Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Tocharians - Latecomers to Bactria

The Tocharians were a group of the most mysterious residents of the Tarim Basin in the Taklamakan Desert, a region that is now a part of Northwestern China, eventually expanding over the Pamir mountain chain into what was then Bactria but is now a province of Afghanistan.  The Tocharians were apparently latecomers to the region and had come either almost directly from Northern Europe across Anatolia and Persia into India and through the Himalayas on the already long established trade routes to Kashgar and then into the more remote desert.

Their presence in the Tarim Basin is known only since the 1980s when their mummified remains were found by archeologists.  The remains are dated to around 1000 B.C.  up to about 100 A.D.  Because of the extremely arid climate of the Tarim Basin, their physical remains are very well preserved, including the clothing in which they were buried.  Obviously their funeral practices resembled those of recent times: burial in clothing rather than simply being wrapped in a shroud or covered with a cloth.

For example, here is a photo of one of the most famous 3,000 year old mummies along with the reconstruction of the head by a forensic anthropologist:

As you can see, her hair, head covering and shawl are still in good condition.  By the way, the DNA of the mummies has been analyzed, and many of them show only European DNA, but the later mummies of course, show a mixture of "Chinese" and European DNA.  I put Chinese in quote marks because the region was not China at that time.  But the Chinese scientists label the mummies' East Asian DNA thus.  

Because their clothing was so 'modern,' including the lace-up woodsman type leather boots on one of the male mummies, it was evident that they had come from far to the West in fairly recent times.  Their garments included woven garments of the type still made by Northern Europe and the New World descendants of the Northern European people. 

The cloak appears to be a double-woven garment, in a technique that shows one color in one of the blocks and then on the opposite side of the garment, the opposite color shows in the same block of weaving.  I have woven different pieces like this and it makes a very cozy checkered fabric.  

By now you are wondering about their connection to Bactria.  In the early third century B.C., Alexander the Great came out of Greece to conquer a great part of Asia, as far East as the Indus.  He made Bactria his seat of power, and married a Sogdian princess named Roxanne.  At Alexander's death soon thereafter, his Asian empire was divided and lost power.  In the first century A.D., Bactria was being ruled by a series of men that is now known as the Kushan Dynasty.  

The Greek explorers to that region wrote of people that we have labeled the Tocharians in Bactria.  But it is probable that the same people as we see in the Tarim Basin mummies were not the rulers of Bactria, judging from the heads of the Bactrian rulers on coins.  For example: 

Some historians say that the Kushan rulers were the Tocharians, but I think it is more likely that the Tocharians merely served the court of the Kushans.   The Greek explorers on reaching Bactria certainly saw, recognized and reported on people who resembled the Tarim Basin mummies.  But it is still an open question whether the Tocharians actually ruled Bactria.