Revealing lost secrets about Yingpan Man and the Silk Road

Environmental isotopic baseline of the Yingpan cemetery

Multiple body tissues of Yingpan Man, including his serial dentine, bone collagen, hair keratin and muscle, were isotopically analyzed. The δ13C measurements show a mix of C3 and C4 dietary inputs with values that range from − 17.3‰ to − 13.7‰, while the δ15N results are remarkably elevated and range from 14.9‰ to 19.9‰. According to the isotopic literature, plant δ15N values above 20‰ are relatively rare in terrestrial environments22,26,27,28. However, the δ15N values of the plants, animals and Yingpan Man are remarkably elevated (up to 23.3‰) compared to isotopic results from other parts of China and Europe (Fig. 3)12. This suggests that the entire ecosystem of this portion of Xinjiang is 15N-enriched. In addition, seeds of Nitraria pamirica having elevated δ15N results (up to 27.9‰) were found in the western region of the Pamir Plateau near the Afghanistan border23. Grains of wheat and barley from Shichengzi (ca. 202 BC–220 AD; ~ 400 km from Yingpan) yielded δ15N values that range from 14.6‰ to 19.8‰ (mean ± SD = 17.2 ± 1.5‰; n = 10) and 13.4‰ to 19.8‰ (mean ± SD = 17.3 ± 1.9‰; n = 12), respectively29. This evidence suggests that the entire Tarim Basin and greater Xinjiang has some of the most elevated terrestrial δ15N values in Eurasia. This is also supported by past isotopic work in China, which demonstrated a correlation between human δ15N values and annual mean precipitation, with individuals from Xinjiang having the highest δ15N values of all regions studied12. The cause of this 15N-enrichment must be at least partially environmental based on past isotopic studies27,30. The extreme aridity of the Yingpan cemetery site, which is located in the Taklamakan Desert, the driest region of China and characterized by little rainfall of 0 to 100 mm/yr and high evapotranspiration rates > 2500 mm/year (Fig. 1)31, results in a large plant 15N-enrichment by intensive evaporation of 15N-depleted ammonia (NH4+) from the soil. These elevated δ15N results are then translated up the food chain to the domestic animals and humans. This is compelling evidence that Yingpan man was born and raised in a 15N-enriched environment that was extremely arid, and that he consumed wheat/barley, broomcorn millet and grape that were grown locally.

Breastfeeding, weaning and childhood dietary patterns of Yingpan Man

Isotopic analysis of dentine serial sections in human teeth permit an investigation of individual dietary patterns over the time period when the teeth were developing24. For Yingpan Man, his first molar (M1), represents the period of his life from birth to approximately 10 years old32. The first five 1 mm dentine sections from the M1 crown, corresponding to the first ~ 2.2 years of his life, show a steady decrease in δ15N of 2.5‰ (Fig. 4). This is evidence that Yingpan Man was fully weaned off breastmilk at or before the age of ~ 2.2 years old (Fig. 4)33,34, and is similar to findings of the Zhou Dynasty (1122–771 BC) sites of Boyangcheng35, Xiyasi and Changxinyuan36.

Archaeological evidence for infant feeding practices is rarely preserved in Xinjiang. However, two extraordinary feeding vessels (one made of goat breast skin, the other made from an ox horn) were previously discovered with the burial of a 10-month old infant mummy in the southern Tarim Basin4,7. This infant dates to ~ 1000 BC and was found at the Zhagunluke site which is ~ 460 km from the Yingpan cemetery (Fig. 1). In addition, historical documents also provide supporting evidence that children were fed with animal milk in ancient Xinjiang. For example, the Kharosthī scripts (written in a version of the north Indian Prakrit language) are a collection of contracts, letters and other documents (e.g. wood tablets, leather, silk, paper, etc.) that detail life, events, trading, taxes and agricultural practices during the third to fifth century AD of the Shanshan Kingdom (~ 250 km from Yingpan, see Fig. 6)37. It is recorded in these documents that a “milk fee” of cattle or camel was paid to the adoptee when children were adopted in ancient Shanshan, and this exchange was not only protected by the law but also needed to be ensured by witnesses37,38. Thus, there may have been a common tradition of feeding infants with milk from domestic animals (e.g. goat, cattle, camel, etc.) during the weaning process in ancient Xinjiang.

Figure 6

Yingpan Man’s grave goods mirroring the cultural contact across the Eurasian continent (~ 300 AD). (a) Decorative patterns of vase and flowers on the sideboards of Yingpan Man’s coffin. (b) Decorative patterns of nude putties, goats, bulls and pomegranate trees on Yingpan Man’s woolen caftan. (c) Yingpan Man’s white hemp mask with golden diadem (possibly related to the death masks from Tashtyk culture). (d) Woolen trousers with decorative patterns of double quatrefoil florals surrounded by lozenges made up of solid circles and flowers. (e) Miniature funerary summer coat. (f) Miniature funerary winter robe. (g) Embroidered armband. (h) Yellow painted wood coffin with decorative patterns. (i) A broken brocade that was decorated with Chinese characters of “Shou” and “You”. (j) Silk fish. (k) Crowing cockerel pillow. (l) Perfume sachet. (m) A tufted carpet with decorative patterns of a male lion. (Map was generated using GMT 5.2.1. The original pictures of artifacts were previously published14 and provided by Wenying Li. Pictures were modified using Adobe Photoshop CC 2015 V.1.2. The final layout was created in Adobe Illustrator CC 2019 V.23.1.1).

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In contrast, the δ13C results of the first four dentine sections show little variability, which indicates that Yingpan Man consumed other foods/liquids from an early age and was not exclusively breastfed for a significant amount of time after birth (Fig. 4; Fig. S4)34. Between 4 and 9 mm, there is an increase in the δ13C values of 1.7‰, which corresponds to a late weaning and childhood diet from approximately 1.8 to 4.2 years old, where more millet was consumed (Fig. 4; Fig. S4). This millet possibly took the form of a gruel as there is little evidence that Yingpan Man consumed increased amounts of animal protein during this period. Similar isotopic patterns in dentine representing individuals that consumed increasing amounts of millet during weaning and early childhood were found at the Late Neolithic (4500 BP) Gaoshan site in Sichuan Province39. This suggests that millet may have had a long history of being used as a weaning or childhood food in China. From 9 to 14 mm, the dentine serial sections show a decline in δ13C values of 1.4‰ which indicates a period of increasing C3 foods in the diet from approximately 4.2 to 6.6 years old (Fig. 4; Fig. S4). Then from 14 to 21 mm the δ13C values increase again by 1.3‰, evidence of a change back to millet consumption from approximately 6.6 to 10 years old. Thus, over the first 10 years of life, Yingpan Man had frequent dietary shifts between C3-based and C4-based foods (Fig. 4; Fig. S4).

Seasonal diet of Yingpan Man

In agreement with his dentine serial sections, the δ13C results of Yingpan Man’s hair display fluctuations between C3-based (e.g. wheat, barley) and C4-based (millet) foods (Fig. 5a). These hair δ13C results appear to follow a periodic trend, and suggest that his diet changed during different seasons of the year. In contrast, apart from the last 6–7 months of life, Yingpan Man’s hair δ15N values show little variation (Fig. 5b). However, a strong correlation was found between the variability of both the hair δ13C and δ15N values (Sperman’s r = − 0.534; sig = 0; n = 46; Fig. S5a), but not between the δ13C and δ34S values (Sperman’s r = 0.100; sig = 0.539; n = 40; Fig. 5; Fig. S5b). The lack of significant changes in the δ15N values is evidence that Yingpan Man’s protein consumption was relatively constant for approximately the last 4 years before death. This constant protein consumption, but variable intake of C3 and C4 plants, could suggest that in addition to directly consuming different amounts of wheat/barley and millet, Yingpan Man may have actually consumed domestic animals (goats, sheep, cattle) that were foddered on these crops at different times of the year. This possibility could explain the periodic variability in the δ13C values as well as the lack of variability in the δ15N values. In addition, the δ34S hair results also show little variation in the serial sections (~ 1.5‰). Yingpan Man’s δ34S results have a terrestrial range between 10.4‰ and 11.9‰40,41,42 and are similar to past δ34S values from the Proto-Shang site of Nancheng in Hebei Province43. While few δ34S studies have been reported for China for comparison, this lack of isotopic variability in sulfur suggests that Yingpan Man was likely not a Silk Road traveler, but stayed close to the local area during the last years of his life42. Future research involving strontium analysis on Yingpan Man’s hair serial sections and teeth will hopefully support or refute these findings44.

Regional evidence in support of seasonal dietary changes comes from apatite δ13C and δ18O results of serial sections of tooth enamel of domesticates from the pastoral sites of Dali, Begash and Tasbas in Kazakhstan (~ 750 km from Yingpan)45. Specifically, data from early and middle Bronze Age sheep, goats and cattle displayed periodic patterns in their δ13Capa and δ18Oapa results that reflect the consumption of more millet during winter and more C3 plants during summer months, based on environmental inputs of body water45. A combination of radiocarbon dates and the application of the dietary mixing model (MixSIAR) identified early sheep and goats from this region (e.g. Dali, 2705–2545 cal BC) to be winter foddered with up to 44–50% of millet intake45. During later periods, this reliance on millet fodder during the winter months increased with some goats from Begash having 50–60% millet in their diets. Further, the relative contribution of millet to the diet of sheep and goats from the early phase (2345–2080 cal BC) of Begash reached up to 68–74% of the whole diet during winter months, especially from November to December45. This key study indicates that there is a long history and precedent for seasonal C3 and C4 feeding of domestic animals in Central Asia, and supports the isotopic findings of a seasonal diet in the hair of Yingpan Man.

In addition, isotopic analysis of sequential hair samples from mummies recovered from the Oglakhty cemetery in the Minusinsk Basin of southern Siberia, Russia (~ 900 km north of Yingpan) also show seasonal dietary variation with millet and fish consumed during the late summer and autumn46. These mummies of the Tashtyk culture date to the same period as Yingpan Man (third to fourth centuries AD), and interestingly were also buried with white painted gypsum funerary masks that are similar to the one that Yingpan Man was wearing46,47. This unique burial tradition could suggest links such as trade or an association between Yingpan Man and the Tashtyk culture and additional research is necessary to explore this possibility in more detail (Fig. 6).

Historical documents such as the Kharosthī scripts provide additional valuable information about seasonal diets and the foods consumed by the inhabitants of ancient Xinjiang37. These texts describe how the people of the Tarim Basin cultivated mainly wheat, millet and barley as their main cereal crops and that grapes were carefully managed for the production of wine37. Autumn (around the 10th month of the year), was mentioned as the time for harvesting crops and trading crops as well as wine and animals, and paying debts37. Thus, autumn would have been the time of the year with the most abundant amount of food resources, especially C3 foods like fruit, vegetables and wine. This is still true today, as the harvesting of agricultural products in the Tarim Basin mainly occurs in the month of October48. In contrast, during the winter months food resources would have been scarce with only non-perishable crops like millets and wheat available to guarantee the food supply “in the harsh winters of Inner Asia”45. Thus, more C4 foods were likely consumed during the winter and spring months while more C3 foods were consumed during the summer and autumn months.

If this information is applied to Yingpan Man’s hair δ13C results, it would suggest that the δ13C values decreased during the summer and autumn months (June to October) and likely reach a nadir during the middle of autumn or October. Therefore, Yingpan Man’s hair sections which are 8 to 10 cm, 18 to 25 cm and 36 to 43 cm from his scalp reflect the period of middle autumn (between August to October) while the hair sections which are 4 to 6 cm, 13 to 15 cm and 29 to 33 cm from his scalp represent late winter (December to February). This would suggest that Yingpan Man died ~ 4 months after the last drop in his δ13C hair values or in spring, possibly March or April (Fig. 5). In addition, the clothes in which Yingpan Man was buried, as well as his associated wardrobe, also provide information about the timing of his death14,15. The miniature robe placed on his chest was designed for winter, as it was long, double layered and the interior was lined with sheep’s wool (Fig. 2f). Whereas the miniature coat placed near his wrist was designed for summer as it was shorter and made only of a single layer of silk (Fig. 2p). Yingpan Man’s caftan, in which he was buried, was double layered with the outer layer made of wool and the inner lining made of silk, and this was likely designed either for the spring or autumn (Fig. 2k)14. Thus, Yingpan Man’s burial clothes combined with the isotopic and historical evidence indicate that Yingpan Man died sometime during the spring months14,15.

To better illustrate Yingpan Man’s seasonal dietary variation, two hair sections respectively representing the highest (Sample A: − 14.0 ± 0.1‰, 15.2 ± 0.1‰) and lowest δ13C values (Sample B: − 17.3 ± 0.2‰, 15.8 ± 0.1‰) were analyzed by a Bayesian mixing model with the application of FRUITS (Food Reconstruction Using Isotopic Transferred signals)49,50. As displayed in Fig. S6, isotopic data for millet, wheat/barley, grape and sheep/goat from the Yingpan cemetery were incorporated into the mixing model as feasible dietary sources for Yingpan Man in both scenarios (Sample A and Sample B). The isotopic fractionation between human hair and diet is corrected with an offset of 4.0 ± 0.5‰ for δ13C values51,52,53 and 4.5 ± 0.5‰ for δ15N values51,54. The relative contribution of different macronutrients is defined in the mixing model according to published records with 74 ± 4% of the carbon originating from protein and 26 ± 4% originating from carbohydrates and lipids and all of the nitrogen originating from protein55,56. The high hair δ13C value of − 14.0‰ (Sample A) represents a heavy reliance on millet consumption (39–67%; median = 53%) and a low amount of dietary input from wheat/barley (0–51%; median = 12%), grape (1–46%; median = 25%) and sheep/goat (0–30%; median = 4%), which likely reflects Yingpan Man’s diet during the winter and spring months (Fig. S6 and Table S13). In contrast, the low hair δ13C value of − 17.3‰ (Sample B) likely represents a summer/autumn diet with a decline in C4 foods, like millet (8–44%; median = 28%), as well as increased reliance on C3 foods like wheat/barley (1–71%; median = 21%) and sheep/goat (0–81%; median = 9%) (Fig. S6 and Table S13). However, the importance of sheep/goat and wheat/barley is likely under-estimated here given their small sample size and highly elevated δ15N values. Nonetheless, the FRUITS mixing model indicates that the varying consumption of plant foods, especially millet, is clearly responsible for the δ13C shifts of Yingpan Man’s diet.

The last months of Yingpan Man

The hair δ13C results provide an estimate for the time of year Yingpan Man likely died. In addition, the hair δ15N and δ34S values can provide evidence for how Yingpan Man may have died. The last ~ 6 cm (closest to the scalp) of Yingpan Man’s hair show a general rise in δ15N by ~ 1‰ (Fig. 5b). This pattern is uncharacteristic compared to the other hair δ15N results that display little variation. This unique 15N-enrichment could represent a period of catabolic wasting due to the recycling of tissue proteins as a result of a prolonged illness25,57,58. Additional support for some sort of disease or period of illness comes from the fact that there is little change in the δ13C values but a slight decrease in the δ34S values during the last ~ 6 cm of Yingpan Man’s hair. Tissue catabolism is known to cause an increase in δ15N but little change in δ13C values in human hair25. Further, δ34S results are known to decrease in the red blood cells and serum (by ~ 1.5‰) of patients suffering from liver cancer59. As the last ~ 6 cm of hair displayed a slight decrease in δ34S by ~ 1‰, with the largest decline during the last month of life, this evidence in conjunction with the δ13C and δ15N values suggests that Yingpan Man did not die suddenly but likely suffered some type of debilitating sickness over the last months of his life before he succumbed. However, as most wasting diseases or illnesses leave no traces on human skeletons, it is difficult to define the specific disease that caused Yingpan Man’s death, and a detailed paleo-pathological study of Yingpan Man is needed in the future.

The grave goods buried with Yingpan Man also suggest he may have suffered a compromised health status before death. In particular, a piece of tattered yellow brocade decorated with brown and blue images of vines, animals, birds, flowers, as well as the Chinese characters of “Shou” and “You” was found placed at a prominent position on the right side of Yingpan Man’s head (Fig. 7)14. According to Chinese historical literature sources, “You” means “blessing” or “blessed”. While, “Shou” means “long live” or “healthy” (Fig. 7)60. Similar grave goods with Chinese characters e.g. “Yan Nian Yi Shou Da Yi Zi Sun” (meaning “live longer and benefit the descendants”), “Chang Le Ming Guang Cheng Fu Shou You” (meaning “always be happy, be bright, be lucky and be blessed”), “Yong Chang” (meaning “always be prosperous”), were also frequently unearthed from contemporary and later cemeteries of the Tarim Basin, especially the nearby sites of the Loulan culture (third century BC to 448 AD, renamed as Shanshan in 77 BC, ~ 250 km from Yingpan), as grave goods that carry good wishes for the dead15. However, Yingpan Man’s brocade shows significant traces of wear or “rubbing” (Fig. 7). This is interesting as this brocade was not complete or new but well-worn to the point of being tattered and frayed, yet it was still placed at a very important position in Yingpan Man burial—just beside his head14. This suggests that this brocade may have been an important “lucky” health charm for Yingpan Man that was frequently used either by himself or by those who cared for him before burial. Thus, both isotopic and archaeological evidence suggest Yingpan Man suffered some type of illness during the last ~ 6 months of his life, likely in winter, and that he succumbed to this illness in the following spring.

Figure 7

Photo and sketch showing details of the embroidered brocade that was found with Yingpan Man burial. (The original picture and sketch were previously published14 and provided by Wenying Li. Pictures were modified using Adobe Photoshop CC 2015 V.1.2. The final layout was created in Adobe Illustrator CC 2019 V.23.1.1).

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Who was Yingpan Man?

The social identity and status of Yingpan Man is enigmatic given the various cultural components of his grave goods and since the collection of his funerary objects are unique compared to all of the other burials found in the same cemetery14. This has created much controversy and debate about the social identity of Yingpan Man7,14,15,16. Thus, “Who was Yingpan Man?” and “Why was he buried here, in a normal unmarked grave with such lavish and exotic grave goods?” is an active topic of debate.

The physical anthropology of Yingpan Man was investigated but not formally published. According to which, the metric and nonmetric index of traits of his skeletal remains suggest a mix of both European and Mongolian features (Dong Wei, personal communication). However, facial reconstruction conducted by Dong Wei (personal communication) indicates that Yingpan Man’s facial structure is more characteristic of the features from Western Eurasia. This is consistent with the image of the face painted on his death mask and the fact that he wears a golden diadem across his forehead, which is more traditionally associated with Greece4,7. However, Yingpan Man’s white hemp mask is similar in style to the white painted gypsum masks of the Tashtyk culture from the Minusinsk Basin of Russia46. In addition, Yingpan Man and the mummies of the Oglakhty cemetery of Tashtyk date to nearly the same period (third to fourth centuries AD), and the polychrome silk cloth from the Tarim Basin has also been discovered in Oglakhty46. This evidence, while circumstantial, could suggest some form of association or that links with the Tashtyk may have taken place during the lifetime of Yingpan Man, possibly through trade or familial relationships (Fig. 6).

Other components of Yingpan Man’s burial provide important clues about his social identity and cultural affiliations in life61. The styles and types of grave goods of Yingpan Man display an unique mix of both Eastern and Western cultures and traditions that were likely common to inhabitants of Silk Road trading towns in Xinjiang during the third to fourth centuries AD (Fig. 6)14,15,16. However, there appears to be a strong eastern component in some of his funerary arrangements. For example, the burial practices associated with Yingpan Man: covering his face, filling his nose, burying his body fully clothed, covering it with a silken burial shroud, as well as using miniature funeral objects as grave goods are in accordance with the suggested burial rites of “Yan” (meaning “covering”), “Zhen” (meaning “filling”), “She Min Mu” (meaning “covering the eyes”), “Qin” (meaning “quilt” or “burial shroud”) mentioned in the Confucian literature of Yili (meaning “Rites”, formed during the Zhou Dynasties (1046 BC to 256 BC))15,62. In addition, the styles and designs of some of his grave goods are indicative of Chinese spiritual beliefs. For instance, the diamond and circle-shaped designs of decorative patterns on the cover and sideboards of Yingpan Man’s coffin are argued by some scholars to be the traditional “Lianbi” pattern (meaning “linked jades”) which symbolizes the jade burial suits (“Jinlü Yuyi”) that were popular in Han Dynasty burials of high status nobles in central and southern China (e.g. Nanyuewang tomb, Mancheng tomb)15. In particular, as jades are believed to be the ideal material for embalming in ancient China63, the “Lianbi” pattern on Yingpan Man’s coffin carries the symbolic meaning of preserving his body forever so that his soul and spirt will reach heaven (Fig. 6; Fig. S1)15.

The brocade “health charm” found to the right side of Yingpan Man also shows a clear affiliation with China, as it was decorated with the Chinese characters of “Shou” and “You”. This is important as some historical documents suggest that Kharosthī was the common language in the Tarim Basin at this time37,38, but Yingpan Man was likely more accustomed to Chinese spiritual beliefs according to this brocade (Figs. 6, 7). Moreover, the crowing cockerel pillow is also interesting as it was recorded in the Han Dynasty literature of Lunheng (meaning “On Balance”, compiled by Chong Wang during the Eastern Han Dynasty in 88 AD), that the dead “turns into ghosts” and “hurt the living ones”64, and that a crowing cockerel was believed to be able to expel evil spirts and ghosts65. Thus, a crowing cockerel pillow was frequently used in funerary practices in China since the Han Dynasty66, and it is still a common grave good today in some areas of modern China (e.g. Shandong and Guizhou Provinces)65.

The eight decorative pearls attached to the crowing cockerel pillow are also important status markers regarding the identity of Yingpan Man (Fig. 8). In Xinjiang, pearls would have been long distance imported products from the coastal regions which are > 3000 km from the Yingpan cemetery. Ancient China, Egypt, Persia, Greece and India were known to have produced and prized pearls67. However, according to Chinese historic literature sources: Shangshu (meaning “the Book of Documents”; written by pre-Qin philosophers during the Zhou Dynasty ~ 1000 BC)68, Hanshu (meaning “the Book of Han”; written by Gu Ban during the Eastern Han Dynasty in 105 AD)69 and Hou Hanshu (meaning “the Book of Later Han”; written by Ye Fan during the Southern Dynasties from 432 to 445 AD)70, pearls were known as royal tributes in China since the Xia Dynasty (~ 2000 BC), and were mainly produced in the coastal cities of southern China, such as Panyu (modern Guangzhou City in Guangdong Province), Hepu (modern Hainan Province), Zhuya (modern Guangxi and Guangdong Province), etc.67 These coastal regions of China were connected to the Tarim Basin area via the Silk Road trading routes and were possibly the source for the pearls found on Yingpan Man’s pillow (Fig. 6). In particular, a silk pillow fully covered with unpolished natural pearls (placed beneath the tomb owner’s head, weighing ~ 470 g) and a lacquer box of pearls (weighing 4,117 g) were unearthed from the tomb of the King of the Nanyue Kingdom (a vassal state of Han) in modern Guangzhou71. This demonstrates a similar preference for pearls as decorations on pillows or as grave goods for high status individuals.

Figure 8

Crowing cockerel pillow. (ad) Photo and sketch of the crowing cockerel pillow from Yingpan Man burial. (e–h) Decorative patterns of the four mythical beasts on Han Dynasty eaves tiles. (The original pictures and sketches were previously published14 and provided by Wenying Li. Pictures were modified using Adobe Photoshop CC 2015 V.1.2. The final layout was created in Adobe Illustrator CC 2019 V.23.1.1).

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Moreover, the decorative patterns found on Yingpan Man’s crowing cockerel pillow are remarkable. These include the images of: a monkey-shaped face, a griffin-shaped beast and a net-shaped pattern as well as the images of the mythical beasts of the “blue dragon”, “red sparrow” and “white tiger” (Fig. 8d)17,47,61,72. Together with another mythical beast known as the “black turtle-snake”, these four mythical beasts were believed to be the guardians of the four cardinal directions and also represents four different colors and elements according to traditional Chinese cosmology (Fig. 8e–h). The dragon guarding the East and representing the color blue and the element of wood, the sparrow guarding the South and representing the color red as well as the element of fire, the tiger guarding the West and representing the color white and the element of metal, and the turtle-snake guarding the North and representing the color black and the element of water62,73. Thus, the images of these four mythical beasts were frequently integrated into the designs of cities, buildings, cemeteries and objects of ancient China for their symbolic function of protection63. In this context, the net-shaped pattern on Yingpan Man’s crowing cockerel pillow is likely a symbol of the four cardinal directions, while the monkey shaped face possibly symbolizes a human, that is to be protected. Notably, here, in the design of Yingpan Man’s crowing cockerel pillow, the image of the northern guardian of the turtle-snake is replaced by the Greek mythical beast known as Griffin (Fig. 8d)16,47,74. This change in imagery and symbolism could suggest that contact between the East and the West was via a northern route and that this was associated with some type of Greek influence or the Griffin. According to historical literature sources, a large number of Greeks migrated into Central Asia with Alexander the Great’s eastward expedition3,5,6. Hellenistic kingdoms such as Bactria (a.k.a. Daxia in the Chinese literature, located in the area of Pamir Plateau in modern Afghanistan, ~ 1900 km from Yingpan) subsequently became centers of Greek influence in this area and exported elements of Hellenistic culture to surrounding kingdoms that were located along the main routes of the Silk Road, such as Dayuan (located in the Fergana Valley, ~ 1300 km from Yingpan)2,6,75. Some ancient cities in the Tarim Basin area, such as Yingpan, Maideke and Yuansha, are also argued to have been influenced by Hellenistic elements as their city walls were circular in shape and this was clearly a unique architecture compared to the square-shaped traditional Chinese city walls63,76. It is highly probably that these Hellenistic elements were transported to the ancient city of Yingpan by the Silk Road trading routes which followed a north–south direction in this region, and therefore would support that Greek elements would be associated with the northern direction in this region of Xinjiang. In conclusion, Yingpan Man’s crowing cockerel pillow displays an unprecedented combination of Chinese spiritual beliefs incorporated with western motifs, and symbolizes the intertwining of Eastern and Western cultures in this part of Central Asia (Figs. 6, 8).

Even more significant uses of western components in Yingpan Man’s burial is also visualized in other grave goods, e.g. his: carpet, coffin, caftan. The decorative pattern of the male lion on Yingpan Man’s tufted woolen carpet is clearly an imported element as the lion was originally from Africa, Southern Europe, West Asia and India. Lions were not introduced into China until 87 AD, being sent to Emperor Zhang of the Eastern Han Dynasty as a gift from Pacorus II, the King of the Anxi Empire (a.k.a. Parthian Empire (247 BC to 224 AD, replaced by the Persian in 226 AD, located in modern Iran))70. In particular, this exquisite lion-decorated carpet suggests a very high social status for Yingpan Man as lions were deified in ancient China since the Han Dynasty and were used as symbols of power, authority and royalty as it was in other areas of the Eurasia (Fig. 2a)15,61. Moreover, it is also argued by some scholars that the motif of the lion on this carpet is from the Buddhist art of India, as lions are frequently mentioned in Buddhist stories and a Buddhist temple was also found at the site of Yingpan (Fig. 6)17,77.

In addition, though the main decorative patterns on Yingpan Man’s coffin are the “Lianbi” pattern, images of vines, leaves, pomegranate flowers and vases were also depicted inside of the diamond patterns (Fig. S1)15. Among which, the image of pomegranate flowers is clearly an imported element from the West as pomegranates were originally domesticated in the middle East ~ 5000 years ago and were not introduced into China until the Han to Jin Dynasties, or with the flow of goods along the Silk Road78. In particular, the pomegranate was used as a symbol of health, fertility and rebirth as mentioned in many ancient cultures, especially in Greek and Turkish myths78. Thus, this is particularly interesting as the image of pomegranate appears not only on Yingpan Man’s coffin as flowers on the headboard and footboard (Fig. 6; Fig. S1), but also on his caftan as decorative patterns of fruited-trees (Figs. 6, 9). Specifically, the decorative patterns on Yingpan Man’s woolen caftan consists of six sets of nude puttis and animals with fruited pomegranate trees standing in between (Fig. 9)14. In particular, each of these six sets of images is composed of a symmetrical pair of confronting muscular puttis or animals (goats or bulls) that are either leaning away from or toward each other14. The nude puttis are holding either a spear, sword or a shield with capes swirling from their shoulders, while the animals of goats and bulls are in the pose of jumping and the bulls have laurel wreaths around their waists (Fig. 9)14. A similar design of stance and composition of figures was also discovered in a mosaic floor from the Villa of Good Fortune at Olynthos, Greece (paired female figures with weapons, fourth century BC)79 as well as another mosaic floor from Pella, the Macedonian capital (two nude youths with capes flying on their shoulder and weapons held in their hand, about to attack an animal in between of them, 325 to 300 BC)79. Thus, it is suggested that this caftan was the work of a weaver familiar with both Western and Eastern motifs as the character and poses of the nude puttis are clearly Western in style and appearance, the fruited pomegranate tree is believed to be a Persian motif, while the paired facing animals of goats and bulls are similar to the animal art of Central Asia8. However, this caftan was completed using the technique of double-weaving, the lining and belt were made of silk14, while the design of the side slits are indicative of a localized adaptation for horse-riding15. Moreover, analysis using high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) on the red and yellow threads of this caftan suggest that they were dyed in a local workshop with indigenous materials of Rubia Tinctorum and Populus Pruinosa Schrenk, respectively80,81. In conclusion, the design and style of Yingpan Man’s caftan is unprecedented, and it is a masterpiece that combines both Greek/Roman, Persian, Central Asian, Chinese and local elements (Fig. 6).

Figure 9

Photo and sketch of the decorative patterns on Yingpan Man’s caftan. (The original pictures and sketches were previously published14 and provided by Wenying Li. Pictures were modified using Adobe Photoshop CC 2015 V.1.2. The final layout was created in Adobe Illustrator CC 2019 V.23.1.1).

Full size image

The opulence and fine quality of the objects buried with Yingpan Man indicate that he must have had a high social status before death14,47. Given the importance of the town of Yingpan as a trading center on the Silk Road, the excavators who discovered Yingpan Man suggested that he was a wealthy merchant from the West14. Others have proposed that Yingpan Man might have been a Sogdian merchant since the Sogdians (an Iranian-speaking people whose homeland lay near Samarkand in what is now Uzbekistan) were the richest traders along the route7. However, given the relatively young age of Yingpan Man before his death (~ 30 years old), it is unlikely that he amassed all his fortune and high social status only through trade, and possibly by inheritance or military feats. The government of the Jin Dynasty established the administrative organization of “Xiyu Zhangshi Fu” (meaning “Chief Governor of the Western Regions”) in ancient Xinjiang, and the capital city of “Xiyu Zhangshi Fu” was located nearby Lop Nur and is very close to the ancient city of Yingpan (~ 185 km away)15,16. In addition, comparison of Yingpan Man’s burial to other contemporary burials from Gansu also suggest that Yingpan Man was possibly a military official from the government of Central China16. More supporting evidence comes from the embroidered armband that was buried with Yingpan Man as colorful armbands were suggested to be used by soldiers for the protection from evil forces in ancient Xinjiang (Fig. 6)15. An additional explanation is that Yingpan Man was a noble or even a king of the nearby state named Shan (a.k.a. Moshan)76, and the ancient city of Yingpan was suggested to be the capital city of this state15. An alternative explanation is that Yingpan Man belonged to a local noble family who were displaced from Bactria to the southern Tarim Basin after civil strife in the Kushan Empire at the end of the second century AD, given the popularity of Kushan arts in this area during the Han to Jin Dynasties82,83. The isotopic evidence presented here, in particular the hair δ34S results, add additional information to Yingpan Man’s identity. The lack of δ34S isotopic variability (10.4‰ to 11.9‰) over the last ~ 3–4 years of life indicates that Yingpan Man was not a Silk Road traveler or merchant, at least during this period of his life. Thus, Yingpan Man appears to have been a local, possibly a governmental official or royal to this region of the Tarim Basin, perhaps from the nearby state of Shan. This might suggest why he was buried in the Yingpan cemetery as it was purported to be capital of this ancient state.

Source: Ecology -

Pricing carbon, valuing people

Experience-dependent learning of behavioral laterality in the scale-eating cichlid Perissodus microlepis occurs during the early developmental stage