Gobi Desert Romans Are Unfounded Speculation


I’ve written before (123) about the Kenyan village with a poorly supported and recently concocted origin myth involving Medieval Chinese sailors. Now my buddy Axel Andersson has alerted me to a similar case. But here it’s sort of the other way around: a Chinese village with a poorly supported and recently concocted origin myth involving Roman soldiers.

The village of Zhelaizhai (formerly Liqian) is in Gansu province in northern China, on the border towards Inner Mongolia and on the edge of the Gobi desert. People here tend to have an unusually Europid appearance by Chinese standards, and recent DNA analyses are reported to support such a link. No archaeological support for any Roman contacts have however been reported.

In the 1950s the eminent Oxford sinologist Homer Hasenpflug Dubs suggested that the people of Zhelaizhai might be descendants of a lost Roman legion. This unsupported conjecture from a forgotten Western academic has now entered local folklore in Gansu.

If indeed people in Zhelaizhai have a much closer genetic affinity with Europeans than others in the area, then this is to my mind unlikely to have anything to do with the discreetly undocumented arrival of any Roman legion. More likely, these people are related to the Europid, tartan-wearing Bronze Age mummies of the Tarim basin in neighbouring Xingjiang province, or with their Tocharian-speaking descendants. And the Silk Road runs nearby, offering a steady supply of amorous travellers from distant parts who were more than willing to contribute to the local gene pool.

The Roman legion hypothesis is a typical attempt of an historian to pin a specific well-documented name and date onto something that actually goes way back (frustratingly, to some) into nameless prehistory.


32 thoughts on “Gobi Desert Romans Are Unfounded Speculation

  1. might be descendants of a lost Roman legion

    Yeah, they were probably sent to garrison Lycia and ended up in Liquian by a simple map-reading accident. And then they kept wondering for decades why no reinforcements or new orders were arriving. I’ll start believing it when the DNA test show that the inhabitants of Zhelaizhai also have an inherited poor sense of direction.

    I remember having read a similarly implausible story from France once – there is a village where so called ‘Mongolian spots’ appear with unusual frequency on newborn infants (these spots are most common in East Asian, but also occur naturally in about 1 in 10 Caucasian births – they’re harmless and fade away by puberty). According to local lore and conviction, this is the case because the residents are descended from Hunnic survivors of the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451 CE.


  2. I recall reading that the Persians shipped some captured Roman soldiers to their Central Asian frontier. However, that still wouldn’t put them near Gansu province.


  3. There is record of Roman legionaries captured by the Sassanid Persians when they captured a Roman Army and the Emperor Valerian, being redeployed to Persia’s far eastern front. The Romans can’t get home from there and might as well be loyal. In turn they were captured by the Chinese.

    Doesn’t prove these people are descended but there is no intrinsic reason why not and folk legends have proven surprisingly durable – ask the Trojans. If this is true the Roman genes will be heavily concentrated in the male DNA. If they are Tarimese it will be equally in the mitochondrial DNA.


  4. I’d like to point out that by the Sassanid Period–the Late Roman Period–the legion were not necessarily made up Romans.


  5. There is a tribe with a high incidence of European features in northeast Afganistan. Inevitably, some speculated they might be descendants of a group of soldiers from Alexander’s army. Rudyard Kipling used this as the basis for a story. Of course this is yet another example of an isolated population with an interesting genetic profile.

    It would be interesting to take a genetic survey of the various small groups of people in the Caucasus. Their language diversity is great, and might correlate with a similar genetic diversity.
    Taking the very recent example of modern humans inheriting an improved resistance to regional pathogens from the small amount of Neanderthal and Danisovan DNA they had acquired, it would be quite possible we can found some similar examples of disease resistance hidden in genes of small communities (and recall the surprisingly high maximum ages of people in Okinawa and central Sardinia).


  6. The Romans can’t get home from there and might as well be loyal. In turn they were captured by the Chinese.

    Except that the Sassanids and the Chinese never fought each other. At best, you could argue that the descendants of the Romans that settled on the Persian frontier converted to Islam and were part of the Arab Muslim army that fought the Chinese at Talas. Seems a stretch though.


  7. More likely, these people are related to the Europid, tartan-wearing Bronze Age mummies of the Tarim basin in neighbouring Xingjiang province

    That’s even more implausible — mummies are dead!

    Then again, if an ancient curse happens to restore them to life, they do tend to show romantic interest in humans, so I take that back.


  8. Said Neil, “there is no intrinsic reason why not and folk legends have proven surprisingly durable”.

    Well, in this case the “folk legend” originates with an Oxford professor in the 1950s.


  9. all things considered, i think i like the “campsite on the silk road” theory the best. no reason these people might not have some slight roman ancestry by that simple means, after all — not all genetic mixing is warlike. ideally, anyway.


  10. I’d be interested in reading any scientific papers written on the genetics of these people. And I’d also be interested to hear Razib Khan’s take on them.


  11. Oh bugger! I had rather hoped that this most esteemed blog might have been a haven from this kind of shite.
    The multifarious DNA and genealogy forums fairly seethe with tendentious wank of this nature.
    Either this (prehistoric “europeans” in Outer Mongolia/Ohio/Patagonia/van Diemen’s Land, you name it). Or a motley crew of literally thousands of USanians, each claiming that they, and they alone, are the rightful High King of All Ireland. And Scotland too, come to think of it.
    Because as True Celts, they know the idiots inhabiting the Islands at present are a bunch of evil (probably English) liars and impostors. Unlike themselves, the unacknowledged Chiefly branch of the MacSkitstovlar Clan. From Austria. (La Tene/Hallstatt, see? “Celtic”, innit. Stop laughing, you cynical bastards!)


  12. According to Pliny, some of the defeated legionnaires from the Battle of Carrhae [53 BCE] were sent by the victorious Parthians to the eastern border satrapy of Sogdia, which was then conquered by the Han Chinese. The big loser in that battle was Marcus Licinius Crassus whose army had previously defeated Sparticus and later became part of the triumvirate with Julius Caesar and Pompey.
    Crassus wiki
    Battle of Carrhae


  13. Thanks Natural Cynic. That was the incident I was thinking of. I had been working from memory and got the wrong date.


  14. Thats who I was talking about as well. But since Crassus had that famous apocryphal story of molten-gold-down-the-throat, I wasn’t sure if the story of his legions getting to Mongolia were true.

    Also, don’t Turks originally come from around there (and sometimes have similar features)?


  15. @5 :”folk legends have proven surprisingly durable – ask the Trojans”.

    That is a can of worms: look at M. I. Finley specifically on the Trojan war.
    And he referred to serious research showing that oral tradition is completely unreliable.


  16. Poster #11, Nomen Nescio, you sure do get around. I, too, would like to see DNA studies of this population and others where so-called “legends” are routinely touted about. Where DID those blue eyes come from, heh?


  17. Let us in this context not forget the village in Finland that can have been the real Troy. The name of the village is Troija, which has led some authors (among them Felice Vinci) to believe it is perhaps Homers Troy and that Oddyseus adventures took place in the Baltic sea and not in the Medditteranean. These ideas have boosted the local tourism in Troija, Finland.

    Irrade Odysseus runt i Östersjön?



  18. Then we also have the Danish writer John Larsen who thinks that Odysseus was Danish. Odysseus real name should have been Isse and he came from the village of Od, it becomes Od-Isse = Odysseus.

    Larsen also thinks that Egypt were located in Poland and that Livland (Livonia)and Libya is the same place.

    So it seems that we have these kind of local myths and crazy stories everywhere, in Kenya, in China, in Finland, in Danmark and most probably also in Sweden.

    Od Isse


  19. And the Mormons claim the lost tribes of Israel were the Anglo Saxons and Red Indians. Lots of weird peoples have strange beliefs.

    But not all of them are & not all of the weird peoples are weirder than ourselves..


  20. Yes, Nuristan! Thank you, Naughtius mAximus. They were forcibly converted to Islam a century ago (a small remnant are still animists).

    I am waiting for the nutters to start blaming odd genetic pockets on aliens. (What? If Mr.Spock’s parents could produce a viable human-vulcan hybrid it must be possible. I know this is true because I saw it on TV!)


  21. Larsen also thinks that Egypt were located in Poland and that Livland (Livonia)and Libya is the same place.

    He must be not just bloody minded but simple minded. The damn pyramids are sitting there in the suburbs of Cairo. You can go and have a look. If there were any in Warsaw I feel somebody would have noticed by now.


  22. Haha, yeah… These imaginings have been going on for centuries, and I guess there will always be someone producing new variations. Personally, I am convinced that New York is actually identical to the village of Nykyrka near Motala in Östergötland.


  23. If the Roman kook Emperor wants to EXECUTE You [X-20,000 men] It’s not like you’re going to “run away” [on race horse]to Katmandu, that’s preposterous; that “victims” would even know what the Emperor has in plan. It’s clear that Ghengis Khan Decends from Mexican Drug CARTELS. stop hating the slant-eyes already. Dracul….a likes his blood fresh’a! Communists! like ignorance/poverty and terror. Geography provides what Politics denies>


  24. Should it be, in fact, surprising to see ‘european’ features in central asia, when ‘europeans’ (or at least indo-european speakers anyway) prolly originated from near there? Caucasians ain’t from the Caucus.


  25. Languages move largely independently of genes. Europe was inhabited before the arrival of IE languages, and those people still have a major part of our gene pool.

    As for IE’s point of origin, the most common opinion has it on the Ukrainian steppe north of the Black Sea, thousands of kms west of Xinjiang.


  26. Maybe its a stretch but you do find IE languages in the region, maybe there’s a shared genetic heritage. IOW, if there were no Silk Road or Roaming Romans, perhaps we’d still have these people.

    Also, arguing against roman influence (from a lost legion or a otherwise) is that, surely there are places closer to rome where there was much more known mixing of “Romans” and locals, and yet we don’t find ‘european looking people’ in all those locations.
    IOW, if not in India then why in China?


  27. Stories about lost tribes abound. My favorite: Six-foot anthropologist explores a savanna covered with five foot tall grass. Meets a tribe of pygmies four feet tall wandering aimlessly; asks “Who are you?” The headman replies: “We’re the Fuckawi”


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