Cai Junnian's green eyes give a hint he may be a descendant of Roman mercenaries who allegedly fought the Han Chinese 2,000 years ago. (Agencies)
Anthropologists are looking into the possibility that some European-looking Chinese in Northwest China are the descendants of a lost army from the Roman Empire.
Experts at the newly established Italian Studies Center at Lanzhou University in Gansu province will conduct excavations on a section of the Silk Road, a 7,000-kilometer trade route that linked Asia and Europe more than 2,000 years ago, to see if a legion of Roman soldiers settled in China, said Yuan Honggeng, head of the center.
"We hope to prove the legend by digging and discovering more evidence of China's early contact with the Roman Empire," said Yuan.
Before Marco Polo's travels to China in the 13th century, the only known contact between the two empires was a visit by Roman diplomats in 166 AD.
Chinese archeologists were therefore surprised in the 1990s to find the remains of an ancient fortification in Liqian, a remote town in Yongchang county on the edge of a desert area, that was strikingly similar to Roman defense structures.
They were even more astonished to find Western-looking people with green, deep-set eyes, long hooked noses and blond hair.
Though the villagers said they had never traveled outside the county, they worshipped bulls and their favorite game was similar to the ancient Romans' bull-fighting dance.
DNA tests in 2005 confirmed some of the villagers were indeed of Caucasian origin, leading many experts to conclude they are descendants of an ancient Roman army headed by general Marcus Crassus.
In 53 BC, Crassus was defeated and beheaded by the Parthians, a tribe occupying what is now Iran, putting an end to Rome's eastward expansion.
But a 6,000-strong army led by Crassus' eldest son apparently escaped and was never found again.
Though some anthropologists are convinced the Caucasian-looking villagers in Yongchang county are the descendants of the soldiers, others are not so certain.
"The county is on the Silk Road, so there were many chances for trans-national marriages," said Yang Gongle, a professor at Beijing Normal University. "The 'foreign' origin of the Yongchang villagers, as proven by the DNA tests, does not necessarily mean they are of ancient Roman origin."
Xie Xiaodong, a geneticist from Lanzhou University, also sounded a skeptical note.
"Even if they are descendants of Romans, it doesn't mean they are necessarily from that Roman army," Xie said.
Their mysterious identity has brought wealth and fame to some of the villagers.
Cai Junnian has yellow wavy hair, a hooked nose and green eyes. A DNA test in 2005 confirmed he is of 56 percent European origin. It made him famous almost overnight.
Reporters, filmmakers, historians and geneticists from around the world pursued him. He was invited to meetings with the Italian consul in Shanghai and even appeared in a documentary shot by an Italian TV company last year.
His friends all call him Cai Luoma, which means Cai the Roman.
Cai's fellow villager Luo Ying looks even more European. He has been hired by a Shanghai firm as their "image ambassador".
A Beijing film producer will spend millions to turn the villagers' story into a film.
Lanzhou University's new research body, set up this week by Chinese and Italian anthropologists, is a platform for experts to further research the subject but "the research work will certainly be complicated", said Italian Ambassador to China Riccardo Sessa.
The center will also help Chinese learn Italian language and culture, he said. "More exchanges will certainly be helpful in unraveling the mystery."
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