The discovery of hundreds of mummified bodies buried in boats in a desert in Northwest China has left archaeologists perplexed.

The mysterious mummies were found in the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang mostly in the 1990s but their bodies and clothes seem to be intact despite them being at least 4,000 years old, which may have been due to the naturally preserved dry desert air. Their facial features and hair colour are clearly visible.

Their looks appear western, their clothing is woven wool and wheat and millet found in their graves suggest they were long-distance herders from the West Asia steppe or migrating farmers from mountains and desert oases of Central Asia.

However, a new study by Chinese, European and American researchers painted a different picture suggesting that the remains did not belong to newcomers but a local group that came from an ancient Ice Age Asian population.

The researchers looked at the genetic information from the oldest Tarim Basin mummies, dating from 3,700-4,100 years old, together with genomes sequenced from the remains of five people from the Dzungarian Basin farther north in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China. Dating back between 4,800 and 5,000 years ago, they are the oldest human remains found in the region.

Ancient DNA provides powerful evidence about the movements of people at a time when written records or other clues are scarce. The mummies were direct descendants of a group that was once widespread during the Ice Age but had largely disappeared by the end of that era.

Around 10,000 years ago called Ancient North Eurasians, traces of this hunter-gatherer population survive only fractionally in the genomes of present-day populations, with Indigenous people in Siberia and the Americas having the highest known proportions.

The other genetic samples from farther North in Xinjiang showed that the people they came from mixed extensively with different Bronze Age populations in the region, making it remarkable that the Tarim Basin mummies were so genetically isolated.

Ancient genetic samples from this region are still relatively rare, and it was possible that they could find other genetic influences from the Himalayas or Tibet.

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