History Files

Far East Kingdoms

Central Asia


Yancai (Indo-Iranians)

During the first millennium BC (and likely for much of the largely-unrecorded second millennium BC too) various Indo-Iranian tribes of the East Indo-European division dominated the Pontic-Caspian steppe. They took control from remaining West Indo-European groups, with the Agathyrsi rising early to supremacy over the other tribes. They in turn were superseded by the Scythians, and it was they who imposed a ruling elite over the early Sarmatians and Alani.

The Alani story is somewhat confused though. They appear to be one and the same group as the Yancai of Chinese records. A process of westwards migration, unification, and renaming can just about be discerned through the few brief records which exist regarding them.

The Yancai of the first century BC were located farther to the east than the later core Alani, suggesting a migration into the Caucasus between then and the fourth century AD, perhaps thanks to the Huns or, more likely, the Sarmatians - and such a starting location in Central Asia would certainly allow them to be linked to the Massagetae as the Alani have been.

Initially centred on the northern shore of the Aral Sea, Yancai territory lay to the north-west of the Kangju nomadic federation. This was another Indo-Iranian group, and one with whom the Yancai shared some similarities in terms of customs. Arab historians of the eleventh century AD linked these Yancai with the Alani, and the majority of modern historians agree.

Chinese records of the second century AD confirmed the unification of the Yancai peoples as the 'Alanliao' (or the 'old Yancai'), and showed them gradually shifting their position westwards towards the northern shore of the Caspian Sea.

They were clearly following the same migratory path into Europe as the Scythians and Sarmatians had before them to take command of areas of the Pontic steppe. It was the same path which would later be used by the Huns and the early Turkic groups.

The Yancai, or Alanliao as they became known in Chinese records, were simply Alani or Alans to western writers. They soon became either neighbours of the Sarmatians or (as some claim) a division of the Sarmatians themselves. The fortunes of both groups were closely intertwined, and some of their constituent sub-groups could be mistaken as Alani or Sarmatians, depending on how they were being recorded by early writers.

The name 'Alan' or 'Alani' is an altered form of the Indo-European 'Arya', meaning the 'civilised' or 'respectable. Their East Indo-European cousins were documented as calling themselves Aryans when they entered India from around 1500 BC (although the tainted 'Aryan' term has been replaced by modern scholars with the more accurate 'Indo-Aryan').

This rather elitist naming was presumably in reaction to the apparently barbarous people they encountered (although this adoption occurred well before any of them entered India).

Sakas on a frieze at Persepolis

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from The Oxford History of England: Roman Britain, Peter Salway, from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, from Res Gestae, Ammianus Marcellinus, from Les Alains, Cavaliers des steppes, seigneurs du Caucase Ie-XVe siècle, Vladimir Kouznetsov & Iaroslav Lebedynsky (Editions Errance, Paris 2005), from Etnicheskaja istorija Severnogo Kavkaza, A V Gadlo, from Eucharisticos (Thanksgiving), Paulinus of Pella, from the Life of St Germanus of Auxerre, Constantius of Lyon, from The Pechenegs: Nomads in the Political and Cultural Landscape of Medieval Europe, Aleksander Paroń (Translated by Thomas Anessi, Brill, 2021), and from External Links: Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples, and Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, J Pokorny, and Proto-Bulgarian Runic Inscriptions, and Geography, Strabo (H C Hamilton & W Falconer, London, 1903, Perseus Online Edition), and Genetic clues to the Ossetian past, Asya Pereltsvaig (Languages of the World), and The Alans (Marres Education), and Turkic History.)

90s BC

The nomadic Yancai - later referred to as Alan-na - are recorded by Sima Qian of China, centred on the northern shore of the Aral Sea. Their territory lays to the north-west of the Kangju nomadic federation, with whom they hold some similarities in terms of customs.

Map of Central Asia & India c.50 BC
By the period between 100-50 BC the Greek kingdom of Bactria had fallen and the remaining Indo-Greek territories (shown in white) had been squeezed towards Eastern Punjab. India was partially fragmented, and the once tribal Sakas were coming to the end of a period of domination of a large swathe of territory in modern Afghanistan, Pakistan, and north-western India. The dates within their lands (shown in yellow) show their defeats of the Greeks which had gained them those lands, but they were very soon to be overthrown in the north by the Kushans while still battling for survival against the Satvahanas of India (click or tap on map to view full sized)

They may be a wandering group of Alani, but they may equally be a group which has adopted a variation of the same name - a form of the Indo-Iranian 'Arya', meaning the 'civilised' or 'respectable'. However, Arabic records of the Alani from around AD 1000 (during the height of the kingdom of Alania) would seem to support a connection between these Yancai and the Alani.

1st century AD

Elements of the Alani can now be confirmed as occupying territory to the north of the Sea of Azov. They are extending their influence to control the trade routes between the northern Black Sea coast to the northern shores of the Caspian Sea and Aral Sea. They are showing warlike traits which are typical of Indo-Iranian tribes of the Pontic-Caspian steppe.

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, including the Yancai to the north of the Aral Sea

Shortly before his death in AD 24, Strabo completes ongoing work on his Geography. It contains a description of the peoples and places known to this Greek writer who latterly lives in Rome. He describes the Alani as As or Asioi. This is 'Asiani' in Latin - possibly a confusion with the Greater Yuezhi or their immediate neighbours.

Alternatively the Alani could extend far into Central Asia and, if the Asiani are indeed a division of the Greater Yuezhi, then so too could be the Alani.


By now, Chinese records confirm the unification of the Yancai peoples as the Alanliao (or the 'old Yancai'), who have expanded towards the Caspian Sea, to the west of the Wusun.

They appear to remain dependent upon the Kangju, at least for a time, before becoming dominant in Sarmatia. As the Alani they cause concern for the Roman empire thanks to southwards incursions into the Danubian province and the Caucasus during this and the next century.

Alans fighting Romans
The Alani formed part of a major incursion into Roman territory in the fifth century AD, but there had already existed sizable pockets of them (or related groups) in southern-central Europe in the first century BC, in the form of the Alauni and Roxolani

134 - 136

The Alani are again showing their warlike demeanour by attacking Albania, Media, and Armenia. They penetrate as far as Cappadocia. Probably the only way in which Vologeses III of Parthia is able to persuade them to withdraw is by paying them.

c.240s - 250s

The Yancai or Alani are no longer dependent upon the Kangju, as recorded by the Weilüe history of the Chinese Wei dynasty. Presumably this means that they have moved far enough to the west to avoid the Kangju.

If that is correct then it would also seem to signify the completion of the westwards migration of Alani groups over the past three centuries. The Yancai are not mentioned again in any records, but the Alani certainly are.

Map of Three Kingdoms China AD 220-263
In AD 220 the Late Han Chinese empire was officially transferred to the Wei or Cao Wei dynasty, while the Alani were migrating out of their reach (click or tap on map to view full sized)

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