Kelly McSweeney

Apr 18th 2022

DNA Evidence Reveals Secrets of Ancient Mummy Collection


An ancient mummy can spark a heated debate among academics, even decades after its discovery. Recently, an international team of researchers revealed DNA evidence that refutes previously held beliefs about the origins and lifestyles of the Bronze Age Tarim Basin mummies, which were found in China decades ago.

Not Your Typical Ancient Mummy

In China’s arid Tarim Basin, hundreds of naturally mummified bodies were buried in boats. According to Smithsonian Magazine, researchers originally found the mummies in the early 20th century and then excavated the site in the 1990s. Ancient Egyptians intentionally preserved mummies following a specific protocol with religious meaning, but in this case, the desert environment naturally mummified bodies that were buried in the region. The mummies are up to 4,000 years old, but they are in excellent condition because the salty, dry desert prevented the bodies from decomposing.

The authors of the research wrote in Nature, “The identity of the earliest inhabitants of Xinjiang, in the heart of Inner Asia, and the languages that they spoke have long been debated and remain contentious.”

Previously, scholars suggested that the mummies were migrants from West Asia.

“The mummies have long fascinated scientists and the public alike since their original discovery. Beyond being extraordinarily preserved, they were found in a highly unusual context, and they exhibit diverse and far-flung cultural elements,” Christina Warinner, an associate professor of anthropology at Harvard University and one of the authors of the Nature study told CNN.

The researchers used DNA analysis to find out more about the genetic background of the mummies and even details about the way these ancestors lived thousands of years ago. Contrary to previous theories about the mummies being related to people in nearby regions, the new study proposes that they “appear to have arisen from a genetically isolated local population that adopted neighbouring pastoralist and agriculturalist practices, which allowed them to settle and thrive along the shifting riverine oases of the Taklamakan Desert.”

The researchers found evidence of milk proteins in the mummies’ teeth, indicating that they ate dairy, which signifies an agricultural lifestyle that would be surprisingly advanced for the era and geographic isolation.

“In contrast to their genetic isolation, however, they seem to have openly embraced new ideas and technologies from their herder and farmer neighbors, while also developing unique cultural elements shared by no other groups,” Warinner said.

Better Together: Science and Technology

This revelation is one of many that are arising in scientific communities as technology provides new clues. Previous discoveries are now backed by physical evidence to support (or in the case of the Chinese mummies, to oppose) theories about historical events.

Often, scientific discoveries emerge when new evidence is uncovered. Botanists discover a new plant in a remote location, a telescope captures images of a previously undiscovered galaxy, or archeologists excavate artifacts. Now, technological advances are enabling the scientific community to unlock novel discoveries from old evidence. Recent advances in computational power and artificial intelligence have boosted tools such as machine learning algorithms and DNA sequencing, which scientists can use to reveal new insights from specimens and data that previous generations of scientists meticulously collected and preserved.

Today, computational biologists are studying plants on the genetic level to support agricultural and medicinal uses of plants. Astronomers are employing machine learning techniques to comb through massive amounts of images and data that telescopes such as Hubble collected over decades of space observation. And these high-tech tools are also useful for understanding historical context, such as where mummies came from and how they lived.

DNA sequencing in particular is becoming increasingly useful for settling debate among researchers, solving crimes and enabling medical breakthroughs. This tool has suddenly become much more accessible. The National Human Genome Research Institute explains why:

“Since the completion of the Human Genome Project, technological improvements and automation have increased speed and lowered costs to the point where individual genes can be sequenced routinely, and some labs can sequence well over 100,000 billion bases per year, and an entire genome can be sequenced for just a few thousand dollars.”

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