Image copyright AP Image caption Researchers used DNA analysis to confirm researchers found the mummy of a man buried in the Shaanxi desert is from France
A family’s desire to meet a granddaughter may have caused them to send two mummies to China for burial in the 1970s, scientists say.
The skulls of the mummies were sent by the person they represented.
Researchers say analysis of their DNA has shown they are probably of French and Chinese descent.
They also found the Frenchman to be extremely rare because of his distinctive facial features.
The mummies were discovered by archaeologists after a battle in the western Chinese city of Xi’an in 1979.
DNA analysis of both mummies identified them as those of a French soldier and his Tibetan colleague.
“In this fragile animal skin coffin, the remains were remarkably well preserved,” researcher Scott Reisig of Georgia Tech said.
“It was the reverse. In the so-called dead bodies, DNA analysis found that the adult body appeared to be of Tibetan ethnicity, while the smaller child body bore the rich Chinese features unique to the region.”
The Shaanxi desert is a sandy region where the climates are similar to eastern and western parts of China.
It is believed that many mummies were brought there by Buddhist monks who believed that good luck would be bestowed on them if they were buried there.
Image copyright AP Image caption The masks, either of men or women, belonged to both male and female mummies, the team said
These beliefs were so widespread that the upper layer of mummies usually consisted of men of middle-aged age.
However, the official count of mummies in the region was never made because of their limited capacity.
“The original count was probably much larger,” Professor Reisig said.
“Along with my colleagues, I estimated that there may have been between 1,000 and 4,000 mummies in the desert region, dating back to the 7th or 8th century.”
After that discovery, the mummies were taken to a museum in Xi’an, in south-western China.
The discovery was hugely controversial because they were of Tibetan origin, and the museum was against letting foreigners study them.
In 1982, American archaeologist Robert Wright came to Xi’an to take them back to the US.
Although the museum had no problem removing the mummies, its French director hated it.
So he secretly sent the people who were identified as their descendants and their family relations to Xi’an.
The museum then acted as a middleman, sending the mummies to Mongolia.
Image copyright AP Image caption The mummies were returned to the US in 1987
In 1987, the US government pressed the Chinese to return the mummies, but they were held until 1996, after Beijing started granting visas to US researchers.
The scientists were able to interview the relatives about their family history, which revealed that the French soldier had been born and raised in France.
“This was a simple but, in retrospect, incredibly unusual finding. We were able to identify a survivor,” Professor Reisig said.
“It is possible that everyone asked about an ancestor by name might very well have been a relative.”
He said the researchers could have received just as many skulls from the Shaanxi desert.
“Where was the missing head?” he asked.
“The farther we dug, the harder it became to find a missing head.”
Prof Reisig added: “By the same token, we could have gone to Africa with just a skull. But our faith is in DNA.”
The researchers have published their findings in the Journal of Archaeological Science.