The oldest and most intriguing bodies came from a 20-foot-high, man-made sand mound about 300 miles south of the petroglyphs. Known as Xiaohe, or Small River Cemetery No. 5 (SRC5), it was found in 1934 but then forgotten. The site is in a remote, restricted desert where China conducted nuclear tests. Rediscovered in 2000, the site had to be completely excavated in the following years to protect it from looters. Under the sand lay five layers of burials, from which 30 well-preserved desiccated corpses were recovered, the oldest dating to 2000 B.C.
The discovery proved politically explosive because most of the Bronze Age SRC5 mummies had long noses, eye ridges, and red and brown hair, none of which is typically Chinese. The Caucasian features seemed to contradict the official government view that the Han Chinese had the oldest historical claim to Xinjiang, dating to the second century B.C.
The question of which ethnic group lived here first is a serious issue today. Most of Xinjiang’s inhabitants are not ethnically Chinese but Uyghur—they belong to a Turkic-speaking, Muslim nationality that numbers 9 million and gives its name to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. They are indistinguishable from typical Europeans, and their ancestors first settled in Xinjiang in the ninth century. Uyghur nationalists, who want greater religious and cultural freedom and more autonomy from China, latched onto the ancient Caucasian mummies to claim deeper historical roots in the region.
The political conflict hampered research for a while. But when a 2010 genetics study concluded that the oldest mummies weren’t Han Chinese but weren’t Uyghur either, both sides backed down, leaving the subject to scientists and scholars where it belonged.
The cemetery where the mummies were found was unique in the world for its time. The site bristled with nearly 200 poplar posts, up to 12 feet high, and it required extravagant amounts of lumber. Some of the posts, painted black and red, were either torpedo-like or resembled oversized oars. The bodies lay on the sand, covered with boat-like coffins wrapped in cattle hides.
Viktor Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the foremost experts on the mummies, writes that SRC5 was “a forest of phalluses and vulvas … blanketed in sexual symbolism.” The torpedoes were phallic symbols marking all the female graves, while the “oars” marking the male burials represented vulvas. Many female burials contained carved phalluses at their sides, and the mound also contained large wooden sculptures with hyperbolized genitalia. “Such overt, pervasive attention to sexual reproduction is extremely rare in the world for a burial ground,” according to Mair (pdf).
DNA from the male corpses shows Western origins, while females trace to both East and West. Mair and other scholars think that the mummy people’s ancestors were horse riders from the Eastern European steppe who migrated to the Altai in Asia around 3500 B.C. After 1,500 years, some of the Altai people’s descendants, herding cattle, horses, camels, sheep, and goats, ventured south into what is now the Xinjiang region. Squeezed between the Tien Shan Mountains and the hot Taklimakan Desert, it is one of the world’s most hostile environments—a place so harsh that the Silk Road would later detour north or south to avoid it. But satellite photographs show ancient waterways in what is now barren desert, allowing those pioneers to survive in green oases in 2000 B.C.
It must have been a precarious existence, with staggeringly high infant and juvenile mortality. Perhaps that explains the exaggerated attention to sex and procreation at the cemetery and the high status of certain women. The largest phallic post at SRC5 was painted entirely red and stood at the head of an old woman buried under a bright red coffin. Four other women were buried in rich graves that stood apart from the others.
The fact that the world’s most sexually explicit graveyard was located a few hundred miles from the most sexually explicit petroglyphs can’t have been a coincidence.
When I asked Mair if the petroglyphs could have been created by the people who buried their dead in SRC5, he said it was plausible. Perhaps the new immigrants carved the scenes to record their most important rituals for posterity.
Mair also noted that Caucasian features and a cultural obsession with sex aren’t all that linked the two sites, both of which are in the areas of Bronze Age settlements. Almost every one of the SRC5 mummies—as well as Bronze Age mummies from other locations—was buried with a flamboyant conical hat, made of felt and decorated with feathers. Though stylized in the petroglyphs, the headdresses on the female figures are also conical with wispy decorations that could be feathers.
The implications are tantalizing. Could the earliest scenes in the tableau represent fertility rituals originally brought from Europe by the migrants’ ancestors in 3500 B.C.? Do the large females represent high-status women like those buried in SRC5’s richest graves? Does the smaller size of the copulating females signify lower rank? If the two sites are indeed linked, why are men bare-headed in the petroglyphs but all wearing hats in the graves? Could they have been the bisexual shamans in the tableau? Or, as one Chinese scholar has suggested, were penises added to some of the female figures later, possibly signifying the shift from matriarchy to patriarchy? And is the iconography really linked to the Tripolye culture in the West or is it just parallel cultural evolution?
These are just some of the mysteries surrounding the Kangjiashimenji Petroglyphs. Hopefully, now that the political pressures have abated, the site will receive deeper study. But whatever the answers, if any are ever found, the tableau is at the very least a spectacular demonstration of sex as one of the driving forces behind the creation of art.