She makes for a beautiful corpse. That alone is impressive. Factor in that she is almost 4,000 years old and she may be the most impressive corpse in human history. You can gaze at her for as long you want at the Bowers Museum in Los Angeles County (she’s in the “Secrets of the Silk Road” exhibit until June 25).
Nobody knows a damn thing about who she really was. All we know for sure is that she died about 3,800 years ago in what is now the Lop Nur desert of Western China. She was buried amongst a complex of tombs first discovered by a Swedish archeologist in 1934. Chinese history being a complicated affair, no one was able to give the site any real attention until very recently. Now they’re pulling mummies out of the ground like it’s an Abbott and Costello movie. The conditions in that desert — the just-right dryness — do the trick. Bury yourself in Lop Nur and you’ve a fighting chance to delight the archeologists of a future age.
The physical appearance of the tomb is wonderful and mysterious in itself. Our mummy, sometimes called the Beauty of Xiaohe, was sealed in a tightly made, boat-shaped wooden box and then surrounded by wooden stakes carved into various points and oars. Woodcarvings of male and female genitalia were strewn about the place with concern for neither cost nor what the neighbors would say. The tomb site makes quite an impression out there in the desert — strange, beautiful, absurd.
But the intrigue goes even deeper. Testing the DNA of the Beauty and some of her mummy-kinsman reveals that they have a Caucasian lineage. They are tall, with elongated features and deeply set eyes, as a quick glance at our beauty will confirm. Roughly 2,000 years before the birth of Christ, Caucasians — potentially originating from somewhere in what is now Eastern Europe, though no one is sure — found themselves in China. Amusingly, ancient Chinese literature and other documents have always had references to people living amongst them with Caucasian features. These were usually dismissed as describing genetic anomalies or being tall tales. But the ancient Chinese knew what they were looking at. They were looking at people from another land, people who had somehow made their way to China before there really was a way to China.
One of the cognitive difficulties of accumulating knowledge is that it doesn’t always accumulate in an organized fashion. The pile of knowledge doesn’t grow in an ever-increasing and always-tidy pile. The pile gets knocked over and collapses of its own weight. Some of the knowledge turns out to react badly with other knowledge already accumulated. Imposters are discovered. Long-forgotten strings of facts previously considered of little importance suddenly become crucial and then, maybe, pass away again into obscurity. It is messy in the great storehouse of accumulated knowledge.
The mummies from Lop Nur are inconvenient because they don’t fit very well into the story of migrations and civilizations we’ve been telling ourselves for some time in the Western world. They don’t fit very well into the Chinese story, either, which is mostly one of autonomous and independent development. That’s not to say that we have to throw all the old stories away. We don’t. But the stories are always getting chipped at and refashioned by facts like the Euro-mummies in China. Over time, with all the sustained chipping, the qualitative transformations to the story can become profound. The current state of global civilization, which may not stay this way for very long, promotes a high degree of knowledge sharing.
There is no Cold War at the moment. China is, in relative terms, as open to the rest of the world as it’s been in a long time. There are a lot of fragments of unassimilated knowledge floating around out there, a lot of confusing facts that are going to damage the stores of knowledge we’ve long had. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, of course. On the contrary, it can be exciting. Who are these ancient Caucasoids in China? What is the story of their impossible migration? How does it shift the details of the narrative about who we are and how we got to be that way? Right now, the beautiful mummy from Lop Nur is simply a challenge; she’s what we don’t know.
She is also someone we do know. We know her in the intimate way we can always know another person. She exudes personhood, this mummy. She was a proud woman. It pained her to suffer fools. She was vain. She enjoyed wearing nice hats and took particular care for her extraordinary long red hair. That’s how amazingly well she is preserved, by the way. You can still get lost in those wonderful tresses. She was used to getting her way, our beauty from the desert. But what beauty hasn’t dealt with that problem? Perhaps it is simply the gift of death, a gift given to us all, but she seems to have come to terms with all the contradictions of life in her final days. She died with dignity and she lies there now, 4,000 years later, preserved in the dignity she took with her to the grave. This fact isn’t hard to understand at all. It is right there on her face.
So we are left with two things: knowing and not-knowing. This has happened to us so many times already you’d think we would get used to it. But we don’t. Each twist of perception is different and surprising in its own way. We weren’t out looking for Caucasians in China. They just popped up, historical time bombs planted beneath the earth’s surface waiting for the right moment to screw with our narratives. They say, “There is so much you do not know, so much you will never know.” And then, at the threshold of despair, we’re given the calm face of a beauty, mummified, seemingly, for the sole purpose of establishing a connection. She says, “There is one thing you do know. Me.”
• 12 May 2010