European mummies of China, the bringers of Buddhism to Asia?
by James Mayfield (Chairman, European Heritage Library)
this Article • About
the Author • Bibliography/Sources
This article is about the
mysterious 4,000-year-old mummies in the deserts of western
China with "white European" physiognomy and clothing,
and about the ancient Tocharians, the possibly white European
settlers of western China and Afghanistan who were partly
responsible for bringing Buddhism to China and much of the
world. Please note that because so little is known for certain
about them, there is no universally-accepted history or interpretation.
Therefore, this article will present many different possibilities
and interpretations about their origins. If you would like
another perspective added, please notify us. As this topic
is very complicated, it is suggested that you read the paragraphs
carefully. Important key terms have been placed in bold.
This is a controversial subject
because nationalists and revisionists tend to use these mummies
as proof of "ancient Nordic" civilizations in the
East. Please be skeptical.
academic and cultural problems
Ancient Greek and Chinese
historians had long referenced a unique cultural and ethnic
group on its western frontier with red hair and blue eyes
since the 3rd century BCE, a group that settled Afghanistan
and forged a vibrant Buddhist empire that spread Buddhism
to much of the the world through China and India. But when
3,800-year-old mummies were unearthed in the early 20th century
in the Tarim Basin of the western Chinese desert with blatant
"white" physiognomy and clothing of apparently European
origin, historians, anthropologists, and archeologists were
awestruck. The tenuous ethnocultural issue made this a serious
issue: Europeans emphasized the role of "Europeans"
in creating an ancient frontier civilization that brought
a world religion to Asia; Chinese scholars refused to believe
that significant foundations of their history were "imported,"
and the modern residents of the Tarim region (Xinjiang) --
the Muslim Uyghurs -- insist that they were the original natives
of the region.
This analytical essay is
divided into two parts. Firstly, an analysis
of the 3,800-year-old white European mummies in western China
(Xinjiang province) and their possible culture and race. Second,
an analysis of the history of the Kushan/Tocharian bringers
of Buddhism to much of the world. If the original European
mummies are related to these Kushan Buddhist missionaries
with blue eyes and red hair, then the descendants of these
European mummies forever shaped the cultural and religious
evolution of Asia.
The European mummies of China: what were their ethnic/racial
The European Tarim mummies
are some of the oldest and best preserved corpses in the world,
protected by the extremely dry climate of East Turkestan.
Blatantly related to one of the races of European origin,
they give us one of the earliest looks at the migratory movement,
culture, and civilization of early European peoples.
The reason for the possible
connection of these white mummies to the bringers of Buddhism
out of ancient Afghanistan is that they both lived in the
same region. It is possible that the mummies of the Tarim
Basin have absolutely nothing to do with the subsequent history
with which they are accredited. This white European culture
may have died out long before an unrelated race (the Tocharians)
moved into Buddhist Afghanistan. Or, they may be the same
people. The possible historical connection is covered in the
second section below. The most important information derives
from Chinese depictions of Buddhist missionaries with blatantly
white features such as blue eyes and red hair
from this area and Afghanistan.
The oldest mummy, "Cherchen
Man," dates back to 1,800BCE. The clothing and physignomy
of the Tarim mummies clearly show that they are white European.
The skull structure (high cheekbones, a square jaw, and an
elongated thin skull), genetic evidence, and red-skirt clothing
of the Tarim mummies all point to a cultural and genetic origin
from a European race. The buried mummies, notably tall (considered
a European feature) were found with both blond and red hair,
with male and female buried equally elaborately. They wore
red and blue felt hats, long skirts, and what are described
as typically "Scandinavian/Germanic" pointed witch-style
hats on many of the women. The Tarim mummies may have been
related to the ancestors of what became the Slavic, Uralic,
or less likely (due to their far distance) the Germanic peoples.
The burial objects with which inhumation occurred are unusual:
blue stones over their eyes and bags of incense around their
necks as tokens to a good afterlife. Some have drawn a connection
between the incense bags and early Iranian/Scythian and Zoroastrian
culture that was prolific throughout Central Asia as described
by Strabo and Ptolemy. The Iranic race also has a physiognomy
of high cheekbones, an elongated skull, and a recessive propensity
for light features as best displayed by the Tajiks of the
Pamir region. This is one argument for the possibility that
these "white mummies" are instead related to ancient
Scythian Iranian tribes. Some scientists have also dismissed
the red and blond hair of the mummies as a result of natural
bleaching and dying in the sun, sandstorms, or as a result
of the soil content of the graves. This very legitimate assertion,
however, does not explain the distinct European skull features
of the mummies.
More than 30 mummies have
been found in the region dating from 2,800BCE to about 300BCE.
Increasingly towards the end of this period, the mummies become
less and less frequently European and more and more Mongoloid
(with broad, shorter skulls and receded eye sockets). This
is evidence to imply that this small settling European nomadic
population gradually died out as an unrelated Mongoloid group
(perhaps the Uyghurs) settled. The last major mummies, the
"Witches of Subeshi" with a distinctly European
style of clothing and broomed witch hats, date from the 3rd
century BCE. Considering that right after 300BCE, Chinese
assaults forced the new dominant ethnic group in the Tarim
Basin southward towards Afghanistan, this implies that the
migrating population was not related to these original
white mummies. There is absolutely no evidence directly linking
the original mummies to the future nomads with red hair who
settled in Afghanistan (Kushans) and became propagators of
Buddhism. It is undeniable that these original mummies, from
1,800BCE until about 300BCE, were genetically related to a
European race. It is uncertain, however, whether or not they
gradually died out or were the same group that traveled to
Afghanistan. A tiny fraction of survivors of this ancient
white culture may have also assimilated.
See below the pictures
to see the historical argument for red-haired, blue-eyed bringers
of Buddhism to China.
An artistic depiction of the mummies of Tarim
The "Cherchen Man." From uyghuramerican.org.
Are the white European mummies connected to the glorious
Buddhist civilization? Historical analysis:
This complicated historical
background is the heart of determining whether the white European
mummies were connected with the ancient civilizations and
bringers of Buddhism with blue eyes and red hair.
A number of cultural or ethnic
groups lived in the same area as the ancient white mummies
and moved southward to Afghanistan. Some had red hair and
blue eyes as shown on Chinese artwork. The Tocharians are
identified as this European-featured bringer of Buddhism.
But are they related to the blatantly genetically European
mummies, or did the Chinese merely see another racial group
like the Iranians with recessive features? Tracing these peoples'
history allows us to better determine whether or not it was
this ancient white European culture of mummies that forever
shaped the evolution of Asia or not.
The Yuezhi and Tocharian
tribes have been traced back to the Tarim Basin of western
China back to at least the 4th century BCE. Ancient Chinese
sources depict a very foreign racial and cultural group in
their western frontier back to the 3rd century called the
Yuezhi, with which the Chinese sought an
alliance against the Hsiung-Nu tribe (possibly the Huns) in
139BCE . One Chinese source depicts the Wu-sun tribe in
the same area as having blue eyes and red hair ,
distinctly European features. At the same timeframe, Greek
historians like Strabo and Ptolemy depicted the Tocharian
tribes (Gr. "Tokhari") in the same area
as beng part of the Shaka/Scythian cultural and ethnic orbit
. The Iranian race, as manifested best among the Tajiks,
has a propensity for recessive green eyes and lighter hair,
whilst the Greeks very rarely do. Both the Greeks and Chinese
sources describe a movement of the Tocharians and the Yuezhi
at the same time to the south. The Yuezhi were brutally expelled
en masse to the south during this time (the 2nd century BCE)
by the victorious Chinese armies. This is exactly the
same time that the genetically European mummies in the Tarim
Basin virtually disappear behind Mongoloid mummies. This may
therefore imply that the nomads moving south to Afghanistan
were overwhelmingly Mongloid, not at all of ethnic stock related
to European or the mummies.
These two possibly "white
European" tribes moved south and entered Afghanistan
and India in a great movement of peoples, where they were
called the Kushana . After conquering
Afghanistan, they established what became the massive Buddhist
Kushan Empire in the 2nd century that quickly
spread from eastern Iran to northern India and to the gates
of China. Great sovereigns of Kushan/Yuezhi/Tocharian and
possibly white European (?) origin like Kanishka the Great
became some of the most magnificent Buddhist kings in history.
Kanishka built massive Buddhist temples, stupas, and monasteries,
subsidizing the Buddhist sangha community of monks and fostered
the spread of Buddhism to the world through missionary activity.
These Buddhist Kushans, either white Europeans related to
the mummies or not, dominated the trade routes to China along
which they spread their religion to the world forever. One
piece of evidence connecting the Kushan culture to the European
mummies of western China is that Kushan Buddhist kings styled
themselves as the Son of Heaven, a title obviously inherited
from China . It
is these Kushans who initiated the first depictions of Buddha
as a humanoid figure, giving rise to our modern image of Buddha
altogether. At this time, a Chinese Buddhist source considers
the Kushan Empire to be the focal point of the transmission
of Buddhism .
map of the Tarim Basin area in comparison with Afghanistan
(Kushan state). The Yuezhi/Tocharians/Kushanas traveled south
from the Tarim Basin to Afghanistan. (CLICK TO ENLARGE)
The Buddhas of Bamiyan were developed
by Tocharian/Kushan Buddhists. Were they of European origin?
Whoever these Kushans were
-- white Europeans or otherwise -- they are responsible for
spreading Buddhism through China and ultimately to Korea,
Japan, and the world, supplying proof of a magnificent ancient
civilization that each race in the region wants to claim as
its own achievement.
The other major physical
evidence we have to determine whether these Buddhist missionaries
were related to the mummies is from Chinese frescoes, imagery,
and literature depicting their strange western neighbors bringing
them a new religion. Chinese sources depict what they call
the Yuezhi and what Greeks called Tocharians as quite foreign
in their dress, culture, and appearance. Chinese art
shows pale-skinned, red-headed, blue-eyed monks with
beards obviously from a race and culture very different from
the Han Chinese. Sporting partially-shaved heads, dangling
earlobes, and the lotus-shaped hand posture, these white Europeans
are obviously Buddhist monks bringing the new faith to the
Chinese along commercial and migratory routes that they had
followed when they left the Tarim Basin for Afghanistan. The
entire facial appearance of the white Buddhist missionaries
is different: the original artists did not simply depict humanoids
in general or Chinese men with red hair. They were portraying
a very foreign racial group.
The problem with artwork
is obvious: the artist can depict any image he chooses. Chinese
art may have depicted these foreign Tocharians in the way
Chinese viewed their rivals. They may have simply drawn a
very different-looking people to symbolically emphasize that
they received Buddhism from abroad. Also significant is that
the artists may have been exaggerating. They may have seen
very infrequent recessive genes of light features among only
a few Tocharians that were so unusual that they portrayed
the entire visiting missionary culture as being European-looking.
As a result, the Chinese may have also simply come into contact
with a high ratio of non-European Iranians or Pamirians with
recessive light features. Even Turks and Huns in the region
(who later destroyed the Kushan Empire) have a propensity
for "European" light features. In conclusion, Chinese
artwork depicting red-haired and blue-eyed missionaries does
not instantly imply that the Kushan Empire's master civilization
and the bringers of Buddhist culture to the world are of genetically
or culturally European origin. The desire of many European
nationalists to take credit for "civilizing Asia"
is perhaps completely wrong.
It is also possible to consider
that the white-featured monks may not have been connected
to the ancient mummies, but to white Greeks who settled
in Afghanistan before and after Alexander the Great's
conquests of the 4th century BCE. Bactria, and less so its
successor of the Kushan Buddhist Empire, manifested an artistic
and political expression of Greek culture. The argument that
these bringers of Buddhism to China were Greeks, however,
is shattered by the fact that Greeks almost never have light
features, red or blond hair, or even blue eyes.
Clearly, the race of the people shown
on these Chinese artworks is not Chinese, but white. What
"white" exactly means is in question.
The Tocharians had two dialects
of a highly unique language: “Tocharian A” and “Tocharian
B.” This language has been classified loosely under the Indo-European
linguistic family, making it linguistically classified as
being related to all languages of Europe (except Maltese),
Iran (except Turkmen & Azeri), Afghanistan, and North
India. The language has been shown to have much in common
with Sanskrit, as opposed to Proto-Slavic or Germanic or other
typically dominant European languages. There is no evidence
connecting these white bringers of Buddhism with any truly
European language. The script used for writing Tocharian clearly
derives from Brahmi or its related Indian scripts due to their
adoption of Indian Buddhism in Afghanistan in the early centuries
AD. The spread of Buddhism facilitated the transmission of
Indian scripts (as seen in Khmer, Thai, Burmese, etc.). The
Tocharian language also looks similar to Uyghur-style scripts
that were originally derived from the Iranian Sogdians centuries
prior. The parallel is emphasized by modern Muslim Uyghurs
in their claim to be the original natives of Xinjiang and
a significant power in shaping Asia's cultures. There is no
actual evidence for this.
The Tocharian alphabet is loosely
based upon the Brahmi script, the early "Indo-Aryan"/Iranian
basis of most of the subcontinent's languages. Thanks to omniglot.com.
The Tocharian language has affinities with both the Indic-style
languages that associated their embracing Buddhism, as well
as the Sodgian-Uyghur script that was prevalent near the Tarim
as this complicated essay illustrates, we will never know
the racial and genetic heritage of the Tocharians, the Kushans,
or the original 3,800-year-old European mummies. It is almost
undeniable that this frontier culture of the mummies descended
from a European race. However, the role this pioneering white
European culture had in forging a massive Buddhist empire
with a radiating proliferation of Buddhism that forever changed
the cultural and religious evolution of Asia remains consigned
to myth and rabid debate between each competing national identity
that claims its achievements.
James Mayfield is a historian
and the Chairman of the European Heritage Library. I have
a Cum Laude BA in History with a Minor in Germanic Studies
(language and history), am presently working for my Masters
in History, and plan to immediately progress to my PhD Doctorate.
I have a special academic interest in Europe's diverse ethnic
identities, languages, and cultures, and the political struggles
of native European and immigrant minority identities. See
my staff entry for more information.
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-"Everything you want
to know about Tocharian," http://www.oxuscom.com/eyawtkat.htm#disc
 Foltz, Richard. Religions
of the Silk Road. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.
 Grousset, Rene. Empire
of the Steppes. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University
Press, 1970. Page 28.
 Grousset 1970, 27.
 Keay, John. India:
A History. New York: Grove Press, 2000. Page 110.
 Keay 2000, 111.
 Foltz 1999, 44.
for information and the alphabet chart