DNA evidence of ethnic diversity in China

May 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

The recent findings that some villagers who live in north-western China contain 56% of DNA which is Caucasian in origin, bolsters the idea that ancient China was a mishmash of diverse peoples. This cultural diversity remains today. Simply travelling to Urumqi, for instance, one can observe peoples of very different cultural habits than those in central China. The archaeological evidence for these remote parts of  China is also strikingly different to that of other parts of China. More and more, archaeologists are revealing the extreme diversity of the peoples of ancient China.

However, while ethnic diversity seems important to us today, we need to contemplate the importance of this aspect of social identity for those in the past. Within Shang and Zhou archaeology for instance it is increasingly common to speculate on the ethnic identity of the tomb occupant based on certain types of burials goods. This idea presupposes that ethnic identity needed to be reified materially at burial and that certain objects stood as markers of an ethnic identity. The case of tomb M54 at Anyang (discussed in a previous post) shows the problems with such simplistic archaeological interpretations.

In short, sure we might get excited about this diversity in modern-day China, but we cannot assume that ancient peoples also shared this excitement or even thought about ethnic identity in the same way that we do.

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