New research suggests that Western explorers reached China more than 1,500 years before Marco Polo’s historic trip to the East, making it the first documented contact between Western and Chinese civilizations ever recorded. Now experts believe ancient Greeks may have inspired and helped build China’s famous Terracotta Army.
The BBC reports that the new theory is based on evidence from excavations at the Tomb of the First Emperor, where the Terracotta Army was found, as well as the results of a genetic study.
"We now have evidence that close contact existed between the First Emperor's China and the West before the formal opening of the Silk Road. This is far earlier than we formerly thought," said Senior Archaeologist Li Xiuzhen, from the Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Mausoleum Site Museum [via BBC].
Until now, it was believed that explorer Marco Polo was among the first Europeans to make contact with China. Polo’s journey to Asia in the 13th century was aimed at bringing some letters and valuable gifts from Pope Gregory X to the Mongol ruler of China, Kublai Khan. He was well received by the Great Khan and remained there for 17 years, where he amassed a great fortune. However, he was clearly not the first European to be there.
Marco Polo travelling, Miniature from the Book "The Travels of Marco Polo" ("Il milione"), originally published during Polo's lifetime (c. 1254 - January 8, 1324), but frequently reprinted and translated. (Wikimedia Commons)A genetic study has revealed European-specific mitochondrial DNA at ancient sites throughout Xinjiang Province in China, suggesting that Westerners travelled and settled there during the time of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (259 – 210 BC), and even before. In fact, European contact may date back as far as 3,800 years ago, as a number of mummies were found in the Tarim Basin in China with distinctly Caucasian features, and a genetic study in 1993 revealed they had European DNA.
In her article ‘The Beauty of Loulan and the Tattooed Mummies of the Tarim Basin’, Margaret Moose writes: “The settlements along the Silk Road might very well have been meeting points where merchants from the west traded their goods for goods from the east. Having multicultural merchants would certainly have helped facilitate communication between the traders.”
“Mainstream historians have always had this strange concept that early people were not world travellers when in fact most evidence points to just the opposite. We are led to believe that many cultures lived in isolation and that the world was not truly explored until the last five hundred years,” she adds.
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- The Secret Tomb of the First Chinese Emperor Remains an Unopened Treasure
- New Dig at First Emperor Mausoleum Expected to Yield up to 1400 More Terracotta Warriors
The Beauty of Loulan, a 3,800-year-old mummified woman with Caucasian features found in the Tarim Basin (Sott.net).In addition to the genetic research, new excavations carried out by archaeologists at Qin Shi Huang's Mausoleum and documented for television by the National Geographic Channel and BBC, revealed new evidence that the 8,000+ terracotta figures found buried near the tomb were inspired by Greek sculpture and that the craftsmen may have been trained by ancient Greek artisans in the 3rd century BC.
It is expected that the full details of the evidence for this theory will be revealed in the documentary. However, the researchers point to the fact that prior to the construction of the Terracotta Army, there had been no tradition of building life-sized human statues in China, and only outside influence could explain such a significant change in style and skill.
"We now think the Terracotta Army, the Acrobats and the bronze sculptures found on site have been inspired by ancient Greek sculptures and art," said Dr Xiuzhen [via the BBC}.Prof Lukas Nickel, chair of Asian Art History at the University of Vienna, believes that the First Emperor was inspired by the arrival of Greek statues in Asia as a result of Alexander the Great’s conquests. He also suggests that Greek sculptors trained local craftsman in the art of life-sized sculpture.
Terracotta Warriors and Horses, is a collection of sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. Xi'an, China. (Wikimedia)Historical documents suggest that soon after Emperor Qin Shi Huang ascended to the throne in 246 BC, he began work on his tomb near Xi'an, China - now recognized as one of the greatest mausoleums in the world. The massive effort required 700,000 laborers, many of whom were convicts or people who were in debt to the empire. As part of the huge project, craftspeople sculpted around 8,000 colorful warriors — likely using real human beings as inspiration — and those warriors wore stone armor and wielded real lances, swords and crossbows. Archaeologists believe the army was meant to protect the First Emperor in his journey after death.
The giant army lay sealed beneath earth and vegetation for more than 2,000 years, until Chinese farmers accidentally discovered the ancient site while digging a well in 1974. It was the beginning of one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all times. However, while huge discoveries have been made at the site, including thousands of clay warriors, horses, chariots, and weapons, much still remains to be excavated and it is believed that the terracotta army is just the tip of the iceberg, as the emperor’s tomb itself remains unexcavated.
It is unlikely that the tomb of Qin Shi Huang will be opened any time soon. For a start, there are the tomb’s booby traps, including a moat of mercury. In addition, the Chinese government has said that technology at present would not be adequate to deal with the sheer scale of the underground complex and the preservation of the excavated artifacts. Perhaps when that day comes, more will be revealed about the construction of the world famous Terracotta Army.
Top image: The famous Terracotta Army. Source: BigStockPhoto
By April Holloway