These people, they said, exceeded the ordinary human height, had flaxen hair, and blue eyes, and made an uncouth sort of noise by way of talking, having no language of their own for the purpose of communicating their thoughts.
– Pliny the Elder on the report of an embassy from Sri Lanka on the people who live in “Seres” (northwestern China).
The second installment of an occasional series of posts on my favorite vanished civilizations concerns the Tocharians, a forgotten culture that inhabited what is now far western China from pre-Classical times until the time of Muhammad. Although they were in many ways the progenitors of the Silk Road, the Tocharians remain a most mysterious and poorly understood people. Intriguingly, their language appears to have been a branch of the Indo-European linguistic family that strayed far to the east. Their home, the Tarim Basim, is centered around the forbidding Taklamakan Desert (the name of which can be loosely translated as “place of no return”) and was probably one of the last regions of Asia to be inhabited by human beings.
The hardy souls who settled in this desolate landscape were known variously by their neighbors as the Yuezhi or the Kushans, and appear to have spoken various Tocharian dialects. Although some subsistence agriculture is possible at the margins of the Taklamakan, where rivers flow down from the foothills of the Northern Himalayas before evaporating into the desert, the rather large towns that the Tocharians appear to have inhabited where only possible due to the existence of long-distance trade routes. In short, the Tocharians appear to have been a mercantile people, serving as middle-men between the more advanced civilizations of early imperial China, South Asia, and the Middle East.
More on the current controversy over the archeological rediscovery of the Tarim mummies — and what it means politically in contemporary China — can be found in this excellent New York Times article from 2008. The political use made of ancient human remains in this instance reminds me of my friend Chris Heaney´s wonderful book Cradle of Gold, which details the controversy surrounding the 1920s adventurer Hiram Bingham´s seizure of Incan bones and other funerary remnants in Machu Picchu (Peru is currently in the midst of suing Yale University to have this archeological heritage returned). Mummies are political!