Chinese archaeologists discovered the remains of what may prove to be the country's first foreign worker, an early European, who labored on the mausoleum of China's first emperor.
The discovery was made after DNA tests on human remains from one of the laborers' tombs near the mausoleum of Qingshihuang, in northwestern Shaanxi Province, which was built more than 2,200 years ago.
Archaeologists found the foreigners remains among 121 shattered human skeletons in a tomb about 500 meters from the famous museum which houses the life-sized terracotta warriors, their horses and weapons.
The discovery could mean that contact between the people in East Asia and those in what is now central Asia actually began a century earlier than the previously thought Han Dynasty (206 BC - AD 220) period, said Duan Qingbo, head of the Qinshihuang Mausoleum Excavation Team under the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Cultural Heritage.
Scientists collected bone fragments from 50 sets of remains in the laborers' tomb which was unearthed in 2003 and from these extracted 15 DNA samples. Most of the bodies were males aged from 15 to 55, said Duan.
"We found one sample had genetic features commonly associated with the Parsi in India and Pakistan, the Kurds in Turkmenistan and the Persians in Iran," said Tan Jingze, an associate professor with the modern anthropology research centre under Shanghai-based Fudan University which conducted the DNA tests.
The foreigner was a man who died in his 20s and was ethnologically a European, said Tan. He might have been captured in the north where nomads roamed between east and west Asia and been sent to work at the burial ground, added Tan.
"It's an inspiring discovery but we're not sure if there were more foreigners involved in the construction of the mausoleum," she said.
Scientists would find it difficult to collect more DNA samples from the tomb as it had suffered serious water damage and the skeletons, which are piled in layers, were so badly preserved that any movement would lead to their complete destruction, said Duan.
Despite international interest in the underground palace archeologists suspended excavations of the Qinshihuang Mausoleum in 2003 as they could not protect relics from environmental degradation, he said.
"It would be impossible to take any DNA samples in the near future from nearly 200 other laborers tombs in the area," said Duan.
(China Daily June 29, 2006)