Q&A with Victor Mair

Victor Mair, Chinese language scholar  Photo credit: Candace diCarlo

In 1988, Victor Mair was leading a Smithsonian tour group through the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Museum in China when he saw something that stopped him dead in his tracks.
Behind a pair of heavy black curtains lay a room full of amazingly well-preserved mummies in glass cases. So well-preserved, in fact, that Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature in the School of Arts and Sciences, thought the mummies and their belongings belonged in a Madame Tussauds Wax Museum.

The mummies also looked remarkably like Europeans, not Chinese. One even reminded him of his second-eldest brother, Dave. That mummy, he nicknamed Ur-David, or “super-ancient David.”

“I had always hypothesized that European people had traveled eastward very early, but we had never had any tangible, visible proof of it,” says Mair. “So I didn’t know how to process the fact that we had these very European-looking people in the middle of Asia with all of this advanced textile technology and metallurgy and their incredible state of preservation.”

But Mair didn’t immediately jump into researching the mummies. Not an archaeologist by trade, his academic focus was on the written word, including studying the oldest Chinese spoken and written languages from a cave called Dunhuang.

And then in 1991, the mummies again inserted themselves into Mair’s life. On a border between Austria and Italy, very close to his father’s hometown, the news broke that researchers had uncovered Ötzi the Iceman, the mummy of a man who lived about 5,300 years ago. Mair realized that the DNA studies that scientists were going to use to learn about the Iceman could also be used to piece together the history of those central Asian mummies.

“That very afternoon, I became an archaeologist,” Mair says.

The Current recently sat down with Mair to discuss his findings about the mummies and other treasures of the ancient Tarim Basin.

Q. Talk about your first trip to the region to explore the mummies.
.My first investigation was going to be genetics, because at that time, it was just the beginning of what you call ancient DNA studies. That was possible around then, but it was still in its infancy. It was almost experimental. I thought, ‘I’ll do this and then I’ll know where these mummies come from.’ That was a naïve assumption, but I had to do something, so from 1991 to 1993, I kept doing the organizing, fundraising, getting permissions from the Chinese government. A week before I was supposed to fly over there, the government permissions came through. I took a young Italian geneticist with me. ... I think we spent three weeks going around to different sites, taking samples right from mummies in the ground and at the end, we couldn’t get all the samples out because of government restrictions. We had 52 samples and we actually managed to get six samples out. This young man named Paolo Francalacci worked on those for a couple years. He devised new protocols for dealing with the DNA and then he finally got a reading that showed that they did have some European markers. It was reassuring in a way because it showed they had DNA from Europe, but it wasn’t precise in the sense of telling you time depth or even location.
We now have more recent DNA results and in February of 2010, published this paper that showed much more clearly the distribution of the genetic types; they were coming from probably Western Europe and they were picking out mitochondrial DNA in Southern Siberia, probably mating with local women.
The next time, I took two textile experts, Elizabeth Barber and Irene Good. I was with them for three weeks in 1995 and we spent so much time collecting samples and then at the last minute, we couldn’t get them out. Irene and Elizabeth took very good notes and observed carefully. ... What I found out was that textiles are highly diagnostic and highly specific, even more specific than DNA research. ... We found out an awful lot, even though we didn’t have ideal conditions to work there.
In April 1996, it was time to have a big international conference and I held it here in [the Penn Museum] and it was fantastic. That was a watershed moment in the study of the mummies, their culture, their technology, and it has had a huge impact.

Q. You let the subject rest for a few years, didn’t you?

Q. The fact that the mummies in the Tarim Basin had these Western features caused a bit of consternation, didn’t it?
I’d always said that China didn’t grow up in isolation. Chinese civilization must have been in intimate contact with other civilizations. People have the idea that China is off there in the East and it’s behind a Great Wall. The Chinese themselves believe that and the Westerners believe that, they say, ‘How could there be any connection with the West when it’s so far away and people didn’t have good transportation?’ I think all cultures are related and that we’ve been having exchanges from the very beginning. People used to say, ‘Well, all these cultures are independently derived. They create themselves.’ I was a strong opponent of that. From my study of ancient Chinese history and ancient Chinese civilization, I could see there were aspects that were similar to Western civilization.
Everybody used to say, ‘Where’s the smoking gun? There’s just a big hole in the middle of central Asia.’ So when the mummies were discovered, I felt so vindicated.
When I first saw them, I was so stunned by their incredible state of preservation that I almost didn’t believe it. But after working with the mummies for 10 years, and studying archaeology and technology, I said, ‘It all makes sense and it all fits together.’
It even gets into the history of languages, because there are some words in Chinese, like ‘honey’ and ‘lion,’ that are Indo-European words. They entered Chinese at least 2,200 years ago. Since these mummies are almost certainly Indo-European you think, ‘OK, they were bringing their words with them.’ But then we have to study very carefully which Indo-European languages. It turns out, there’s a language we didn’t even know about at all until the early 20th century called Tocharian. ... We have evidence that the Chinese probably got their words for ‘lion’ and ‘honey’ and some other words from the Tocharians. Who was living out there then? The mummies? We have their bodies, we have words, then you try to match words and bodies. Then we try to bring together words, bodies and textiles or tomb types or ceramics. You bring all sorts of things to see how they fit together in a big puzzle.

Q. The mummies and all the findings seem like it could really shake things up in Silk Road scholarship.
It has, but I think people haven’t actually come to grips with how much it has. I mean, they’re still in shock. The mummies themselves are shocking because you can’t believe how well-preserved they are. The most gratifying thing of all is when great scholars start to go out there and lead their own research projects, following up on these discoveries.

Q. What do you hope the general public takes away from these findings?
I want people to feel a sense of commonality with those people of the past and to realize that the people of the past are people just like us—they have the same kind of desires and worries. They have symbolism, they care about their appearance—there are combs, there is mascara, [there are] mirrors. You can learn from this where we got trousers, because these people were among the first people who were wearing trousers.
What I want people to take away from this is that our culture has its roots in the past. The word for ‘silk’ in English came across this path very early from China, so we have this very old Chinese word in English, and the Chinese have a very old Western word in Chinese. I’d like people to learn about the past, but not think of the past as something distant and cut off. There’s a continuity up to the present and those people are all part of the big human family and our lives have been impacted by them. All cultures are connected.

Originally published on February 3, 2011