The new Alice Roberts documentary is going viral. Or at least its spin is.
However, Chinese historians recorded much earlier visits by people thought by some to have been emissaries from the Roman Empire during the Second and Third Centuries AD.
“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.
A separate study shows European-specific mitochondrial DNA has been found at sites in China’s western-most Xinjiang Province, suggesting that Westerners may have settled, lived and died there before and during the time of the First Emperor.
Let’s go with the easy part first: there were no “Western” people when the Afanasevo culture was pushing into the fringes of what is today Xinjiang.
There are two extreme polarities of definition of what Western is. One is cultural.
As outlined in David Gress’ From Plato To NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents, the West did not emerge fully grown like Athena from the head of Zeus in the 6th century BCE along the Aegean. Rather, the West evolved organically as a synthesis over time of Classical Greco-Roman elements, Christianity, and later the post-Roman societies, often dominated by barbarian martial elites. By this definition it is clear that a blue-eyed Sogdian merchant who was resident in Xian in the 7th century was not Western. Their only affiliation with the West would be adherence to Christian Church derived from Persia, and even here this stream of Christianity was relatively marginal that of the Western variety (most Sogdians were probably Zoroastrians of course).
A second definition of being Western is racial, whether explicit or implicit. That is, there is an association with being Western and white. This is certainly true, but the problem with this formulation is that though Western people were invariably white, white people were not invariably Western. To give a concrete example, Buddhist Tocharians who had light hair and eyes, and flourished as late as 1000 A.D, were white people by any definition, but they were not Western in anything but the most reductive and biologistic sense. The cultural valence of what it means to be Western is clear on the southeastern fringes of Europe, where Muslim populations are often considered non-Western, even when they are genetically similar to their Christian neighbors.
The mtDNA they found is probably of haplogroup U, or perhaps H. Its presence in Eastern Asians is unsurprising, as skeins of migration seem to have laced themselves across the landscape of Eurasia across the whole Holocene, and earlier.
Finally, I think the media is misleading its depiction of Greek influence. Greco-Bactrians were culturally influential for several centuries in Asia. The Greek influence then did not come from the Mediterranean, but from the furthest outputs of Hellenistic society. Still noteworthy, but not so spectacularly surprising.