Sunday, April 18, 2004

Quando in Seres

Laban Tall left the following comment in response to "Dead men tell their tales".

The Spectator magazine had an appeal a couple of years back to help sponsor an expedition of geneticists and ethnologists to the top right corner of Afghanistan, where the people, fair haired and blue eyed, claim to be descended from Alexander the Great's soldiery.

I wonder what happened to it ?
I don't know about Afghanistan but there's a people in Pakistan called the Kalasha who claim such ancestry. However, the genetic evidence1 disputes that claim and as for the cultural case, well...let's just say it shares much in common with such widely held ideas as Afrocentrism and a prehistoric universal goddess cult, namely that its adoption is driven by factors other than a frank evaluation of its soundness. This reminded me of two other stories about far-flung peoples surviving to the present day: the Lemba of southern Africa and the inhabitants of a village in Gansu province, northwestern China.

The Lemba of southern Africa have been fingered as one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel because they observe male circumcision, ritual slaughter (only by a circumcised male), and quasi-kosher dietary laws; however, some of these practices could be attributed to outside influence. Muslim influence is evident in the use of the phrase "bismillah" in the ritual slaughter practices of some Lemba.2 The Lemba readily incorporated the colonial European attribution of Great Zimbabwe to Jewish builders (as well as European Jewish influences as the Star of David) into their own traditions, claiming credit for the construction of the city, and asserted a connection to the Beta Israel (aka Falasha) of Ethiopia, whom they learned of from the Europeans and whose claims of Jewish heritage have long been conventionally accepted. Despite the clearly recent provenance of some Jewish/Semitic customs among the Lemba, Y chromosome studies corroborate their claims of Jewish ancestry as confirmed by the presence of a genetic signature characteristic of the Cohanim Jewish hereditary priestly caste. Though this could be explained by colonial period genetic admixture from one or a few prodigiously procreatively prolific Jews, Occam's Razor suggests greater antiquity for the Jewish pedigree of the Lemba. Ironically, the Beta Israel show little sign of this genetic signature at all though this is easily explained by intermarriage, which among the Lemba is subject to stringent restrictions. (These restrictions, in addition to explaining the strength of the Cohanim genetic signature among the Lemba, provide another example of their practice of a Jewish custom.) Following up on Lemba oral traditions about their origins, Judaism historian Tudor Parfitt has made a strong case for Lemba descent from Yemeni Jews which, like Lemba kinship claims with the general Jewish population, has been supported by genetic evidence. Though the Lemba are clearly a "lost tribe of Israel," Parfitt's hypothesis challenges the claim that they are one of the Lost Tribes of Israel (i.e. refugees from the 8th century BCE Assyrian conquest), suggesting their ancestors migrated to Africa as refugees from a Yemeni agricultural disaster that dates back only to the 10th or 11th century CE.3

Comparable genetic analysis of the population of Zhelaizhai village, for whom claims of descent from Roman legionnaires have been made, has not been as conclusive. The American Oxford Sinologist Homer Hasenpflug Dubs noticed in a Han Dynasty census a municipality named "Lijian," the Chinese name for the Greco-Roman world. Only two other cities from that census were similarly named after foreign realms - Kucha and Wenxiu, both central Asian kingdoms of the period - and this because they were populated by immigrants from those places.4 Dubs concluded that Lijian must likewise have been populated by Romans. The question is, of course, How?

In 53 BCE, Parthian forces routed the Roman army under Marcus Licinius Crassus at the Battle of Carrhae (Harran in modern-day Turkey). The Parthians shipped the 10,000 legionnaires captured at Carrhae to the eastern frontier of their empire. Over 30 years later, the Romans and the Parthians signed a peace treaty, one of the conditions of which was the return of any Roman prisoners of war. The Parthians sought out the surviving legionnaires to return them home. Some of them were indeed returned to the Roman Empire, some who had built lives and started families in captivity stayed behind and some could not be accounted for.

Not long after the Parthians separated Crassus' head from his body, a Xiongnu5 leader named Zhizhi subjected a group of Chinese diplomatic envoys to similar treatment. Before the Chinese had a chance to retaliate, Zhizhi fled west to the realm of the Kangju, which welcomed an alliance with Zhizhi against the Chinese-allied Wusun.

On the other side of the Oxus (Amu Darya) River lay the Parthian holding of Margiana in present-day Turkmenistan, which had recently seen a wave of 10,000 immigrants. From remote Margiana, those who desired to escape the Parthian Empire needed only traverse northeast across the Oxus into the Kangju-controlled territory of Sogdia in present-day Uzbekistan. Moreover, men with military experience could easily find work in a kingdom that felt vulnerable to external threats.

In 36 BCE, the Chinese decided to rid themselves of the troublesome Zhizhi. By this time, Zhizhi had established a stronghold on the present-day site of Taraz (Dzhambul) in Kazakhstan on the Kyrgyzstan border. ("Zhizhi" could well be a Chinese rendering of "Kyrgyz".) The Chinese found Zhizhi's citadel protected by a double palisade - a characteristically Roman fortification. During the battle itself, Zhizhi's troops astonished the Chinese, who had been expecting a barbarian lack of discipline, by employing what is described in the Houhanshu ("Book of the Eastern Han Dynasty") as a "fish-scale formation," which Dubs associates with the Roman testudo. Despite their surprise, the Chinese defeated Zhizhi's forces anyway, making any of Crassus' legions prisoners of war twice over. Dubs further speculates that the Chinese found the same use for the legionnaires as the Parthians did - as a buffer on the outermost frontier of the empire - and so settled them in Gansu.

In 1999, DNA tests were performed to scientifically complement the visual evidence of, compared to the general Chinese population, light eyes and curly, light hair. The tests suggest a genetic connection to Europeans but fall short of conclusive proof of descent from the remnants of Crassus' legions. European genetic admixture from Silk Road traders seems a far more likely explanation. (I don't suppose anyone remembers the ONE white guy in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"? He was trading with the bandits who raided Zhang Ziyi's caravan when she catches up to them. He looks like Peter Jackson and sticks out like, well, like Peter Jackson in a crowd of Chinamen. Hey, I'm Chinese so I'm exempted under the "Black people get to say n*gger" clause. I saw the new Chris Rock special last night. Can you tell?)

There is yet another explanation for the European genetic admixture and appearance of the Zhelaizhai population that has nothing to do with Rome. The European-featured, Indo-European-speaking Tocharians are said to be originally from Gansu.6 European features among the Uighurs and Tajiks are attributed to them, so why not European features among the Chinese now found at the site of the Tocharians' ancestral home? This does not refute the Roman hypothesis but it certainly provides a strong alternative explanation for relatively European features found among Zhelaizhai's inhabitants.

As with the Kalash, government assertions have more to do with tourism than history. An article by one Cui Bian in Beijing Review, which has no pretensions of being anything other than an official mouthpiece of Beijing, bears all the hallmarks of Marxist reporting. A log inlaid with wooden clubs was, archeologists agree, most probably an instrument used by the Romans to build the city wall. Why? Cui Bian never says. Alternative points of view aren't even noted, let alone disputed. Which is why the following came as such a surprise.
There are also some unique customs in the area. The most interesting is the locals' worship of the ox. Many families like to make ox-head shaped bread from leavened flour, which they call "ox nose", as a sacrificial offering. The locals have also built Ox God Temples in village shrines and at major crossroads, and erected ox heads as symbols. Before the Beginning of Spring (first solar term), villagers dredge soil from the rivers and mold a "spring ox" in the temple. On the day they carry the "spring ox" out of the temple and smash it as a prayer for future prosperity and a good harvest.

"Ox butting" is a favorite sports with the locals. During this activity, the villagers drive the herds to a slaughterhouse so that the oxen will work themselves into a frenzy as they smell blood and butt each other to death. Experts say that has come from the custom of bullfighting pop-ular with the ancient Romans.
Judging from the rest of the article, Cui Bian is going to strain a muscle overstating the case for a Roman connection so, assuming this information is correct, the lack of any attempt to spin a Roman connection out of this is either reverse-psychology or a sign that the reporter isn't familiar enough with Western antiquity to do so. The sacrificial offering of an ox-head shaped bread reminded me of this.
The bread is flesh of the bull in whose death there was life.
That quote is from an article about the cult of Mithras. (If it sounds eerily familiar - fundamentalist Christians should leave the room now - the following should ring a few more bells: Mithras was born of a virgin, died and was resurrected and his followers celebrated his birthday on December 25.), who was referred to with epithet as Mithras Tauroctonos or "Mithras the Bull-Slayer". What's more, the cult of Mithras was identified closely with Roman legionnaires, whose deployment brought the faith to every corner of the empire. Conservative estimates date the Roman cult of Mithras only to the late 1st century CE; however, Plutarch dates the introduction of the cult of Mithras to the Roman Empire to 67 BCE with Pompey's capture of Mithras-worshipping Cilician pirates. It is of course possible that these Mithraic customs were transmitted to Gansu some other way. However, it is important to note that the bull-centered practices characteristic of the Roman cult of Mithras but absent from the Persian veneration of him. The characteristically Roman Mithraic practices found in Zhelaizhai if that is indeed what they are, the supposed settlement of Lijian by Roman legionnaires and the close association of the cult of Mithras with Rome's armies makes for a surprisingly robust circumstantial case but still falls short of conclusiveness.

Maybe I'm paranoid, but maybe the Mithraic practices were planted in that article and described in as matter-of-fact a fashion as possible (in contrast to Fox News-like editorializing in the rest of the article) for the sole purpose of lulling reflexively wary skeptics into a false sense of security. Given the stakes, that's implausibly duplicitous and troublesome even for the Chinese Communist Party. And this is all of course assuming the accuracy of the information given. After weighing all the evidence, I would conclude that the circumstantial case is very strong but falls short of conclusive proof.

1Both Pakistani genetic studies were conducted by the Biomedical and Genetic Engineering Division of Dr. A.Q. Khan Research Laboratories, the same Khan Laboratories who handed nuclear secrets over to North Korea, Iran and Libya.
2Parfitt, Tudor. Journey To The Vanished City.
3Arabian Sea shipping traffic was key to the origins of both the Lemba and the Bene Israel of India.
4It's not that weird. "New York," anyone? Or "Chinatown"? Taipei forms a "map" of China by arranging street names geographically to correspond to the relative locations of their namesakes on the mainland.
5Identified with the Huns though the association has not been conclusively proven
6UPDATE: A discussion of the antiquity of the Tocharian presence in Gansu can be found in these notes to a translation of the Houhanshu.

Laban Tall's blog has been linked under Current Affairs
Laban has excellent taste in blog skins.