Monday, 6 December 2010

No Romans in China

The Lost Ninth Legion has been a recurring theme on this blog since 2007 (revisited in 2008 and 2009). And, with the new Eagle movie about to hit the big screen, there will no doubt be further revisiting.

But, from all of my previous posts, one which I never imagined revisiting was last year's Rome and China offering. But it seems that the theme of Romans in China is, again, in the headlines.

Daily Mail's picture

Chinese villagers 'descended from Roman soldiers'

This was the headline trumpeted on 23 November by no less an authority than The Daily Telegraph. Tests apparently showing 56% Caucasian DNA amongst the inhabitants of the Chinese village of Liqian, coupled with the fact that "many of the villagers have blue or green eyes, long noses and even fair hair", was enough to start the speculation that these people were "descended from the lost legion". (Don't panic -- it's not the Lost Ninth Legion, but a different one.)

The story was quickly picked up by the other newspapers (e.g. The Daily Mail) and, naturally, the bizarre theory of the village's Roman origins popped up. This was the brainchild of the late Homer H. Dubs in 1957 (in a book and article entitled A Roman City in Ancient China).

(I am surprised to see that I have not blogged on this before. It is a fascinating lesson in misguided scholarship, but must wait for another occasion.)

But, now -- thank the Olympian Gods for Discover magazine! Sanity has been restored. In an article from 29 November entitled No Romans needed to explain Chinese blondes, genetics commentator Razib Khan explains that the neighbouring Uyghur population were a Turkic ethnic group with a physical European appearance. It is quite likely that the Han Chinese, expanding their influence to the north-west, came into contact with these people. It's far more likely, at any rate, than Homer Dubs' theory of a colony of Romans!

Well, there goes another plank in the "Romans in China" theory. But, like our Lost Ninth Legion, I suspect that this story will run and run.