Xiaohe Cemetery

By REN ZHIYU / 04-13-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

An oar-shaped poplar post in front of a male grave at the Xiaohe Cemetery Photo: XINHUA

The Xiaohe Cemetery is a Bronze Age site in Lop Nur of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. In 1934, the Swedish explorer Folke Bergman located this site. However, for more than half a century, no one reached this site again, and the Xiaohe Cemetery disappeared into the desert. It was not until 2000 that archaeologists from the Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology rediscovered the Xiaohe Cemetery, and conducted a comprehensive excavation from 2002 to 2005, unearthing 167 tombs and thousands of artifacts.

The cemetery, which resembles an oblong sand dune, is composed of hundreds of smaller tombs built in layers. The top of the dune is covered with a forest of Euphrates poplar posts, averaging over 4 meters tall. In front of each female grave is a vertical poplar post, thick at the top and thin at the bottom, with the top painted red, wrapped in wool rope, and tied with grass bundles. In front of every male grave is an oar-shaped poplar post, painted black with a red handle. Archaeologists speculate that the posts in front of the female graves represent male genitalia, while those in front of the male graves represent female genitalia. These poplar posts suggest that the Xiaohe region may have been dominated by a strong reproductive worship.

The Xiaohe Cemetery is also known for having the largest number of naturally mummified human remains excavated in the world. The mummies have long puzzled scientists due to their Western physical appearance, their woven woolen clothing, cultivation of wheat, barley, and their “love of cheese.” The world’s earliest cheeses were found on the body of “Princess of Xiaohe,” a naturally preserved female mummy unearthed in Tomb M11. Research shows that these cheeses were made from ruminant milk using a kefir-like fermentation. Due to unique natural conditions ideal for preservation, the body of “Princess of Xiaohe” has been well protected. Her delicate hair and eyelashes all remain visible although she has been buried for thousands of years.