The migrations of the Yuezhi through Central Asia, from around 176 BCE to 30 CE
|Some 100,000 to 200,000 horse archers, according to the Shiji, Chapter 123. The Hanshu Chapter 96A records: 100,000 households, 400,000 people with 100,000 able to bear arms.|
|Regions with significant populations|
|Iranian deities (Nana), Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism|
|Related ethnic groups|
The Yuezhi or Rouzhi (Chinese: 月氏; pinyin: Yuèzhī) were an ancient Indo-European people originally settled in the arid grasslands of the eastern Tarim Basin area, in what is today Xinjiang and western Gansu, in China. After the Yuezhi were defeated by the Xiongnu, in the 2nd century BC, a small group, known as the Little Yuezhi, fled to the south, while the majority migrated west to the Ili Valley, where they displaced the Sakas (Scythians). Driven from the Ili Valley shortly afterwards by the Wusun, the Yuezhi migrated to Sogdia and then Bactria, where they are often identified with the Tókharoi (Τοχάριοι) and Asioi of Classical sources. They then expanded into northern South Asia, where one branch of the Yuezhi founded the Kushan Empire. The Kushan empire stretched from Turfan in the Tarim Basin to Pataliputra on the Gangetic plain at its greatest extent, and played an important role in the development of the Silk Road and the transmission of Buddhism to China.
The name is formed from yuè (月) "moon" and shì (氏) "clan". There are numerous theories about the derivation of the name Yuezhi, and none has yet found general acceptance. According to Zhang Guang-da, the name Yuezhi is a transliteration of their own name for themselves, the Visha ("the tribes") or Vèsh in modern Pashto meaning "divisions", being called the Vijaya in Tibetan.
The Yuezhi are usually identified with the Tókharoi (Τοχάριοι), named by Greek historians among the conquerors of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom in the 2nd century BCE. At the beginning of the 20th century, manuscripts were discovered in the northern Tarim Basin written in two hitherto-unknown Indo-European languages dating from the 6th to 8th centuries CE. Believing the authors to be the Tókharoi, Friedrich W. K. Müller called these languages the Tocharian languages. Although few scholars now accept Müller's identification, "Tocharian" remains the standard term for the languages of the Tarim Basin manuscripts and for the people who produced them. Although the peoples who overran the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom are known to have spoken Bactrian, an Eastern Iranian language, other scholars have argued that the Yuezhi were originally Tocharian-speakers. In support of this claim, Christopher Beckwith argues that the character 月, usually read as Old Chinese *ŋʷjat > Mod. yuè, could have been pronounced in an archaic northwestern dialect as *tokwar or *togwar, a form that resembles the Bactrian name Toχοαρ (Toχwar ~ Tuχwar) and the medieval form Toχar ~ Toχâr.
The Yuezhi originally lived in the area between the Qilian or Heavenly Mountains and Dunhuang, but after they were defeated by the Xiongnu they moved far away to the west, beyond Dayuan, where they attacked and conquered the people of Daxia and set up the court of their king on the northern bank of the Gui River. A small number of their people who were unable to make the journey west sought refuge among the Qiang barbarians in the Southern Mountains, where they are known as the Lesser Yuezhi.
— "The Account of Dayuan", Shiji, 123
The area between the Qilian Mountains and Dunhuang lies in the modern Chinese province of Gansu. However some scholars have argued that the mountains referred to are the Tian Shan, placing the original homeland of the Yuezhi 1,000 km further west in the northern part of modern Xinjiang. The archaeologist Lin Meicun further argues that Dunhuang refers to a mountain in the Tian Shan named Dunhong, which is listed in the Classic of Mountains and Seas.
Early Chinese relations with the Yuezhi are described in the Guanzi (73, 78, 80 and 81). This book was compiled around 26 BCE, and while some of the source materials are older, most scholars do not accept its attribution to Guan Zhong, an official of the State of Qi in the 7th century BCE. Unlike the neighbouring Xiongnu, who were also nomadic pastoralists, the Yuezhi did not engage in conflict with the nearby Chinese states. Rather, the book described the Yuzhi 禺氏, or Niuzhi 牛氏, as a people from the northwest who supplied jade to the Chinese. The supply of jade from the Tarim Basin from ancient times is indeed well documented archaeologically. The hundreds of jade pieces found in the tomb of Fuhao from the late Shang dynasty all originated from Khotan, on the southern rim of the Tarim Basin.
During the Warring States period, the Chinese also turned to the Yuezhi for the supply of good horses. Moreover, the Yuezhi supplied the Qin Empire with crucial military mounts. The Yuezhi maintained a profitable trade of horses and cattle for Chinese silk, which they sold on to their neighbours. Thus the Yuezhi began the Silk Road trade, acting as middlemen between China and Central Asia.
However, the Yuezhi were regularly in conflict with their northeastern neighbors, the Xiongnu, who also threatened the Qin empire. During this period, the Xiongnu king Touman gave his son Modu as hostage to the Yuezhi and then attacked them, hoping they would kill Modu, leaving the succession open to Modu's younger brother. However Modu escaped by stealing a fast horse. He subsequently killed his father and became ruler of the Xiongnu.
The Yuezhi may have been an Europoid people, as indicated by the portraits of their kings on the coins they struck following their exodus to Transoxiana (2nd–1st century BCE), some old place names in Gansu explainable in Tocharian languages, and especially the coins they struck in India as Kushans (1st–3rd century CE). Ancient Chinese sources do describe the existence of "white people with long hair" (the Bai people of the Shan Hai Jing) beyond their northwestern border.
According to one theory, the Yuezhi were connected to a large migration of Indo-European-speaking peoples from eastern Central Asia in the Bronze Age. These were possibly ethnic Tocharian speakers and connected to the Afanasevo culture. Very well preserved Tarim mummies from the 18th century bc to the first centuries bc with Europoid features (light hair and eyes) and dominated by Haplogroup R1a1a (Y-DNA) have been found in the Tarim Basin. One mummy today displayed at the Ürümqi Museum and dated from the 3rd century BCE, found at the ancient oasis on the Silk Road, Niya, has been connected to the Yuezhi.
Esther Jacobson emphasizes that "the Yuezhi/Kushans may properly be considered to have belonged to the larger Scytho-Siberian culture." The nomadic people, probably Scythians, of the Ordos culture, who lived in northern China, east of the Yuezhi, are another of a later similar migration. Also, the Europoid mummies of Pazyryk, which were probably Scythian in origin, were found around 1,500 kilometers northwest of the Yuezhi and date to around the 3rd century BCE.
Evidence of the Indo-European Tocharian languages also has been found in the same geographical area, Although the first known epigraphic evidence dates to the 6th century CE, the degree of differentiation between Tocharian A and Tocharian B and the absence of Tocharian language remains beyond that area suggest that a common Tocharian language existed in the same area of Yuezhi settlement during the second half of the 1st millennium BCE.
The Yuezhi exodus
Shortly before 176 BCE, led by one of Modu's tribal chiefs, the Xiongnu invaded Yuezhi territory in the Gansu region and achieved a crushing victory. Modu boasted in a letter (174 BCE) to the Han emperor that due to "the excellence of his fighting men, and the strength of his horses, he has succeeded in wiping out the Yuezhi, slaughtering or forcing to submission every number of the tribe." The son of Modu, Laoshang Chanyu, subsequently killed the king of the Yuezhi and, in accordance with nomadic traditions, "made a drinking cup out of his skull." (Shiji 123.)
Following Chinese sources, a large part of the Yuezhi people therefore fell under the domination of the Xiongnu, and these may have been the ancestors of the Tocharian speakers attested in the 6th century CE. A very small group of Yuezhi fled south to the territory of the Proto-Tibetan Qiang and came to be known to the Chinese as the "Little Yuezhi". According to the Hanshu, they only numbered around 150 families. Chinese sources state that Little Yuezhi were ancestors of the Jie people. Under Shi Le they established the Later Zhao state. The Jie were completely exterminated by Ran Min in the Wei–Jie war following the fall of the Later Zhao.
A large group of the Yuezhi fled from the Tarim Basin towards the Northwest circa 165 BCE, first settling in the Ili valley, immediately north of the Tian Shan mountains, where they confronted and defeated the Sai (Scythians): "The Yuezhi attacked the king of the Sai who moved a considerable distance to the south and the Yuezhi then occupied his lands" (Han Shu 61 4B). The Sai then undertook their own migration, which was to lead them as far as Kashmir, after travelling through a "Suspended Crossing" (probably the Khunjerab Pass between present-day Xinjiang and northern Pakistan). The Sakas ultimately established an Indo-Scythian kingdom in northern India.
In the year 132 BCE, the Wusun, in alliance with the Xiongnu and out of revenge from an earlier conflict, managed to dislodge the Yuezhi, forcing them to move south. The Yuezhi crossed the neighbouring urban civilization of the Dayuan in Ferghana and settled on the northern bank of the Oxus, in the region of Transoxiana, in modern-day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, just north of the Hellenistic Greco-Bactrian kingdom. The Greek city of Alexandria on the Oxus was apparently burnt to the ground by the Yuezhi around 145 BCE.
Settlement in Transoxiana
The Yuezhi were visited by a Chinese mission, led by Zhang Qian in 126 BCE, that was seeking an offensive alliance with the Yuezhi to counter the Xiongnu threat to the north. Although the request for an alliance was denied by the son of the slain Yuezhi king, who preferred to maintain peace in Transoxiana rather than to seek revenge, Zhang Qian made a detailed account, reported in the Shiji, that gives considerable insight into the situation in Central Asia at that time.
Zhang Qian, who spent a year with the Yuezhi and in Bactria, relates that "the Great Yuezhi live 2,000 or 3,000 li (832–1,247 kilometers) west of Dayuan (Ferghana), north of the Gui (Oxus) river. They are bordered on the south by Daxia (Bactria), on the west by Anxi (Parthia), and on the north by Kangju (beyond the middle Jaxartes). They are a nation of nomads, moving from place to place with their herds, and their customs are like those of the Xiongnu. They have some 100,000 or 200,000 archer warriors."(Shiji 123.)
Although they remained north of the Oxus for a while, they apparently obtained the submission of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom to the south of the Oxus. The Yuezhi were organized into five major tribes, each led by a yabgu, or tribal chief, and known to the Chinese as Xiūmì (休密) in Western Wakhān and Zibak, Guishuang (貴霜) in Badakhshan and the adjoining territories north of the Oxus, Shuangmi (雙靡) in the region of Shughnan, Xidun (肸頓) in the region of Balkh, and Dūmì (都密) in the region of Termez.
A description of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom was made by Zhang Qian after the conquest by Yuezhi:
- "Daxia (Greco-Bactria) is located over 2,000 li southwest of Dayuan, south of the Gui (Oxus) river. Its people cultivate the land and have cities and houses. Their customs are like those of Ta-Yuan. It has no great ruler but only a number of petty chiefs ruling the various cities. The people are poor in the use of arms and afraid of battle, but they are clever at commerce. After the Great Yuezhi moved west and attacked the lands, the entire country came under their sway. The population of the country is large, numbering some 1,000,000 or more persons. The capital is called the city of Lanshi (Bactra) (modern Balkh) and has a market where all sorts of goods are bought and sold."(Shiji 123.)
In a sweeping analysis of the physical types and cultures of Central Asia that he visited in 126 BCE, Zhang Qian reports that "although the states from Dayuan west to Anxi (Parthia), speak rather different languages, their customs are generally similar and their languages mutually intelligible. The men have deep-set eyes and profuse beards and whiskers. They are skilful at commerce and will haggle over a fraction of a cent. Women are held in great respect, and the men make decisions on the advice of their women."(Shiji 123.)
Invasion of Bactria
In 124 BCE, the Yuezhi were apparently involved in a war against the Parthians, in which the Parthian king Artabanus I of Parthia was wounded and died:
- "During the war against the Tochari, he (Artabanus) was wounded in the arm and died immediately" (Justin, Epitomes, XLII,2,2: "Bello Tochariis inlato, in bracchio vulneratus statim decedit").
Some time after 124 BCE, possibly disturbed by further incursions of rivals from the north and apparently vanquished by the Parthian king Mithridates II, successor to Artabanus, the Yuezhi moved south to Bactria. Bactria had been conquered by the Greeks under Alexander the Great in 330 BCE and since settled by the Hellenistic civilization of the Seleucids and the Greco-Bactrians for two centuries.
This event is recorded in Classical Greek sources, when Strabo presented them as a Scythian tribe and explained that the Tokhari—together with the Assianis, Passianis and Sakaraulis—took part in the destruction of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom in the second half of the 2nd century BCE:
- "Most of the Scythians, beginning from the Caspian Sea, are called Dahae Scythae, and those situated more towards the east Massagetae and Sacae; the rest have the common appellation of Scythians, but each separate tribe has its peculiar name. All, or the greatest part of them, are nomads. The best known tribes are those who deprived the Greeks of Bactriana, the Asii, Pasiani, Tochari, and Sacarauli, who came from the country on the other side of the Jaxartes, opposite the Sacae and Sogdiani." (Strabo, 11-8-1)
As they settled in Bactria from around 125 BCE, the Yuezhi became Hellenized to some degree, as suggested by their adoption of the Greek alphabet and by some remaining coins, minted in the style of the Greco-Bactrian kings, with the text in Greek. The area of Bactria they settled came to be known as Tokharistan, since the Yuezhi were called Tókharoi by the Greeks.
Commercial relations with China also flourished, as many Chinese missions were sent throughout the 1st century BCE: "The largest of these embassies to foreign states numbered several hundred persons, while even the smaller parties included over 100 members ... In the course of one year anywhere from five to six to over ten parties would be sent out." (Shiji, trans. Burton Watson).
The Hou Hanshu also records the visit of Yuezhi envoys to the Chinese capital in 2 BCE, who gave oral teachings on Buddhist sutras to a student, suggesting that some Yuezhi already followed the Buddhist faith during the 1st century BCE (Baldev Kumar (1973)).
A later Chinese annotation in Shiji made by Zhang Shoujie during the early 8th century, quoting Wan Zhen's s (萬震) Strange Things from the Southern Region (Nanzhouzhi (南州志), a now-lost third-century text of from the Wu kingdom), describes the Kushans as living in the same general area north of India, in cities of Greco-Roman style, and with sophisticated handicraft. The quotes are dubious, as Wan Zhen probably never visited the Yuezhi kingdom through the Silk Road, though he might have gathered his information from the trading ports in the coastal south. The Chinese never adopted the term Guishuang and continued to call them Yuezhi:
- "The Great Yuezhi [Kushans] is located about seven thousand li (about 3000 km) north of India. Their land is at a high altitude; the climate is dry; the region is remote. The king of the state calls himself "son of heaven". There are so many riding horses in that country that the number often reaches several hundred thousand. City layouts and palaces are quite similar to those of Daqin (the Roman empire). The skin of the people there is reddish white. People are skilful at horse archery. Local products, rarities, treasures, clothing, and upholstery are very good, and even India cannot compare with it."
Expansion into the Hindu-Kush
The area of the Hindu-Kush (Paropamisade) was ruled by the western Indo-Greek king until the reign of Hermaeus (reigned c. 90 BCE–70 BCE). After that date, no Indo-Greek kings are known in the area, which was probably[original research?] overtaken by the neighbouring Yuezhi, who had been in relation with the Greeks for a long time. According to Bopearachchi, no trace of Indo-Scythian occupation (nor coins of major Indo-Scythian rulers such as Maues or Azes I) have been found in the Paropamisade and western Gandhara.
As they had done in Bactria with their copying of Greco-Bactrian coinage, the Yuezhi copied the coinage of Hermeaus on a vast scale, up to around 40 CE, when the design blends into the coinage of the Kushan king Kujula Kadphises. Such coins provide the earliest names of presumed Yuezhi princes, Sapadbizes (probably a yabgu's prince of Yuezhi confederation[original research?]) and Agesiles, both around 20 BCE.
By the end of the 1st century BCE, one of the five tribes of the Yuezhi, the Guishuang (貴霜, origin of name Kushan adopted in the West), managed to take control of the Yuezhi confederation. From that point, the Yuezhi extended their control over the northwestern area of the Indian subcontinent, founding the Kushan Empire, which was to rule the region for several centuries. The Yuezhi came to be known as Kushan among Western civilizations; however, the Chinese kept calling them Yuezhi throughout their historical records over a period of several centuries.
The Yuezhi/Kushans expanded to the east during the 1st century CE to found the Kushan Empire. The first Kushan emperor, Kujula Kadphises, ostensibly associated himself with Hermaeus on his coins, suggesting that he may have been one of his descendants by alliance, or at least wanted to claim his legacy.
The unification of the Yuezhi tribes and the rise of the Kushan are documented in the Chinese Historical chronicle, the Hou Hanshu:
- "More than a hundred years later, the xihou (Ch:翖侯, "Allied Prince") of Guishuang (Badakhshan and the adjoining territories north of the Oxus), named Qiujiu Que (Ch: 丘就卻, Kujula Kadphises) attacked and exterminated the four other xihou ("Allied Princes"). He set himself up as king of a kingdom called Guishuang (Kushan). He invaded Anxi (Parthia) and took the Gaofu (Ch:高附, Kabul) region. He also defeated the whole of the kingdoms of Puda (Ch: 濮達) and Jibin (Ch: 罽賓, Kapiśa-Gandhāra). Qiujiu Que (Kujula Kadphises) was more than eighty years old when he died.
- "His son, Yan Gaozhen (Ch:閻高珍) (Vima Takto), became king in his place. He returned and defeated Tianzhu (Northwestern India) and installed a General to supervise and lead it. The Yuezhi then became extremely rich. All the kingdoms call [their king] the Guishuang (Kushan) king, but the Han call them by their original name, Da Yuezhi." (Hou Hanshu, trans. John Hill,).
The Yuezhi/Kushan integrated Buddhism into a pantheon of many deities and became great promoters of Mahayana Buddhism, and their interactions with Greek civilization helped the Gandharan culture and Greco-Buddhism flourish.
During the 1st and 2nd century, the Kushan Empire expanded militarily to the north and occupied parts of the Tarim Basin, their original grounds, putting them at the center of the lucrative Central Asian commerce with the Roman Empire. When the Han Dynasty desired to advance north, Emperor Wu sent the explorer Zhang Qian to see the kingdoms to the west and to ally with the Yuezhi people, in order to fight the Xiongnu Mongol tribe. The Yuezhi continued to collaborate militarily with the Chinese against nomadic incursion, particularly with the Chinese general Ban Chao against the Sogdians in 84 CE when the latter were trying to support a revolt by the king of Kashgar. Around 85 CE, they also assisted the Chinese general in an attack on Turpan, east of the Tarim Basin.
In recognition of their support to the Chinese, the Kushans requested, but were denied, a Han princess, even after they had sent presents to the Chinese court. In retaliation, they marched on Ban Chao in 86 CE with a force of 70,000 but, exhausted by the expedition, were finally defeated by the smaller Chinese force. The Kushans retreated and paid tribute to the Chinese Empire during the reign of the Chinese emperor Han He (89–106).
About 120 CE, Kushan troops installed Chenpan—a prince who had been sent as a hostage to them and had become a favorite of the Kushan Emperor—on the throne of Kashgar, thus expanding their power and influence in the Tarim Basin, and introduced the Brahmi script, the Indian Prakrit language for administration, and Greco-Buddhist art, which developed into Serindian art.
Benefiting from this territorial expansion, the Yuezhi/Kushans were among the first to introduce Buddhism to northern and northeastern Asia, by direct missionary efforts and the translation of Buddhist scriptures into Chinese. Major Yuezhi missionaries and translators included Lokaksema and Dharmaraksa, who went to China and established translation bureaus, thereby being at the center of the Silk Road transmission of Buddhism.
The Chinese kept referring to the Kushans as Da Yuezhi throughout the centuries. In the Sanguozhi (三國志, chap. 3), it is recorded that in 229 CE, "The king of the Da Yuezhi, Bodiao 波調 (Vasudeva I), sent his envoy to present tribute, and His Majesty (Emperor Cao Rui) granted him the title of King of the Da Yuezhi Intimate with the Wei (魏) (Ch: 親魏大月氏王, Qīn Wèi Dà Yuèzhī Wáng)."
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He equates the Tokharians with the Yuezhi, and the Wusun with the Asvins, as if these are established facts, and refers to his arguments in appendix B. But these identifications remain controversial, rather than established, for most scholars.
- Mallory & Mair 2000, p. 283.
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- 月氏？还是匈奴？ - 新疆天山网
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The most western of the Early Nomads' relatives and those most familiar to the modern observer were Scythians. They are believed to have arrived in the lands of the Caucasus, the Crimea, and the rich steppe north of the Black Sea by the sixth century B.C. ... In the late years of the first millennium B.C., the successors to the Early Nomads and Sakas served as the vehicles for the transformation of Eurasian nomadism into statehood. The Xiongnu of Mongolia gathered an array of nomadic peoples together into a confederation which became the major geopolitical opponent of the Chinese Han Dynasty. In the same period, the second and first centuries B.C., the Yuezhi established hegemony over the vital steppe region west of the borders of Han China and extending through Bactria to the borders of India. Indeed, after their conversion to Buddhism, the Yuezhi- by then known as the Kushans- proceeded to conquer India and to establish the great Kushan Dynasty. Despite these political transformations and despite significant distinctions in language and physical anthropology between the Xiongnu and their Early Nomadic relatives, they as well as the Yuezhi/Kushans may properly be considered to have belonged to the larger Scytho-Siberian culture.
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The Yuezhi people conquered Bactria in the second century B.C.E. and divided the country into five chiefdoms, one of which would become the Kushan Empire. Recognizing the importance of unification, these five tribes combined under the one dominate Kushan tribe, and the primary rulers descended from the Yuezhi.
- Liu 2001b, p. 156.
- Beckwith 2009, p. 84–85.
- Hill 2009, pp. 28–29.
- 後百餘歲，貴霜翕候丘就卻攻滅四翕候，自立為王，國號貴霜王。侵安息，取高附地。又滅濮達、罽賓，悉有其國。丘就卻年八十餘死，子閻膏珍代為王。復滅天竺，置將一人監領之。月氏自此之後，最為富盛，諸國稱之皆曰貴霜王。漢本其故號，言大月氏云。Hanshu, 96 
- Hill 2009, pp. 14, 43.
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- —— (2010). The Silk Road in World History. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-516174-8.
- Loewe, Michael; Shaughnessy, Edward L. (1999). The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 BC. Cambridge University Press. pp. 87–88. ISBN 0-5214-7030-7. Retrieved November 1, 2013.
- Mallory, J. P.; Mair, Victor H. (2000). The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West. London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-05101-1.
- Mallory, James (2006). The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indoeuropean and the Proto-Indoeuropean world. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-929668-5.
- Ricket, W.A. (1998). Guanzi: Political, Economic, and Philosophic Essays from Early China. Vol.II. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Roux, Jean-Paul (1997). L'Asie Centrale, Histoire et Civilization (French), Fayard, ISBN 978-2-213-59894-9.
- Watson, Burton (1993). Records of the Grand Historian of China: Han Dynasty II (revised ed.). ISBN 0-231-08166-9. ISBN 0-231-08167-7 (pbk.) Translated from the Shiji of Sima Qian.
- Yap, Joseph P. (2009). Wars With The Xiongnu, A Translation From Zizhi tongjian Chapters 2 & 4, AuthorHouse. ISBN 978-1-4490-0604-4.
- The Western Regions according to the Hou Hanshu, trans. John Hill
- Linguistic analysis of the connection between Yuezhi and Kushan
- Overview of Xiongnu history and their wars with the Yuezhi
- Craig Benjamin on Yuezhi migrations
- Kasim Abdullaev on Yuezhi migrations in Central Asia
- Lokesh Chandra on Yuezhi translators
- Yuezhi Sapadbizes coins
- Yuezhi Agesiles coins
- On-line Version of the Guanzi.
- Downloadable article: "Evidence that a West-East admixed population lived in the Tarim Basin as early as the early Bronze Age" Li et al. BMC Biology 2010, 8:15.