In 1987, Victor Mair, a professor of philology at the University of Pennsylvania, led a tour group through a museum in the Chinese city of Ürümchi in the central Asian province of Xinjiang. During the tour, he went into a newly opened room that showed, under glass, the recently discovered blond-haired mummies of a man woman and child with long noses and deep set eyes that were over 3,000 years old. The real shock was that they were Caucasian. Dr Mair was intrigued by the mummies’ existence, 2,000 years before the West and East admitted each other’s existence. These mummies were among some 100 dug up by Chinese archeologists over the course of 16 years. They came from the Tian Shan Mountains in northwest China and the fringes of the Taklimakan Desert.
Professor Mair attempted to investigate further, but met with some difficulties from the Chinese authorities at the time because of the political climate. Eventually, he led a small expedition to the Tarim Basin and the group found more mummies that were tall and blond, dressed in clothes that were still intact, even woolen plaids that were as brightly hued as the day they were woven.
Professor Mair and others have documented the discoveries from this research trip and some successive ones in books, film documentaries and published articles over the years (for example: The Tarim Mummies by Victor Mair and The Urumchi Mummies by Nancy Barber). I first discovered his work when reading a National Geographic article on the first expedition and was intrigued by the possibility of what could be a proto-Celtic group finding its way there.
Who were these people? As far back as the second century B.C., Chinese texts refer to alien people called the ‘Yuezhi’ and the ‘Wusun’ who lived on China’s far western borders. The texts indicate the Chinese regarded them as troublesome ‘barbarians.’ Until recently scholars have teneded to downplay evidence of any early trade or contact between China and the West regarding the development of Chinese civilization as an essentially home grown affair, sealed off from outside. Recently, some archeologists argue that these so-called ‘barbarians’ were responsible for introducing things like the wheel and the first metal objects. Professor Mair’s own research leads him to believe that these people were Tocharian, an early Indo-European group about whose origins little is known.
This article and the books inspired me to write a novel that imagined how such a group would come to be there. It took the form of Raven Brought the Light, to be published in April. In writing the novel I created what is mostly my own invention about the mummies, and also the small band of proto–Native Alaskans that they encounter. The accepted understanding for the Native Americans now is that they migrated from various areas in Asia, in waves; most by boats and others migrating across the Bering Strait at different time periods. I realize that my little group is very late to be leaving the Asian continent and I took a lot of artistic license with it. I hope that it doesn’t hinder people’s appreciation of the tale.
Kristin Gleeson is a writer, artist and musician who lives in the west of Ireland in the Gaeltacht.
Recieve a free novella prequel to Along the Far Shores when you sign up for the mailing list on the homepage