While it may be tempting to believe that the global economy is a modern concept, archeological finds like the mysterious Beauty of Loulan tell a very different tale. So who is this Loulan Beauty and what is her claim to fame?

First, there’s the fact that she still looks remarkably beautiful, given the fact that she died somewhere between 3,800 to 4,000 years ago. What has really captured the world’s interest, however, is the fact that she and her people were buried in ancient China even though they’re blatantly Caucasian.

Beauty of Loulan’s discovery

Though the Loulan Beauty was unearthed by Chinese archeologist Mu Sun-ing and his team of fellow archeologists around 1980, she’s believed to have been buried in the Tarim Basin of China’s Xinjiang for about 4,000 years. But rest assured that the Bronze Age beauty hasn’t spent the last four millennia completely alone.

Archeologists have discovered roughly 200 other mummies in the same region, all of whom have collectively become known as the Tarim mummies. One of the most remarkable things about the Loulan Beauty and her fellow mummies is how incredibly well preserved they all are.

Even at 4,000 years old, the Beauty of Loulan earned her name due to the fact that you can still tell from her remains that she must have been absolutely stunning.

Beauty of Loulan (full body)
Beauty of Loulan (full body) / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

The preservation of the mummies is even more impressive when you consider that they’re not technically “mummies” in the traditional sense of the word. While other ancient civilizations, such as the Egyptians, were known for their embalming techniques, the mummies of the Tarim Basin simply hit the lottery when it came to the best burial sites.

While the bodies weren’t actually embalmed in any way, the mixture of salty soil and natural dryness of the Xinjiang Province desert had a sort of natural embalming effect that’s kept them incredibly well protected against decay for thousands of years. Such was the wonder of the climate that the Tarim mummies are actually better-preserved than those of ancient Egypt.

Though most people were fascinated to discover a large number of European-looking mummies in ancient Chinese burial sites, the Chinese government was less than thrilled. You see, the area in which the mummies were found was rife with political dispute due to an argument between the Chinese and a Turkish-speaking Muslim people called the Uighurs.

Chinese history had long proudly proclaimed that the Xinjiang Province was first settled by a general of the Han dynasty named Zhang Qian, who arrived in the region with his military in the 2nd century B.C.E.

But the Uighurs, who admittedly look more European than Asian, have called into question the idea that Chinese culture more or less sprang up in isolation from the outside world. 

The Uighurs insist that their people arrived in the province much earlier than the Chinese government would like to believe and that it was their ancestors who first laid historical claim to the land. Though the Tarim Basin is not a particularly charming place that is known for its brutal climate, it is rich with oil and that definitely counts for something.

So, it was to the surprise of no one that immediately after the Loulan Beauty was discovered, the Uighurs immediately claimed her as their ancestor. Believing they had finally found irrefutable evidence that their people had arrived first, the Uighurs were anxious for science to connect the Loulan Beauty to their people.

The mystery of the Caucasian Asians

Meanwhile, the Chinese government was a tad angsty about the possibility that the Loulan Beauty might hold the key to unraveling their long-held beliefs about their own history. Given that the mummy had high cheekbones, a narrow bridged nose, and auburn hair, things weren’t looking good for their sense of national pride.

Worried that DNA testing might provide a link to the Uighur nationalists, the Chinese government initially insisted that the mummies fly as far beneath the scientific radar as possible.

This, of course, had researchers all over the world chomping at the metaphorical bit. Not only were most of the mummies’ hair, skin, and eyelashes intact, but even their clothing had survived the trip into the future. 

Who were these ancient Caucasians and how was it possible that they had made their way into China as early as the Bronze age? For over a decade, the world was left to guess. Finally, however, a researcher managed to get his hands on the most coveted DNA on Earth.

Ethnic origin of the Loulan Beauty

In 1993, Victor Mair, a Chinese language and literature professor from the University of Pennsylvania, was finally authorized by the Chinese government to collect 52 tissue samples from the mysterious mummies. At the last minute, however, government officials changed their minds and prevented Mair from leaving the country with the samples.

Luckily, Mair had a friend on the inside who was able to slip him half a dozen vials’ worth of mummy DNA on the sly. By 1995, he was able to conclude that there was indeed evidence of a European genetic marker amid the ancient inhabitants of the Chinese region.

It was then that it was discovered that although the Loulan Beauty was indeed Caucasian, she wasn’t going to be of as much use to the Uighur people as they had hoped. Though the Uighur had even written a pop song about Loulan lady, it turned out that she wasn’t actually their ancestor.

Tests revealed that she was more than likely of Celtic, Siberian, or Scandinavian descent. Suddenly, everyone in China was forced to rethink previously disregarded ancient Chinese literature that told of fair-skinned people with blue eyes and red hair.

In 2007 and 2009, more research was done on the mysterious Loulan Beauty by scientists from two Chinese universities. They also concluded that the red-haired beauty did indeed have a Caucasian father, though her mother was of mixed race, with at least some Eastern Asian genetics.

We also now know that she was around 40 to 48 years old at the time of her death, probably due to a disease of the lungs. She was buried in clothing woven from fur and hair, as well as leather goat boots, all of which were made will a great deal of skill. But who were her people and what were they doing in China?

Among the other 200 or so mummies found in Tarim, plenty of others had blonde or red hair, were impressively tall, and wore European-style clothing.

While science has yet to pinpoint their exact origin story, many researchers now believe that they were traders who had established settlements along the Silk Road, which apparently attracted people from much farther away than previously assumed.

The Cherchen Man

Another of the most famous Tarim mummies is the Cherchen Man, who was buried in the area around 1,000 B.C.E. His DNA identifies him as Celtic, which is no surprise when you take his appearance into account.

His preserved hair remains dark red, with hints of gray, and his beard is undeniably ginger. His high cheekbones, full lips, and long nose hint as much at his nationality as his tartan leggings and red tunic.

Among the other famous Tarim mummies are three women who have become known as the “Witches of Subeshi.” Buried sometime between the 4th and 2nd centuries B.C.E., the three ladies wore tall, pointed black hats that were nearly two feet tall.

Tarim Mummy
Tarim Mummy / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Given that such headwear was traditionally worn by male and female European shamans of the period, scholars believe that the ladies were probably practitioners of the magical arts. One of them was also wearing a heavy white glove, indicating that she may have used a falcon for hunting.

Yet another Tarim mummy from around 1000 B.C.E., who was unearthed wearing plaid clothing, was apparently a huge fan of hats. He was buried with nearly a dozen hats of different styles, including what is quite possibly the most ancient beret in history.

Many of the mummies from the region also had tattoos that were done in a style similar to modern tattooing. One woman had moon tattoos on her face, which might be a clue that she was part of one of many ancient goddess-worshipping cultures in which the goddess was closely associated with the moon.

There’s even evidence that the people of the era had at least basic medical knowledge. One mummy had had his chest stitched up with horsehair, which may be evidence of one of the earliest surgeries in history.

Implications of Caucasian mummies in China

So what does the discovery of Caucasian mummies from ancient China mean? It means the world was a lot more connected than we thought at a much earlier date.

While we tend to imagine that early cultures each sprang up independently of others, the Tarim mummies alone prove that the East and West were already engaged in trade and exploration hundreds of years before historians thought possible.

Who knows what other fascinating tales lay hidden in the Earth, just waiting to be discovered?

A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:

Sparkly treasures weren’t the only things Egyptians took along to the afterlife. 

Check out more incredible finds that have been discovered beneath China’s soil.