Loulan was discovered in 1980, but it was 3,800 years ago that she died on the trade route known as the Silk Road. The natural dryness and salty soil preserved her and two hundred other mummies, individuals who had lived in various nearby settlements along the trade route. The mummy has been called the Loulan Beauty due to its strikingly preserved regal facial features that have remained quite beautiful even in death.
Unfortunately, the region where she and the others were found is politically unstable and the discovery of the mummies in China’s Tarim Basin was seen as a possible riot instigator. The Chinese government has been reluctant to allow full access to the mummies because of their racial identity. The Tarim mummies are Caucasian and this fact has lent credence to the claims of the local people, the Uyghurs, who appear more European than Asian that they are descendants of the original inhabitants of the area and not of later arrivals, as the story claims. China.
Victor Mair, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, was instrumental in gaining access to these mummies. He and Paolo Francalacci, a geneticist, were finally able to obtain some genetic samples in 1993. Their findings revealed that the mummies are indeed European, but likely migrated from the Siberian region and are not related to the Uyghurs. The Chinese government allowed further testing in 2007 and 2009 and the finding supported the Siberian connection and suggested mixing of people from Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, Europe and other unknown sources. It’s unfortunate that Belle and the others are at the center of this controversy because it has somewhat distracted from the fact that there were Europeans in China at least a thousand years before conventional history had Caucasians in this part of the world.
Mainstream historians have always had this strange concept that primitive people were not world travelers when, in fact, most of the evidence points to the opposite. We are led to believe that many cultures lived in isolation and that the world was not really explored until the last five hundred years.
The La Belleza de Loulan people are clearly of Caucasian descent and their grave goods suggest that they were likely traders in textiles and perhaps leather goods. They were buried with many articles of clothing, including a man who was buried with ten hats, all of different styles. Settlements along the Silk Road may well have been meeting points where traders from the west exchanged their wares for goods from the east. Having multicultural merchants would certainly have helped facilitate communication between merchants. Pliny the Elder described the merchants in this area as tall, with blond hair and blue eyes. He also described his language as “rude noise”.
Loulan herself lived to be between 40 and 45 years old and likely died of lung disease caused by environmental contamination from open fires and airborne gritty grit. She was buried in well-made woven clothing and some of the other mummies actually wear checkered patterned fabrics. Many of the mummies are tattooed, perhaps even most, but the descriptions of the people often make no mention of the tattoos or refer to them as an unimportant curiosity. However, I believe that tattoos represent an artistic and cultural link to people from all over Eurasia and even Western Europe. The tattoos appear to have been done in the Scythian, Thracian, and Pazyryk manner, where the design is achieved by the needling technique, not the sewing technique. The needling method results in larger, darker fields of color and looks much more like modern tattoos.
One of the female mummies has crescent moons and ovals tattooed on her face. The moon designs are suggestive of Goddess worship in many cultures and the presence of the tattoos on her face tells me, a tattoo artist, that whatever the meaning of the designs, they were very important to her, as that he chose to display them where he could not hide them. ; she too was immediately identified to the others. She also had heavy hand tattoos which can be symbolic or just decorative as hand tattoos often are. Interestingly, a male mummy from the area, known as the Chrechen Man, has tattoos of the sun on his temples, the sun often representing the male God, so it is possible that these two individuals served some sort of religious or shamanic role.
I believe that a more detailed recording of the tattoos, their designs, and the method by which they were made could reveal a great deal about the people, their beliefs, and their connections, both culturally and genetically, with other groups throughout Asia and Europe. Tattoos should not be ignored as if they were just decoration. A tattoo becomes raw meat. When an ancient person chose to get tattooed, she chose to be changed, transformed and brought closer to her deities. A person, whether modern or ancient, intends to take her tattoo into the other world with them; In other words, it’s a big decision not to be taken lightly, and a commitment with quite a bit of pain. In ancient societies, the magic, prestige, and power associated with a tattoo would have been an integral facet of the culture and an important aspect of their lives.
The Tarim mummies are “living” proof that 4,000 years ago people traveled great distances, interacted, intersected and spread their cultural practices. The art of tattooing in both design and technique is an example of these connections and I believe there is much more to learn if we only take a closer look.