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Far East Kingdoms

Central Asia


Tocharians / Yuezhi (Easternmost Indo-Europeans)

A date of around 3000 BC is used as the probable point at which the core Indo-European-speakers began to separate into definite proto languages which were not intelligible to each other. This excepts the Anatolian branch which had already headed southwards from the Pontic-Caspian steppe.

The remaining Indo-Europeans (IEs) can be divided into west and east both in linguistic and DNA terms. The western or centum language section would evolve into or subsume Celtic, Italic, Venetic, Illyrian, Ligurian, Vindelician/Liburnian and Raetic branches.

The other branches show an eastern or satem heritage which would become the Balts, Indo-Iranians/Indo-Aryans, Sakas, Scythians, and Slavs. The Germanic group shows a mixed heritage.

However, early in their expansion, and prior to the expansion by most other Indo-Europeans, one group of centum-speakers apparently decided to be different and head eastwards. It is this group which evolved into the Tocharian branch of IEs.

It was the increasing realisation that the Tocharians appeared to have a very odd history which confirmed their West Indo-European origins despite their being the most eastern of IEs. Their language showed influences which included both eastern and western origins. Were they a West IE tribe (or perhaps a smaller group of West IE warriors) which went eastwards and either assimilated one or more other tribes, or were in heavy contact with them?

Quite possibly, but such was the level of admixture in their language that a case could even be made for them being an Anatolian (South IE) language group, or at least being in heavy contact with the Anatolian group.

FeatureAn intriguing possibility was that they were a hybrid people who were made up of various elements of multiple IE groups, scooping up more followers as they passed through West IE, South IE, and East IE groups. The story is too complicated to expand upon here but it is covered in much greater detail in the accompanying feature (see link, right).

More recently, DNA evidence has become key to understanding this complicated story. This has helped to show that the Tocharians were not one group but two (at least!) - and only one of them was truly Tocharian. A closer examination of historical references has helped to support this assertion.

The Tocharians migrated far to the east, from the Volga-Ural steppe, across Kazakhstan, to reach the Gorny Altai mountain range (just as did the people of the Afanasevo culture), taking them farther than any other IE groups and so far that they eventually became known to the early Chinese kingdoms before anyone else recorded their existence. The cause for this extraordinary migration could be put down to pressure by the proto-Indo-Iranians on the Caspian steppe, although the Tocharian migration is conspicuously early.

In those Chinese records, from around the twelfth century BC onwards, they were called the Yueh Chi or Yuezhi. But it is the use of the term 'Yuezhi' which causes confusion in many modern writers, especially many online sources. If the term 'Tocharian' is reserved for the descendants of the original Volga-Ural steppe migration folk then these people - Tocharians - remained in the Altai Mountains area between about 3500-2500 BC in the guise of the Afanasevo culture.

Then they were 'encouraged' to drift south to the Tien Shan mountain range by the formation of the local Okunevo culture. From there they soon found the Tarim Basin, and it is here that they largely remained, labelled Yuezhi in Chinese records (the origin of 'Yuezhi' is examined in the Greater Yuezhi page).

The problems arise in the third century BC, when suddenly there seem to be two divisions of Yuezhi - the Lesser Yuezhi in the Tarim Basin (the Tocharians) and the aforementioned Greater Yuezhi on the plains of the Gansu region immediately to the east of the Tarim Basin.

Many writers take this at face value and assume that the Yuezhi had expanded outwards from the Tarim Basin. However, a closer examination of the Greater Yuezhi and their actions shows that they were satem-speaking IEs with DNA which labelled them as Indo-Iranians, and that their origins almost certainly lay in Central Asia, probably in Bactria or Sogdiana (a fuller explanation of this finding is also shown on the Greater Yuezhi page).

Expelled from the Gansu plains in the second century BC they began a migration back towards Central Asia where the Tocharian label continued to be applied to them by modern scholars, thanks to confusion over ancient records (see the name breakdown, below, for details). Another layer of confusion can be added by some scholars who have expressed uncertainty about classing these 'Tocharians' as the Greater Yuezhi instead of as close allies, but this is not accepted by the majority of experts.

The name 'Tocharian' (German Tocharisch) was proposed first by F W K Müller in 1907, and a year later by the renowned pair of Tocharianists, Sieg and Siegling. This name is now thought to be a misnomer, but nevertheless remains in use thanks to sheer inertia and the lack of a definitive replacement. Its use came about because the translation of a sacred book used toxrï (Twγry) as an intermediary language. Sieg and Siegling assumed that this intermediary language was identical to the Greek To'kʰaroi and Sanskrit Tukʰāra, denoting the inhabitants of Bactria.

As the Sakas became long-established inhabitants of Bactria following the end of Greek rule in the second century BC, the name Tocharisch was proposed for the Saka language. In the end this proved incorrect, but the term stuck for both the centum-speaking IEs of the Tarim Basin (today's Tocharians) and the satem-speaking IEs of Bactria (the Greater Yuezhi) in the second and first centuries BC.

It can be seen that 'Tocharian' really should have been used for the Greater Yuezhi inhabitants of Bactria alone, but has instead also been applied to the IEs of the Tarim Basin who, as has already been outlined, are an entirely separate type of IE.

Now, for the sake of clarity, 'Tocharian' is being used here for the original Altai migrants and their Tarim Basin descendants (the latter often being termed Lesser Yuezhi in later historical records), while 'Greater Yuezhi' is used to distinguish between the two, these being Indo-Iranians who intruded into the Gansu region and were chased out again during the mid-second century BC. The Greater Yuezhi are less important to this page's specific entry but must be covered in order to clear up any points of confusion between the two groups.

As mentioned, the Tocharian (not 'Greater Yuezhi') heartland remained the Tarim Basin. The Tocharian languages which were being used here were first discovered in documents which were unearthed in expeditions to Chinese Turkestan (East Turkestan, or Xinjiang); the sites are located along what was once the Silk Road.

One primary site of Tocharian remains is Turfan (Turpan), to the north of the Tarim Basin, a depression which is situated to the north-east of the Takla Makan Desert (Taklamakan). A second major source of Tocharian documents is Kučā (now Qiuchi), a city to the west of Turfan, in the centre of the northern boundary of the Takla Makan. A third major site, Tumšuq, forms the extreme western boundary of Tocharian finds. This lies along the northern rim of the desert, between Kučā and Kašgʰar, a city at the desert's western extreme.

In linguistic terms, 'Tocharian' in fact denotes two closely related languages, Tocharian A and Tocharian B. Though quite similar, Tocharian A and B are now considered by most scholars to be two distinct languages, and not merely two dialects of one common language. It is still common practice, however, to use the term Tocharian to refer to both languages when no particular distinction needs to be made.

Tocharian A is found only in the region of Turfan and Qārāšahr (Karashahr), a nearby oasis located to the west roughly midway between Turfan and Kučā. Tocharian B, by contrast, is found throughout the entirety of this branch of the Silk Road, from Turfan in the east to Tumšuq in the west.

Some sources therefore refer to Tocharian A as East Tocharian or Turfanian, since Turfan is at the easternmost extent of the Tocharian sites. Occasionally it is termed Agnean, referring to the Sanskrit designation Agni for Qārāšahr. In this context, Tocharian B is referred to as West Tocharian (though it is found in the east, too) or Kuchean for Kučā.

Tocharian script

(Information by Peter Kessler and Edward Dawson, with additional information from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, from Migration and Settlement of the Yuezhi-Kushan. Interaction and Interdependence of Nomadic and Sedentary Societies, Xinru Liu (Journal of World History 12, 2001), from Evidence that a West-East admixed population lived in the Tarim Basin as early as the early Bronze Age, BMC Biology (2010 8:15), and from External Links: Peering at the Tocharians through Language, and The United Sites of Indo-Europeans, and Studies in the History and Language of the Sarmatians, and Linguistics Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, and Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples, and Indo-European Etymological Dictionary (J Pokorny), and the Ancient History Encyclopaedia (dead link), and Tocharian Online: Series Introduction, Todd B Krause & Jonathan Slocum (University of Texas at Austin).)

c.4000 - 3500 BC

This is the early proto-Indo-European phase in the Indo-European homeland on the Pontic-Caspian steppe. It is during this phase - and probably towards the end of it - that the Tocharian branch begins to break away and migrate eastwards, following the Central Asian steppe towards Mongolia and western China. There they form the Afanasevo culture.

Central Asia Indo-European map 4000 BC
The initial expansion of Indo-Europeans took place around 4000 BC, with one group heading southwards towards Anatolia and northern Mesopotamia (click or tap on map to view full sized)

The exact details are theoretical but, due to elements of the Tocharian language which preserve early elements of proto-Indo-European, it has been proposed that the Tocharian group is originally made up of West Indo-Europeans who are heavily influenced by their eastern experiences and contacts.

c.3500 - 3000 BC

Other groups of proto-Indo-Europeans have already begun to migrate westwards, away from the Anatolian and Tocharian branches. All of these westwards groups often use four-wheeled wagons to transport their people, and possess wagon/wheel vocabulary which is wholly original to themselves.

That same wagon/wheel vocabulary is not shared by the Anatolian South Indo-European group and is only partially shared by the Tocharian group. This demonstrates an arrival of the wheel some time around the point at which the Tocharians are beginning to lose touch with their kinsfolk.

Map of proto-Anatolian migration 3000-2000 BC
This map attempts to illustrate in basic terms the separate paths taken by the Luwians, Hittites, and Pala during their westwards migration and their progress from proto-Anatolians to kingdom-builders (click or tap on map to view full sized)

c.3500 - 2500 BC

A section of the Volga-Ural steppe population decides to migrate eastwards across Kazakhstan, covering a distance of more than two thousand kilometres to reach the Altai Mountains.

This incredible trek leads to the appearance of the Afanasevo culture in the western Gorny Altai. These people use four-wheeled wagons to transport their population, all of them speaking a form of proto-Indo-European which is common throughout the Yamnaya horizon.

This culture is intrusive in the Altai Mountains, introducing a suite of domesticated animals, metal types, pottery types, and funeral customs which are derived from the Volga-Ural steppes. This long-distance migration almost certainly separates the dialect group which later develops into the Indo-European languages of the Tocharian branch.

The migrants may also be responsible for introducing horse riding to the pedestrian foragers of the northern Kazakh steppes, who are quickly transformed into the horse-riding, wild-horse-hunting Botai culture just at the time at which the Afanasevo migration begins.

Central Asia Indo-European map 3000 BC
By around 3000 BC the Indo-Europeans had begun their mass migration away from the Pontic-Caspian steppe, with the bulk of them heading westwards towards the heartland of Europe (click or tap on map to view full sized)

c.2350 BC

The short-lived empire of Lugalannemundu of Adab subjects the Gutians. The latter can only recently have arrived in the Zagros Mountains, possibly the last stage of a migration from the northern coast of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea (if indeed they are Indo-Europeans).

Linguistically they could be related to the Tocharians, raising the question of how, since the South Indo-Europeans had split away from other Indo-Europeans on the steppe even before the Tocharian migration eastwards is theorised to have begun, and certainly before the main migration had taken place in the Volga-Ural steppe event which had founded the Afanasevo culture.

c.2000 BC

Climate change from around this period onwards greatly affects the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC), or Oxus Civilisation (centred on the later provinces of Bactria and Margiana), denuding it of water as the rains decline.

Eastern Indo-European tribes which have not taken part in the exodus to the west or south have begun the process of becoming the Indo-Iranian branch, and they soon integrate themselves into the BMAC, initially through trade.

Khakassia standing stone
Burial mounds in the modern Russian region of Khakhassia can be marked with small standing stones as shown here, with this area being a core part of the territory of the Afanasevo culture

In fact, these Indo-Europeans seem to have remained in the old homeland to the north of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea longer than other Indo-European groups, at least partially generating the Sintashta culture and Andronovo horizon to the east.

The most easterly group of Indo-Europeans are still the Tocharians, who are later identified (incorrectly) as the Greater Yuezhi or (correctly) as the Yeuh Chi or Lesser Yuezhi in Chinese writings.

They remain for the most part nomadic pastoralists throughout the second and first millennia BC, although they have recently migrated from the pasturelands around the Altai Mountains to the Tien Shan mountains range and then onto the Tarim Basin immediately to its south.

c.1980 BC

The archaeological site known as Small River Cemetery No 5 (the 'Xiaohe Tomb Complex'), discovered in 1934 and rediscovered in 2000, lies near a dried-up riverbed in the Tarim Basin.

Altai Mountains
While heading towards the Altai Mountains, the ancestors of the Tocharians also seem to have influenced the start of the Botai-Tersek culture

Lying immediately to the south-west of the Altai Mountains, the majority of the basin is occupied by the Takla Makan Desert (Taklamakan), a wilderness so inhospitable that later travellers along the Silk Road edge along its northern or southern borders.

Around 2000 BC the basin is already quite dry thanks to the failing rains which are also affecting the BMAC, but the 'Small River People' depend upon the remaining lakes and rivers, as do their descendants until the last of the open water dries up around AD 1600.

The remains, although lying in what is now one of the world's largest deserts, are buried in upside-down boats. Where tombstones may stand, the cemetery instead sports a vigorous forest of poles, interpreted by archaeologists as male and female sexual symbols, signalling an intense interest in the pleasures or utility of procreation.

However, a more prosaic explanation may be that they are quant poles (punting poles) and bladed oars respectively, used to move these river folk along the water bodies which they use to get around.

Tarim Basin Mummies
Small River Cemetery No 5 consists of a large number of burials, the earliest dating to about 1980 BC, all of which exhibit a distinctive Indo-European appearance

The oldest remains can be dated to this period (give or take forty years) and the two hundred or so desiccated bodies at the site, essentially mummies, have a decidedly European appearance. Their culture appears very similar to that of the recent Afanasevo which had been focussed around the nearby Altai Mountains.

All of the males who are analysed have a Y chromosome which is now mostly found in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Siberia, but rarely in modern China. Mitochondrial DNA, which passes down the female line, consists of two lineages which are common in Europe and one from Siberia.

Essentially, research says, the males generally have an Indo-Iranian heritage. The women also exhibit an Indo-European background but with the Siberian addition. Since both the Y chromosome and the mitochondrial DNA lineages are ancient, the European and Siberian populations have probably intermarried before entering the Tarim Basin around 2000 BC.

Tarim Basin mummies
This example of the Tarim Basin mummies had the usual distinctive European features, along with a full head of red hair which had been braided into pony tails, and items of woven material which match similar Celtic items

In light of this, the theory still stands that the original Tocharians who had been part of the Volga-Ural steppe migration had become dominated by an Indo-Iranian (East IE) group of males (probably a warrior elite).

The original Tocharian males would have been sidelined or killed off and further females had been added to the group along the way or at the end of the migration (providing the Siberian admixture). These people, then, are the ancestors of the (Lesser) Yuezhi and Tocharians of later records.

c.1270/1190 BC

Wu-ting is one of the greatest of the Shang dynasty Chinese kings. He enlarges the territory under his control by conducting a war in Guifang which lasts for three years. The Di and Qiang barbarians immediately seek peace terms.

Wu-ting subsequently takes Dapeng and Tunwei. At least some of his campaigns are led by his trusted consort, Fuhao (Lady Fu Hao) who, when she predeceases Wu-ting, is buried with a large collection of weapons which includes great battle axes.

Map of Shang China c.1500 BC
The Shang controlled central China, including a long stretch of the Yellow River and a large number of subject tribes or kingdoms, and they ushered China into the historical record - however, the Shang did not form China's only civilisation; the Sanxingdui culture had formed in western China entirely independently of the Yellow River cultures (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Important jade is supplied for the tomb by the Yuezhi (Tocharians), or Niuzhi. They are seemingly reliable trade partners of the Chinese kings, and the export of jade from the Tarim Basin is supported by archaeology from the late second millennium BC onwards, if not earlier.

The collection amounts to more than 750 pieces, all from Khotan in the south-western Tarim Basin in modern Xinjiang, showing that the Yuezhi are already settled there, at least within the context of being nomadic pastoralists who still move around their herds of cattle on a seasonal basis.

645 BC

The Yuezhi (Tocharians) still reside on the border of agricultural China, having been there for longer even than the seemingly ever-present Xiongnu.

While the Xiongnu become famous in history for their conflicts with various Chinese kingdoms, the Yuezhi are better known to the Chinese for their role in long-distance trade. The economist of this period in time, Guan Zhong, refers to the Yuezhi, or Niuzhi, as a people who continue to supply jade to the Chinese.

200s BC

Towards the end of China's 'Warring States' period, by the third century BC, the Xiongnu become a real threat to the north-western Chinese border. By this time the Yuezhi (Tocharians), formerly reliable jade traders to the Chinese, are better known as reliable horse traders. Jade is still included in trade, however.

Map of Bactria and India 200 BC
The kingdom of Bactria (shown in white) was at the height of its power around 200-180 BC, with fresh conquests being made in the south-east, encroaching into India just as the Mauryan empire was on the verge of collapse, while around the northern and eastern borders dwelt various tribes which would eventually contribute to the downfall of the Greeks - the Sakas and Greater Yuezhi (click or tap on map to view full sized)

220s BC

Seemingly within the last century, during China's 'Warring States' period, the Greater Yuezhi have appeared on the sweeping grasslands closer to the border of the Qin kingdom, somewhat to the south of the Eastern Steppe, and possibly encompassing at least part of the western section of the Yellow River.

The 'other' Yeuzhi, those who remain in the Tarim Basin and who have acted as jade traders for at least a millennium, are termed the Lesser Yuezhi. It is they who are the descendants of the original Tocharians of the Afanasevo culture.

c.166 BC

Laoshang Chanyu is Modu's son and successor amongst the Xiongnu. In a fresh attack he kills the so-called king of the Greater Yuezhi (if they indeed have only one supreme leader) and, in accordance with nomadic traditions, has 'made a drinking cup out of his skull'.

This defeat may only be the latest in a series of more minor encounters over the last decade in which Greater Yuezhi territory is gradually whittled away by the Xiongnu. It is the deciding defeat, though. The Greater Yuezhi begin to desert the north-western plains and the Gansu region.

Map of the Yuezhi lands and exodus route
The Greater Yuezhi were defeated and forced out of the Gansu region by the Xiongnu, and their migratory route into Central Asia is pretty easy to deduct from the fact that they chose to try and settle in the Ili river valley below Lake Balkhash (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Rather than backtrack towards the Tarim Basin though, which would be a natural target if the Greater Yuezhi had originated here, they head to the north of it, seemingly towards the pasture lands of the Dzungarian Basin (in the north of modern Xinjiang), and the passes between the Altai Mountains to the north and the Tian Shan mountain range which provides the northern border to the Tarim Basin.

If the Greater Yuezhi are Tocharians then it would seem to be a strange decision to head into the unknown like this - unless the Xiongnu have completely seized the Gansu region, cutting off the Greater Yuezhi from access to their Lesser Yuezhi 'cousins' in the Tarim Basin.

If that is the case then the Greater Yuezhi have no other choice left to them. The other option is the one mentioned in the introduction - that the Greater Yuezhi are not related to the Tarim Basin Tocharians and are merely returning back towards Central Asia along the route which brought them to Gansu in the first place.

Zhang Qian, ambassador and explorer
Zhang Qian was a Chinese ambassador and explorer who, between 138-126 BC, met and documented many of the steppe tribes, and visited the Greater Yuezhi capital at Kian-she

500 - 700s AD

The Indo-European languages of the Tocharian branch are still to be found in Xinjiang and the Tarim Basin, in the caravan cities of the Silk Road, but divided at this time into two or three quite distinctive languages, all of which exhibit archaic Indo-European traits.

The surviving Tocharian texts all date to a period roughly between the sixth and eighth centuries AD. The materials are predominantly (but not exclusively) Tocharian A translations of Buddhist texts which are currently in common circulation in Central Asia.

Other, secular documents are all written in Tocharian B, leading some scholars to conclude tentatively that Tocharian A, by the time the surviving documents are written, may already be an extinct language, preserved only as the liturgical language - much as Latin will become in Europe.

Immediately to the north, around the Altai Mountains which had provided the anchor for the earliest Tocharian migrations, the Türük people (Göktürks) are vassals of the Rouran khaganate.

Altai Mountains
The impressive landscape of the Altai Mountains seems to have been where the Turkic peoples were formed, seemingly as a heterogeneous mixture of Mongolian peoples and Tocharian Indo-Europeans

One theory about their origins suggests that they are Turkified Indo-Europeans, making them Tocharians who had intermarried with proto-Turkic groups in the three-and-a-half millennia since their split from the main body of Indo-Europeans of the Pontic-Caspian steppe.

The chances of the Türük people not bearing any relationship to Tocharians seems very slim given their prevalence in the region for the past four thousand years.

Generally, the Indo-European descendants of the Tocharians and Lesser Yuezhi are gradually subsumed within other emerging ethnic identities during the course of the first millennium AD, including the Chinese Jie people, Tibetans (as the Gar or mGar, noted blacksmiths), and the Turkic Uyghurs with their notable Caucasian features who later dominate the region.

Tocharian Tarim Basin mummy
The oldest of the Caucasoid (Indo-European) Tarim Basin mummies to be preserved by the increasing desert conditions there date from about 2000 BC, having been found on the eastern edge of the basin, an area for now-lost river systems

The Tarim Basin itself, long known by the Chinese but until now generally outside the reach of their armies, is soon to be occupied by the Tang in the form of its westwards-heading expansionist protectorate of Anxi.

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