Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Lost Roman Legion in Ancient China?

From People's Daily Online
New research body to help decode mystery of Western-looking villagers in NW China
20:04, November 19, 2010

Zhelaizhai residents with European characteristics.
Chinese and Italian anthropologists this week established an Italian studies center at a leading university in northwest China to determine whether some Western-looking Chinese in the area are the descendants of a lost Roman army of ancient times.

Experts at the Italian Studies Center at Lanzhou University in Gansu Province will conduct excavations on a section of the Silk Road, a 7,000-km-long trade route that linked Asia and Europe more than 2,000 years ago, to see if it can be proved a legion of lost Roman soldiers settled in China, said Prof. Yuan Honggeng, head of the center.

"We hope to prove the legend by digging and discovering more evidence of China's early contact with the Roman Empire," said Yuan.

Before Marco Polo's travels to China in the 13th century, the only known contact between the two empires was a visit by Roman diplomats in 166 A.D.

Chinese archeologists were therefore surprised in the 1990s to find the remains of an ancient fortification in Liqian, a remote town in Yongchang County on the edge of the Gobi desert, which was strikingly similar to Roman defence structures.

They were even more astonished to find western-looking people with green, deep-set eyes, long and hooked noses and blonde hair in the area.

Though the villagers said they had never traveled outside the county, they worshipped bulls and their favorite game was similar to the ancient Romans' bull-fighting dance.

DNA tests in 2005 confirmed some of the villagers were indeed of foreign origin, leading many experts to conclude they are the descendants of the ancient Roman army headed by general Marcus Crassus.

In 53 B.C., Crassus was defeated and beheaded by the Parthians, a tribe occupying what is now Iran, putting an end to Rome's eastward expansion.

But a 6,000-strong army led by Crassus's eldest son apparently escaped and were never found again.

Though some anthropologists are convinced the foreign-looking villagers in Yongchang County are the descendants of the army men, others are not so certain.

"The county is on the Silk Road, so there were many chances for trans-national marriages," said Prof. Yang Gongle at Beijing Normal University. "The 'foreign' origin of the Yongchang villagers, as proven by the DNA tests, does not necessarily mean they are of ancient Roman origin."

Prof. Xie Xiaodong, a geneticist from Lanzhou University, also sounded a skeptical note.

"Even if they are descendants of Romans, it does not mean they are necessarily from that Roman army."

Their mysterious identity has brought wealth and fame to some of the villagers.

Cai Junnian has yellow wavy hair, a hooked nose and green eyes. A DNA test in 2005 confirmed he is of 56 percent European origin. It made him famous almost overnight.

Reporters, filmmakers, historians and geneticists from around the world chased him. He was invited to meetings with the Italian consul in Shanghai and even appeared in a documentary shot by an Italian TV company last year.

His friends all call him "Cai Luoma," which means "Cai the Roman."

Cai's fellow villager Luo Ying, looks even more European. He has been employed by a Shanghai firm as their "image ambassador."

A Beijing film producer will spend millions to turn the villagers' story into a film.

The university's new research body is a platform for experts to further research the subject but "the research work will certainly be complicated," said Italian Ambassador to China Riccardo Sessa.

The center will also help Chinese learn Italian language and culture, he said. "More exchanges will certainly be helpful in unraveling the mystery."

Source: Xinhua
Some fascinating background information on the battle and the aftermath and the missing legionnaires in this post from 2005, about a Discovery program on the same subject.

See also Wikipedia entry on Crassus:

There has been speculation that seventeen years after the defeat of Crassus's forces by the Parthians, a detachment of troops, which was said to have used a typically Roman military tactic, had been captured by Chinese forces.[15] In this account, during the Battle of Zhizhi in 36 BC, a Han Dynasty army led by General Chen Tang encountered troops of Zhizhi Chanyu that were using "a fish-scale formation" -- which was hypothesized to mean the testudo formation. It has also been argued that the account of the Chinese historian Ban Gu, who lived during that time, implies that there were troops of Caucasian appearance fighting alongside Zhizhi Chanyu. In this account, the Chinese took these soldiers prisoner, but were so impressed by their courage and fighting abilities that they incorporated them into their army to defend the province of Gansu, calling them Li-Jien.[citation needed]

In examining this hypothesis, researchers had taken DNA samples to try to determine if the people in the village did have some European ancestry, even as they acknowledged that there would be little way of knowing whether the ancestors would have in fact been from Crassus's troops. Although they confirmed the DNA as being of "European origins," narrowing that down further than that was impossible based on the available supporting evidence.[16] The results of the DNA test do not support the hypothesis that the inhabitants of Liqian are related to the Romans; instead the authors conclude "the current Liqian population is more likely to be a subgroup of the Chinese majority Han".[17]

  1. ^ Spencer, Richard (2007-02-02). "Roman descendants found in China?". The Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved 2010-05-12. 
  2. ^ Zhou R, An L, Wang X, Shao W, Lin G, Yu W, Yi L, Xu S, Xu J, Xie X, Testing the hypothesis of an ancient Roman soldier origin of the Liqian people in northwest China: a Y-chromosome perspective. J Hum Genet. 2007; 52(7): 584-91.
Could these be descendants of Tocharians?  Or descendants of the European peoples who settled in parts of the Tarim Basin?  The information about the bull worship and the "bull fighting dance" - that is particularly fascinating and very legionesque!  Legionnaires were big practictioners of Mithracism and worshippers of Cybele, both of which involved ritual bull sacrifice.  Neither the Tocharians or the even older peoples from the Tarim Basin evidenced such practices.  So - let's see what further genetic research reveals.  For my part, I tend to believe the Chinese historian Ban Gu who wrote about the encounter with the strange warriors in the first century CE:

[i]n the annals of the Han dynasty there is the record of the capture of a Hun city, by the chinese army, in 36 BC named Zhizhi, now known as Dzhambul, located close to Tashkent, in Uzbekistan.

It made a deep impression on Dubs that the Chinese recorded that they found palisades of tree trunks, and that the enemy had used a previously unseen battle formation at the gates of the city, namely a testudo of selected warriors forming a cover of overlapping shields in front of their bodies in the first row and over the heads in the following rows. These facts are reported in the biography of Chen Tang, one of the victorious Chinese generals, written by the historian Ban Gu
(32 – 92)

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