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Ancient Mesopotamia

Gutian Origins

by Peter Kessler & Edward Dawson, 17 December 2022

The Gutians arrived in the central Zagros Mountain range of Mesopotamia in the last few centuries of the third millennium BC.

This was towards the end of Sumerian greatness as one of the very first complex human civilisations, in what is now Iraq. This collection of apparently disparate groups were aggressive and restless, and they soon decided that Sumeria was ripe for conquest.

Their domination of southern Mesopotamia was brief, however. They simply did not know how to govern a complex society, with the result that the locals joined together to see them off.

Who were the Gutians?

Questions surrounding Gutian origins have long existed.

It seems more likely that instead of being indigenous Mesopotamians or hill-dwelling nomads from the Iranian plateau, they may have been an Indo-European people.

However, assigning them to any specific group of Indo-Europeans requires some degree of speculation as they arrived too early to be part of any of the usual waves of Indo-European migration.

There is the possibility, according to some areas of scholarship (W B Henning especially), that they were linguistically related to Tocharians (who ended up settling around the Altai Mountains to the north-west of ancient China - see 'related links' in the sidebar).

This, though, would require an early split from the main group of proto-Tocharians which itself split away very early from the main Indo-European collective (something like 4000-3500 BC).

Access to the Near East at this time can only have been via the Caucuses and eastern Anatolia, as the later route into Mesopotamia for Indo-Aryans was still blocked by the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC).

The length of time between split and arrival suggests a long sojourn in Anatolia itself. That Anatolian route raises the possibility that they were part of - or had travelled ahead of - the second division of Indo-Europeans in the form of the South Indo-European Anatolian branch (see related links).

This would also produce unique elements of language which would not be seen in the main Indo-European collective.

Map of Sumer
The area which formed Sumer started at the Persian Gulf, much farther inland than it is today, and reached north to the 'neck' of Mesopotamia where the two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates meander close to each other (click or tap on map to view full sized)

The Gutians have also been linked to the 'Qutils', a group which has in turn been linked to the Mitanni of the subsequent millennium, and to the modern-day Kurds as the descendants of these ancient groups who occupied the same general territory.

However, the names of Gutian rulers which are shown in the main list (see 'rulers' in the sidebar) exhibit almost no apparent Indo-European influence barring two names, those of Inkishush and Iarlaganda.

These show links to Indo-Aryans, the earliest of the eastern Indo-Europeans to enter into Iran (in the form of the Mitanni). Such an early date of arrival is hard to accept, however. Indo-Aryans formed their identity by mixing with the BMAC people, but this complex was still thriving in the late third millennium BC, effectively blocking Indo-Aryan progress into Iran.

However, if the bulk of the Gutians were indeed Indo-Europeans then they were almost certainly being dominated by a non-Indo-European elite.

Perhaps the only reasonable explanation which fits the few available facts and all of the known circumstances is that the Gutians were a mixture of non Indo-European mountain people and nomadic Indo-Europeans.

Quite possibly the mountain people were Kartvelian speakers from the southern Caucuses, although this impossible to prove. They would have supplied the infantry force in any attack. The chariot-using Indo-European element would have supplied the mounted element.

So did a mobile mountain people head southwards from the Caucuses during the Anatolian extreme dry spell at the end of the third millennium BC, scooping up a group of South Indo-Europeans in eastern Anatolia before they became the Luwians or Hittites of history?

Unfortunately the answer will never be known.


Main Sources

Samuel Noah Kramer - The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character (List 1 of Sumerian rulers, Phoenix Books, 1971)

David W Anthony - The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World

John Haywood - Historical Atlas of the Ancient World, 4,000,000 to 500 BC (Barnes & Noble, 2000)

Enrico Ascalone - Mesopotamia: Assyrians, Sumerians, Babylonians (Dictionaries of Civilizations 1) (University of California Press, 2007)

J N Postgate - The First Empires (Oxford, 1977)

Marc van der Mieroop - A History of the Ancient Near East c.3000-323 BC (Blackwell Publishing, 2004, 2007)

The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature - The Sumerian Kings List: Translation (Translators: J A Black, G Cunningham, E Fluckiger-Hawker, E Robson, and G Zólyomi (List 2 of Sumerian rulers, Oxford, 1998)

L C Gerts - Earth's Ancient History: A Theory About Ancient Times (List 4 of Sumerian rulers, Chapter 12: The Sumerian king list, 2002)

J Pokorny - Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, (online database which updates Pokorny's Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch)

Online Sources

Ancient Worlds

Ancient History (List 3 of Sumerian rulers at Sarissa.org

Peering at the Tocharians through Language (Borderless Blogger)

The United Sites of Indo-Europeans

Linguistics Research Center (University of Texas at Austin)

Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples

Indo-European Etymological Dictionary

Encyclopaedia Iranica



Images and text copyright © P L Kessler & Edward Dawson. An original feature for the History Files.