Lost Roman Chinese Legion

This is for your Just Too Cool file.

From the Daily Telegraph with my emphases:

Chinese villagers ‘descended from Roman soldiers’

By Nick Squires

Genetic testing of villagers in a remote part of China has shown that nearly two thirds of their DNA is of Caucasian origin, lending support to the theory that they may be descended from a ‘lost legion’ of Roman soldiers.

Tests found that the DNA of some villagers in Liqian, on the fringes of the Gobi Desert in north-western China, was 56 per cent Caucasian in origin.

Many of the villagers have blue or green eyes, long noses and even fair hair, prompting speculation that they have European blood.
A local man, Cai Junnian, is nicknamed by his friends and relatives Cai Luoma, or Cai the Roman, and is one of many villagers convinced that he is descended from the lost legion.

Archeologists plan to conduct digs in the region, along the ancient Silk Route, to search for remains of forts or other structures built by the fabled army.

“We hope to prove the legend by digging and discovering more evidence of China’s early contacts with the Roman Empire,” Yuan Honggeng, the head of a newly-established Italian Studies Centre at Lanzhou University in Gansu province, told the China Daily newspaper.

The genetic tests have leant weight to the theory that Roman legionaries settled in the area in the first century BC after fleeing a disastrous battle.

The clash took place in 53BC between an army led by Marcus Crassus, a Roman general, and a larger force of Parthians, from what is now Iran, bringing to an abrupt halt the Roman Empire’s eastwards expansion.

Thousands of Romans were slaughtered and Crassus himself was beheaded, but some legionaries were said to have escaped the fighting and marched east to elude the enemy.

They supposedly fought as mercenaries in a war between the Huns and the Chinese in 36BC – Chinese chroniclers refer to the capture of a “fish-scale formation” of troops, a possible reference to the “tortoise” phalanx formation perfected by legionnaries. The wandering Roman soldiers are thought to have been released and to have settled on the steppes of western China.

The theory was first put forward in the 1950s by Homer Dubs, a professor of Chinese history at Oxford University.

The Roman Empire reached its greatest territorial extent under the Emperor Trajan in the 2nd century AD, just as the Han empire was beginning to decline.

Most historians believe that the two empires had only indirect contact, as silk and spices were traded along the Silk Road through merchants in exchange for Roman goods such as glassware.

But some experts believe they could instead be descended from the armies of Huns that marauded through central Asia, which included soldiers of Caucasian origin.

Maurizio Bettini, a classicist and anthropologist from Siena University, dismissed the theory as “a fairy tale”.

“For it to be indisputable, one would need to find items such as Roman money or weapons that were typical of Roman legionaries,” he told La Repubblica. “Without proof of this kind, the story of the lost legions is just a legend.

Just too cool.  I hope they find something.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. J Kusske says:

    According to what I see from a cursory look at Wikipedia (I know, “more citation needed”), some Chinese scholars are taken with this theory as well–some say that the name for the village (Li Qian) is an ancient name for Rome, and Chinese antropologists note some customs with bulls that they link to the Roman world. I think the theory has merit and warrants further investiagation. That would be something the early Jesuit missionaries and Matteo Ricci would have loved to have known about, nearly as much as finding the Nestorian Stele!

  2. Is this why my favorite Chinese buffet offers mozzarella sticks?

  3. Tim Ferguson says:

    One of my favorite books is “The History of Christianity in Asia” by Samuel Hugh Moffett. Moffett talks extensively, and with good footnotes, about the contacts between the ancient world and Central Asia, as well as the Far East. It is well worth a gander.

  4. Marc says:

    Very interesting.

  5. o.h. says:

    I’m probably just parading my ignorance of biology here, but … if they were descended from Roman soldiers, wouldn’t only half or less of their DNA be caucasian? Presumably 100% of their wives would have been Chinese. How do their descendants end up more than 50% Roman?

  6. jasoncpetty says:

    Just FYI, the Tarim Basin mummies are on display in Houston for about another month or so, as part of a larger exhibit on the Silk Road. Unless you’re planning to see them in their original site in remote, northwestern China, you’d probably better catch them while they’re here in Texas. If you’re at all interested in the interaction of East and West, you can’t miss this one.

  7. Jordanes says:

    I’m probably just parading my ignorance of biology here, but … if they were descended from Roman soldiers, wouldn’t only half or less of their DNA be caucasian? Presumably 100% of their wives would have been Chinese. How do their descendants end up more than 50% Roman?

    It depends on what they mean by “nearly two-thirds of their DNA.” What part of their genome are they looking at? If it is just the Y chromosome, for example, they could be talking about nearly two-thirds of the men in the village having a Y chromosome found only among Caucasian peoples. If they are looking at the entire genome of every person in the village, they could be talking about how many of their chromosomes are known to be found among Caucasians.

    Anyway, this in an interesting story. The hypothesis of a lost Roman legion might account for their Caucasian DNA and characteristics. However, one must also remember that the ancient ancestors of white Europeans once lived in Central Asia, and not all of them migrated west into Europe — some of them went east and mixed with other Asian peoples. That might account for the remarkable DNA of these villagers, without invoking a romantic story of a lost legion.

    Even so, like Father Zuhlsdorf says, it would be really cool if it turns out that’s where these people came from.

  8. rakesvines says:

    Re: How do their descendants end up more than 50% Roman. Is it possible that some Roman genes are more dominant. On a related note, Alexander the Great intentionally left troops in India (?) as a buffer force to counter barbaric expeditions and campaigns to Europe. Finally, this Western-Eastern mix is common is the countries of the former USSR that are bordering China. But they are not of Italian descent that makes this post quite interesting. I guess this just makes it a small world afterall. (Happy Thanksgiving. God bless.)

  9. Oleksander says:

    Sorry but it is just a fairy tale and this is junk/pop science.

    First off one has to understand that by Caucasians they mean people with Caucasian skulls (Caucasian, east Asian, African, and Australian skulls are different, so much so I thought in nurse school that if aliens were to see just the skulls they would classify the four as different species.) So Caucasians are composed of North Africans, Arabs/Middle East, Europeans, and large amount of people from India. A large amount of Caucasians have Y-haplogroup R1a dna.

    This part of China their dna y chromosome haplogroup (a unique set of genes that are inherited strictly from your paternal parent) has a high percentage of R1a.

    R1a, which comes from India and is quite common across Eurasia – like I said it comes from India and is very strong among Indian Brahmins, over 70% of the people, and also in the area of Kashimir (where people are blonde with blue eyes). It is also very high among northern Slavs (50% in Poland, Ukraine, and Southern Russia) and is considered a marker of Slavic ancestry in Europe (Viking if you’re in Britain but that’s another article). It almost literally ceases to exist past Slavic lands in Europe in is almost non-present in Italy. Kyrgyzstan, right next to the region of China mentioned, ties with the European Sorbs (who are Slavs) as the highest percentage of non-Indian ethnic groups with R1a dna, about 55% or so.

    Ancient Kurgan mound builders and their Scythian decendants were almost exclusively R1a, these people occupied from that region of China in the article all the way to Ukraine and Poland.

    So what you are seeing here is the ancient paternal heritage of Kurgan Mound Builders (Scythians), who were Caucasians, among these Chinese and not lost Roman soldiers.

    And even if these legionnaires were auxiliaries or whatever, that is foreign recruits in the Roman Army, no location in the Roman Empire had a high percentage of R1a.

    a little map of the modern distribution of R1a for those interested.

  10. Oleksander says:

    just want to clarify – an individual chinese in this article would NOT be “50%” caucasian –

    the y-haplogroup dna strictly comes from your father (and father’s father’s father etc) so when they say 50% are caucasian they mean out of 1000 people 500 had the “caucasian” y-haplogroup.

    Say I have haplogroup E, which is African, but obviously being eastern european im not african ethnically. it would mean generations upon generations ago my direct paternal grandfather came from the part of Africa where that haplogroup would be present.

  11. stilicho says:

    The Roman legionaries were often accompanied by camp followers, which might explain the higher percentage of Caucasian DNA.

  12. Deo volente says:

    Well, we finally know where “Legio XIX, Aquila” wandered off to…

  13. Deo volente says:

    Excellent summary here on what is believed to have happened. Crassus died at this battle. It is near the end of the account of his exploits. Preliminary DNA testing was done in 2007.

  14. tttr83 says:

    Couldn’t they also be descendants from Norse who traveled down the volga and tributaries?

  15. J Kusske says:

    Interesting about the Amerindian tinge in Iceland, but not surprising given how the Norsemen got all over (including according to legend to Alexandria, Minnesota where they left the Kensington Runestone, which may or may not be a hoax). When you go back far enough people are all related anyway, no matter what races are involved. Genetics seem to be showing a great deal more history of how people got around than we knew before though. There’s no such thing as a racially “pure” people, certainly not Chinese who have been invaded many’s the time and have been relatively open to outsiders entering into society if they become Chinese culturally, nor Japan or Korea though they pride themselves on their unique racial purity. I like the story that I’ve heard quite a few times that that famously German institution of sauerkraut may well be an import from Northeast Asia when the Mongol invaders came in the 1200’s: the earliest evidence of pickled vegetables seems to indicate it comes from Northeast China / Manchuria and/or Korea, to say nothing of the pasta/noodles link between China and Italy. If food travelled that way, certainly people did!

  16. So, Mr. Kusske, you’re saying that this could indeed be the reason that Chinese buffets serve mozzarella sticks?

  17. J Kusske says:

    Mozarella sticks? I can only dream. Imagine a world without dairy products–that’s traditional China and East Asia. Only in the north where Mongols or Manchus left a mark is there much, and of cheese not a whit. (Mongols have a kind of dessicated milk they term “cheese” but it’s basically just hard sweetened milk residue.) One learns to enjoy tofu instead of cheese after a while, but it’s just not the same. Enjoy your Americanized “Chinese” food over on that side of the world–I’d love to have it here!

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