Tarim Basin Mummy

November/December 2013

(Courtesy Victor Mair)

Culture: Unknown

Location: Tarim Basin, China

Date: 1000-600 B.C.

The barren desert of China’s southern Tarim Basin has been the source of some of the ancient world’s most mysterious tattooed mummies. One of them belonged to a woman who some time between 1000 and 600 B.C. was possibly sacrificed and then buried in a necropolis now outside the modern village of Zaghunluq. The woman had brown hair with white streaks that had been braided and tied with red wool string, and her eyebrows had been painted just before her death. 

University of Pennsylvania scholar Victor Mair has worked in the Tarim Basin and has studied the mummies for more than 30 years. He believes the woman’s charcoal and soot tattoos were likely ornamental or symbolic. They include moons on her eyelids, ovals on her forehead, and a decorative scroll pattern on her left hand, wrist, and exceptionally long fingers. Although the culture to which the woman belonged has not been identified, the similarity of her tattoos to those of other mummies from Russia, for example, clearly identifies her as part of the Eurasian tradition of tattooing that begins with Ötzi some 5,000 years ago.

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