“Descended from x” meme

Via Tom DiNaro and Reddit, an article in the UK’s Telegraph entitled “Chinese villagers ‘descended from Roman soldiers’“. The subhed: 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.

This is a recurring meme, although more often the people in question are descendants of the lost tribe of Israel.  In this case, the meme is used to explain the blue-eyed and fair-skinned people in Gansu province in China. But, really, I think this “descended from {lost tribe of Israel, Alexander the Great, lost Roman legion, whatever}” meme says more about the people promoting it than any interesting historical problem.

Let’s start with a couple of common-sense objections to this example of the meme.  If a Roman legion gets separated from their army and ends up in China — unlikely but not impossible — they’re going to find it difficult to settle down and have Roman babies because *there are no women.*  Even assuming — very unlikely — that there were some Roman women with them, would that group practice inbreeding to the extent that they would not marry into the rest of the population for dozens of generations?

Also, what does “Roman” mean?  Since when did “Romans” have blue or green eyed with light hair?  I always thought that they were swarthy black-eyed characters with aquiline noses.  Plus, the composition of a Roman legion normally included many non-Italians, who served in the interest of gaining citizenship and their forty acres and a mule (there’s a technical Latin term for their retirement bonus, a topic for another day.)

Also, this kind of racial description is bad science of a kind rarely practiced anymore.  And there isn’t any other kind of evidence here; no compelling archeology or archival materials.  And we don’t have any evidence, for example, of any cultural markers that would make these people ‘Roman.’  Do short people with black hair living in Italy give us evidence of a lost battalion of Chinese warriors?

Next, and this is the bit that really bugs me, there is a perfectly reasonable and well known alternative to the lost legion theory.  It’s very far east (approximately 38° N, 102° E), in Gansu province, but we know that there was Indo-European migration and settlement in Xinjiang, just to the west, and there’s no reason to believe that these aren’t descendants of these or similar migrations.  Myself, I think a Tocharian or Saka ancestry is much more elegant and interesting than this lost legion theory, which sounds cheesy.  But that’s just me.  But the migration theory explains why these physical characteristics exist, at least better than the lost legion theory.

Perhaps the “descended from x” meme is a simplistic way of pointing at that kind of truth, which may be harder to grasp.