No Romans needed to explain Chinese blondes

By Razib Khan | November 29, 2010 12:08 am

Uyghur boy from Kashgar

Every few years a story crops up about “European-looking” people in northwest China who claim to be of Roman origin. A “lost legion” so to speak. I’ll admit that I found the stories interesting, amusing, if  implausible, years ago. But now it’s just getting ridiculous. This is almost like the “vanishing blonde” meme which always pops right back up. First, let’s quote from The Daily Mail,* DNA tests show Chinese villagers with green eyes could be descendants of lost Roman legion:

For years the residents of the remote north western Chinese village of Liqian have believed they were special.

Many of the villagers have Western characteristics including green eyes and blonde hair leading some experts to suggest that they may be the descendants of a lost Roman legion that settled in the area.

Now DNA testing of the villagers has shown that almost two thirds of them are of Caucasian origin.

The results lend weigh to the theory that the founding of Liqian may be linked to the legend of the missing army of Roman general Marcus Crassus.

In 53BC, after Crassus was defeated by the Parthians and beheaded near what is now Iran, stories persisted that 145 Romans were captured and wandered the region for years.

As part of their strategy Romans also hired troops wherever they had conquered and so many Roman legions were made up not of native Romans, but of conquered men from the local area who were then given training.

250px-Statue-AugustusLet’s start from the end. The last paragraph indicates a total ignorance of the nature of military recruitment during the late Republic. In the year 110 BC the Roman army was composed of propertied peasants. These were men of moderate means, but means nonetheless. They fought for the Republic because it was their duty as citizens. They were the Republic. Due to a series of catastrophes the Roman army had to institute the Marian reforms in 107 BC. Men with no means, and who had to be supplied with arms by the Republic, joined the military. This was the first step toward the professionalization of the Roman legions, which naturally resulted in a greater loyalty of these men to their leaders and their unit than the Republic. Without the Marian reforms Sulla may never have marched on Rome. By 400 AD the legions were predominantly German in origin, and supplemented with “federates,” who were barbarian allies (though alliances were always subject to change). But in 53 BC this had not happened yet. The legions who marched with Crassus would have been Roman, with newly citizen Italian allies in the wake of the Social War. The legions of the Julio-Claudians were probably still mostly Italian, a century after Crassus (service in the legions, as opposed to the auxiliaries, was limited to citizens, who were concentrated among Italians). So that objection does not hold.

But really, do we need the Roman hypothesis? Those big blonde Romans? Here’s one section of the piece: “Archaeologists discovered that one of the tombs was for someone who was around six foot tall.” Because of issues of nutrition the Roman soldiers were notoriously short relative to the Celts and Germans (who had more meat and milk in their diet). Perhaps they had the potential for greater height, which they realized in the nutritional surfeit of…China?

Anyway, there’s a straightforward explanation for the “Chinese Romans”: they’re out of the same population mix, roughly, as the Uyghurs. Before the year 1000 AD much of what is today Xinjiang was dominated by peoples with a European physical appearance. Today we call them Tocharians, and they spoke a range of extinct Indo-European dialects. It seems likely that there was also an Iranian element. The archaeology is rather patchy. Though there were city-based Indo-Europeans, it is clear that some of them were nomadic, and were among the amorphous tribes that the ancient Chinese referred to as the “Rong and Di.” The Yuezhi and Wusun were two mobile groups who left China in the historical period and are recorded in the traditional annals.

Meanwhile, between 500 AD and 1000 AD the Indo-European substrate of the Tarim basin was absorbed by Turkic groups coming from Mongolia. They imposed their language on the older residents, but genetically assimilated them. The modern Uyghurs are a clear hybrid population. In the papers published on the Uyghurs they shake out as about a 50/50 West/East Eurasian mix. But the DODECAD ANCESTRY PROJECT has them in the sample, and here’s how they break down by a finer grain:

Uyghurs are the third population from the bottom. Below them are the Yakut and Chinese. The Yakut are the northernmost Turkic people, and the Turkic element which settled in Xinjiang and assimilated the Tocharians was from the north. The Chinese-like element may simply be that the proto-Uyghurs were already admixed with the Han populations, or, that that element has a geography-conditional cline where the Yakuts are at an extreme. In any case, the other components of Uyghur ancestry are not East Asian. Like many European popualtions the Uyghurs have a West Asian and Northern European aspect, but they lack the South European ancestry. This is important, because it is dominant in both the Tuscans and North Italians. If the “Roman Chinese” are genuinely Roman, they will have this specific southwest European ancestry, which will put them at a distinction from the Uyghurs.

As it is, I don’t think that’s what’s going on.  On the order of 4,000 years ago the domestication of the horse allowed for the expansion of Indo-European populations from east-central Eurasia across the steppe. Eventually they they also percolated into the underpopulated zones between the taiga and the highlands around the Himalayan massif. I believe that these were the groups which introduced nomadism and agriculture to the Tarim basin, and their genetic and cultural impact was a function of the fact that they simply demographically swamped the few hunter-gatherers who were indigenous to the region.

In the period between 1000 BC and 1000 AD the flow of people reversed. The expansion of the Han north and west, and the rise of a powerful integrated state which could bully, and could also be extorted, changed the dynamics on the steppe and in the oasis cities beyond. The vast swaths of Central Asia which were Indo-European in speech became Altaic in speech. But many of these populations absorbed the Indo-European groups, and came out genetically admixed. A clear residual of West Eurasian admixture can also be found among peoples who presumably never interacted much with Indo-Europeans, such as the Mongols, though at lower levels.

The villagers of Liqian are a different part of the story. Clearly substantial numbers of “barbarians” were assimilated into a Han identity on the northern frontier. In the case of tribes such as the Xianbei and Khitan they even did the assimilating themselves, through top-down sinicizing edits. In areas like Gansu these elements contribute a greater proportion of the ancestry, and just as the Uyghur are Turkic speaking, and yet have equal portions of West and East Eurasian ancestry, so the people of Liqian are Chinese speaking, and have equal portions of West and East Eurasian ancestry.

I find it curious that the piece above didn’t mention Uyghurs at all. No idea if politics was involved, but I won’t be surprised if I get some angry Han and Uyghur comments because of what I’m saying here (I’m not totally clear what these sorts of commenters are angry about really, they’re usually pretty inchoate).

Addendum: East and West Eurasian ancestry seems pretty equitably distributed among the Uyghurs. But the number of genes which code for racially salient traits are far smaller than the total set which can be used to estimate ancestry. So within a large enough population allelic combinations across loci will segregate so that some individuals exhibit a “pure” ancestral phenotype. What colloquially might be termed a “throwback.” This little boy comes strikingly close.

* I am aware of the reputation of this newspaper. Nevertheless, it’s being picked up by the international press and some blogs, so I’m going to address it.

Image Credit: Gusjer

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics, Genomics, History

Comments (29)

  1. i’ve been curious about this “lost legion” theory for a while since i study archaeology. to my knowledge there’s no compelling archaeological evidence lending credence to this theory, and furthermore archaeology in China is sometimes subsumed by the state’s desire to tell a specific story with the data. your genetic analysis is an interesting read, thanks.

  2. jeet

    I am aware of the reputation of this newspaper.

    If you want something a bit more reputable, here‘s the Telegraph’s version.

    Also–and this is not directed at you, Razib–told you so.

  3. Mark

    “East and West Eurasian ancestry seems pretty equitably distributed among the Uyghurs. But the number of genes which code for racially salient traits are far smaller than the total set which can be used to estimate ancestry. So within a large enough population allelic combinations across loci will segregate so that some individuals exhibit a “pure” ancestral phenotype. What colloquially might be termed a “throwback.” This little boy comes strikingly close.”

    SO CUTE!!!!

  4. T. Lockyer


    While the Telegraph may, on balance, have a better reputation than the Daily Mail, it has proven itself in recent years not very much less prone to publishing stories that appear decidedly dodgy in provenance and basis. These include single-source stories, often without by-lines, that appear to be based either on stories from other papers and sites, and indeed quote only those as sources, or on press releases that have been written up without any substantial attempt to verify or even question their contents. Some recent examples that seem to be of this type, and about which I have seen people raise serious doubts, include the “crucifixion nail” and “facebook fuelling divorce” claims. In sum, I think its coverage – like that of most sites and papers in these days of higher volume, tighter deadlines, and shrinking staff – has to be evaluated on a case by case basis.

  5. jeet

    @T. Lockyer:

    While the Telegraph may, on balance, have a better reputation than the Daily Mail, it has proven itself in recent years not very much less prone to publishing stories that appear decidedly dodgy in provenance and basis.

    That’s the British press in general.

  6. Alex

    Well, it was always clear to researchers that Ind-Europeans and Mongols had more genetic contacts than it is presumed. It was rather logical too, given the historical events. Only ideologically and politically such findings were suppressed and downplayed.

  7. Rimon

    thank you for writing about this. these newspaper stories always bug me, because if you know anything about central asia, it’s not so surprising that some “European” phenotypes pop up in neighboring regions. There are pictures of redheads and blondes from the “west” (i.e. Central Asia) in ancient Chinese art.

    another thing that bugs me about this particular story (which I’ve seen before) and the similar myth that the Hunza valley people/Kalash are descended from Greeks is that many (though of course not all) Greeks and Romans were quite dark mediterranean types, not so likely pass on genes for fair coloring! the Tocharians, Yuehzhi, etc are much more likely candidates for the ancestors of the fair haired Asians.

  8. Uncle Jer

    I love the way academics are compelled to break human behaviour down into numbers, charts and graphs. It’s really quite simple. Some humans are racist, that is, they would never dream of seeking a mate that is not “one of their kind”. The rest of us are attracted to the person, not the racial type and will basically, mate with anything human (within reason). Combine an abundance of attractive prospective mates with a chance to make a quick buck and ANY human group is likely to end up in ANY corner of the world married, potentially, to ANYONE. The ancients were no different.

  9. Georg

    “That’s the British press in general.”

    Not only the British!

  10. Mike Chin

    What about the mummies of Urumqi? Clearly there was a long history of Indo-Europeans in this area – and associated with the mummies are tweed woven textiles which are associated with Celtic people. Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s book “The Mummies of Urumqi” discusses the genetic and textile evidence.

  11. farang

    Inclined to agree these may be related to the Tocharians, those fair-skinned fair-haired 5000 year old mummies found in southwestern China. They had wool clothing DNA-linked to northern European sheep, and were buried with their stash of marijuana if I recall correctly. From appearances, they were not a mixed race…at that time.

    But like Uncle Jer says: give a blonde fella a look at a cute Chinese gal….then these “Roman” types will appear…

    Tall, blonde…nomadic….Tocharians….I think the author may be correct with that notion.

    Author needs to confirm one way or the other whether the DNA saying “Caucasian” is or isn’t western European caucasian…which throws a wrench in the Ughyur notion…

    [“If the “Roman Chinese” are genuinely Roman, they will have this specific southwest European ancestry, which will put them at a distinction from the Uyghurs.

    As it is, I don’t think that’s what’s going on.]

    We don’t have to “think” or speculate, easily solved: Show us a chart with the DNA of these villagers to compare…this chart does not.

    Did Rome not have a “Panther” legion of archers from Germanic tribes? Were any in this Roman legion in this area? The study says caucasian..not Eurasian…so all is speculation unless we get the DNA results.

  12. Caroline Macafee

    There may be independent evidence for Romans near Lop Nor. In Peter Hopkirk’s *Foreign Devils on the Silk Road* (OUP, 1980: 155) he mentions that the explorer Marc Aurel Stein found classical Roman art (in some cases signed ‘Titus’) in a Buddhist temple there. He adds “there may even have been a Roman town … in Chinese Central Asia. Such is the belief of one American sinologist” – no reference is given, unfortunately.

    Btw, you don’t need to get out the garlic when referring to the Daily Mail – they do genuine investigative reporting, and their science coverage is extensive and of good quality. Their only crime as far as I can see (well, apart from the celebrity gossip) is that they are on the right politically, and do an annoyingly good job of articulating the British public’s dissatisfaction with the left-liberal hegemony.

  13. B. jar

    Come on…
    It’s pretty clear by now that the “Tocharians” of Xinjiang were descendants of the Afanasevo culture (3,500 BC) of south Siberia. This culture was derived from the cultures north of the black sea (read Mallory about it) and the physical type was the same. The haplogroups as well (both the male and female lineages).
    The nature of the Tocharian language (its estimated age) supports it as well.

    So that’s basically the validation of the Kurgan theory, so far.
    All is pretty clear really…

    Plenty of pictures Xinjiang peoples here BTW :

  14. stop posting repetitive comments.

  15. In addition to money-lending [run largely by Uyghurs — but not as we know them today … this is prior to their rout by the Yenisei Kirghiz and their flight into the Tarim], foreigners in Tang China dominated several other trades that were important to the urban populace. Wine shops were most commonly run by Sogdians or speakers of Tocharian…China’s Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty (Mark Edward Lewis), p. 170

  16. B. jar

    Razib Khan Says: “stop posting repetitive comments.”

    I didn’t see any mention about the Afanasevo culture (and of their relation with the cultures north of the black sea, overt in the archeology, or their genetic nature (for instance Keyser et al, 2009), or even of the ancient origine of the Tocharian language branch within IE family language) before my comment.
    I think adds something to the thread, information-wise (provided that the readers try to know more by themselves because it’s impossible to explain thoroughly in a blog comment).

  17. if you want to add information, don’t start with a “come on….” as if you know everything. information is fine. i did point to the general fact: <i On the order of 4,000 years ago the domestication of the horse allowed for the expansion of Indo-European populations from east-central Eurasia across the steppe. further comments from you which dispute my response will result in your banning. i don’t want to talk about whether your comment was worthwhile, so i won’t. nor will you.

  18. Diwiyana

    Thank you for a good discussion of this issue. I remember well reading about the “amazing new discovery” of Caucasian-looking mummies “in China” a few decades back. But even then I had known of such people being in areas not always part of China, for some time. I read about Sir Aurel Stein’s discoveries when I was still in grade school (the ’60s) and those discoveries had taken place when grandparents were young! As I recall, the Shu Jing (the Chinese Classic of History) tends to refer to the Chinese themselves as “black haired people,” in contradistinction to northwestern people they termed “barbarians” and “red haired people.” That suggests that the Chinese themselves knew about these so-called blondes very early indeed. Besides, why would a legion of Roman soldiers who got lost in Iran wander all the way to the borders of China before settling down? Isn’t that the wrong direction from home for them?

  19. Justin Giancola

    this is the most bad-ass little kid I’ve ever seen… they should have her on a poster saying “back off China!”

  20. onur

    this is the most bad-ass little kid I’ve ever seen… they should have her on a poster saying “back off China!”

    Epicanthic folds and slit eyes coming from their Mongoloid ancestors + masculine features coming from their Caucasoid ancestors give them a bad-ass look.

  21. alanborky

    You’re actually being a bit unfair on the advocates of the pro-Roman Legion idea.

    Firstly because until only very recently the Chinese authorities themselves’ve long disregarded and even buried any data suggestive of other than Sinoid ethnic types inhabiting that part of the world, (and the fact Tibet’s tended to dispute China’s ‘ownership’ of it hasn’t exactly discouraged them in this).

    Secondly, because Western archaeolgists’ve similarly long ignored, disregarded or ‘explained away’ any evidence suggestive of China and Rome having direct knowledge of and relations with each other; until relatively recently, indeed, the consensus opinion seemed to be neither had any knowledge of each other’s existences whatsoever.

    The Roman Legion idea, therefore, has always acted as a simple single umbrella solution for explaining all the ethnic and cultural evidence to the contrary.

  22. Sandgroper

    #24 – It’s not unkind to correct politically driven myths based on sound science. It is unkind not to.

    Anyone who has been suckered by the welter of politically driven stuff coming out of China for decades on ancestry and paleoanthropology who takes (undeserved) offense at this deserves what they have coming, IMHO. It’s a bit of a relief that the Chinese scientists now seem to be taking a less politically-driven approach.

    I know a few of the currently respected and much less ideologically driven Chinese paleotologists and they are very sound scientists (if rather severe and boring people). (Well, you want scientific rigor, you get scientific rigor.) I say that advisedly – if an engineer finds a scientist boring, it’s more often the fault of the engineer – we have short dead lines and short attention spans. Paleoanthropologists are playing a long game. Me, I want the whole story of Homo in fine regional detail and I want it right now. And I’m not going to get it.

    I mean, surely, we all (or most) have a fascination with where we came from and want to know the unvarnished truth, undistorted by ideology. Don’t we?

    I just want to know where I derived from and why I have the traits I have. My wife – same. My daghter – same, ony more so. We don’t care a lot at this point what it means medically, in practical terms it may mean nothing much, and family history may be much more informative medically, we just wish to know. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge. And politics really don’t help, they are hugely obfuscatory.

  23. Journal of Human Genetics 2007;52(7):584-91. Epub 2007 Jun 20.
    Testing the hypothesis of an ancient Roman soldier origin of the Liqian people in northwest China: a Y-chromosome perspective.

    The Liqian people in north China are well known because of the controversial hypothesis of an ancient Roman mercenary origin. To test this hypothesis, 227 male individuals representing four Chinese populations were analyzed at 12 short tandem repeat (STR) loci and 12 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP). At the haplogroup levels, 77% Liqian Y chromosomes were restricted to East Asia. Principal component (PC) and multidimensional scaling (MDS) analysis suggests that the Liqians are closely related to Chinese populations, especially Han Chinese populations, whereas they greatly deviate from Central Asian and Western Eurasian populations. Further phylogenetic and admixture analysis confirmed that the Han Chinese contributed greatly to the Liqian gene pool. 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

  24. Doug1

    Were the cSythians, who were the horse nomad steppe peoples the classical age noted (and who were based in Ukraine and a some east of there in Bactria, a mix of west and east Eurasian genes like the Uyghurs, or more western steppe? My impression has been the later and that their language was probably Indo-European of some flavor.

  25. they were iranian. of the broader group of north iranian peoples, along with the sarmatians. the ossetians are their remnants. though there was a likely iranian element in the tarim, it does not seem to be predominantly iranian. the tocharian dialects were a totally different indo-european branch.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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