I’ve written before (1 – 2 – 3) about the Kenyan village with a poorly supported and recently concocted origin myth involving Medieval Chinese sailors. Now my buddy Axel Andersson has alerted me to a similar case. But here it’s sort of the other way around: a Chinese village with a poorly supported and recently concocted origin myth involving Roman soldiers.
The village of Zhelaizhai (formerly Liqian) is in Gansu province in northern China, on the border towards Inner Mongolia and on the edge of the Gobi desert. People here tend to have an unusually Europid appearance by Chinese standards, and recent DNA analyses are reported to support such a link. No archaeological support for any Roman contacts have however been reported.
In the 1950s the eminent Oxford sinologist Homer Hasenpflug Dubs suggested that the people of Zhelaizhai might be descendants of a lost Roman legion. This unsupported conjecture from a forgotten Western academic has now entered local folklore in Gansu.
If indeed people in Zhelaizhai have a much closer genetic affinity with Europeans than others in the area, then this is to my mind unlikely to have anything to do with the discreetly undocumented arrival of any Roman legion. More likely, these people are related to the Europid, tartan-wearing Bronze Age mummies of the Tarim basin in neighbouring Xingjiang province, or with their Tocharian-speaking descendants. And the Silk Road runs nearby, offering a steady supply of amorous travellers from distant parts who were more than willing to contribute to the local gene pool.
The Roman legion hypothesis is a typical attempt of an historian to pin a specific well-documented name and date onto something that actually goes way back (frustratingly, to some) into nameless prehistory.