Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Mummies of Small River

The Tarim Basin of western China used to be wetter than it is now. Around 4000 years ago it was home to people who buried their dead under hide boats and marked the grave sites with tall wooden poles. Since then the area has gotten drier and drier, until it became the howling desert it is now. Howling deserts are miserable places to live, but they are great for archaeology, because the dry conditions preserve things like wood and human flesh.

Excavations at the Small River cemetery have opened a fascinating window into the world of 2000 BC. These as-yet unnamed people had a distinctive way of life -- or at least a distinctive way of death, since their settlements have not yet been discovered. They buried their loved ones amidst a forest of sexual symbols. The grave markers were wooden poles carved into phallic shapes, and each woman was buried with a wooden penis, each man with vaginal symbols. Their burial clothes are skimpy in the extreme, the men in loin cloths, many of the women in string skirts like the one at right.

Most of the news about the site has focused on the western appearance and likely European origin of these people. I am not sure why, since the existence of "western" communities in central Asia -- looking like Europeans, speaking Indo-European languages -- has been known for a long time, and is indicated in Chinese texts. I suppose people just prefer to read about the past when they can draw some association to themselves, so American and European readers favor stories about people with brown hair and long noses. Personally I find other things about this culture more intriguing.

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