Though the 13th-century Italian explorer Marco Polo may have been the first Western European to leave a detailed chronicle of his travels to Asia, he was certainly not the first to make the trip. Chinese historians recorded earlier visits by people thought to be emissaries from the Roman Empire, which took place during the second and third centuries A.D. In the third century, during the Han dynasty, came the formal establishment of the Silk Road trade route, a network of caravan stops and trading posts linking China and the West.

According to archaeologists and historians working on China’s famous Terra Cotta Army, meaningful contact between East and West may have begun far earlier. They believe the lifelike appearance of the statues may have been inspired by or modeled on ancient Greek sculptures, suggesting Western influence in the era of China’s first emperor, some 1,500 years before Marco Polo’s famous voyage.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang, founder of the Qin dynasty, ascended to the throne in 246 B.C. at the tender age of 13. Over the next 25 years, he unified a number of warring kingdoms and implemented stabilizing policies, including the standardization of coins, weights and measures and the building of roads and canals. Qin also undertook various ambitious building projects during his reign, including the earliest version of the Great Wall, built along the country’s northern border to protect against barbarian invasions, as well as his own mausoleum.

According to the writings of the court’s historian, Siam Qian, Qin ordered construction of the tomb complex to begin early in his reign. More than 700,000 laborers worked to build it over three decades, and the project appears to have been left uncompleted after the emperor’s death in 209 B.C.

The figure of a kneeling archer on display at the British Museum.
The figure of a kneeling archer on display at the British Museum. (Credit: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)

Flash forward to 1974, when a terrified farmer stumbled on the Terra Cotta Army after seeing a human face emerge among the vegetables in his fields. Archaeologists eventually unearthed some 8,000 sculptures from the pits in Xi’an, all built to escort Emperor Qin into the afterlife and guard his final resting place. The life-size warrior figures included chariots, weapons and horses, and were sculpted in impressive detail, down to their hairstyles and the insignias on their armor.

Before Qin’s reign, China had no known tradition of building life-size sculptures. Though many other buried terra cotta soldiers have been found, earlier ones were much smaller, measuring less than 10 inches tall. According to Li Xiuzhen, a senior archaeologist at the Terra Cotta Army site, this significant departure in scale and style likely occurred when influences arrived in China from elsewhere–specifically, from ancient Greece.

Terra Cotta soldiers in battle formation.
Terra Cotta soldiers in battle formation. (Credit: Martin Moos/Getty Images)

“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,” Dr. Xiuzhen told the BBC, which collaborated with National Geographic on a documentary about the team’s findings. “We now think the Terra Cotta Army, the acrobats and the bronze sculptures found on site, have been inspired by ancient Greek sculptures and art.”

What’s more, Greek artists may even have been on hand themselves to instruct their Chinese counterparts in sculpture techniques. “I imagine that a Greek sculptor may have been at the site to train the locals,” said Lukas Nickel, the chair of Asian art history at Vienna University and a member of the team working on the history of the Terra Cotta Army.

Terra Cotta army
Credit: Keren Su/Getty Images

It’s widely believed that Alexander the Great’s military campaign to India in 326 B.C. was the first point of contact between East and West, leaving behind a cultural tradition of Greco-Buddhist art. But the new theory goes further, suggesting that in the century after Alexander’s campaign, Greek statues could have made their way to China and influenced the Terra Cotta Army.

To support this theory, Dr. Xiuzhen and her fellow experts point to a separate study, which found ancient mitochondrial DNA, specific to Europeans and dating to the time of the first emperor, in Xinjian province, the westernmost region of China. Such findings suggest Europeans may have settled in the province before and during Qin Shi Huang’s reign.

In addition to the possible link with ancient Greece, the archaeologists at the site have also discovered that Qin’s tomb complex is far larger than they first thought, some 200 times bigger than Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. Alongside the Terra Cotta Army, the mausoleum also contained the mutilated remains of women, believed to have been high-ranking concubines of the emperor. The skull of a man, found with a crossbow bolt embedded in it, is believed to have belonged to the emperor’s son, who was killed along with others during a power struggle after his father’s death.

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