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on March 18, 2002
...what it is, mainly, is a discussion about the cultural name and the language of the mummies might be. This is fine, and should occupy a chapter, but half the book is specifically related to trying to pin down a name out of Chinese and European sources and where they came from from archaeological and linguistic knowledge.
It seemed to me that the book might better have concentrated on what could be learned of their culture from what we DO know from their burials and with comparisons to how people live in those regions today. There is no in-depth analysis of the items (beyond what you can see for yourself in the photographs) nor comparison of cultural details or even explaining what a nomadic lifestyle would be like, nor discussion of specific practices that might suggest their beliefs. And when mention is made it is done briefly so they can get on with their analysis of the historical basis of Central Asia. Clearly they chose their emphasis simply because they have such limited access to the mummies themselves.
There are several chapters at the end that spell out all the competing ideas of how the Tarim basin may have been populated, which probably belonged in a anthropological journal. But I cannot say the book is not interesting to reade, its just that I kept waiting for a close study of cultural comparisons right until the book ended. For this reason I liked Barber's book better, for her close appraisal of Tarim fabrics and then to speak of how they might have been made. One feature of the mummies was the women with "witch" hats. The authors simply say the real witch's hat was Puritan dress from the 17th century and then blithely go on. Now somehow I believed the Puritans were Christians not pagans, but maybe I'm wrong.
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on February 15, 2002
I don't consider myself a fan of "popular" treatments of specialized subject matter, but I couldn't help wishing the authors had even just a hint of a flair for writing.
This volume explores the mystery of the caucasoid mummies found in the heart of central Asia along the ancient silk route. It is written by two eminent scholars actively involved in research on the mummies, so readers can be forgiven for assuming the authors' qualifications would result in an exceptional book. Not so. Sadly, this book suffers from the curse of an overly academic approach. It's a real shame, too, considering the unusual nature of the mummies, their fantastic state of preservation, and the detective work required to reconstruct their story from a relatively few tantalizing clues.
Readers interested in this subject will be pleased with the color photos included, and I don't mean to suggest that this book is not worth reading--far from it--however, the writing is unremittingly turgid, the conclusions predictably cautious and wishy-washy, and when all is said and done it is sadly unsatisfying.
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on August 20, 2000
I've had a life long interest in ancient history and have studied it to the MA level. In my exposure to the process of learning the subject, it often seemed to me that somehow god casts a spotlight on earth's stage and the historic cast of one civilization takes center stage does its part and departs. When the curtain rises again, another character steps forward to play its part. None of these individual civilizations seems to have much to do with any of the others. The student is left with little sense of connection and even the time lines seem disconnected. This book is amazing if for no other reason that the highlighted culture(s) of which the mummies were a part are peripheral, marginal ones lying between the East and the West. In attempting to describe the origins of the mummies and the population movements that they indicate, the authors provide a more thorough description of the intereactions of East and West. It's as if all the "characters" are on stage together during any given "act" giving the reader a far more comprehensive view of world history in the making than any other book on an individual topic. In acheiving their overall goal of describing the mummies and their background--cultural, linguistic, genetic, and historic--Mallory and Mair have also achieved a tour de force which puts more of human history into perspective. I expected to learn a great deal about the Tarim mummies of the Taklamakan Desert, I did not anticipate putting much of what I already knew of the ancient world into a more understandable framework. A very impressive book.
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on July 22, 2000
....[As] one who has participated in an aspect of this research-the
extent to which at least some of the later Xinjiang mummies may have
been Northeast Iranians (Saka, et al.), who subsequently had an impact
on both China and Japan-I can attest that Mair and Mallory have
critically assessed every possible explanation before concluding that
the great bulk of this Europoid population, esepcially in the later
period, were in all probability Tocharian speakers of one sort or
another (the earliest Europoids in the region may have been archaic
Iranians, an idea recently suggested by my colleague Dr. Elizabeth
J. W. Barber). Moreover, the textile evidence, intensely researched
by Dr. Barber (see her widely-praised book THE MUMMIES OF URUMCHI,
W.W. Norton & Co., 1999), reinforces the conclusion that the
Europoids who settled in the Tarim Basin in the latter part 2nd
millennium, B.C.E., shared a common origin with a variety of Western
Indo-European speakers, including the Celts, whose textiles were
preserved in the salt-filled graves at Hallstatt (ca. 1300-400
B.C.E.). This, of course, also points squarely in the direction of the
Tocharians, who, despite the fact that they were the easternmost of
the attested ancient Indo-European speakers, shared a great many
specific linguistic features in common with the Western group,
especially the Celts. (Incidently,...the pointed "witches
hat" is in fact deeply embedded in the ancient Brythonic-and,
by extension, Celtic-culture and predates the 17th century Puritan at least two millennia.) Yes, the great majority
of the current population of the Tarim is Uyghur-speaking, that is, of
Altaic origin, and yes, there are some physical similarities between
some of the current inhabitants of the region and the tall, blue-eyed
people whose mummified remains have become so controversial. But that
is to be expected whenever a new population intrudes into a
region-and we know beyond a reasonable doubt that the intrusion of
the "Turkic" speaking Uyghurs into Xinjiang occurred in the
9th and 10th centuries B.C.E, over a millennium after the arrival of
the Iranian- (or perhaps Tocharian-) speaking Europoids. To cite a
parallel situation, the vast majority of modern Mexicans speak
Spanish, a tongue introduced by a conquering culture some five
centuries ago. Physically, however, most Mexicans, including those
with little or no "Indio" cultural heritage, still reflect
their Native American ancestry, though with a fair amount of
"Europoid" admixture, especially among the ruling elite. In
short, THE TARIM MUMMIES should be required reading for anyone
seriously concerned with trans-Eurasian cultural connections in the
course of the last six thousand years.
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on June 30, 2000
It was with great enjoyment that I read the Mummies of the Tarim. The book should be a milestone in its attempt to popularize early Indo-European pre-historiography, by trying to reduce--if not oversimplify--a formidable amount of theory, data, and material evidence into some sort of comprehensible format. The illustrations (maps, charts and color photos) help bring a little known cultural sphere to life. The style is easy to understand and the chapter headings eye-catching, though the reader needs to be versed in many of the particulars. Mair's and Mallory's overall reluctance to draw the conclusion that in 2000 BC there was an en masse migration of western European Celtic groups eastward into the Tarims oasis area (China's Xinjiang autonomous province), is commendable. I find the work's approach a refreshing relief from the frenzy of the past 4-5 years dominated by the press' sensationalizing a yet unproved hypothesis about the mummies of Xinjiang, their role in China's history and a supposed Indo-European cultural diffusion. The implication that these western Europeans brought technologial innovations to the backward Chinese was unmistakeable. Several points are worthy of mention here. 1. Based on the available evidence, Mair and Mallory cannot but conclude that direct migrations from western Europe are unwarranted since these Europoid populations of Asia, some of whose memebers were mummified after death in the Tarim Basin--have been living in Siberia and Central Asia at least since the Neolithic Age (4-3000 BC). However, they fail to mention that though they are antropologically classified as Europoids, they are markedly different from those of Western Europe (p 236) of the same time period. The Asian Europoids exhibit a short, flat face and round skull, while the norhther European Europoids have long faces, protruding noses and long skulls. 2. Futher merit of the book include discussions of the seeming similarity between the textile find of the Hallstatt culture of western Europe (ca 900-to 400 BC), and that found in Qizilchoca 1000 BC, (p 219). They point out that the distance and the scarcity of data--not to mention that Hallstatt pieces are later than Qizilchoca-- preclude the claim of direct derivation of the Tarim textiles from Hallstatt. 3. Similarly, they discuss in great detail the myriad problems of assigning a language to the early Xinjiang populations. They explore Tocharian (3rd.c. AD), yet admit that projecting back the linguistic evidence from this late date upon the population that lived 1500 years earlier in the Tarim is a method scientifically unsound (p. 301). 4. The Uygur nationality who moved to Xinjiang from the Baikal area, show marked physical resemblance to the ancient populations and the authors point out-- correctly-- that these people can claim direct descent from these early groups (pp 250-251). 5. However, while bringing in much food for thought regarding migrations focuses myopically only on Indo-European peoples, sadly falling short of exploring the history and ethnic continuity of the indigenous populationf of multi-ethnic Tarim---as the book title would warrant. The Turks get three pages of discussion (pp 99-101), the Huns and Avars none. This treatment can hardly be called exhaustive . The authors themselves admit that the south Siberian and Central Asian populations resemble the ancient Xinjiang groups the most closely, yet ignore much research that show that a high percentageage of today's Turkic speaking peoples in Central Asia, not only in the Tarim, have been from this very stock, since the Bronze Age, precluding mass migrations from the west. 6. There are numerous other ommissions. One concerns connecting the so-called "witches' hat" of the Tarim (p 220) to the head-gear of the western European witch. While this kind of headdress existed first in the Tarim area, its use spread in Asia among the Saka, Scythians, Turks, Kumans, and Mongols, and the book neglets to note that these hats never existed anywhere in western European cultures. Therefore, the ' witches' hat of the 17th c. AD Puritans-- the only other evidence offered as a western European parallel-- lacks credibility. From in-depth reading of the work it becomes clear that the cultural features examined in the book cannot be shown to derive from Western Europe, but have continuous traditions locally and in Central Asia among Iranian, Turkic, and Mongolian speaking groups. By and large throughout the book Mair and Mallory are walking the tightrope of tenuous linguistic reconstructions in an effort to establish the possibility of Indo-Europeans dispersing eastward from somehwere in the grasslands of South Russia, transmitting cultural features to China. In the final analysis they have to admit that the role of the Tarim mummies is still far from clear in this respect. While the authors still cannot bring themselves to openly admit that not all Europoid-looking peoples speak Indo European languages, as hard as it is for them, they cannot help but be cautious regarding far reaching conclusions about Indo European movements. How to categorize this book? It cannot be called an authoritative scholarly research tool, since its style is neither authoritative nor scholarly. Lack of footnotes and references, and grossly incolmplete bibliography render it of marginal use for the scholar. It abounds in statements which lack proof, circular arguments, and a-priory theories . It can be categorized as a popularized attempt at the overview of a too wide, grossly underresearched topic. Nevertheless, the book is commendable for at least helping to dispel the rather naive, if not ridiculous notion --partially perpetrated by sensationalist journalism of the past few years--the unproved conjecture, that in 2000- BC, read-headed and blonde Scotsmen, wearing tartans (p. 218), riding furiously on their charitos from western Europe eastward all the way to the Tarim Basin, brought the Chinese knowledge of horseriding, metalworking and of course, the wheel.
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on September 19, 2000
"The Tarim Mummies" weaves field data, historical background, scholarship, and informed speculation into probably the best account of this subject yet published. The authors set the discovery of the mummies in the wider context of written historical records and ancient (mainly Indo-European) migrations. They are not afraid to make occasionally tenuous hypotheses on the origins of the Tarim Basin's earliest settlers, but they are always clear about their evidence and the tentative nature of their assertions. Sometimes, they raise more questions than answers, but then such is science. The writing style is both sober and engaging.
I also read "The Mummies of Urumchi" (by E. W. Barber), an excellent book, but I enjoyed this newer work more, if only for its more balanced and comprehensive treatment.
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This thick volume attempts to answer the question of how a bunch of Caucasian mummies ended up in central China. Scholarly and far-reaching, it delves into linguistics, archaeology, religion, and other disciplines.
It didn't actually dwell on the mummies of Tarim much. Most of it's book scholarship, not field investigation. It tries to show how various populations in China got where they did, using whatever means it can. In this regard, it succeeds. But I wish it'd talked about the actual mummies more than it did. I got occasional glimpses, but nothing more.
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on August 7, 2000
Mair and Mallory did an excellent job. They not only cover the mummies and the archaeological finds, they also provide lots of historical background and context, which is fascinating.
Easy to read, well-written, with a light touch and spots of humor.
My only complaint is that the maps often don't mark the locations being discussed in the surrounding text, leading the reader to flip forward or back to the correct map, though a map of the same area is on the current page.
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on November 4, 2002
read Elizabeth Wayland Barber's "Mummies of Urumchi" instead. It's a great read. She foucses on what we can learn about these people based on (starting from) the textiles the mummies were wrapped in. The result is a fascinating look at a surprising culture. And if you enjoy that, try her earlier book "Women's Work: the First 20,000 Years" too.
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