There’s an article in The New York Times on the recent paper which extracted genetic material from remains in Xinjiang dated to 4,000 years ago. Remember that these remains exhibited male lineages which were west Eurasian, specifically R1a1, while the female lineages (mtDNA) were more heterogeneous, both eastern and western. This particular twist in history is of very strong interest. I think there are three reasons for this. First, it is counter-intuitive, as we don’t have a good grasp of how mobile ancient nomadic populations were. Most of their history is unaccessible because they were often not literate. We know of them by and large by the shadows that they cast upon the literate civilizations. Our map of the past is strongly skewed toward civilized sedentary groups, where lack of mobility was the norm. Second, there has been a strong attempt by the Chinese government to control and massage these findings for a generation, in large part because of concerns about separatist movements in western China. The Uyghurs of Xinjiang are almost certainly in part descended from these ancient Europoid populations. Finally, there is sublimated race pride on the part of white people.* Since white people created the modern world as we know it, it may seem rather trivial to exhibit interest in lost white civilizations. But the Chinese are apparently proud of a partly fictitious 5,000 year history based on descent from the Yellow Emperor,** while black nationalists have long ludicrously grappled onto continuity with Carthaginians and Egyptians. The fame of peoples long gone seems to have a stronger proportional weight than more recent contributions.***
One of the major points in regards to the Indo-European peoples of ancient Xinjiang are their strange affinities to populations on the western rim of Eurasia, the textile patterns which seem almost Celtic for example. But you have to be careful how you frame data. Consider this from The New York Times article:
The language spoken by the people of the Small River Cemetery is unknown, but Dr. Mair believes it could have been Tokharian, an ancient member of the Indo-European family of languages. Manuscripts written in Tokharian have been discovered in the Tarim Basin, where the language was spoken from about A.D. 500 to 900. Despite its presence in the east, Tokharian seems more closely related to the “centum” languages of Europe than to the “satem” languages of India and Iran. The division is based on the words for hundred in Latin (centum) and in Sanskrit (satam).
There is actually some dispute as to significance of the centum-satum division as phylogenetically informative, but here’s a map which shows the
modern 3,000 year old distributions of the two groups (pretty close to modern distributions as some groups, like Celtic, were replaced by languages in the same category, Romance):
As you can see, the Baltic and Slavic languages are satem. In other words, satem is not purely extra-European, and the Tocharian languages are an outlier of centum on the “other side” of the satem group. Assuming this division is informative there is a easy way to explain this: the sateum-centum split was already in existence when the Indo-European tribes covered a much smaller geographical area. It would not be particularly surprising if one centum tribe went east while the others went west.
The Tocharians were who they were, and too often contemporary ideologues try and foist modern categories onto the past. As I’ve noted before, they show up in the early Chinese records, and if you trust those records their physical appearance should be no surprise. Additionally, the presence of some South Asian lineages among the Tocharians should be no surprise either; the famed Chinese Buddhist translator Kumarajiva> was from the Tocharian city of Kucha. His mother was a native while his father was an Indian immigrant. This highlights the significant trade connections between Xinjiang and northwest India.
Ancient DNA extraction seems to be producing a lot of surprises. This will probably make things uncomfortable for ideologues of all stripes, because reality has a funny way of often not suiting our preferences.
* Sublimated because public espousals of white pride are obviously taboo in the Western world, in contrast to more particular ethnic pride (e.g., Jewish or Italian pride). In contrast, in the United States racialized pride by non-whites is not nearly as constrained, while in East Asia it has never been particularly closeted.
** Chinese identity has deeper roots than the Shang dynasty, but history can go no further back than this period.
*** Just as ancient esoteric wisdom is still something that modern people seek after, even though we live in an ancient of real magic, science.