Bronze Age mummies found buried in a barren desert in Xinjiang in western China were descended from an ancient Asian population, not newcomers to the region as previously suggested, according to a new study. An international team of researchers found that the Tarim Basin mummies were direct descendants of the Ancient North Eurasians, a once widespread population that had largely disappeared by the end of the last Ice Age. The genetic origins and ancestry of 4,000-year-old naturally mummified bodies discovered in boat coffins has puzzled scientists for decades because of their distinct Western-like appearance, clothing and apparent farming practices involving cattle, wheat and kefir cheese. The Tarim Basin mummies in what is now southern Xinjiang were once thought to be Indo-European-speaking migrants from the West. Some thought that their ancestors migrated from what became southern Siberia, northern Afghanistan or the Central Asian mountains. “The identity of the earliest inhabitants of Xinjiang , in the heart of inner Asia, and the languages that they spoke have long been debated and remain contentious,” wrote the team of 34 researchers from China, Germany, South Korea and the United States in peer-reviewed journal Nature on Wednesday. World’s first pregnant Egyptian mummy discovered in Poland “We find that the earliest Tarim Basin cultures appear to have arisen from a genetically isolated local population that adopted neighbouring pastoralist and agriculturalist practices, which allowed them to settle and thrive along the shifting riverine oases of the Taklamakan Desert,” they said. The team analysed the DNA of 13 mummies dated to the Middle Bronze Age in the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang – a dry inland sea that now forms the Taklamakan Desert. They found that the Tarim mummies had only local ancestry. “Despite being genetically isolated, the Bronze Age peoples of the Tarim Basin were remarkably culturally cosmopolitan – they built their cuisine around wheat and dairy from West Asia, millet from East Asia and medicinal plants like Ephedra from Central Asia,” said senior author Christina Warinner, an associate professor of anthropology at Harvard University. According to the researchers, they buried their dead with Ephedra twigs in a style similar to that of other cultures of Central Asia. They used boat-shaped wooden coffins covered with cattle hides and marked by timber poles or oars, and preferred woven baskets over pottery – “distinctive cultural elements not found among other cultures in Xinjiang or elsewhere”. “It appears that the tightknit population that founded the Xiaohe horizon were well aware of different technologies and cultures outside the Tarim Basin and that they developed their unique culture in response to the extreme challenges of the Taklamakan Desert and its lush and fertile riverine oases,” the team wrote. Another five mummies dated to the Early Bronze Age were found to be descended largely from southern Siberia, with some local genetic influences. The scientists found milk proteins in deposits on the teeth of seven Tarim mummies, which showed that they probably relied on dairy farming. The well-preserved mummified remains, believed to be the earliest human remains discovered in Xinjiang to date, were excavated by the Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology between 1979 and 2017. Warinner said the mummification occurred naturally, thanks to the extreme aridity of the region, after the dead were buried in a sand dune with a high salt content. “Although the mummies today are in the middle of a desert, they were once near the shores of a lush riverine oasis,” she said. “They probably used boats in their daily lives for fishing and transport.” Senior author Cui Yinqui, a professor in the life sciences faculty at Jilin University in China, said future study of ancient humans was important for understanding their migration history in the Eurasian steppes, vast swathes of grassland between Europe and Asia.