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Biotech Science

DNA to Test Theory of Roman Village in China 203

Posted by Zonk
from the now-that-is-lost dept.
Reverse Gear writes "Many of the inhabitants of a lonely village in north western China seems to have distinctive western features. An old theory from the 50s suggests that a Roman legion lost in what is now Iran in the year 53BC lost their commanding officer. They traveled east, so the legend goes, working as mercenaries until they were caught by the Chinese 17 years later. The Chinese described them as using a 'fish-scale formation', which could be a reference to the well-known Roman phalanx technique called the 'tortoise'. The remainder of the legion, it is suggested, may have intermarried with the villagers in Liqian. Scientists are now trying to verify the fascinating theory by testing the DNA of the inhabitants of the Chinese village."
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DNA to Test Theory of Roman Village in China

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  • ... then they got lost in China!
    • by markxsd (718350) on Monday February 05, 2007 @07:27AM (#17888018)
      From TFA...

      Gu Jianming, who lives near Liqian, said he was surprised to be told he might be descended from a European imperial army. But the birth of his daughter was also a surprise. Gu Meina, now six, was born with a shock of blonde hair.

      If my wife gave birth to a half Chinese baby and told me that it was descended from an ancient lost tribe of Chinese settlers, I might be somewhat suspicious. Gu Jianming, wake up man, she cheated on you... My guess it is with the blond guy you saw in the village about 9 months ago!

      • by Bob54321 (911744) on Monday February 05, 2007 @08:13AM (#17888222)

        Gu Meina, now six, was born with a shock of blonde hair.

        My guess it is with the blond guy you saw in the village about 9 months ago!


        Your math is shocking... either that or there has been some technological advances not reported on Slashdot.
      • by Ankou (261125) on Monday February 05, 2007 @10:07AM (#17888912)
        You know it would save a lot of money and time if we settled this on the Maury Povich show. "Marcus Aurelius, you ARE the father!" Man that back child support fo that many years will be a BITCH!
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by antarctican (301636)
        If my wife gave birth to a half Chinese baby and told me that it was descended from an ancient lost tribe of Chinese settlers, I might be somewhat suspicious. Gu Jianming, wake up man, she cheated on you... My guess it is with the blond guy you saw in the village about 9 months ago!

        While chuckled while reading the article and had the same thought, genetically, that's not possible. Blond hair is a recessive trait; you need both parents to have the gene. So unless one of this fellow's parents also had an af
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by ucblockhead (63650)
        Blonde hair is a recessive trait, which means that it can easily hide for many generations, especially in a population where it is rare.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 05, 2007 @08:42AM (#17888340)
      Read more here, including a picture. [gnxp.com]

      Anybody familiar with history will know Europeans have long rambled across most of Asia. Even today there are fully European looking people in Afghanistan, and most Indians and all Persians and Pakistanis have some or even alot of European ancestry. Despite the name 'European' the 'Europeans' have always lived in parts of Asia.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by karolo (595531)
        Actually, there are different theories, but one of them says, based on linguistic evidence, that it worked the other way around, that is, the Europeans came from the region that we nowadays know as Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. That would explain the close linguistic relation between most European languages and Persian and Hindi.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by bogjobber (880402)
          The proto-Indo-European language/culture (or Indo-Iranian or Arya-European; there's not a clear distinction, especially among non-linguists) most likely started in Central Asia and worked its way both west into Europe and south into Northern India/Pakistan/Afghanistan. The split occurred before recorded history, and it's extremely difficult to tell exactly when and where it happened linguistically without other clues. I'm not sure if any languages in East Asia are from the Indo-European family, but I woul
    • ...they left their Real ID papers back there in Rome.
      We wouldn't have to do all this DNA checking if they kept their Imperial ID cards with them...
  • by the_rajah (749499) * on Monday February 05, 2007 @06:59AM (#17887918) Homepage
    Strikingly well preserved mummies from the Takla Makan desert region have strongly European characterstics such as red hair and blue eyes dating from as far back as 3800 BP. DNA analysis on these mummies indicates Indo/European origin. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/chinamum/taklamakan.h tml [pbs.org] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarim_mummies [wikipedia.org]
    • Strikingly well preserved mummies from the Takla Makan desert region have strongly European characterstics such as red hair and blue eyes dating from as far back as 3800 BP.

      Yeah, but that proves little; Taklamakan is a Soft Place. Those guys could have wandered back from 6000 AD for all we know, stopping for a picnic with Fiddler's Green along the way.

    • mummies from the Takla Makan desert region have strongly European characterstics such as red hair and blue eyes

      Commenting on the discovery, Professor Cartman said "These people - the Gingers - were the chosen race but with their red hair, freckles, and pale skin they obviously could not stand the sun."

    • by cbv (221379) on Monday February 05, 2007 @07:56AM (#17888152) Homepage
      True. I remember watching a documentation on ancient Greek stories and myths about the Amazons (no, not the company).

      While trying to hunt down the Amazons origins, they visited some nomads somewhere in China (or Mongolia, can't remember where exactly) and took DNA samples of a blonde 10 or 12 year old girl with distinct Caucasian features -- although her mother had none of these whatsoever.

      Lo and behold, her DNA (and her mothers!) was identical to DNA samples taken from an Amazon mummy of something like a warrior-priestess found in what is nowadays Ukraine.

      Meaning, the girl was a direct descendant of that woman who lived around 2,000 years ago.
      • by arivanov (12034) on Monday February 05, 2007 @09:37AM (#17888668) Homepage
        Not surprising.

        The outer Mongolia is the region to which every single major Eurasian human migration can be traced. Before DNA techniques, language techniques and historical references have been used to trace these migrations.

        Most of that has now been confirmed using DNA. There was a number of waves going as far back as the Dorian invasion which overthrew the bronze age greek civilisations and established what 500 years later became the golden age greece. This was followed by gotts, westgotts, barbarians, huns, bulgarians, etc. All of them displaced from outer mongolia a few centuries before they ended up in Europe.

        The early waves were speaking indo-european languages and with distinct caucasian appearance. The last ones (huns and pra-bulgarians) were speaking languages from the Turk language group and were of mongoloid appearance.

        So finding a blond or even a redhead in mongolia is not suprising. After all Chengis Khan was a redhead.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Xonstantine (947614)
          The outer Mongolia is the region to which every single major Eurasian human migration can be traced. Before DNA techniques, language techniques and historical references have been used to trace these migrations.

          Most of that has now been confirmed using DNA. There was a number of waves going as far back as the Dorian invasion which overthrew the bronze age greek civilisations and established what 500 years later became the golden age greece. This was followed by gotts, westgotts, barbarians, huns, bulgari
      • by Illserve (56215)
        Meaning, the girl was a direct descendant of that woman who lived around 2,000 years ago.

        I'm confused by the emphasis on the word direct here. How could you be an indirect descendent of someone? Either you can trace a lineage path back to them or not.

        It's surprising that prominent genetic features like hair colour could survive so many generations of interbreeding with non blondes but I guess if that person was promiscuous enough, they started a broad enough tree that chance allowed the blonde gene to sur
        • by cbv (221379)
          I'm confused by the emphasis on the word direct here. How could you be an indirect descendent of someone?

          Of course. Maybe I should have put the emphasis on 'was' instead.

          As far as I remember, the scientists were just looking for clues about the origins and where stunned when they realized that the girl was actually related to a 2,000 year old mummy they found (more or less) by accident.
        • I think they mean direct descendant as in you can trace the lineage directly back to that person. An indirect descendant (not sure if that's the proper term) can have DNA traits tracked back to a particular group of people, but maybe not back to a specific person.
    • Tocharians are the easternmost "Scotch-Irish" clan ;-)

      On a message board discussing the blonde and redhaired Chinese, somebody noted that there are a lot of them in Canada, but that their origin was not Tocharian or Scythian, it was L'Oreal!
  • Unclear (Score:2, Funny)

    by UED++ (1043486)

    An old theory from the 50s suggests that a Roman legion lost in what is now Iran in the year 53BC lost their commanding officer.
    What is that supposed to mean? Did they lose a battle and flee to china rather than facing their superiors? Did they lose their sense of direction? (How can you mistake east for west?) Maybe they were LARPing and got a bit carried away?
    • Re:Unclear (Score:5, Interesting)

      by CRCulver (715279) <crculver@christopherculver.com> on Monday February 05, 2007 @08:04AM (#17888188) Homepage

      For a glimpse at this kind of disaster, I'd certainly recommend Xenophon's Anabasis [amazon.com] , his chronicle of joining 10,000 Greek mercenaries hired by Cyrus to overthrow his brother for the Persian throne, and then helping lead them back home after Cyrus was slain in battle. When your commanding office is killed while you are deep in enemy territory, you don't have too many open routes to get away. Xenophon took his comrades back to Greece by a rather roundabout way. These Romans must have found themselves force to go in a direction further and further away from Italy.

      • by Sique (173459)
        Curiously the greek word "xenophon" means "strange sound" or "foreign sound" :) So Xenophon himself might not have been a native greek.
        • by CRCulver (715279)
          Xenophon's genealogy is well-established. He was from an aristocratic Attic family, as Greek as one could get. Greek names do not necessary reflect the characteristics of those who bear them. Was Xanthippus a yellow horse?
      • Just because you lose a commanding officer doesn't mean your escape route is suddenly cut off. Unless there was no second (or third or fourth) in command and the footsoldiers were little more than knuckle dragging morons who could barely tie their own shoelaces then they could have got out the same way they would if they had a commanding officer. And if they really were so inept they couldn't manage it what are the odds on them being successfull mercenaries that manage to walk 2000 miles to central china??
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by xocp (575023)
        How about a free link to Xenophon's Anabasis [gutenberg.org]. No need to buy a book that was written over 1500 years ago. Talk about expired copyright...
        • by CRCulver (715279)
          Speaking as one who took a degree in Classics, you'll never see lecturers recommend those old translations. They were prepared before modern standards for translation, are written in antiquated English, tend to leave out passages considered too racy for readership of the time, rarely have contextual materials (and those which do neglect women and non-Greeks in antiquity), and miss out on the latest archaeological work. It's worth paying a few bucks to Penguin or a university press for something more reliabl
    • Re:Unclear (Score:5, Informative)

      by pixiepaws (849908) on Monday February 05, 2007 @08:21AM (#17888264)
      Check out a book called "Black Horse Odyssey" by David Harris (isbn 1-862452-270-8) it was first published in 1991 by the Wakefield Press. The Roman troops in question were the remnants of a Roman army led by Crassus (the guy who finally wacked Sparticus) that was defeated by the Parthians in 53BC. A portion of the captives were transported to the Sogdian Rock (a fort taken by Alexander the Great many years before). Sometime later a Chinese army entered that part of the world and captured the Rock but they were impressed with the Romans fighting ability (the fish scale formation) and they took 280 or so of em back to China where they ended up on frontier duty for the Chinese. David Harris was put onto the case when he saw some images of come Chinese military art that was done in the style of Roman art. Also the buildings in the area are proportioned after from practice rather than Chinese.
    • by Howzer (580315) * <grabshot.hotmail@com> on Monday February 05, 2007 @09:02AM (#17888438) Homepage Journal
      It seems unclear only because you're not thinking with a 50BC brain -- you're thinking with a 2007AD brain.

      Your brain sees -- clearly -- a picture map of the world from space.

      A 50BC brain sees no such thing.

      To the well-educated 50BC brain, it would be self-evident that continuing to travel East will bring you to the edge of the world. Perhaps they planned to then circle around the "edge" and come back "up" the Nile -- something that's hinted at in the "Alexander" film that came out a couple of years back.

      Or perhaps they figured they'd circle "around" to the North, and come down "through" Gaul to get home.

      This is all assuming that such a "lost legion" did, in fact, exist -- something I personally feel is unlikely.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by bogjobber (880402)
        And you are thinking with a 2007AD brain that his been conditioned with a false sense of intellectual superiority and incorrect popular myths. Pythagoras first speculated that the Earth was round in ~550 BC. Both Plato and Aristotle (schooled in the Pythagorean writings) wrote that the Earth was round. Eratosthenes (~240 BC) came up with a decent estimate of the Earth's circumference. So, yes, the Romans knew that the Earth was in fact spherical. If there was anybody with a decent education (and if it
        • And I believe the Egyptians were aware of this too, IIRC.

          And you are thinking with a 2007AD brain that his been conditioned with a false sense of intellectual superiority and incorrect popular myths.

          So much seems to have been forgotten in Europe during the Dark Ages - the question is: is there any proof the people of Spain and Italy believed in the Flat Earth Theory in 1492? Obviously Columbus had been aware of the 'ancient' studies and figured he could hack shipping. He apparently didn't know of the Nors
    • by Dunbal (464142)
      What is that supposed to mean? Did they lose a battle and flee to china

      Yes, Crassus lost a battle against the Parthians and was captured and executed. Some 150 men managed to escape. Historians assume they hired themselves out as a mercenary force and headed east, where they fought the Mongols - whose history describes having encountered a foreign fighting unit that used "scales of the fish" tactics (possibly the testudo formation) near that time period.

      It's all
    • An army in those days was unlike an army today. They were not commanded from the government in Rome. Nor were they supplied and fed by Rome. They were send out to some far off place where communications and supply were imposable. Commanders were given great power, even to make treaties that were binding on Rome. Even a "centurian", a man who commands only 100 men could speak for the government of Rome. While the officers were trusted, had great power and were educated the man were likely illiterate and
  • by symes (835608) on Monday February 05, 2007 @07:48AM (#17888122) Journal
    to go for a take out - dontcha think?
    • by thewiz (24994) *
      Not really, rather, this is what happens when the guy who can read the map gets killed and you just end up roman around looking for a place to eat.
  • by likerice (1046554) on Monday February 05, 2007 @08:20AM (#17888260)
    this story is covered in a number of places. the Telegraph has a slideshow featuring a few pictures of liqian residents here. [telegraph.co.uk]

    slide #7 features a young girl with semi-blond hair, and #10 is a close-up of an older man with green-hazel eyes.

  • by Sibko (1036168) on Monday February 05, 2007 @08:20AM (#17888262)
    ...than the summary. It seems to imply the Romans headed east of their own free will until they met the Chinese. Here's the full story for anyone interested:

    THE LOST LEGION

    The battle of Carrhae [wikipedia.org] ended 53 years before the birth of Jesus Christ, in the last day of the month of may, with a shameful disaster for the Roman army. Seven legions having the strength of 45,000 soldiers were humiliated and routed by 10,000 Parthian archers. Carrhae, an ancient biblical city now known as Harran, is located on Turkey's oriental border. The commanding officer of this unfortunate expedition was Marcus Licinius Crassus, a 62 years old tribune who had organized that campaign eager to gain glory and wealth, even though he was already one of the most rich and powerful men in Rome. Perhaps he did it just because he envied the military successes of Pompeius Magnus and Caesar, and foolishly thought that he may equal them, even though Pompeius Magnus and Caesar were war professionals while Crassus was a mere amateur. His only triumph had been the bloody defeat of Spartacus, but achieved with Pompeius' help: in fact he had too little experience and genius to embark on a large-scale operation abroad.

    The Republican government loathed to let him depart with such a sizeable army as there was no real emergency in the east, but Crassus eventually enlisted the support of Pompeius Magnus and Caesar, who did not fail to see the opportunity to free themselves of a powerful competitor whilst waiting to settle the score with each other. During the hot public debate in the Senate a tribunus plebis named Ateius attempted to stop him. Plutarcus writes that, when he realised that his efforts were in vain and that he would not receive enough supporting votes, he lit a brazier and, while throwing grains of incense into the flames, started to curse Crassus and evoke the infernal gods. Judging from the name and the behaviour of this man, we can guess that he was of Etruscan descent. Some metropolitan legions grouped in Rome and marched through Campania and then met at Brindisi with the others coming up from Calabria and then left in spite of the stormy sea. Not all the ships reached the other shore. Crassus had fortune, the blind goddess, on his side during his youth: he came out unscathed from the civil wars; then was implicated in the Catiline conspiracy but bore no consequences; he paid the debts of a spendthrift Caesar whilst being tightfisted himself and with his family. But things had changed and while aging he became a blunderer, making mistakes which were numerous and serious. For instance, in a speech to his soldiers he proclaimed that he would destroy a bridge "so that none of you will be able to return". Noticing their dismayed expression, Crassus corrected himself by explaining that he was referring to the enemy, not his own soldiers. He ordered the distribution of lentils and salt to the troops, oblivious of the fact that this was the meal offered at funerals. The worst possible omen occurred when Crassus dropped on the floor the slippery entrails of a sacrificial animal that were placed in his hands by a haruspex. (a soothsayer) Crassus attempted to correct this mistake by crying, "Fear not, despite my age, the hilt of my sword will not slip out of my hand". On the day of the battle, Crassus wore a black tunic, instead of the purple one de rigeur for Roman generals. Even though Crassus quickly returned to his tent to change, he left his officers speechless. We can still imagine those officers crossing their fingers ("fare le corna", forefinger and little finger raised, a very efficacious propitiatory gesture of Etruscan origin) and grasp a certain part of their body. Moreover, Crassus refused to listen to his veterans who were in favour of marching on the coast and avoid the desert to reach the Parthian capital. Rather, he trusted the arab Arimanes and his six thousand horsemen, who had secretly sided with the Parthians and abandoned the Romans few

    • Thank you for posting this.

      It wasn't out of ill intend that I twisted the story to sound as if the romans were "happy mercenaries", to me that was also what the news sites I read about this gave me a bit of the impression that this was what had happened.
      I did not come upon this information in my (admittedly scarce) research for this posting, I am thankful for you bringing this up to me. I will at least correct my blog (no editing is allowed in /., good thing your comment already is modded +5).
  • by seyyah (986027) on Monday February 05, 2007 @08:25AM (#17888276)
    There is also a similar story in the Chitral Valley in northern Pakistan, where many of the local Kalash people have blue eyes and blond hair and worship a pantheon of gods. They claim descent from Alexander the Great's Macedonian soldiers. The difference with the story about Romans in China is that Greeks did actually enter today's Afghanistan and Pakistan with his army. The Bactrian Empire in Afghanistan was one of the successor states to Alexander's own empire. There have been attempts to prove this theory through DNA testing as well.
  • Fish scale (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Magada (741361)
    If that part is true (about the chinese describing them as using a "fish scale formation, then yes, they were romans, but the fish-scale thing is not the testudo (+5 Overrated military formation of all time), but rather the standard way that maniples were ordered in a legion deployed to form a line of battle-a checkerboard pattern like this:

    # # #
      # # #
    # # #
    which indeeed would resemble the staggered pattern of fish scales.
    • the fish-scale thing is not the testudo (+5 Overrated military formation of all time), but rather the standard way that maniples were ordered in a legion deployed to form a line of battle
      With about 150 men, you'd be just about able to form one maniple. Which would look more like two blocks side by side.

      which indeeed would resemble the staggered pattern of fish scales.
      If you were in a helicopter.
    • ...the testudo (+5 Overrated military formation of all time)...

      There's at least one case related in a Roman work about a siege where the defenders toppled a siege engine off the walls hoping to break a testudo that was attacking them. I don't know if it succeeded or not, but that doesn't sound like that bad a formation. I agree that it wasn't the be-all and end-all of formations, but it worked quite well when used properly. Probably it's best to think of it as the Roman equivalent of a tank with the s

  • but this is also the sort of story that we tend to never see a followup on.

    i'm not trying to be negative, but perhaps a motivator of sorts.
  • by jzu (74789) on Monday February 05, 2007 @10:37AM (#17889210) Journal
    I remember an ambulance driver in France, near Chalons en Champagne, with distinctive asian features. Since he had a Russian name, I asked him once how his father looked like... but he smiled and told me his father looked Caucasian - OTOH his mother looked very much like himself. A fascinating explanation ensued: a Hun tribe had settled somewhere between Chalons and Troyes after the Battle of Catalaunic Fields in 451 instead of going back to Pannonia with the rest of Attila's army. They lived in a relatively isolated valley until recently, which kept their genes from being overly diluted. HLA groups are useful at detecting genotypes, and it seems theirs is clearly Asian.

    Now this is nearly unelievable because I know this area: mostly plains, lots of roads. Such a story seems unlikely to the casual listener; however, I did ask an Haematologist about it. He confirmed this story which is well-known in the field.
  • by fantomas (94850) on Monday February 05, 2007 @10:42AM (#17889274)
    Just recently there have been stories in the UK papers about some DNA testing in the north east of England, in Yorkshire. They've found one place where a number of folk have DNA matching the same as one specific group in Sub-Saharan Africa, and this must have happened at least a few hundred years ago.

    My theory is humans just like to travel around a bit, or sometimes settle far from home because of economic or political necessity or benefit. Hey, we see it today, why not 2000 years ago?

    In the UK we've got Hadrian's Wall, big old wall the Romans built in the north of England. There's documented proof that soldiers from other parts of the Empire were stationed there, from north Africa, Greece, Spain, etc... Who's to say a few of them didn't taking a liking to the place and decide to settle, maybe met a local girl, got a bit of a good little business number going locally, that sort of thing?

    The idea of a bunch of soldiers going freelance in exchange for a load of money and ending up quite a long way from home (Romans in China) - well why not?
  • When Crassus was ejected from the Roman empire, for a failed coup, he took his legion east. They knew (from merchants) that a great empire lived on the other side of the hated Parthians, so they marched in a loop northeast and eventually became border guards for the Chinese emperor. It makes sense, they already knew how to fight the Persians and couldn't live anywhere near the Roman sphere.

    "Liqian" is supposedly "Roman" Sinosized.

    This made the news in 2005, when the walls and tombs were found:

    http://orbis-q [orbis-quintus.net]
    • When Crassus was ejected from the Roman empire, for a failed coup...


      What failed coup? Crassus [wikipedia.org] was the Governor of Syria and was killed when he invaded Parthia. There may have been a later general that was ejected as you write, but not Crassus!

      • by J05H (5625)
        I thought that Crassus and Pompeii were both banished. I was also under the impression that he had survived the journey through to China. Memory fails.
        • No, Crassus was killed by the Parthians. Pompey and Caesar fought a civil war (Documented by Caesar in his Commentaries.) with Pompey leading the forces of the Roman Senate, and thus, of the established order. Pompey lost and was assassinated by one of his followers.
  • IRAN (Score:2, Informative)

    by legonis (1053412)
    "Parthians, an empire occupying what is now Iran." Iran existed way before 53BC. Parthians, Persians and Medyans were all iranian tribes of that era. Parthians took over the country after 200 years of Greek's army power (Alexander the great invasion). From wikipedia.org : "The name Iran is a cognate of Aryan and literally means "Land of the Aryans." They started to call Iran Persia, after 553BC when Cyrus the great became the emperor. On the other hand, Iran is a term that used to refer to that land before
  • ...knock down my city wall!
  • I was surprised from the comments here that no one mentioned Crassus or his defeat at Carrhae as possibilities, then I read TFA and it's right in the article itself!

    According to accounts of the battle, of a 30,000 strong force, 10,000 were killed, 10,000 survived and 10,000 were captured and either employed as slaves or mercenary labor:

    From http://www.unrv.com/fall-republic/battle-of-carrh a e.php [unrv.com]:

    In the end, the great bulk of the Roman army was hunted down and killed or captured. Nearly 20,000 were killed and another 10,000 captured. Of the original force, only about 5,000 men under Cassius, and the cavalry that departed early, managed to escape. The Parthians meanwhile, settled the Roman prisoners in an eastern territory called Sogdia. Interestingly, the Han Chinese later captured this area and the Roman transplants were likely among the first westerners to meet the Chinese directly.

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