Crassus’ Lost Army? Meet Elmer. Don’t Eat That.

Okay … it seems it’s time for yet another installment in the Crassus-lost-army-made-it-to-the-Liqian-region-of-China-and-procreated saga … here’s the incipit of the latest effort:

Chinese and Italian anthropologists this week established an Italian studies center at a leading university in northwest China to determine whether some Western-looking Chinese in the area are the descendants of a lost Roman army of ancient times.

Experts at the Italian Studies Center at Lanzhou University in Gansu Province will conduct excavations on a section of the Silk Road, a 7,000-km-long trade route that linked Asia and Europe more than 2,000 years ago, to see if it can be proved a legion of lost Roman soldiers settled in China, said Prof. Yuan Honggeng, head of the center.

“We hope to prove the legend by digging and discovering more evidence of China’s early contact with the Roman Empire,” said Yuan.

Before Marco Polo’s travels to China in the 13th century, the only known contact between the two empires was a visit by Roman diplomats in 166 A.D.

Chinese archeologists were therefore surprised in the 1990s to find the remains of an ancient fortification in Liqian, a remote town in Yongchang County on the edge of the Gobi desert, which was strikingly similar to Roman defence structures.

They were even more astonished to find western-looking people with green, deep-set eyes, long and hooked noses and blonde hair in the area.

Though the villagers said they had never traveled outside the county, they worshipped bulls and their favorite game was similar to the ancient Romans’ bull-fighting dance.

… and I was merrily reading along until I came to this:

DNA tests in 2005 confirmed some of the villagers were indeed of foreign origin, leading many experts to conclude they are the descendants of the ancient Roman army headed by general Marcus Crassus.

… at which point the BS alarm went off in my head, shrieking endlessly. The last time we mentioned this Romans in China thing, we included an abstract from what I believe to be the study in question and the final couple of lines are worth repeating:

The Liqian and the Yugur people, regarded as kindred populations with common origins, present an underlying genetic difference in a median-joining network. Overall, a Roman mercenary origin could not be accepted as true according to paternal genetic variation, and the current Liqian population is more likely to be a subgroup of the Chinese majority Han.

Fortunately, there is a bit of sanity as the article continues (albeit on another page):

Though some anthropologists are convinced the foreign-looking villagers in Yongchang County are the descendants of the army men, others are not so certain.

“The county is on the Silk Road, so there were many chances for trans-national marriages,” said Prof. Yang Gongle at Beijing Normal University. “The ‘foreign’ origin of the Yongchang villagers, as proven by the DNA tests, does not necessarily mean they are of ancient Roman origin.”

Prof. Xie Xiaodong, a geneticist from Lanzhou University, also sounded a skeptical note.

“Even if they are descendants of Romans, it does not mean they are necessarily from that Roman army.”

Their mysterious identity has brought wealth and fame to some of the villagers.

Cai Junnian has yellow wavy hair, a hooked nose and green eyes. A DNA test in 2005 confirmed he is of 56 percent European origin. It made him famous almost overnight.

Reporters, filmmakers, historians and geneticists from around the world chased him. He was invited to meetings with the Italian consul in Shanghai and even appeared in a documentary shot by an Italian TV company last year.

His friends all call him “Cai Luoma,” which means “Cai the Roman.”

Cai’s fellow villager Luo Ying, looks even more European. He has been employed by a Shanghai firm as their “image ambassador.” [etc.]

One might cynically suggest this is at least an interesting way for China to get foreign funding for digs … the ‘sensational’ always seems to trump reasonable evidence to the contrary …

One thought on “Crassus’ Lost Army? Meet Elmer. Don’t Eat That.

  1. It’s also a way for denying that such populations are really “Chinese” or have ownership of their area — “Interlopers!”

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