And then the mummies spoke!

And then the mummies spoke!
Eben van Tonder
8 December 2017


It is December and at work, our days changed into a continuum where we are at the factory almost every waking moment.  I am on a quest to find the place where meat curing was discovered and changed into an art.  The journey started when I realised the historic link between meat preservation and mummification or, as it was called years ago, the morbid art of the preservation of corpses.   I learned that the oldest mummies on earth are associated with the two places with the largest natural nitrate deposits on the globe namely the Atacama Desert and the Turfan depression in the Taklamakan Desert in the  Xinjiang region of western China.  Nitrate is, of course, one of the salts that cures meat when it is changed into nitrite through bacterial action and then, chemically, into nitric oxide through various reaction sequences which bring about the curing.  I wondered if meat curing started in one of these places where people could see the power in the soil to preserve flesh the clearest in natural mummification of buried corpses.  Between the two sites, the one in China stood out as the most likely.

At this point, my standard caveat is in order.  I am an entrepreneur who makes my living from the curing industry and is in charge of production at our bacon curing company in Cape Town.  I am not an academic and despite the fact that I studied chemistry, I did not complete my undergraduate work.  As my friends will testify, I am not an expert in matters of archeology, history or the natural sciences.  I do not even claim to be a good meat curer.

What I am, is passionate!  I absolutely LOVE what I do, the world we live in and I LOVE learning!  I learn from the most brilliant people on earth and try to retell their stories in the context of meat curing.  My writing is not so much a thesis as it is a discovery.  After every statement, there always is a question mark.

Here is what I learned so far and the story of how I got to this point.

  1.  Salt – 7000 years of meat-curing
  2. Nitrate Salts Epic Journey:  From Turfan in China, through Nepal to North India

While there is a debate about the oldest reference to saltpeter and sal ammoniac in India, China, and the West, placing it somewhere in the period after the start of the Christian Era, clear references to saltpeter from Mesopotamia probably date from at least 2000 BCE. Both sal ammoniac and saltpeter were well known to the ancients in these regions with their texts replete with its mention in terms of its medical use, inferences of meat curing and the production of glass and mirrors.  I realised that the origins of the knowledge of these salts were not in China or India as I thought, but from much older civilizations.  While I am very busy at work during the festive season, I patiently wait for several works on Mesopotamian and Akkadian Chemistry I ordered.  The subject never leaves my thoughts and an amazing thing happens.

In the midst of my inquiry, across the vastness of space and time, the mummies who got me on this quest, spoke! Their voices came through the beautifully written June 2002 article by the Canadian journalist, Heather Pringle.  It was again one night when I was unable to sleep when she introduced me to the work of Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese in the department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.  Here is the link to her full article, Tocharians: The Whites of Ancient China, which is my only reference here.  She tells the story best and a far more rigorous treatment of this subject will follow in subsequent articles.  All quotes are from her article unless I reference my own previous work.

Tocharians: The Whites of Ancient China

Pringle writes that it was on a visit to a small museum in Ürümchi, the capital of China’s remote northwesternmost province, Xinjiang when Mair first came face to face with one of the mummies from the Turfan area.  It was the outstretched body of a man of “just under six feet tall, dressed in an elegantly tailored wool tunic and matching pants, the color of red wine. Covering the man’s legs were striped leggings in riotous shades of yellow, red, and blue, attire so outrageous it could have come straight from the pages of Dr. Seuss. But it was not so much the man’s clothing that first riveted Mair’s attention. It was the face. It was narrow and pale ivory in color, with high cheekbones, full lips, and a long nose. Locks of ginger-colored hair and a graying beard framed the parchment-like skin.  He looked very Caucasian.”


“Local archaeologists had come across the body a few years earlier while excavating in the Tarim Basin, an immense barren of sand and rock in southern Xinjiang.” “The desert at the basin’s heart was one of the most parched places on Earth, and its very name, the Taklamakhan, was popularly said to mean “go in and you won’t come out.””

“The Taklamakan’s merciless climate had one advantage, however. It tended to preserve human bodies. The archaeologists who discovered the stranger in the striped leggings marveled at the state of his cadaver. He looked almost alive. They named him Cherchen Man, after the county in which he was found, and when they set about carbon dating his body, they discovered that he was very, very old. Indeed, the tests showed that he had probably roamed the Tarim Basin as early as the eleventh-century bc. When Mair learned this, he was astonished. If the mummy was indeed European in origin, this would undermine one of the keystones of Chinese history.”

The Question of First Contact

“Scholars had long believed that the first contacts between China and Europe occurred relatively late in world history — sometime shortly after the mid-second century bc when the Chinese emperor Wudi sent an emissary west. According to contemporary texts, Wudi had grown tired of the marauding Huns, a nomadic people whose homeland lay in what is now southwest Mongolia. The Huns were continually raiding the richest villages of his empire, stealing its grain and making off with its women. So Wudi decided to propose a military alliance with a kingdom far to the west, beyond Mongolia, in order to crush a common foe. In 139 bc, the emperor sent one of his attendants, Zhang Qian, on the long trek across Asia. Zhang Qian failed to obtain the alliance his master coveted, but the route he took became part of the legendary Silk Road to Europe. In the years that followed, hundreds of trading caravans and Caucasians plied this route, carrying bundles of ivory, gold, pomegranates, safflowers, jade, furs, porcelain, and silk between Rome and the ancient Chinese capital of Xi’an.”

“Nationalists in China were very fond of this version of history. It strongly suggested that Chinese civilization, which had flowered long before Zhang Qian headed west, must have blossomed in isolation, free of European influence, and it cast early Chinese achievements in a particularly glorious light. In one popular book, The Cradle of the East, Chinese historian Ping-ti Ho proudly claimed that the hallmarks of early Chinese civilization — including the chariot, bronze metallurgy, and a system of writing — were all products of Chinese genius alone. According to Ping-ti Ho, those living in the ancient Celestial Kingdom had never stooped to borrowing the ideas of others and their inventive genius surpassed that of the West.”

“Mair suspected that the Chinese had encountered Westerners from Europe long before the emperor Wudi dreamed up his military alliance. Several early Chinese books, for example, described tall men with green eyes and red hair that resembled the fur of rhesus monkeys. Most scholars dismissed these accounts as legendary, but Mair wasn’t so sure. He thought they were descriptions of Caucasian men. During his studies of Chinese mythology, he had found stories strikingly similar to those in early Greek and Roman tales. The parallels were too frequent to be mere coincidences. And he kept stumbling across words in early Chinese texts that seemed to have been borrowed from ancient languages far to the west. Among these were the words for dog, cow, goose, grape, and wheel. But though Mair repeatedly argued the case for early trade and contact between China and the West, he had no hard archaeological evidence of contact, and no one took him very seriously. “People would laugh at me. I said that East and West were communicating back in the Bronze Age and people just said, ‘Oh yeah? Interesting, but prove it.’ “”

“Never for a moment did Mair expect to find the kind of flesh-and-blood vindication that Cherchen Man promised. Still, he was wary of a hoax. The man’s tailored woolen clothing, with all the complex textile technology it implied, was unlike anything Mair had ever seen from ancient Asia, let alone a remote outpost like Xinjiang. The mummy itself seemed almost too perfectly preserved to be true. “I thought it was part of a wax museum or something, a ploy to get more tourists. How could they have such advanced textile technology three thousand years ago? I couldn’t put it into any historical context. It didn’t make any sense whatsoever.””

“Mair began asking his Chinese colleagues about Cherchen Man. He learned that European scholars had unearthed several similar bodies in the Tarim Basin almost a century before but had regarded them as little more than oddities. In 1895, for example, the British-Hungarian scholar Marc Aurel Stein exhumed a few Caucasian bodies while searching for antiquities and old Central Asian texts in the Tarim Basin. “It was a strange sensation,” noted Stein in his later writings, “to look down on figures which but for the parched skin seemed like those of men asleep.” However, Stein and the Europeans who followed him were far more interested in classical-era ruins than in mummified bodies and failed to investigate further.”

“Early Chinese archaeologists in the region also came across some of the bodies, but they were no more interested than the Europeans. They thought it likely that a few ancient foreigners had strayed into this outlying territory of ancient China by chance. But in the 1970s, while surveying along proposed routes for pipelines and rail lines in Xinjiang, Chinese archaeologists happened upon scores of the parched cadavers, so many that they couldn’t excavate them all. Most of the bodies were very Caucasian-looking — a major discovery that went unreported outside a small circle of archaeologists in China. The mummies had blond, red, or auburn hair. They had deep-set eyes, long noses, thick beards, and tall, often gangly, frames. Some wore woolens of what looked like Celtic plaid and sported strangely familiar forms of Western haberdashery: conical black witches’ hats, tam-o’-shanters, and Robin Hood caps. Others were dressed only in fur moccasins, woolen wraps, and feathered caps, and buried with small baskets of grain. This last group, it transpired, contained the oldest of the Caucasians. According to radiocarbon-dating tests, they roamed the northwestern corner of China in the twenty-first-century bc, the height of the Bronze Age, just as Mair had long been suggesting.”

“Not only had they wandered the Tarim Basin, they had also settled there for a very long time. Cherchen Man had walked the Tarim deserts in the eleventh-century bc, a millennium after the earliest Caucasians. Moreover, murals from the region depict people with fair hair and long noses in the seventh century AD, while some local texts of the same era are inscribed in a lost European language known as Tocharian. If the writers were descendants of the Caucasian-looking people who arrived in Xinjiang nearly 2,800 years earlier, one can only conclude that this was a very successful colony.”

“Convinced now of the authenticity of the mummies, Mair began puzzling over their meaning. Who were these ancient invaders, he wondered, and where exactly had they come from?”

Mair knew that nothing “was ever simple when it came to the Xinjiang mummies. Dead as they had been for thousands of years, they still managed to stir strong feelings among the living. In China, a restive ethnic minority known as the Uyghurs had stepped forward to claim the mummies as their own. Numbering nearly seven million, the Uyghurs viewed the Tarim Basin as their homeland. Largely Muslim, they had become a subjugated people in the late nineteenth century. During the 1930s and 1940s, their leaders managed to found two brief republics that later fell under Chinese control.”

“But Uyghur guerillas continued fighting stubbornly until their last leader was executed in 1961. Since then, the Chinese government has dealt harshly with any sign of separatist sentiment. Amnesty International’s 1999 report for Xinjiang made grim reading. “Scores of Uyghurs, many of them political prisoners, have been sentenced to death and executed in the past two years,” it noted. “Others, including women, are alleged to have been killed by the security forces in circumstances which appear to constitute extra-judicial executions.””

“Still the Uyghurs refused to give up, and when they caught wind of mummies being excavated in the Tarim Basin, they were keenly interested. Historians had long suggested that the Uyghurs were relative latecomers to the region, migrating from the plains of Mongolia less than two thousand years ago. But Uyghur leaders were skeptical. They believed that their farmer ancestors had always lived along the thin but fertile river valleys of the Tarim, and as such they embraced the mummies as their kin — even though many scholars, Mair included, suspected that Uyghur invaders had slaughtered or driven out most of the mummies’ true descendants and assimilated the few that remained. Still, in Xinjiang, Uyghur leaders picked one of the oldest mummies as an emblem of their cause. They named her, with some poetic license, the Beauty of Loulan and began printing posters with her picture. That she was so Caucasian-looking was not a problem in Uyghur eyes: some Uyghurs had Caucasian features. People in Ürümchi, the province’s capital, were captivated. Musicians began writing songs about her that subtly alluded to the separatist cause.”

“This sudden outburst of mummy nationalism alarmed the Chinese government. Before long, everything related to the Xinjiang mummies was considered a matter of state security. No one in government was in any hurry to authorize a genetic test on them. If the mummies’ DNA revealed even a partial link to the Uyghurs — a not unlikely prospect, given the Uyghurs’ mixed heritage — it would further strengthen the separatists’ claims to the region in the eyes of the world. This was something the Chinese wished to avoid, especially after the international condemnation of their treatment of another ethnic minority, in Tibet. Adding to the problem was the Chinese sensitivity to any matter touching on the Tarim Basin. Beyond the wispy river valleys and beneath the Tarim’s bleak desert plains lay immense oil fields. According to Chinese geologists, they contained nearly 18 billion tons of crude, six times more than the known reserves of the United States.”

“Chinese officials were not the only ones worried about genetic testing. Western scholars fretted, too. Some hated the thought that Europeans could have succeeded in planting settlements so far into Asia thousands of years ago. Not only did such a migration threaten the Chinese version of history; it seemed vaguely to smack of ancient colonialism, a notion that many historians abhor. “There’s a lot of Western guilt about imperialism and sensitivity about dominating other people,” said Mair. “It’s a really deep subconscious thing, and there are a lot of people in the West who are hypersensitive about saying our culture is superior in any way, or that our culture gets around or extends itself. So there are people who want to make sure that we don’t make mistakes in our interpretation of the past.””

“Certainly, the presence of ancient Europeans in China — even in its outer reaches — could be twisted and distorted to political ends: people with racial agendas had long been searching for just such evidence.


“As amazed as Mair had been by the mummies back in 1988, he hadn’t had the time to study them. In September 1991, however, he picked up a newspaper and read about the discovery of a frozen, partially preserved corpse of a 5,300-year-old man in a glacier along the Austrian-Italian border. This became Europe’s famous iceman, known as Ötzi.

My own interest in Ötzi is based on the content of what was found in his stomach.  I used the information in my article on the history of meat curing because, in his stomach, the oldest sample of cured meat was found, dating back to 5300 years ago.

The story is that in September 1991, two German hikers from Nuremberg, Helmut and Erika Simon, stumble across the naturally mummified remains of a Copper Age man while wandering through an Alpine glacier at the border between Austria and Italy, on the Austrian-Italian region, in the Ötztal Alps.  What they thought was a hiker who perished recently turned out to be the oldest mummified frozen mummy known today.  He is estimated to have lived in 3,300 BCE and more specifically between 3359 and 3105 BCE.  There is a 66 percent chance that he died between 3239 and 3105 BCE.

The interesting aspect to me is his last meal.  “Researchers thawed his body and have been able to test the contents of his stomach. Mummy specialist Albert Zink from the European Academy of Bolzano said he was able to analyse the nanostructure of meat fibers from a mountain goat found in Ötzi’s stomach – indicating that the meat was raw and had been dry-cured, and not cooked or grilled, which would have weakened the fibers.  He added that Ötzi did not have a proper hunting bow with him, and probably carried the dried meat with him from his home, as raw meat would have quickly gone bad. Further analysis of his stomach contents showed that he had not eaten cheese or dairy products, just meat. “It seems probable that his last meal was very fatty, dried meat – perhaps a type of Stone Age Speck or bacon,” Zink said. As Ötzi had hiked down from the South Tyrolean side of the Alps, it’s likely his provisions came from there.” (The Local)  There is, of course, no way to determine if the meat was cured with salt only or was saltpeter added.

The second interesting fact gleaned from the analysis of his stomick content was where he possibly came from.  “When they tested the contents of his stomach, they found a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori, an age-old pathogen that has evolved into different strains according to the region of the world in which it is found.  About half the people on the planet harbour the bacterium in their stomachs.  It can cause ulcers or gastrointestinal distress and is typically spread among children when they play in the dirt.  While researchers cannot be sure if the Iceman was sick due to the infection, they were intrigued by their analysis of the geographic history of the bacterium.  “Surprisingly, a strain of bacterium in his gut shares ancestry with an Asian strain,” said the study in the US journal Science.  “In contrast to the fact that most modern Europeans harbour a strain ancestral to North African strains.””  (The Local/AFP)  Could it be that he was related to the people who settled in Turpan?


Mair learned that Austrian scientists planned on performing sophisticated scientific tests, including DNA analysis, on the iceman.   “It occurred to Mair that similar tests on Cherchen Man and his kin could do much to trace the ancestry of the mummies. He immediately wrote to Wang Binghua, one of the foremost archaeologists in Xinjiang, outlining the project that was forming in his mind. He also called Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, a distinguished geneticist at Stanford University who was an expert on ancient DNA. Cavalli-Sforza instantly saw the possibilities. He recommended that Mair contact one of his former students, Paolo Francalacci, at the University of Sassari, in Italy. Mair did just that, and working closely with Wang over the next months he managed to hammer out a deal with the Chinese government. Beijing finally gave the team a green light in 1993.”

“Francalacci thought it best to collect samples from mummies left in the ground, as opposed to bodies already stored in museums. This would reduce the possibility of contamination with modern DNA. So in Ürümchi, he set off, along with Mair and Wang Binghua, for the well-documented grave sites found during the Chinese pipeline and railway surveys of the 1970s and in archaeological studies since. Dozens of these mummies, many lying in relatively shallow underground tombs, had been left alone because of the enormous cost to curate them.”

“At each chosen grave, the young geneticist donned a face mask and a pair of latex gloves, and docked tiny pieces of muscle, skin, and bone from the mummies, often choosing tissue along the inside of the thighs or under the armpits because these regions had been less exposed to the excavators. He sealed each sample in a plastic vial. After several days, he had collected twenty-five specimens from eleven individuals, enough for a modest study. But there was little time for celebration. In a stunning about-face, Chinese authorities suddenly demanded Francalacci’s samples, refusing to allow them out of the country.”

“Then a mysterious thing happened. Just shortly before Mair departed for home, a Chinese colleague turned up with a surreptitious gift. He slipped five of the confiscated, sealed samples into Mair’s pocket. These had come from two mummies. The grateful Mair passed the samples on to Francalacci, who began toiling in Italy to amplify the DNA.”

“For months, the Italian geneticist labored on the mummy samples, trying to extract enough DNA for sequencing. The nucleic acids had badly degraded, but still, Francalacci kept trying various methods, and in 1995 he called Mair with a piece of good news. He had finally retrieved enough DNA to sequence, and his preliminary results were intriguing. The two Xinjiang mummies belonged to the same genetic lineage as most modern-day Swedes, Finns, Tuscans, Corsicans, and Sardinians.”

“The genetic studies were promising, but they only whetted Mair’s curiosity.” “”Everything that I’ve done,” he explained, “even though it’s been running all over the map, it’s all been tied into making things accessible to the everyday guy, the worker. That’s what it’s all about and that’s why I looked at these mummies. They were just everyday guys, not famous people.””

The Textile Connection

“Mair redoubled his efforts to trace the mummies’ ancestry. In Xinjiang, a Chinese colleague had slipped him another parting gift: a swatch of blue, brown, and white cloth taken from a twelfth-century-bc mummy. The fabric looked like a piece of Celtic plaid. Mair passed it over to Irene Good, a textile expert at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Good examined it under an electron microscope. The style of weave, known as a “two over two” diagonal twill, bore little resemblance to anything woven by Asian weavers of the day. (Indeed, it would be almost another two millennia before women in central China turned out twill cloth on their looms.) But the weave exactly matched cloth found with the bodies of thirteenth-century-bc salt miners in Austria. Like the DNA samples, the mysterious plaid pointed straight towards a European homeland.”

This startled me. The thread that ties it all together is salt and meat curing.  I am not sure what it all means, but this fact is absolutely astounding.  Is it possible that a mummy found in the region which I believe may have been pivotal in spreading nitrate curing of meat across the world may have some direct or indirect link with the Austrian salt mines?  As I was reading the Pringle article, I could hardly contain my excitement.

The Preserving Salts of Turfan

Pringle writes that “excited by the textile connection, Mair organized a new expedition to Xinjiang with Good, her fellow textile expert Elizabeth Barber, and her cultural anthropologist husband, Paul Barber. As the two women pored over the mummies’ clothing, Barber examined the bodies themselves, studying their mummification. Mair hoped this might offer clues to the origins of the people themselves. But the ancient desert dwellers, he discovered, had not taken any of the elaborate measures favored by the Egyptians or other skilled morticians. Instead, they had relied on nature for a few simple tricks. In some cases, family members had buried their dead in salt fields, whose chemistry preserved human flesh like a salted ham. Often, they had arranged the cadaver so that dry air flowed around the extremities, swiftly desiccating the flesh. Cherchen Man, for example, had benefited from both techniques.”

This is exactly the conclusion I assumed the colonists in the Tarim basin would have made.  It is the basis for my assertion and I now believe that nitrate curing was possibly a progression of salt curing, just as nitrite curing is a progression of nitrate curing.  I have described the mechanism and the history of this progression between nitrate and nitrite curing in great detail in my articles Concerning the direct addition of nitrite to curing brine and The Naming of Prague Salt.  That Ötzi man of 3300 BCE could have cured his meat with either salt or salt and a bit of nitrate salt or even ammoniac but I am certain that the people at Turfan cured their meat with sodium nitrate (an assumption based on their use of nitrate salts to preserve the dead).  I now have to compare the dating of these mummies with dates from Mesopotamia where nitrate curing is clearly referred to in ancient texts.

I have described the mechanism whereby salt only cured meat achieves a reddish-purplish cured colour in my article Reaction Sequence under BACTERIAL/ ENZYMATIC CREATION OF CURED COLOUR.  The same progression, I believe, happened in Mesopotamia and possibly in Western Europe.  The question is where did it happen first, here in Tarim or in Mesopotamia or Western Europe and which one was able to impact globally.  Where did the deposits exist in large enough quantity to have precipitated a consistent use which would allow for the development and progression from a curiosity and something that occasionally took place every time one was lucky enough to find nitrate or nitrite as impurities in salt, and where was the deposits consistently high enough in nitrate content to have brought about the development of an art.  In my previous article on the subject, I looked in great detail at the chemical composition of the soil in the basin area.  I quote from my article, Nitrate Salts Epic Journey.

“Nitrate deposits are widely distributed in the Turpan area (Yan Qin, et al, 2012) and the amount of nitrate in the Turpan-Hami basin is estimated at 250 million metric tones which rival those of the famous Atacama nitrate deposits (Wensheng, G. E., et al, 2014).  The most common nitrate deposits are found in the top 50cm of the surface layer towards the center of the basins, particularly in the Turpan basin (this is in contrast to the Atacama deposits which occurs deeper down).  Its origin has conclusively been demonstrated to be from the atmosphere.  (Yan Qin, et al, 2012)

The soil, however, never contains only nitrate.  It is a rich mixture of different minerals and in the Turpan-Hami basin, it is particularly interesting since it contains not only nitrates but a rich mixture of minerals ideally suited for meat preservation.  The soil is a mixture of nitratine, the natural form of sodium nitrate; halite, which is the mineral name for salt or sodium chloride, or rock salt; and mirabilite or Glauber’s salt which is a hydrated form of sodium sulfate.  The nitrate composition ranges from between 2% and 27.98% of the ore tested and average at 10% in the 2012 study by Wensheng, G. E. and coworkers. Halite or sodium chloride was at an average of 30%, darapskite, a crystalized rare mineral which is chemically  a water-containing sodium nitrate sulfate, at 20%, nitratite or sodium nitrate at 10%, and thenardite, an anhydrous sodium sulfate mineral (Na2SO4), anhydrite, an anhydrous calcium sulfate mineral, CaSO4, bassanite, a calcium sulfate mineral with formula CaSO4·0.5(H2O) or 2CaSO4·H2O, and glauberite, a monoclinic sodium calcium sulfate mineral with the formula Na2Ca(SO4)2, at an average of 3 -8%.  (Wensheng, G. E., et al, 2014).  From these, it is easy to see how, if the rocks containing these minerals were crushed and applied to meat, it acts as a powerful preservative due to the presence of the three key elements used in food preservation to this day namely nitrate, sulphate and chloride.”  What is left for me to do is to find similar analysis of the salts in the deserts in the region where Mesopotamia was located.

Back to the story of the small teams visit to Xinjiang, Pringle writes that “Mair, too, assisted in the work. In his spare time, he translated key Chinese reports on the mummies and published them in his own journal, The Sino-Platonic Papers. This gave Western archaeologists access to the scientific findings for the first time. He wanted to make the mummies the focus of a lively scientific and scholarly investigation. So he set about organizing a major international scientific conference on the mummies, bringing leading archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists, geneticists, geographers, sinologists, historians, ethnologists, climatologists, and metallurgists to the University of Pennsylvania to discuss their ideas. After everyone left, Mair dutifully edited and translated two large volumes of their papers, clarifying their arcane prose until everyone interested in the field could understand it. “If I have grey hair,” he joked, “it was because I was sitting there slaving over this stuff.””

A Western European Colony

“When he had finally finished, he sat down in his office with a pad of paper and a pen. He sifted through hundreds of studies on matters as diverse as linguistics, pottery styles, methods of tomb construction, and metallurgy across Eurasia over the past seven thousand years, searching for cultures whose core technologies and languages bore clear similarities to those of the ancient Caucasian cultures of Xinjiang.  These he recognized as ancestral societies. Slowly, patiently, he worked his way back through time and space, tracing the territories of these ancestral groups. Eventually, after months of work, he sketched a map of what he concluded was their homeland. The territory stretched in a wide swath across central Europe, from northern Denmark to the northwestern shore of the Black Sea. But its heart, some six thousand years ago, lay in what is now southern Germany, northeastern Austria, and a portion of the Czech Republic. “I really felt that that fit the archaeological evidence best,”” Mair later told Pringle it was all beginning to come together.  A clear picture was forming.  The areas described by Mair is the exact location of where my first guess would have been where meat curing originated from, based on everything that I have learned after studying the subject matter for over five years now.

When Mair finally showed his map to some of his colleagues, “though, they were deeply dismayed. Elizabeth Barber, one of his closest collaborators, angrily demanded that he redraw it, insisting that linguistic evidence, particularly the ancestry of ancient words for looms, pointed to a homeland much farther east. Realizing that he had gone too far for the comfort of his colleagues, and that he had yet to find the proof he needed, he bowed to their pressure. He redrew the map, placing the homeland in a broad arc stretching from eastern Ukraine and southern Russia to western Kazakhstan. Then he published it in the conference proceedings. “I thought, for this book, it wouldn’t be too bad,” he confessed, shaking his head. “I decided I wouldn’t go against the flow that much, because that is a big flow with some really smart people.” Then he looked down at the map in front of him. “But in my own integrity and honesty, I’d want to put it in here.” He sketched a narrow oval. Its center fell near the Austrian city of Salzburg.”

All of which brings the story back to Shanghai and “the final arbiter, hopefully, of more DNA testing. Convinced he was right, and desperately wanting to find the proof that would dispel all doubt, Mair believed genetics still offered the best hope of vindication. If DNA testing was sufficient to convict or exonerate men in a court of law, it would surely be strong enough to persuade even the most skeptical of his colleagues. He needed samples for another, more powerful type of DNA testing, but as he had just discovered, the Chinese officials had upped the ante again. Japanese researchers had recently paid $100,000 to acquire samples of the ancient matter for DNA testing, and officials at Shanghai’s Museum of Natural History now wanted a similar sum from Mair.”

“Mair didn’t have it, and he was running out of time. Still, he remained surprisingly upbeat. During a break in the negotiations one afternoon, he invited Pringle to follow Xu Yongqing, the head of the Shanghai Museum of Natural History’s anthropology department, down the stairs to a basement room in the museum. Unlocking the door to a small room behind the employees’ bicycle racks, Xu led the way inside. Along three of the walls, mummies in glass cases reclined luxuriously on red velvet cloth. Stacked three high in spots, they looked much like train passengers bedded down for the night in their berths. Mair stood quietly, scanning the room. Then he saw what he wanted to show me. In one of the lower glass cases, a young woman lay stretched out on her back, stripped of her fine woolens. Her knees were pressed demurely together, her arms rested comfortably at her sides, and her breasts lay round and full, as if she had perished in the midst of nursing a child.”

“But it was the hair that caught my attention. A long wavy golden-brown mane twisted down her back. Standing in that room, I felt an unexpected sense of kinship with her, surrounded as she was by strangers. And I wondered just what had prodded her ancestors to exchange the cool greenness of Europe for the scorching barrens of the Tarim Basin.”

“As always, Mair had some ideas. He believed a new invention had spurred this woman’s forebears to embark on this eastern exodus: horseback riding. Some 5,700 years ago, he explained, Eurasians had begun rounding up wild horses, and sometime later they started sliding bits into their mouths and swinging their bodies onto their backs. These seemingly simple acts led them to conquer terrestrial space. For the first time ever, human beings were able to travel swiftly over immense distances, an accomplishment so exhilarating and adrenalin-charged that they suddenly gave full rein to their wanderlust.”

As I read these comments from Mair I said aloud to myself, “and meat curing!” Two inventions were required for people to travel swiftly over immense distances namely horseback riding and meat curing.  It is difficult for us to comprehend the importance of food preservation in our modern world with a refrigerator in every home.  Governments for centuries before this invention wrestled with the problem.  A prominent write on the subject of food in the 1800’s stated that at one point, every available resource from every government was focussed on solving this one problem.  It may have been at this point when ancients discovered the preserving power of horse sweat on meat.  I explored this in an article earlier this year, Saltpeter, Horse Sweat and Biltong: The origins of our national food.

The curious and gruesome practice starts to make sense when we consider the chemistry and functionality of sweat. Sweat, it turns out, contains nitrite along with rapid nitric oxide production. The nitrite exists as part of the well-known reduction sequence from bacon curing where saltpetre (NO3-) was used and through bacterial action, reduced to nitrite (NO2-). Sweat “contains nitrate in appreciable amounts (secreted by glands) and skin commensal bacteria” which reduce nitrate to nitrite. It has been established that under the right temperature, this reduction step can be achieved in under 4 hours. The mean concentration of nitrate in sweat has been reported to be 2.5 NO3- in day -1 or more. Skin pH is normally between 5 and 6.5. (Weller et al, 1996) This means that skin conditions are “favourable for acidified nitrite” and functionally, the nitrite and NO play and “anti-infectious role.” (L’hirondel, J., 2002: 87)

“So equipped,” Mair went on with growing enthusiasm, “early Europeans had easily spread out across Eurasia, their brisk progress recorded in the ancient campsites they left behind. Some of the invaders swept northward, becoming the Germanic tribes; others journeyed west to become the Celts of the British Isles. But the ancestors of the Xinjiang people had headed east across the grassy steppes of Asia, repelling any who tried to bar their path, and four thousand years ago, a small group of latecomers rode into the vacant river valleys of the Tarim Basin. Finding sufficient land to make a life there, they stayed, passing on their love and knowledge of fine horses to their descendants. When mourners buried Cherchen Man, they arranged a dead horse and a saddle atop his grave, two essential things he would need in the next life.”

“In all likelihood, observed Mair, some of these European invaders rode even further to the east and north, beyond the reach of desiccating deserts. And there they brought with them such new Western inventions as the chariot, a high-performance vehicle designed for warfare and sport, and bronze metallurgy, which made strong weapons that retained their killing edge. Very possibly, a few of these invaders carried with them the secret of writing. While examining the hand of an ancient woman exhumed near Cherchen Man, Mair had noticed row upon row of a strange tattoo along her hand. Shaped like a backward S, it clearly resembled the early Phoenician consonant that gave us our modern S. Mair has also found the identical form of S — which resembles an ancient Chinese character — along with other alphabet form signs, on artifacts of this era from western China.”

Interesting Speculation

As I was driving home from work today, down the N1 highway in Cape Town with the majestic Table Mountain, Lions Head and Devils Peak in the distance, a picture was coming together.  A huge part of this is speculation, but let me paint a possible scenario.

Salt curing was not as prevalent around the world as I thought.  In Sub-Sahara Africa, for example, it was probably never practiced.  In Salzburg, though I suspect it was practiced from very early on.  We know for a fact that it was practiced in ancient Mesopotamia.  Cured meat is the ideal food to take on a long journey into a region that one does not know but preparing the meat takes time, between 5 and 6 weeks if salt only is used.  As we will discuss in a moment, the 5 to 6 weeks is hugely temperature dependent.  This would have been a problem for the traveler or explorer if he had to replenish his food supply.  The discovery of the value of horse sweat for meat curing would no doubt have benefited such explorational travels and migrations immensely.

Ötzi who dies 5300 years ago ate cured meat.  He lived in Asia and was related to the mummies from Turfan and the people who settled in Europe.  This means that meat curing associated with the groups just mentioned predates any mention of meat curing in Mesopotamia.

Nitrate salts were discovered which speeds up the curing of meat.  Salts from certain desert areas contain impurities in the form of these nitrate salts.  The ancients must have noticed that when salt was used with these impurities in them, the meat cured faster.  Curing meat with sodium nitrate can be achieved in one week provided that the meat cut is not too thick.  I suspect that people started using basic crystallization techniques along with simply dissolving the salt and separating out various parts, thus learning exactly which part of the salt is nitrate (saltpeter) and which is ordinary salt.  They would have identified the exact salt responsible for the curing which they called by a particular ancient name.  I, however, question the consistency of the availability of these nitrate salts as well as its purity which would, as ample literature from the 1800’s testifies too, have resulted in very inconsistent and dissatisfactory curing results.

The basis for my questioning of the availability of nitrate salts is that they are highly soluble.  Its solubility is the reason why large-scale natural deposits are restricted to the two driest regions on earth namely the Atacama desert and the Turpan depression.  It easily dissolved in water and is drained deep into the soil.

Another important aspect to consider when curing meat is temperature.  It is important to augment salt and saltpeter with low temperatures in order to prevent the meat from spoiling before it could cure properly.  This is why curing before refrigeration was limited to the colder months of the year.

When migrants arrived in the Turpan basin, they found two salts ideally suited for the traveler namely sodium nitrate and sal ammoniac.  Both occur naturally in this basin and the surrounding hills in appreciable quantities.  Both salts would cure meat much faster than if only salt is used.  Sal ammoniac (ammonium chloride) could have been the answer to the temperature challenge.  The strong endothermic nature of the reaction of sal ammoniac rapidly and significantly reduces the temperature of the meat.  I am convinced that if applied in a container (as is specified for meat curing in ancient Mesopotamian texts), the ammonium chloride will react with the water in the meat and the meat juices and the temperature will be reduced significantly.  This would have been an important technique in managing meat curing with high day-time temperatures and low night-time temperatures.

Since we are so far removed from this time, it is a definite project for me to use ammonium chloride in curing trails to gain practical experience with this salt and the effect on meat temperature at various dosages.  It is a project for the future.  The fact that it is in addition to the temperature benefit, an excellent preservative for meat and that it will definitely cure the meat make this a particularly interesting salt for that time, available in the Tarim basin.

There is little doubt in my mind that the salts would have been traded back to Salzburg and as the availability of these salts improved, curing of meat with nitrate and ammoniac salts would have gained popularity over salt-only curing.  Ancient texts from Mesopotamia talks about the difference in the taste of these salts and there was a preference for saltpeter over sal ammoniac which infers that both were used in food preparation, including meat curing.  I can imagine that it would have been advantageous to take along on a long journey, sal ammoniac over saltpeter due to the greater versatility of the salt in that it also addresses the temperature issue.

Greater availability of these salts and greater purity meant greater experimentation and, I speculate, an art developed.  The art of meat curing.

More Work to Follow

For starters, I need to familiarise myself with Mair’s work following the 2002 article of Heather Pringle.  A clear picture is emerging of boxes that must be ticked in our search for the origins of nitrate curing of meat.  When was nitrate curing possibly discovered in Mesopotamia and how does this relate to the dating of the oldest mummies in Tarim when the colony was started?  When was the colony founded and how do the dates compare?  Is there evidence that the preserving salt of Turfan was ever traded, besides sal ammoniac?  How well established was the trading routes from Turfan into Salzburg between 1000 BCE and 3000 BCE?  Is it possible that the preserving salts of Turfan alerted the ancients to the power of saltpeter only to find local varieties of the same salt in their own backyard?  If sal ammoniac was traded on the scale that we discussed in the previous article, why not the preserving salt of sodium nitrate also or am I right in speculating that they confused the two salts? What methods did the ancients of the 1st and 2nd millennium BCE have to test for sal ammoniac and sodium nitrate or saltpeter?  What is the consistency of the nitrate deposits in the region once called Mesopotamia? How widespread was the collection of nitrate salts and of course, when did domestication of animals start and how easy would it have been to collect nitrate salts from the pens and other animal housings for domestic use?


Without any question, what we know clearer than ever before is that we are, if not in the right place where nitrate curing originated, in one of the most significant locations relative to our quest with ties going back into China, the Mediterranean (through Samarkand) and into the heart of modern-day Europe, to the city of Salzburg.  The epicenter of it all being Turfan.  Is it possible that sodium chloride curing of meat, developed in Salzburg, and the ancients found the preserving salts of Turfan to be the perfect progression to nitrate curing which speeds up the entire process?  Similar to the recent progression of nitrate curing to nitrite curing with the exact same benefit of greater speed and control over the process. I have long ignored Germany/ Austria/ Hungaria/ the Czech Republic, Denmark/ Holland in my search for the origins of nitrate curing after I started to believe that nitrate curing was developed in China, but I have a new project for my German/ Austrian research collaborators centered around Saltzburg.  Is it possible that the tribes in Central Europe were after all the true inventors of the technology or was it, as conventional wisdom teaches Mesopotamia?  Could it have been Turfan?

If nothing else, Turfan is emerging as pivotal in terms of the proliferation of the technology.  Only time will tell how deep the rabbit hole goes!  Into the world of relics, ancient texts, and mummies, ancient chemistry techniques, searching for the birthplace of our trade. There are much more questions than answers, but the two certain things I know besides the fact that Turfan played a key role in the saga is that our trade is ancient, at least 5000 years old!  The other one relates to the mummies. They may be old, but they are not silent!

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