Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Lab Work to Identify 2,800-Year-Old Mummy of Shaman

I couldn't find an actual source for this, such as one of the science journals, but the story is pretty interesting. Here is what The People's Daily Online in China ran:
Lab work to identify 2,800-year-old mummy of shaman: scientists

Chinese scientists are conducting laboratory work hoping to identify a 2,800-year-old mummy presumably of a shaman in the northwestern Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

The well-preserved mummy of a seemingly Caucasian man with a Roman nose and deep-set eyes was unearthed from a cluster of ancient tombs in 2003 and research work has been going on ever since.

Archeologists found the mummy most intriguing because a sack of marijuana leaves was found buried alongside the corpse.

The mummy remains intact in its original outfit despite the passage of time: leather hat, heavy coat and boots, huge earrings of copper and gold, a turquoise necklace, a copper laced stick in the right hand and a bronze ax in the left, according to Li Xiao, head of the heritage bureau in Turpan.

Inside the leather coat, the man was wearing a dainty brown and red mantle, and his hands were crossed in front of his chest, said Li.

"From his outfit and the marijuana leaves, which have been confirmed by international specialists to be ingredients for narcotic, we assume the man had been a shaman and had been between 40 and 50 years old when he died," said Li, a noted historian in Xinjiang.

He said the corpse is about 1.2 meters long and its legs are at least 80 centimeters.

Li and his colleagues are taking fabrics from the mummy's clothes for laboratory work, hoping to identify the mummy and unravel more mysteries of shaman clothing, culture and religion.

The mummy was the best preserved one among some 600 excavated in 2003 from a cluster of 2,000 tombs in Turpan. Archeologists assume the tombs, which dated from the Bronze Age to the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907), belonged to several big clans.

The tombs also produced a wide variety of stone implements, bronzeware, color chinaware pieces and knitwear.

Source: Xinhua

They are assuming the man was a shaman based largely on the staff and his clothing, not to mention the baggy of weed. While they may be correct, there is still much we do not know about this culture and it seems hasty to jump to conclusions.

This mummy is from a site in the Uygur Autonomous Region. The people who lived there, and who seem to have died out around the second century CE, were not Asian -- they were Caucasian. Little is known of these people, but the remains were fully intact and well-preserved, so there is a good chance we will learn a lot about this enigmatic people.

Here is some info from The Philadelphia Enquirer:

In one grave, excavators discovered a saddle cover and a pair of trousers"with human on one leg -- one face had blue eyes," Kamberi said."On the other leg was a horse's body, with a human hat. It's some mystery we can find in the Greek mysteries -- a Greek tale.

"All of them worshiped the sun. . . . We cannot tell if they worshiped the horse," he said."But they buried the horse -- not the whole horse each time, but the skull and a leg." Archaeologists don't know what that ritual symbolized.

The early Tarim Basin people tended sheep and cattle and horses, practiced some form of farming, and wove intricately designed cloth from their sheep's wool. They dyed the woolen strands brilliant colors; they stamped careful patterns on the woolen felt they made by hand.

They used wheels. They erected round houses and culled river reeds for house-thatch.

They may have worshiped the bull as well as the sun.

And they buried their dead with ritual and tenderness. The infant recovered by Kamberi had been buried with a leather "bottle" attached to a sheep's teat. Both the man and woman had been adorned on their faces with ochre symbols that archaeologists believe represented the sun.

In some graves, Mongoloid and Caucasoid bodies were buried side-by-side. Other graves contained petrified rack of lamb -- complete with barbecue skewers. And in clothes materials, Mair said, some weaving techniques appear to be "so Celtic, it's mind-boggling."

You can read a much more detailed account of this region in a National Geographic article reprinted here.

Back to the original mummy -- I find the bag of weed intriguing. One wonders if this practice is something they brought with them from wherever they came, or if it was something they adopted after moving to Asia. Was it a practice that the local Asian peoples offered to them? Is there any connection with the use of weed by these peoples and the use of other hallucinogens by neighboring cultures also believed to be shamanic?

It seems true that those people we mistakenly call shamans (shaman is a term specific to the Siberian peoples, "a 'shaman' being the Turkic-Tungus word for such a practitioner and literally meaning 'he (or she) who knows'") used various entheogens as part of their practice. Because this particular mummy and culture are so well-preserved, we may learn more about how these plants played a role in the lives of earlier peoples.


Anonymous said...

Oh snap! Pot heads roamed the earth a long time ago.

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Anonymous said...

Looks like it's been legal way longer than it hasn't.

Messed up world we got right now.