ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And while we're on the subject of DNA, there is a story out of China - we read about it today in the New York Times - a story that poses the important question, who's your mummy? In Xinjiang province in the northwest of the country, many people belong to the Turkic Muslim minority group the Uighurs. There is even a Uighurs separatist movement and evidently, in addition to some of the more conventional protest behavior, there's also an anthropological or genetic dimension to Uighur nationalism. There are mummies from Xinjiang, and the Uighurs see in the features of those ancient, preserved faces proof that people from points west in central Asia, their ancestors, were in the region long before the ancestors of the majority Chinese Han people got there. Victor Mair, who teaches Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania, has been involved in identifying the origins of these mummies, and he joins us from Philadelphia. Welcome to the program, Professor Mair.
Dr. VICTOR H. MAIR (Chinese Language Literature, University of Pennsylvania): Glad to be here.
SIEGEL: And tell me, what do the mummies of Xinjiang show?
Dr. MAIR: Well, they show us that they came from somewhere to the west, I believe. We can see that they have European features, but they are wearing textiles that are affiliated with textiles to the west - woolen, and some of them are even tartans or plaids. And they have feathers in their felt caps, and they look Western. They look like Europeans.
SIEGEL: Well, now, visual impressions of who these mummified people were are now reinforced by DNA testing of tissue?
Dr. MAIR: Yes, because in 1993, I took an Italian geneticist named Paolo Francalacci with me. And after years of hard work, he determined that these mummies, some of them, have a western haplogroup. And the most recent DNA testing reaffirmed that, and that was just done within the last half year.
SIEGEL: European covers a lot of ground. I mean, do we have any sense of where in Europe they might have come from?
Dr. MAIR: We can't say for certain, but I believe that they came from somewhere in southeastern Europe or just south of the Urals, what we called the Pontic Steppes, north of the Black Sea. I think that they originated somewhere in that vicinity.
SIEGEL: Now, hearing you say that in the United States to an audience of Americans, it sounds like an entirely scholarly academic finding, not particularly provocative. But I gather in Chinese discourse, this is fairly provocative.
Dr. MAIR: Yes, indeed, and it's provocative for two groups. First of all, for the Han Chinese, who are the majority population in China, it's not something that they would have expected. In some ways, it does give some sort of credence to the claims of the other group that wants to assert priority to that region, and that is the Uighurs. However, the Uighurs themselves are not entirely pleased with our findings because some Uighurs believe that they have been there for a long, long time, and what we're showing is that these mummies were there since Bronze Age times, before either the Han people or the Uighurs arrived in that time base in the region.
SIEGEL: So these are the real native people of Xinjiang, were discovered (unintelligible).
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. MAIR: Exactly.
SIEGEL: Now, by appearance do the Uighurs look European, or have they intermarried with so many Han people over the centuries or Mongol people that they are indistinguishable?
Dr. MAIR: That's an extremely interesting question, because one time I had a conference here at Penn and I said, would all the Uighurs in the audience please stand up, and five people stood up. Some of them almost looked like Chinese, some looked like Egyptians, some looked like Iranians, and some looked like Europeans. So the Uighurs are a very mixed group of people who have many different physical types.
SIEGEL: Professor Mair, thank you very much for talking with us today.
Professor MAIR: You're welcome.
SIEGEL: That's Victor Mair, who is professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
DNA tests on mummies raise new questions about China's Uighurs, many of whom claim western heritage. China insists the Uighurs have East Asian heritage.
DNA tests on mummies raise new questions about China's Uighurs, many of whom claim western heritage. China insists the Uighurs have East Asian heritage. Victor H. Mair, professor of Chinese language literature at the University of Pennsylvania, discusses the findings with Robert Siegel.