Did Ancient Romans Settle in Gansu Province?
Did Ancient Romans Settle in Gansu Province?

TAIPEI – Most of the residents in Zhelai Village of Yongchang County, Gansu Province have brown or blond hair, with matching blue or gray eyes, which is dramatically different from residents of nearby villages. Investigations conducted by local scholars have discovered artifacts that suggest residents of Zhelai Village are could be descendants of an ancient Roman legion that was said to have disappeared from history. Supporting evidence includes the villagers’ physical appearance, their particular customs and rituals, as well as ancient remains found in a tomb near the village.

Beijing’s Science Technology Daily reported that, more than ten years ago, researcher Guan Heng, from Liqian [1] Culture Research Institute of Gansu Province, found that the appearance of residents in Zhelai Village differed from the Han [2] people–entering the village seemed like traveling to a foreign country. Yet villagers’ official name records confirm that their ancestral home is Gansu and that they are of the Han nationality, which puzzled researchers.

History professor, Chen Zhengyi, from the Lanzhou University commented that, “I often accompany foreign visitors when they visit the village. The visitors find it amusing, and they sometimes jokingly ask how their countrymen ended up in Gansu Province. The villagers look like westerners but speak the local Yongchang dialects. The foreign visitors find it very interesting.”

After their investigations, Guan Heng and Chen Zhengyi developed a special interest in the “ox-nose” buns made by the villagers, which are ox-head shaped buns made from leavened flour. When making the buns, the villagers first mold the dough, and then use a date to make an imprint onto the tops of the buns. The main purpose of making these buns is not for eating, but for sacrificial offerings to their ancestors.

In addition, during holidays, the villagers butcher their herd so the smell of blood will incite the oxen to fight and butt each other to death. This is called “ox-butting” and is similar to the Roman’s popular custom of bullfighting. In regards to funerals and burial customs, regardless of the terrain or topography of the burial site, the head of the corpse is always points to the west, which differs from Han customs, in which bodies are buried with the head pointed to either the south or north.

Archaeologists have also unearthed many Han Dynasty tombs near Zhelai Village. Judging by appearance and structure, these tombs should have originated during the Western Han Dynasty. Like tombs from the Western Han Dynasty, the remains buried in these tombs consist of mostly males, possibly soldiers. Moreover, their skeletons are relatively large in size, and the skulls have deep-set eyes and high-bridged noses, unlike those of the ancient Chinese. In addition, the heads of these remains all pointed to the west, just as in the burial sites of Zhelai Village. This suggests a close relationship between the Zhelai villagers and those buried in the tombs.

Chen Zhenyi pointed out that in 53 B.C.C., ancient Rome waged war with the Persians and lost the Battle of Carrhae. The Roman legions struggled to break through the tight encirclement of the Parthian army. Since the retreat route was blocked, the legion escaped to the east and entered into the region controlled by Hsiung-nu, a nomadic people. Having no alternatives, they worked as mercenaries for Hsiung-nu. Later, these Romans were captured by Chen Tang, a general stationed in the Western Regions, and brought to China.

Not long after Chen Tang brought them to West Han as war prisoners, the county of Liqian suddenly appeared on the map of West Han. Liqian was also the name used during the Western Han Dynasty when referring to ancient Rome.

Guan Heng and Cheng Zhengyi also found a record in the Yongchang County annals stating that “To the south of Yongchang County, Liangzhou District, a county was established for the capitulated Liqian (Romans,)” indicating that the establishment of Liqian County had a very close relationship with the war prisoners from the ancient roman legion. It also verifies that the Zhelai villagers may be descendants of the ancient Roman legion that vanished from history.

[Note 1]: Ancient name of Zhelai Village, also known as Lijian. [Note2]: The principle ethnic group in China, constitutes about 93 percent of the population in China.

Additional reporting by Grace Wu.

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