are all unprepossessing, shrubby,  desert-loving plants and several species contain an important stimulant– ephedrine–that produces an adrenaline-like rush in strong doses, and,  in some reported cases, a state of hallucination.

I have been reading a lot in recent weeks about ephedra,  for these plants are found in lavish quantities in the 4000-year-old  graves of Bronze-Age mummies  in the deserts of China’s remote Tarim Basin. As some of you will know,  the Tarim Basin mummies are very famous and controversial,  largely because they are  European in appearance and in the technology they possessed.  (Think plaid woolen clothes.)  As such,  they clearly indicate contact between East and West far earlier than previously believed.

Now here’s the thing.  The fact that archaeologists have uncovered so much ephedra in these graves suggests that it served a very important ritual purpose,  most likely to spur on the spirit of the deceased as it took the long,  dangerous  journey to the next world.

Could the Bronze-Age inhabitants of the Tarim Basin have brought knowledge of ephedra from lands to the west,  such as Iran?  And could ephedra have been one of the plants used to brew soma,  the sacred drink that ancient priests and others imbibed in order to journey to the other world?

Two American researchers,  David Stophlet Flattery and Martin Schwarz,  lay out in minute detail the available scientific evidence for soma in their 1989 book,  Haoma and Harmaline:  The Botanical Identity of the Indo-Iranian Sacred Hallocinogen.  Researchers have long debated possible  ingredients.   But after detailed study,  Flattery and Schwarz concluded that ephedra was one of the key ingredients in the fabled drink.

There are dissenters and doubters of course.   But I think there is something very poignant here.  Illegal Mexican migrants swallow ephedrine pills by the handful today in order to get to a place they think of as the promised land.   But the ephedrine does them no good at all.

Each year, the American border patrol finds hundreds of their bodies lying out in desert.