Cradle of Civilization

A Blog about the Birth of Our Civilisation and Development

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  • The Fertile Crescent

    The Fertile Crescent is a term for an old fertile area north, east and west of the Arabian Desert in Southwest Asia. The Mesopotamian valley and the Nile valley fall under this term even though the mountain zone around Mesopotamia is the natural zone for the transition in a historical sense.

    As a result of a number of unique geographical factors the Fertile Crescent have an impressive history of early human agricultural activity and culture. Besides the numerous archaeological sites with remains of skeletons and cultural relics the area is known primarily for its excavation sites linked to agricultural origins and development of the Neolithic era.

    It was here, in the forested mountain slopes of the periphery of this area, that agriculture originated in an ecologically restricted environment. The western zone and areas around the upper Euphrates gave growth to the first known Neolithic farming communities with small, round houses , also referred to as Pre Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) cultures, which dates to just after 10,000 BC and include areas such as Jericho, the world’s oldest city.

    During the subsequent PPNB from 9000 BC these communities developed into larger villages with farming and animal husbandry as the main source of livelihood, with settlement in the two-story, rectangular house. Man now entered in symbiosis with grain and livestock species, with no opportunity to return to hunter – gatherer societies.

    The area west and north of the plains of the Euphrates and Tigris also saw the emergence of early complex societies in the much later Bronze Age (about 4000 BC). There is evidence of written culture and early state formation in this northern steppe area, although the written formation of the states relatively quickly shifted its center of gravity into the Mesopotamian valley and developed there. The area is therefore in very many writers been named “The Cradle of Civilization.”

    The area has experienced a series of upheavals and new formation of states. When Turkey was formed in the aftermath of the genocide against the Pontic Greeks, Armenians and Assyrians perpetrated by the Young Turks during the First World War it is estimated that two-thirds to three-quarters of all Armenians and Assyrians in the region died, and the Pontic Greeks was pushed to Greece.

    Israel was created out of the Ottoman Empire and the conquering of the Palestinian terretories. The existence of large Arab nation states from the Maghreb to the Levant has since represented a potential threat to Israel which should be neutralised when opportunities arise.

    This line of thinking was at the heart of David Ben Gurion’s policies in the 1950s which sought to exacerbate tensions between Christians and Muslims in the Lebanon for the fruits of acquiring regional influence by the dismembering the country and the possible acquisition of additional territory.

    The Christians are now being systematically targeted for genocide in Syria according to Vatican and other sources with contacts on the ground among the besieged Christian community.

    According to reports by the Vatican’s Fides News Agency collected by the Centre for the Study of Interventionism, the US-backed Free Syrian Army rebels and ever more radical spin-off factions are sacking Christian churches, shooting Christians dead in the street, broadcasting ultimatums that all Christians must be cleansed from the rebel-held villages, and even shooting priests.

    It is now time that the genocide against the Pontic Greeks, Assyrians and Armenians is being recognized, that the Israeli occupation, settlements and violence against the Palestinians stop, and that the various minorities in the area start to live their lifes in peace – without violence and threats from majority populations, or from the West, and then specificially from the US.

    War in the Fertile Crescent

    Everyone is free to use the text on this blog as they want. There is no copyright etc. This because knowledge is more important than rules and regulations.

  • Archives



Yamna culture

Catacomb culture

Srubna culture

Abashevo culture

Seima-Turbino Phenomenon

Andronovo culture

Afanasevo culture


Hexi Corridor

Tarim Basin

Taklamakan Desert

Oasis states


Eurasian nomads

Turkic Language


Slab Grave culture

Qijia culture

Okunev culture

Karasuk culture

The Karasuk language

Tagar culture

Tashtyk culture

Zhukaigou culture

Ordos culture

The Tarim mummies


Qäwrighul culture

Jushi Kingdom


Kingdom of Loulan

Kingdom of Khotan

The Wusun

The Yuezhi

Kushan Empire


Tocharian languages


Haplogroup R1a

Bronze Age Proto-Indo-Europeans

Haplogroup R1b

Haplogroup R-M17

The Tocharian

Two groups do not fit perfectly into that tidy pair of east and west IE boxes. One of these involves the Germanic language speakers, who appear to have been founded by R1a/satem people but with a very mixed subsequent heritage. The other anomaly, one which appears early in the Yamnaya horizon, involves a western group which apparently decided to be different from all the others and head eastwards. It is this group which evolved into the Tocharian branch of Indo-Europeans.

The Tocharians are perhaps the most mysterious of all of the Indo-European branches. Thankfully, recent DNA evidence has provided a vital ingredient when it comes to telling their story but, despite this, it is a somewhat complicated story.

The core Indo-Europeans began to separate into definite proto languages around 3000 BC, during an expansion phase which is known as the Yamnaya horizon. These proto languages soon became unintelligible to each other, although this fragmenting process excludes the Anatolian branch of IEs who had already headed southwards from the Pontic-Caspian steppe.

The western or centum language section of Indo-Europeans (IEs) would evolve into Celtic, Italic, Venetic, Illyrian, Ligurian, Vindelician/Liburnian and Raetic branches. This group appears to be associated with a specific Y-DNA haplogroup called R1b.

A related Y-DNA haplogroup – R1a – is associated with eastern or satem IE languages. It’s the Indo-Iranian/Indo-Aryan, Baltic, and Slavic groups which fall into this latter grouping.

A favourite current theory is that the satem (eastern) languages evolved in the core Indo-Europeans on the Caspian steppe after the departure both of the West IEs and the Tocharians. Both of these latter divisions would have been left with an older, centum version of the language which did not receive the same later influences that the satem version received.

If this is correct then a u-turn theory in which the Tocharians initially headed west and then changed direction to head east would be a very realistic one because the Anatolians were the first to detach themselves from the Indo-European core, and they also spoke a centum language which did not show those later influences. In fact, they left early enough to miss even some of the later centum influences.

Another theory, based on the DNA evidence, points toward IEs around 3000 BC being divided into two main groups. These would have been steppe dwellers who were speaking centum dialects and who bore the R1b Y chromosome and, to the north of them in the forests and forest-steppe, satem dialect speakers who bore the R1a Y-chromosome.

The problem for their centum neighbours is that in this theory the satem group moved south once they had the benefit of horse riding, and they proceeded to occupy swathes of the former group’s territory. It seems very unlikely that this process occurred peacefully!

This, though, is the perfect way of explaining how the centum-speaking Tocharians were separated from the main mass of centum speakers and were forced to head east instead of west. This eastwards migration by the Tocharians has in the past been referred to as their u-turn migration.

The Bell Beaker culture (or, in short, Beaker culture) is an archaeological culture named after the inverted-bell beaker drinking vessel used at the very beginning of the European Bronze Age. Arising from around 2800 BC, it lasted in Britain until as late as 1800 BC but in continental Europe only until 2300 BC, when it was succeeded by the Unetice culture.

The culture was widely dispersed throughout Western Europe, from various regions in Iberia and spots facing northern Africa to the Danubian plains, the islands of Great Britain and Ireland, and also the islands of Sicily and Sardinia.

The Bell Beaker culture follows the Corded Ware culture and for north-central Europe the Funnelbeaker culture. In its early phase, the Bell Beaker culture can be seen as the western contemporary of the Corded Ware culture of Central Europe. From about 2400 BC, however, the “Beaker folk” expanded eastwards, into the Corded Ware horizon.

In parts of Central and Eastern Europe – as far east as Poland – a sequence occurs from Corded Ware to Bell Beaker. This period marks a period of cultural contact in Atlantic and Western Europe following a prolonged period of relative isolation during the Neolithic.

The Corded Ware culture shared a number of features with the Bell Beaker culture, derived from their common ancestor, the Yamna culture. These features include pottery decorated with cord impressions, single burial, and the shaft-hole axe. As of October 2019, the Y-DNA of more than 26 Corded Ware males has been extracted. The majority of them have been found to be carriers of haplogroup R1a. Remaining males have been found to be carriers of R1b and I2a.

It is notable that although Corded Ware is presumed to be largely derived from the Yamnaya culture, most Corded Ware males carried Y-DNA of different lineages than males of the Yamnaya, who primarily carried R1b-M269. Neither R1a nor R1b-M269 have been reported among Neolithic populations of central and western Europe, although it was common among earlier hunter gatherers of Eastern Europe.

A genetic study conducted by Haak et al. (2015) found that a large proportion of the ancestry of the Corded Ware culture’s population is similar to the Yamna culture, tracing the Corded Ware culture’s origins to migrations of the Yamna from the steppes 4,500 years ago. About 75% of the DNA of late Neolithic Corded Ware skeletons found in Germany was a precise match to DNA from individuals of the Yamna culture.

The same study estimated a 40–54% ancestral contribution of the Yamna in the DNA of modern Central & Northern Europeans, and a 20–32% contribution in modern Southern Europeans, excluding Sardinians (7.1% or less), and to a lesser extent Sicilians (11.6% or less). Haak et al. also note that their results “suggest” that haplogroups R1b and R1a “spread into Europe from the East after 3,000 BCE.”

Autosomal DNA tests also indicate that westward migration from the steppes introduced a component of ancestry referred to as “Ancient North Eurasian” admixture, the name given in genetic literature to a component that represents descent from the people of the Mal’ta-Buret’ culture or a population closely related to them, into western Europe.

The ANE genetic component is visible in tests of the Yamna people as well as modern-day Europeans, but not of Western or Central Europeans predating the Corded Ware culture.

The sampled Yamna individuals from Samara however might not be directly ancestral to Corded Ware individuals from Germany. It is possible that a more western Yamna population, or an earlier (pre-Yamna) steppe population may have migrated into central Europe, and future work may uncover more missing links in the chain of transmission of steppe ancestry.

Neolithic farming migration into Europe was driven by mass migration of both males and females in roughly equal numbers, perhaps whole families, while Bronze Age Pontic steppe migration and cultural shift were instead driven by male migration, potentially connected to new technology and conquest.

On the other hand, Kristiansen et al. says “We have been able to reconstruct the social processes of cultural integration and hybridisation that followed from (probable) Neolithic women marrying into Yamnaya settlements dominated by males of first-generation migrants.”

The Bell Beakers and people of the Unetice culture had less ancestry from the Yamnaya culture than from the earlier Corded Ware culture, which can be a sign of a resurgence of the indigenous inhabitants of Western Europe in the aftermath of the Yamnaya expansion.

Another 2015 study published in Nature found the people of the Beaker culture to be closely genetically related to the Corded Ware culture, the Unetice culture and the Nordic Bronze Age.

When focussing specifically on the Tocharians, it was the increasing realisation that they appeared to have a very odd history that confirmed their West Indo-European origins despite being the most eastern of IEs. As theorised above, it has become likely that they were amongst those centum speakers who may have been forced out by satem speakers appropriating their territory.

However, where the Tocharians are concerned, it’s never quite that simple. Their language showed elements both of the eastern satem/R1a and western centum/R1b influences. An intriguing possibility is that they ended up being a hybrid people who were made up of various elements of multiple Indo-European groups, scooping up more followers as they passed through West IE, South IE, and East IE groups.

Tocharian is, at its core, a centum language – just like Indo-European languages in the west – despite its Far Eastern setting. The most reasonable likelihood for the hybridisation process is that a specific group took over other groups, and they all adopted the most dominant language variant whilst also picking up influences from the later arrivals. The key to understanding who conquered whom lies in the male lineage and therefore in the Y-DNA.

A vital tool in helping to solve the Tocharian mystery was the discovery of the ‘Tarim mummies’, a series of mummified bodies discovered in the Tarim Basin which includes the Takla Makan Desert (Taklamakan) in its territory. From around 2000 BC, these oases supported Bronze Age settled agricultural communities of steadily increasing sophistication.

The necessary irrigation technology was first developed during the 3rd millennium BC in the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) to the west of the Pamir mountains, but it is unclear how it reached the Tarim.

The staple crops, wheat and barley, also originated in the west. J. P. Mallory and Victor H. Mair argue that the Tarim was first settled by Tocharian-speakers from the Afanasevo culture to the north, who occupied the northern and eastern edges of the basin.

The Afanasevo culture (c. 3500–2500 BC) displays cultural and genetic connections with the Indo-European-associated cultures of the Central Asian steppe yet predates the specifically Indo-Iranian-associated Andronovo culture (c. 2000–900 BC) enough to account for the isolation of the Tocharian languages from Indo-Iranian linguistic innovations like satemization.

The oldest of the Tarim mummies, bodies preserved by the desert conditions, date from 2000 BC and were found on the eastern edge of the Tarim basin. They seem to be Caucasoid types with light-colored hair.

A genetic study of remains from the oldest layer of the Xiaohe Cemetery found that the maternal lineages were a mixture of east and west Eurasian types, while all the paternal lineages were of west Eurasian type. It is unknown whether they are connected with the frescoes painted at Tocharian sites more than two millennia later, which also depict light eyes and hair color.

Later, groups of nomadic pastoralists moved from the steppe into the grasslands to the north and northeast of the Tarim. They were the ancestors of peoples later known to Chinese authors as the Wusun and Yuezhi. At least some of them spoke Iranian languages, but a minority of scholars suggest that the Yuezhi were Tocharian speakers.

During the 1st millennium BC, a further wave of immigrants, the Saka speaking Iranian languages, arrived from the west and settled along the southern rim of the Tarim. They are believed to be the source of Iranian loanwords in Tocharian languages, particularly related to commerce and warfare.

A DNA analysis of twelve of the earliest mummies has shown that eleven of them were Caucasoid men who possessed Y-DNA belonging to the R1a group, making them eastern, satem speakers. For this region and time such a finding would be very normal.

From this fact it can be postulated that a group of nomadic satem/R1a types, most likely a group of IEs who were closely related to the later Indo-Iranians, conquered other groups as they progressed eastwards. They may have overcome many small groups, including a more sizable population of centum/R1b types (the original Tocharians), as they also headed east.

Therefore the original centum-speaking Tocharians would seem to have fallen under the control of a more dominant group of satem speakers – easy enough with the Tocharians passing through the eastern steppe which may already have been full of satem speakers. The alternative is that the later expansion of satem speakers effectively followed and overtook the Tocharians.

The predominance of R1a (eleven out of twelve mummies) in the limited sample points to R1a satem males being responsible for mating with centum-speaking women. That finding makes it likely that the women were either brides from centum groups (perhaps now dominated by satem speakers), or that they had been captured in raids or warfare.

Most studies of IE sequencing put the separation of Tocharian after that of Anatolian and before any other branch. The rather notable migration from around 3500 BC which created the Afanasevo culture meets that expectation, with a section of the Volga-Ural steppe population making its way eastwards across Kazakhstan, covering a distance of more than two thousand kilometres to reach the Altai Mountains.

This then, was the Tocharian migration in its original form. Whether its people were satem-speaking men who had already collected a population of centum-speaking wives either as prizes or through trade and intermarriage, or centum-speakers who were later dominated by satem-speakers is unclear (although the latter is favoured here).

What would have happened though was that these wives would have raised any children they had, and would have taught them their own language alongside whatever basic satem influences they may have needed. These early Tocharians were already centum-speaking hybrids.

Although that is theory, it’s the most likely theory. What is certain is that, alongside the hybridisation process, Tocharians also borrowed heavily from other languages, probably during their subsequent migrations. We find Sanskrit words which they adopted due to their later adherence to Buddhist religion, such words coming from Indo-Aryans who were themselves an offshoot of the Indo-Iranians – both satem-speakers. Tocharian might be heavily hybridised in the manner of modern English with its large French vocabulary, and its religious-adopted Latin vocabulary.

The United Sites of Indo-Europeans website rounds off much of the discussion with the following (with additions in italics for the text which was not written by a native English-speaker):

This group is perhaps the least studied in all of the Indo-European macro-family. It consists of two dead languages, Tocharian A (or Agnean) and Tocharian B (or Kuchanian). These were spoken in the first millennium AD in East Turkestan, in several cases in which inscriptions and texts written in these languages were found.

The routes and methods used in Tocharic migrations from the Near East to East Asia are still unknown. The languages show many borrowings from early Iranian languages, archaic Finno-Ugric (of the Uralic family), and even Tibetan-like forms, but the structure itself shows much similarity with Germanic languages primarily, and also with Balto-Slavic languages.

Linguists think that Tocharians moved through Central Asia from west to east and, on their way, had a large number of linguistic contacts which were reflected in their tongue. Before these migrations, it being a dialect in the proto-Indo-European community, Tocharians must have communicated closely with future Anatolians and Italo-Celts.

In truth, the Y-DNA results from the Tarim mummies were quite a surprise. Whilst the general expectation was that they would be R1b types (centum-speakers), they were anything but that, being R1a satem types. As discussed above, this means that the Tocharian males were descended from the satem-speaking forest and forest steppe IEs, not the steppe-dwelling, centum-speaking IEs as was generally expected.

The sense of surprise at the result was despite the fact that Central Asia was dominated by satem-speaking Indo-Iranians, while the only centum speakers were the Tocharians themselves.

Primarily the expectation existed because Indo-Iranians don’t seem to have reached as far east as the Tarim Basin (not entirely accurate when one looks at the Greater Yuezhi horsemen of the first two centuries BC). Simply put, no one expected the Tocharians themselves to have satem-speaking influences.

However, in language terms, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence of those words in Tocharian A which are used in Asha (Arte/Rte). This is possibly because the Tocharians separated from other Indo-Europeans prior to the formulation of Asha; or alternately that they never had it or were a military elite which did not include priests among them.

Asha is the modern term for the philosophical practice of adherence to the truth of what is, what exists. The word ‘Asha’ comes from Zoroastrianism. Its ancient names were Rte among Indians (Indo-Aryan Hindus), and Arte among Iranians. There are also linguistic pointers toward the philosophy existing amongst early Germans under the name of Istwae. All of these names are the verb ‘to be’, used as nouns.

In addition, the language of Tocharian A seems to have more in common with Celto-Italic languages than it does the Avestan/Vedic of Indo-Iranian and Indo-Aryan satem languages. Many familiar words are contractions, with sounds having been dropped – a common enough Celto-Italic practice.

These contracted words can come about as a result of a population using a hybrid language; or it can result from sheer laziness. The latter, if true, would be another pointer towards a lack of the Asha philosophy, as Asha is extremely precisionist in character.

With that examination of Tocharian A in mind, the theory which sees a satem military elite taking over another, centum-speaking tribe (or at least its women) seems to be the only rational explanation for the creation of the hybrid Tocharians of recorded history.

And the take-over happened early enough that Asha did not yet exist. That date of approximately 3000 BC – or perhaps a bit later – still looks reasonable for the separation of Tocharians from other Indo-Europeans, with their dominance by satem-speaking Indo-Iranian East IEs following on relatively soon after that.

Tocharian tongues survived for a good three or four thousand years. By AD 500 they could still be found in Xinjiang (early home of the Göktürks of this same period), and in the caravan cities of the Silk Road.

By this time they had divided into two or three quite distinctive languages, all of which exhibited archaic Indo-European traits. Despite their long journey to the Altai Mountains, along the Chinese border, and then towards Central Asia, they were able to maintain a strong identity… and a strong language.

Religions and philosophies are well known to jump cultural and linguistic barriers, spreading far from their points of origin. This may have happened with the Rte philosophy of the Indo-Iranian nomads, the main body of the eastern Indo-Europeans.

Although they have been labelled in various ways by others, such as Lesser Yuezhi, the Tocharian name for themselves has been recorded in several different forms, one of which is the very suggestive ‘Arsi’.

This appears to be yet another example of the verb ‘to be’, used as a noun. This contention is supported by the existence of IEs in Anatolia who also used a form of the same name, and from which we get the name used for the entire continent: Asia (see related links).

The high amount of Yamnaya or Afanasievo-related ancestry in the Iron Age Xinjiang individuals indirectly supports the introduction of Indo-European languages into the region that survived in the form of Tocharian until the late first millennium CE. This supports the “Steppe hypothesis” over the “Bactrian Oasis hypothesis” for the peopling of the Xinjiang region in Western China around 2,100 BP.

The ethnolinguistic pattern of the Tarim Basin in early historic times was complicated. In addition to very distinct “Tocharian” languages, some of the cities were dominated by Iranian peoples. The modern-day Uyghurs are almost certainly descended from some of these populations.

These results from ~2,000 years ago of ten individuals (five of them well dated) suggest that the northern Tianshan was populated by peoples that were direct descendants of the post-Yamnaya Afanasievo, who mixed to varying degrees with trans-Siberian populations (the mixture seems to have had a wide range of fractions).

Two of the males carried R1b, the haplogroup dominant among the Yamnaya, but not latter cultures of the steppe (Andronovo). These individuals lacked European farmer ancestry, again indicative of their isolation from dynamics on the western forest-steppe that resulted in genetic differences between the successors of the Yamnaya and the Yamnaya proper.

The argument here is somewhat by elimination. Historical records indicate that some of the cities of the Tarim, particular those of the southern fringe of the basin, were Iranian speaking. Additionally, Iranian cultures are associated with haplogroup R1a, and the Sintashta-Andronovo cultures all had European farmer ancestry.

In contrast, R1b is rare outside of Europe (though it is found in Kalash and Yaghnobi), but is found among Uyghurs and among these samples. Tocharians are the most likely descendants of these people, who arrived in the region almost 5,000 years ago.

This explains how the Tocharian languages were so distinct, and, their deep separation from other Indo-Europeans. The Tocharians were isolated and diverged very early. Later they were joined by Iranian groups. Eventually both these were absorbed by Turkic populations, first the Uyghurs, and later the Karluk Turks (the modern Uyghurs revived an ancient ethnonym).

The Early Bronze Age Afanasevo culture (ca. 3500-2600 BC) in the Altai-Sayan region are genetically indistinguishable from Yamna in admixture analyses using exclusively female samples. Linguists have placed Proto-Tocharian together with the North-West Indo-European dialectal zone, but showing innovations compatible with an isolated development.

The findings of Anthony regarding the early spread of a group from the Repin society into Afanasevo (ca. 3000-2800 BC) supports the eastward expansion of a western Yamna group, and therefore the position of Tocharian as part of an early ‘Northern’ Indo-European split.

The sample of haplogroup R1b1a1a2a-L23 (xR1b1a1a2a2-Z2103, xR1b1a1a2a1-L51) at Lopatino II (ca. 3000 BC) in the Samara region might be speculatively interpreted as a member of one of several clans different from those sharing R1b1a1a2a2-Z2103 lineages in the Volga-Ural zone, a region that shows an overwhelming majority of R1b1a1a2a2-Z2103 lineages in previous (late Khvalynsk) and posterior (Poltavka) cultures.

In the Copper Age, one sample of the Bolshemys culture (ca. 4th millennium BC) and three individuals from the succeeding Afanasevo culture (ca. 3000 BC) belong to R1b1a1a2-M269 lineages, and three more to haplogroup R1b1-L278, which more clearly points to the expansion of male migrants from Yamna.

A division between a Mongol Altai and a Siberian area of Indo-European influence was clearly seen in a later period, where only one sample from the Okunev culture (ca. 2300-1800 BC) was of R1b1a1a2-M269 lineage, with three samples of haplogroup N1a1-M46 (see above N1c1-M46) that suggest a change of the paternal line in the region.

However, the main lineages found in Tarim Basin mummies of the Xiaohe necropolis (dated ca. 2000 BC), 11 out of 12 male remains, were of R1a1a1-M417 lineages. If these were actually ancestors of later Tocharian speakers, this would support a cultural assimilation of Pre-Tocharian into peoples of R1a1a1-M417 lineages, and also that the migration of the Pre-Tocharian language to the Tarim Basin was coincident with the Andronovo expansion, which “had transformed the steppes from a series of isolated cultural ponds to a corridor of communication”.

That change is clearly attested in aDNA samples from the final Bronze Age, where no sample of haplogroup R1b1a1a2-M269 is found, but haplogroup R1a1a1b2-Z93 is found in this area and others Eurasian sites distant from each other. This period marks also the appearance of Paleo-Siberian lineages in south Siberia. From all paternal lineages found in modern Uyghurs, only that of R1b1a1a2-M269 lineages cannot be explained by earlier or later population expansions.

Yamna culture

The Yamna culture, “Pit [Grave] Culture”, from Russian/Ukrainian яма, “pit”) is a late copper age/early Bronze Age culture of the Southern Bug/Dniester/Ural region (the Pontic steppe), dating to the 36th–23rd centuries BC. The name also appears in English as Pit Grave Culture or Ochre Grave Culture.

The culture was predominantly nomadic, with some agriculture practiced near rivers and a few hillforts. The Yamna culture was preceded by the Sredny Stog culture, Khvalynsk culture and Dnieper-Donets culture, while succeeded by the Catacomb culture and the Srubna culture.

Characteristic for the culture are the inhumations in kurgans (tumuli) in pit graves with the dead body placed in a supine position with bent knees. The bodies were covered in ochre. Multiple graves have been found in these kurgans, often as later insertions.

Significantly, animal grave offerings were made (cattle, sheep, goats and horse), a feature associated with Proto-Indo-Europeans (including Proto-Indo-Iranians).

The earliest remains in Eastern Europe of a wheeled cart were found in the “Storozhova mohyla” kurgan (Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, excavated by Trenozhkin A.I.) associated with the Yamna culture.

The Yamna culture is identified with the late Proto-Indo-Europeans (PIE) in the Kurgan hypothesis of Marija Gimbutas. It is the strongest candidate for the Urheimat (homeland) of the Proto-Indo-European language, along with the preceding Sredny Stog culture, now that archaeological evidence of the culture and its migrations has been closely tied to the evidence from linguistics.

Pavel Dolukhanov argues that the emergence of the Pit-Grave culture represents a social development of various local Bronze Age cultures, representing “an expression of social stratification and the emergence of chiefdom-type nomadic social structures”, which in turn intensified inter-group contacts between essentially heterogeneous social groups.

It is said to have originated in the middle Volga based Khvalynsk culture and the middle Dnieper based Sredny Stog culture. In its western range, it is succeeded by the Catacomb culture; in the east, by the Poltavka culture and the Srubna culture.

Catacomb culture

The Catacomb culture (c. 2800–1700 BC) was a Bronze Age culture which flourished on the Pontic steppe. Originating on the southern steppe as an outgrowth of the Yamnaya culture, the Catacomb culture came to cover a large area of what essentially today is present-day Ukraine. It was preceded by the Yamna culture and succeeded by the Srubna culture from ca the 17th century BC.

The name Catacomb culture comes from its burial practices. These are similar to those of the Yamna culture, but with a hollowed-out space off the main shaft, creating the “catacomb”. Animal remains were incorporated into a small minority of graves.

The linguistic composition of the Catacomb culture is unclear. Within the context of the Kurgan hypothesis expounded by Marija Gimbutas, an Indo-European component is hard to deny, particularly in the later stages. Placing the ancestors of the Greek, Armenian and Paleo-Balkan dialects here is tempting, as it would neatly explain certain shared features.

It was Indo-European-speaking, perhaps speaking an early form of Indo-Iranian or Thracian. Influences of the Catacomb culture have been detected as far as Mycenaean Greece. It spawned the Multi-cordoned ware culture, and was eventually succeeded by the Srubnaya culture.

More recently, the Ukrainian archaeologist V. Kulbaka has argued that the Late Yamna cultures of ca. 3200–2800 BC, esp. the Budzhak, Starosilsk, and Novotitarovka groups, might represent the Greek-Armenian-“Aryan”(=Indo-Iranian) ancestors (Graeco-Aryan, Graeco-Armenian), and the Catacomb culture that of the “unified” (to ca. 2500 BC) and then “differentiated” Indo-Iranians.

Grigoryev’s (1998) version of the Armenian hypothesis connects Catacomb culture with Indo-Aryans, because catacomb burial ritual had roots in South-Western Turkmenistan from the early 4th millennium (Parkhai cemetery). The same opinion is supported by Leo Klejn in his various publications.

The culture is first to introduce corded pottery decorations into the steppes and shows a profuse use of the polished battle axe, providing a link to the West. Parallels with the Afanasevo culture, including provoked cranial deformations, provide a link to the East.

The Catacomb culture emerged on the southern part of the Pontic steppe in 2800 BC as a western descendant of the Yamnaya culture. Its origin is disputed. Jan Lichardus enumerates three possibilities: a local development departing from the previous Yamna Culture only, a migration from Central Europe, or an oriental origin.

Influences from the west appears to have had a decisive role on the formation of the Catacomb culture. In addition to the Yamnaya culture, the Catacomb culture displays links with the earlier Sredny Stog culture, the Afanasievo culture and the Poltavka culture.

The Catacomb culture was distributed on the Pontic steppe, an area which had earlier been occupied by the Yamnaya culture. This was a large area, and on the basis of ceramic styles and burial practices, regional variants have been found. On this basis, the Catacomb culture has by some been designated as a “cultural-historical area” with the regional variants classified as distinct cultures in their own respect.

In the east the Catacomb culture neighbored the Poltavka culture, which was an eastern descendant of the Yamnaya culture. The Catacomb culture influenced the development of the Poltavka culture. Throughout its existence, the Catacomb culture expanded eastward and northward.

Elena Efimovna Kuzmina suggests that the Seima-Turbino phenomenon emerged as a result of interaction between the Abashevo culture, the Catacomb culture and the early Andronovo culture.

Evidence of Catacomb influence has been discovered far outside of the Pontic steppe. Its burial chambers, metal types and figurines are very similar to those appearing in Italy and the eastern Mediterranean, while the hammer-head pin, a characteristic ornament of the Catacomb culture, has been found in Central Europe and Italy.

Based on these similarities, migrations or cultural diffusion from the Catacomb culture to these areas have been suggested. Similarities between the Catacomb culture and Mycenaean Greece are particularly striking. These include types of socketed spear-heads, types of cheekpieces for horses, and the custom of making masks for the dead.

In certain graves there was the distinctive practice of what amounts to modelling a clay mask over the deceased’s face, creating an obvious if not necessarily correct association to the famous gold funeral mask of Agamemnon (see also Tashtyk culture).

The Catacomb culture is named for its burials. These augmented the shaft grave of the Yamnaya culture with burial niche at its base. This is the so-called catacomb. Such graves have also been found in Mycenaean Greece and parts of Eastern Europe.

Deceased Catacomb individuals were typically buried in a flexed position on their right side. They were often accompanied by ornaments such as silver rings, and weapons such as stone and metal axes, arrows, daggers and maces.

Animal sacrifies, including head and hooves of goats, sheep, horses and cattle, occur in about 16% of Catacomb graves. Cattle sacrifices in the Catacomb culture are more frequent than in the Yamnaya culture. Similar horse burials also appeared in the earlier Khvalynsk culture, and in the Poltavka culture.

Catacomb burials are occasionally covered with Kurgan stelae. This practice was also common in the Yamnaya culture. Some three hundred stelae have been found from the Yamnaya culture and the Catacomb culture.

Catacomb burials are sometimes accompanied by wheeled vehicles. Such wagon burials are attested in the earlier Yamnaya culture, and later among Iranian peoples (Scythians), Celts and Italic peoples. Aspects of the burial rite of the Catacomb culture have been detected in the Bishkent culture of southern Tajikistan.

In some cases the skull of deceased Catacomb people was modelled in clay. This involved the filling of the mouth, ears and nasal cavity with clay and modeling the surface features of the face.

This practice is associated with high-status burials containing prestige items. The practice was performed on both men, women and children. It has been suggested that these clay masks may have served as a prototype for the later gold masks found in Mycenaean Greece.

The economy of the Catacomb culture is believed to have been based mostly on stockbreeding, although traces of grain have been found. Remains of cattle, sheep, goat, horse and some pigs have been found. Plant remains are exceedingly rare, but traces of wheat, such as einkorn and emmer, have been found. Wooden ploughs have been found at Catacomb burials, indicating that agriculture was practiced.

There seem to have been skilled specialists, particularly metal-workers. The types of tools used by the Catacomb people suggest that the culture included several craft specialists, including weavers, bronze workers and weapons manufacturers. Similar metal types to those of the Catacomb culture later appears among the Abashevo culture.

Little evidence of Catacomb settlements has been found. These are mostly seasonal camp-sites located near soures of water. A larger settlement has been found at Matveyevka on the southern Bug. It has three large structures with foundations of stone. On the island of Bayda in the Dnieper river, a stone-built fortress of the late Catacomb period with a surrounding ditch has been found.

Catacomb ceramics is more elaborate than those of the Yamnaya culture. Low footed vessels that have been discovered in female burials are believed to have been used in rituals that included the use of narcotic substances such as hemp. Catacomb ceramics appears to have influenced the ceramics of the Abashevo culture and the Sintashta culture.

Evidence of early composite bows have been yielded from the Catacomb culture. Quivers with space for ten to twenty arrows have also been found. Its arrowheads may have influenced those of the Sintashta culture.

Its hollow-based flint arrowheads are similar to those of the Middle Dnieper culture. Stone battle-axes of the Catacomb culture are similar to those of the Fatyanovo–Balanovo culture. A knife from ca. 2500 BC ascribed to the Catacomb culture in the Donets had a handle of arsenical bronze and a blade made of iron.

Wheeled vehicles have been found in Catacomb burials. Some of these have been suggested as among the earliest chariots that have been found. Bronze warty beads of the Catacomb culture are similar to those of the Sintashta culture.

Certain variants of the Catacomb culture, particularly those centered at the Donets, appear to have practiced cranial deformation. This may have been an aesthetic device or an ethnic marker. Around 9% of Catacomb skulls had holes drilled into them. This appears to have been associated with a ritual or medical practice. Remains of bears have been found at Catacomb sites.

The Catacomb people were massively built Europoids. Their skulls are similar to those of the Potapovka culture. Potapovka skulls are less dolichocephalic than those of the Fatyanovo–Balanovo culture, Abashevo culture, Sintashta culture, Srubnaya culture and western Andronovo culture.

The physical type of the Potapovka appears to have emerged through a mixture between the strongly dolichocephalic type of the Sintashta, and the less dolichocephalic type of the Yamnaya culture and Poltavka culture.

A genetic study published in August 2014 examined the DNA of the remains of 28 Catacomb individuals. Catacomb people were found to have much higher frequencies of the maternal haplogroups U5 and U4 than people of the preceding Yamnaya culture. Haplogroups U5 and U4 are typical of Western Hunter-Gatherers and Eastern Hunter-Gatherers.

A generic similarity between Catacomb people and northern hunter-gatherers, particularly the people of the Pitted Ware culture of southern Scandinavia, was detected. It was suggested that the Catacomb people and the Yamnaya people were not as genetically admixed as previously believed. Interestingly, the modern population of Ukraine was found to be more closely related to people of the Yamnaya culture than people of the Catacomb culture.

In genetic study published in the Journal of Human Genetics in 2017, the remains of several individuals from the Catacomb culture were analyzed. One individual was found to be carrying haplogroup U5, while another carried U5a. These and other subclades of haplogroup U have been found in high frequencies among early hunter-gatherers of Northern Europe and Eastern Europe.

From the Mesolithic they appear among populations of the Pontic steppe, including the Sredny Stog culture, the Yamnaya culture, the Corded Ware culture, the Andronovo culture, the Srubnaya culture and the Scythians. This suggests continuity of mtDNA among populations of the Pontic steppe going back at least to the Bronze Age.

In a genetic study published in Scientific Reports in 2018, the remains of two individuals from the Catacomb culture were analyzed. Both were found to belong to haplogroup X4. They are the first ancient individuals that have been identified with this lineage, which is very rare among modern populations.

In a February 2019 study published in Nature Communications, the remains of five individuals ascribed to the Catacomb culture were analyzed. Three males were found to be carrying R1b1a2. With regards to mtDNA, all five individuals carried various subclades of haplogroup U (particularly U5 and U4).

The Catacomb culture was Indo-European-speaking. It has sometimes been considered ancestral to Indo-Iranian or Thracian. More recently, scholars have suggested that the culture provided a common background for Greek, Armenian and Indo-Iranian.

The Srubnaya culture was a successor of the Catacomb culture. It has been suggested that the Abashevo culture was partially derived from the Catacomb culture. Parts of the area of the Catacomb culture came to be occupied by the Abashevo culture, and later by the Srubnaya culture.

The Multi-cordoned ware culture was an eastern successor of the Catacomb culture. It in turn may have played a role in the emergence of the Potapovka culture and the Sintashta culture, and thus on the formation of the Andronovo culture.

Morphological data suggests that the Sintashta culture might have emerged as a result of a mixture of steppe ancestry from the Poltavka culture and Catacomb culture, with ancestry from Neolithic forest hunter-gatherers.

Srubna culture

The Catacomb culture was ousted by the Srubna (lit. ‘log house culture’) culture (18th–12th centuries BC), also known as Timber-grave culture, a Late Bronze Age  culture in the eastern part of Pontic-Caspian steppe.

The Srubnaya culture is a successor of the Yamna culture, Catacomb culture and Poltavka culture. It is co-ordinate and probably closely related to the Andronovo culture, its eastern neighbor. Whether the Srubnaya culture originated in the east, west, or was a local development, is disputed among archaeologists.

The Srubnaya culture occupied the area along and above the north shore of the Black Sea from the Dnieper eastwards along the northern base of the Caucasus to the area abutting the north shore of the Caspian Sea, west of the Ural Mountains.

The Srubnaya culture is generally considered to have been Iranian. It has been suggested as a staging area from which the Iranian peoples migrated across the Caucasus into the Iranian Plateau. Historical testimony indicate that the Srubnaya culture was succeeded by the Cimmerians and Scythians.

Abashevo culture

The Abashevo culture is a later Bronze Age (ca. 2500-1900 BCE) archaeological culture found in the valleys of the Volga and Kama River north of the Samara bend and into the southern Ural Mountains. It receives its name from a village of Abashevo in Chuvashia. Artifacts are kurgans and remnants of settlements.

The Abashevo culture was preceded by the Yamna culture and was the easternmost of the Russian forest zone cultures that descended from Corded Ware ceramic traditions.

The economy was mixed agriculture. Cattle, sheep, goat, as well as other domestic animals were kept. Horses were evidently used, inferred by cheek pieces typical of neighboring steppe cultures (as well to those of (earliest) Mycenae). The population of Sintashta derived their stock-breeding from Abashevo, although the role of the pig shrinks sharply.

It follows the Yamna culture and Balanovo culture in its inhumation practices in tumuli. Flat graves were also a component of the Abashevo culture burial rite, as in the earlier Fatyanovo culture. Grave offerings are scant, little more than a pot or two. Some graves show evidence of a birch bark floor and a timber construction forming walls and roof.

There is evidence of copper-smelting, and the culture would seem connected to copper mining activities in the southern Urals. The Abashevo culture was an important center of metallurgy and stimulated the formation of Sintashta metallurgy.

The Abashevo ethno-linguistic identity can only be a subject of speculation, reflecting both northern penetration of the earlier Iranian steppe Poltavka culture as well as an extension of Fatyanovo-Balanovo traditions.

Skulls of the Abashevo differ from those of the Timber grave, earlier Catacomb culture, or the Potapovka culture. Abashevo probably witnessed a process of assimilation which presupposses a bilingual population. There were likely contacts with Uralic-speakers, and this is a convenient place for the origin of some loan-words into Uralic. Some of the Volosovo culture of the region were absorbed into the Abashevo populace, as corded-impressed Abashevo pottery is found side by side with comb-stamped Volosovo ceramics sometimes in the same structure at archaeological sites.

It occupied part of the area of the earlier Fatyanovo-Balanovo culture, the eastern variant of the earlier Corded Ware culture, but whatever relationship there is between the two cultures is uncertain. The pre-eminent expert on the Abashevo culture, A. Pryakhin, concludeded that it originated from contacts between Fatyanovo / Balanovo and Catacomb / Poltavka peoples in the southern forest-steppe.

The Abashevo culture played a significant role in the origin of Sintashta, and early Abashevo ceramic styles strongly influenced Sintashta ceramics. It does not pertain to the Andronovo culture and genetically belongs to the circle of Central European cultures of the Fatyanovo culture type corded ware ceramics. It was succeeded by the Srubna culture and the Sintashta culture.

Andronovo culture

The Andronovo culture is a collection of similar local Bronze Age cultures that flourished ca. 1800–1400 BCE in western Siberia and the west Asiatic steppe. It is probably better termed an archaeological complex or archaeological horizon.

At least four sub-cultures of the Andronovo horizon have been distinguished, during which the culture expands towards the south and the east: Fedorovo (1900–1400 BC) in southern Siberia (earliest evidence of cremation and fire cult), Alakul (1800–1500 BC) between Oxus and Jaxartes, Kyzylkum desert, Eastern Fedorovo (1750-1500 BC) in Tian Shan mountains (Northwestern Xinjiang, China), southeastern Kazakhstan, eastern Kyrgyzstan, and Alekseyevka (1200–1000 BC), the “final Bronze Age phase” in eastern Kazakhstan with contacts with Namazga VI in Turkmenia.

In the initial Sintastha-Petrovka phase the Andronovo culture is limited to the northern and western steppes in the southern Urals-Kazakhstan. Towards the middle of the 2nd millennium, in the Alakul Phase (1800–1500 BC), the Fedorovo Phase (1900–1400 BC) and the final Alekseyevka Phase (1400–1000 BC), the Andronovo cultures begin to move intensively eastwards, expanding as far east as the Upper Yenisei in the Altai Mountains, succeeding the non-Indo-European Okunev culture.

Towards the middle of the 2nd millennium, the Andronovo cultures begin to move intensively eastwards. However, some authors have challenged the chronology and model of eastward spread due to increasing evidence for the earlier presence of these cultural features in parts of east Central Asia.

The name derives from the village of Andronovo, where in 1914, several graves were discovered, with skeletons in crouched positions, buried with richly decorated pottery. Two sub-cultures have been since distinguished, during which the culture expands towards the south and the east: Alakul (1800–1400 BCE) and Fedorovo (1700–1300 BCE).

The geographical extent of the culture is vast and difficult to delineate exactly. On its western fringes, it overlaps with the approximately contemporaneous, but distinct, Srubna culture in the Volga-Ural interfluvial. To the east, it reaches into the Minusinsk depression, with some sites as far west as the southern Ural Mountains, overlapping with the area of the earlier Afanasevo culture.

Additional sites are scattered as far south as the Koppet Dag (Turkmenistan), the Pamir (Tajikistan) and the Tian Shan (Kyrgyzstan). The northern boundary vaguely corresponds to the beginning of the Taiga. More recently, evidence for the presence of the culture in Xinjiang in far-western China has also been found.

In the Volga basin, interaction with the Srubna culture was the most intense and prolonged, and Federovo style pottery is found as far west as Volgograd. Mallory notes that the Tazabagyab culture south of Andronovo could be an offshoot of the former (or Srubna), alternatively the result of an amalgamation of steppe cultures and the Central Asian oasis cultures (Bishkent culture and Vaksh culture).

The Andronovo culture consisted of both communities that were largely mobile as well as those settled in small villages. Settlements are especially pronounced in its Central Asian parts. Fortifications include ditches, earthen banks as well as timber palisades, of which an estimated twenty have been discovered.

Andronovo villages typically contain around two to twenty houses, but settlements containing as much as a hundred houses have been discovered. Andronovo houses were generally constructed from pine, cedar, or birch, and were usually aligned overlooking the banks of rivers. Larger homes range in the size from 80 to 300 sqm, and probably belonged to extended families, a typical feature among early Indo-Iranians.

Andronovo livestock included cattle, horses, sheep, goats and camels. The domestic pig is notably absent, which is typical of a mobile economy. The percentage of cattle among Andronovo remains are significantly higher than among their western Srubna neighbours.

The horse was represented on Andronovo sites and was used for both riding and traction. Agriculture also played an important role in the Andronovo economy. The Andronovo culture is notable for regional advances in metallurgy. They mined deposits of copper ore in the Altai Mountains from around the 14th century BC. Bronze objects were numerous, and workshops existed for working copper.

The Andronovo dead were buried in timber or stone chambers under both round and rectangular kurgans (tumuli). Burials were accompanied by livestock, wheeled vehicles, cheek-pieces for horses, and weapons, ceramics and ornaments. Among the most notable remains are the burials of chariots, dating from around 2000 BC and possibly earlier. The chariots are found with paired horse-teams, and the ritual burial of the horse in a “head and hooves” cult has also been found. Some Andronovo dead were buried in pairs, of adults or adult and child.

At Kytmanovo in Russia between Mongolia and Kazakhstan, dated 1746–1626 BC, a strain of Yersinia pestis was extracted from a dead woman’s tooth in a grave common to her and to two children.

This strain’s genes express flagellin, which triggers the human immune response. However, by contrast with other prehistoric Yersinia pestis bacteria, the strain does so weakly; later, historic plague does not express flagellin at all, accounting for its virulence. The Kytmanovo strain was therefore under selection toward becoming a plague (although it was not the plague). The three people in that grave all died at the same time, and the researcher believes that this para-plague is what killed them.

They mined deposits of copper ore in the Altai Mountains and lived in villages of as many as ten sunken log cabin houses measuring up to 30m by 60m in size. Burials were made in stone cists or stone enclosures with buried timber chambers.

In other respects, the economy was pastoral, based on cattle, horses, sheep, and goats. While agricultural use has been posited, no clear evidence has been presented. The Andronovo culture is strongly associated with the Indo-Iranians and is often credited with the invention of the spoke-wheeled chariot around 2000 BCE. It is also notable for regional advances in metallurgy.

Most researchers associate the Andronovo horizon with early Indo-Iranian languages, though it may have overlapped the early Uralic-speaking area at its northern fringe. The older Sintashta culture (2200–1800 BC), formerly included within the Andronovo culture, is now considered separately within Early Andronovo cultures.

It is almost universally agreed among scholars that the Andronovo culture was Indo-Iranian; it is furthermore credited with the invention of the spoke-wheeled chariot around 2000 BC. Sintashta on the upper Ural River, noted for its chariot burials and kurgans containing horse burials, is considered the type site of the Sintashta culture, forming one of the earliest parts of the “Andronovo horizon”. It is conjectured that the language spoken was still in the Proto-Indo-Iranian stage.

The association between the Andronovo culture and the Indo-Iranians is corroborated by the distribution of Iranian place-names across the Andronovo horizon and by the historical evidence of dominance by various Iranian peoples, including Saka (Scythians), Sarmatians and Alans, throughout the Andronovo horizon during the 1st millennium BC.

Comparisons between the archaeological evidence of the Andronovo and textual evidence of Indo-Iranians (i. e. the Vedas and the Avesta) are frequently made to support the Indo-Iranian identity of the Andronovo.

The modern explanations for the Indo-Iranianization of Greater Iran and the Indian subcontinent rely heavily on the supposition that the Andronovo expanded southwards into Central Asia or at least achieved linguistic dominance across the Bronze Age urban centres of the region, such as the Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex.

While the earliest phases of the Andronovo culture are regarded as co-ordinate with the late period of Indo-Iranian linguistic unity, it is likely that in the later period they constituted a branch of the Iranians. According to Narasimhan et al. (2018), the expansion of the Andronovo culture towards the BMAC took place via the Inner Asia Mountain Corridor.

According to Hiebert, an expansion of the BMAC into Iran and the margin of the Indus Valley is “the best candidate for an archaeological correlate of the introduction of Indo-Iranian speakers to Iran and South Asia,” despite the absence of the characteristic timber graves of the steppe in the Near East, or south of the region between Kopet Dagh and Pamir-Karakorum.

Mallory acknowledges the difficulties of making a case for expansions from Andronovo to northern India, and that attempts to link the Indo-Aryans to such sites as the Beshkent and Vakhsh cultures “only gets the Indo-Iranian to Central Asia, but not as far as the seats of the Medes, Persians or Indo-Aryans”. He has developed the Kulturkugel model that has the Indo-Iranians taking over Bactria-Margiana cultural traits but preserving their language and religion while moving into Iran and India.

Fred Hiebert also agrees that an expansion of the BMAC into Iran and the margin of the Indus Valley is “the best candidate for an archaeological correlate of the introduction of Indo-Iranian speakers to Iran and South Asia.”

Based on its use by Indo-Aryans in Mitanni and Vedic India, its prior absence in the Near East and Harappan India, and its 16th–17th century BC attestation at the Andronovo site of Sintashta, Kuzmina (1994) argues that the chariot corroborates the identification of Andronovo as Indo-Iranian. Klejn (1974) and Brentjes (1981) found the Andronovo culture much too late for an Indo-Iranian identification since chariot-using Aryans appear in Mitanni by the 15th century BC. However, Anthony & Vinogradov (1995) dated a chariot burial at Krivoye Lake to around 2000 BC.

Eugene Helimski has suggested that the Andronovo people spoke a separate branch of the Indo-Iranian group of languages. He claims that borrowings in the Finno-Ugric languages support this view. Vladimir Napolskikh has proposed that borrowings in Finno-Ugric indicate that the language was specifically of the Indo-Aryan type.

Since older forms of Indo-Iranian words have been taken over in Uralic and Proto-Yeniseian, occupation by some other languages (also lost ones) cannot be ruled out altogether, at least for part of the Andronovo area, i. e., Uralic and Yeniseian.

Based on its use by Indo-Aryans in Mitanni and Vedic India, its prior absence in the Near East and Harappan India, and its 16th–17th century BCE attestation at the Andronovo site of Sintashta, Kuzmina (1994) argues that the chariot corroborates the identification of Andronovo as Indo-Iranian.

Klejn (1974) and Brentjes (1981) find the Andronovo culture much too late for an Indo-Iranian identification since chariot-wielding Aryans appear in Mitanni by the 15th to 16th century BCE. However, Anthony & Vinogradov (1995) dated a chariot burial at Krivoye Lake to around 2000 BCE.

The identification of Andronovo as Indo-Iranian has been challenged by scholars who point to the absence of the characteristic timber graves of the steppe south of the Oxus River. Sarianidi states that “direct archaeological data from Bactria and Margiana show without any shade of doubt that Andronovo tribes penetrated to a minimum extent into Bactria and Margianian oases”.

According to genetic study conducted by Allentoft et al. (2015), the Andronovo culture and the preceding Sintashta culture are partially derived from the Corded Ware culture, given the higher proportion of ancestry matching the earlier farmers of Europe, similar to the admixture found in the genomes of the Corded Ware population.

Mallory admits the extraordinary difficulty of making a case for expansions from Andronovo to northern India, and that attempts to link the Indo-Aryans to such sites as the Beshkent and Vakhsh cultures “only gets the Indo-Iranians to Central Asia, but not as far as the seats of the Medes, Persians or Indo-Aryans”.

Eugene Helimski has suggested that the Andronovo people spoke a separate branch of the Indo-Iranian group. He claims that borrowings in the Finno-Ugric languages support this view.

Vladimir Napolskikh has proposed that borrowings in Finno-Ugric indicate that the language was specifically of the Indo-Aryan type. An alternative possibility for the language of Andronovo may be Burušaski (now spoken in Kašmīr) or Ĥapirti (Elamitic), anciently spoken in Ĥuzistan.

The Andronovo have been described by archaeologists as exhibiting pronounced Caucasoid features. Other studies confirm that during Bronze Age in areas to the north of present-day China, the boundary between Caucasoid and Mongoloid populations was on the eastern slopes of the Altai, in Western Mongolia. Some Caucasoid influence extended also into Northeast Mongolia, and the population of present-day Kazakhstan was Caucasoid during the Bronze and Iron Age period.

Archaeological investigations likewise suggest that in the steppe region of Central Asia and the Altai Mountains, the first food production began towards the end of the third millennium BC and that the peoples who first entered this region were Caucasoid of the Afanasevo culture who came from the Aral Sea area (Kelteminar culture).

Physical remains of the Andronovo has revealed that they were Europoids with dolichocephalic skulls. Andronovo skulls are very similar to those of the preceding Fatyanovo–Balanovo culture, Abashevo culture and Sintashta culture, and the contemporary Srubnaya culture.

They differ slighly from the skulls of the Yamnaya culture, Poltavka culture, Catacomb culture and Potapovka culture, which although being of a similar robust Europoid type, are less dolichocephalic.

The physical type of Abashevo, Sintashta, Andronovo and Srubnaya is later observed among the Scythians. Through Iranian and Indo-Aryan migrations, this physical type expanded southwards and mixed with aboriginal peoples, contributing to the formation of modern populations in South Asia.

Since older forms of Indo-Iranian words have been taken over in Uralic and Proto-Yeniseian, occupation by some other languages (also lost ones) cannot be ruled out altogether, at least for part of the Andronovo area: i. e., Uralic and Yeniseian.

Out of 10 human male remains assigned to the Andronovo horizon from the Krasnoyarsk region, 9 possessed the R1a Y-chromosome haplogroup and one haplogroup C-M130 (xC3). mtDNA haplogroups of nine individuals assigned to the same Andronovo horizon and region were as follows: U4 (2 individuals), U2e, U5a1, Z, T1, T4, H, and K2b.

90% of the Bronze Age period mtDNA haplogroups were of west Eurasian origin and the study determined that at least 60% of the individuals overall (out of the 26 bronze and Iron Age human remains’ samples of the study that could be tested) had light hair and blue or green eyes.

A 2004 study also established that, during the Bronze/Iron Age period, the majority of the population of Kazakhstan (part of the Andronovo culture during Bronze Age), was of west Eurasian origin (with mtDNA haplogroups such as U, H, HV, T, I and W), and that prior to the thirteenth to seventh century BC, all Kazakh samples belonged to European lineages.

In 2009, a genetic study of ancient Siberian cultures, the Andronovo culture, the Karasuk culture, the Tagar culture and the Tashtyk culture, was published in Human Genetics. Ten individuals of the Andronovo horizon in southern Siberia from 1400 BC to 1000 BC were surveyed. Extractions of mtDNA from nine individuals were determined to represent two samples of haplogroup U4 and single samples of Z1, T1, U2e, T4, H, K2b and U5a1.

Extractions of Y-DNA from one individual was determined to belong to Y-DNA haplogroup C (but not C3), while the other two extractions were determined to belong to haplogroup R1a1a, which is thought to mark the eastward migration of the early Indo-Europeans. Of the individuals surveyed, only two (or 22%) were determined to be Mongoloid, while seven (or 78%) were determined to be Caucasoid, with the majority being light-skinned with predominantly light eyes and light hair.

In June 2015 study published in Nature, one male and three female individuals of Andronovo culture were surveyed. Extraction of Y-DNA from the male was determined to belong to R1a1a1b. Extractions of mtDNA were determined to represent two samples of U4 and two samples of U2e.

The people of the Andronovo culture were found to be closely genetically related to the preceding Sintashta culture, which was in turn closely genetically related to the Corded Ware culture, suggesting that the Sintashta culture represented an eastward expansion of Corded Ware peoples.

The Corded Ware peoples were in turn found to be closely genetically related to the Beaker culture, the Unetice culture and particularly the peoples of the Nordic Bronze Age. Numerous cultural similarities between the Sintashta/Andronovo culture, the Nordic Bronze Age and the peoples of the Rigveda have been detected.

A genetic study published in Nature in May 2018 examined the remains of an Andronovo female buried ca. 1200 BC. She was found to be a carrier of the maternal haplogroup U2e1h.

In a genetic study published in Science in September 2019, a large number of remains from the Andronovo horizon was examined. The vast majority of Y-DNA extracted belonged to R1a1a1b or various subclades of it (particularly R1a1a1b2a2a).

The majority of mtDNA samples extracted belonged to U, although other haplogroups also occurred. The people of the Andronovo culture were found to be closely genetically related to the people of the Corded Ware culture, the Potapovka culture, the Sintashta culture and Srubnaya culture. These were found to harbor mixed ancestry from the Yamnaya culture and peoples of the Central European Middle Neolithic.

People in the northwestern areas of Andronovo were found to be “genetically largely homogeneous” and “genetically almost indistinguishable” from Sintashta people. The genetic data suggested that the Andronovo culture and its Sintastha predecessor were ultimately derived of a remigration of Central European peoples with steppe ancestry back into the steppe.

In southern Siberia and Kazakhstan, the Andronovo culture was succeeded by the Karasuk culture (1500–800 BCE), which is sometimes asserted to be non-Indo-European, and at other times to be specifically proto-Iranian. On its western border, it is succeeded by the Srubna culture, which partly derives from the Abashevo culture.

The earliest historical peoples associated with the area are the Cimmerians and Saka/Scythians, appearing in Assyrian records after the decline of the Alekseyevka culture, migrating into Ukraine from ca. the 9th century BC, and across the Caucasus into Anatolia and Assyria in the late 8th century BC.

It is also possibly migrated west into Europe as the Thracians, and the Sigynnae, located by Herodotus beyond the Danube, north of the Thracians, and by Strabo near the Caspian Sea. Both Herodotus and Strabo identify them as Iranian.

Seima-Turbino Phenomenon

The Altai Mountains in what is now southern Russia and central Mongolia have been identified as the point of origin of a cultural enigma termed the Seima-Turbino Phenomenon.

It is conjectured that changes in climate in this region around 2000 BC and the ensuing ecological, economic and political changes triggered a rapid and massive migration westward into northeast Europe, eastward into China and southward into Vietnam and Thailand across a frontier of some 4,000 miles.

This migration took place in just five to six generations and led to peoples from Finland in the west to Thailand in the east employing the same metal working technology and, in some areas, horse breeding and riding.

It is further conjectured that the same migrations spread the Uralic group of languages across Europe and Asia: some 39 languages of this group are still extant, including Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian and Lappish.

However, recent genetic testings of sites in south Siberia and Kazakhstan (Andronovo horizon) would rather support a spreading of the bronze technology via Indo-European migrations eastwards, as this technology was well known for quite a while in western regions.

Seima-Turbino refers to burial sites dating around 1500 BC found across northern Eurasia, from Finland to Mongolia. The buried were nomadic warriors and metal-workers, travelling on horseback or two-wheeled chariots. These nomads originated from the Altai Mountains. The culture spread from these mountains to the west. Although they were the precursor to the much later Mongol invasions, these groups were not yet strong enough to attack the important social sites of the Bronze Age.

These cultures are noted for being nomadic forest and steppe societies with metal working, sometimes without having first developed agricultural methods. The development of this metalworking ability appears to have taken place quite quickly.

Bronze metallurgy in China originated in what is referred to as the Erlitou (Wade–Giles: Erh-li-t’ou) period, which some historians argue places it within the range of dates controlled by the Shang dynasty. Others believe the Erlitou sites belong to the preceding Xia (Wade–Giles: Hsia) dynasty.

The U.S. National Gallery of Art defines the Chinese Bronze Age as the “period between about 2000 BC and 771 BC,” a period that begins with Erlitou culture and ends abruptly with the disintegration of Western Zhou rule. Though this provides a concise frame of reference, it overlooks the continued importance of bronze in Chinese metallurgy and culture.

Little is known about the arrival of Proto-Greek speakers from the steppes. The Mycenaean culture commenced circa 1650 BCE and is clearly an imported steppe culture. The close relationship between Mycenaean and Proto-Indo-Iranian languages suggest that they split fairly late, some time between 2500 and 2000 BCE.

Archeologically, Mycenaean chariots, spearheads, daggers and other bronze objects show striking similarities with the Seima-Turbino culture (c. 1900-1600 BCE) of the northern Russian forest-steppes, known for the great mobility of its nomadic warriors (Seima-Turbino sites were found as far away as Mongolia). It is therefore likely that the Mycenaean descended from Russia to Greece between 1900 and 1650 BCE, where they intermingled with the locals to create a new unique Greek culture.

Afanasevo culture

The Afanasievo culture (c. 3500–2500 BC) is the earliest known archaeological culture of south Siberia, occupying the Minusinsk Basin and the Altai Mountains during the eneolithic era. It is named after a nearby mountain, Gora Afanasieva (lit. ‘Afanasiev’s mountain’) in what is now Bogradsky District, Khakassia, Russia.

It displays cultural and genetic connections with the Indo-European-associated cultures of the Central Asian steppe yet predates the specifically Indo-Iranian-associated Andronovo culture (c. 2000–900 BC) enough to account for the isolation of the Tocharian languages from Indo-Iranian linguistic innovations like satemization.

David W. Anthony believes that the Afanasevans were descended from people who migrated c. 3700–3300 BCE across the Eurasian Steppe from the Repin culture of the Don-Volga region (and possibly members of the neighbouring Yamnaya culture).

Because of its geographical location and dating, Anthony and earlier scholars such as Leo Klejn, J. P. Mallory and Victor H. Mair have linked the Afanasevans to the Proto-Tocharian language.

Conventional archaeological understanding tended to date at around 2000–2500 BC. However radiocarbon gave dates as early as 3705 BC on wooden tools and 2874 BC on human remains. The earliest of these dates have now been rejected, giving a date of around 3300 BC for the start of the culture.

Mass graves were not usual for this culture. Afanasevo cemeteries include both single and small collective burials with the deceased usually flexed on his back in a pit. The burial pits are arranged in rectangular, sometimes circular, enclosures marked by stone walls. It has been argued that the burials represent family burial plots with four or five enclosures constituting the local social group.

The Afanasevo economy included cattle, sheep, and goat. Horse remains, either wild or domestic, have also been found. The Afanasevo people became the first food-producers in the area. Tools were manufactured from stone (axes, arrowheads), bone (fish-hooks, points) and antler.

Among the antler pieces are objects that have been identified as possible cheek-pieces for horses. Artistic representations of wheeled vehicles found in the area has been attributed to the Afanasevo culture. Ornaments of copper, silver and gold have also been found.

At Afanasevo Gora, two strains of Yersinia pestis have been extracted from human teeth. One is dated 2909–2679 BCE; the other, 2887–2677 BCE. Both are from the same (mass) grave of seven people, and are presumed near-contemporary. This strain’s genes express flagellin, which triggers the human immune response; so it was not a bubonic plague.

A June 2015 genetic study published in Nature included an analysis of four females from the Afanasievo culture. Two individuals carried haplogroup J2a2a, one carried T2c1a2, and one carried U5a1a1. The authors of the study found that the Afanasievo were “genetically indistinguishable” from the Yamnaya culture.

The results indicated that the expansion of the ancestors of the Afanasievo people into the Altai was carried out through “large-scale migrations and population displacements”, without admixture with local populations.

The Afanasievo people were also found to be closely related to the Poltavka culture. According to the authors of the study, the study underpinned the theory that the Afansievo people were Indo-Europeans, perhaps ancestors of the Tocharians.

In a genetic study published in Science in 2018, the remains of 24 individuals ascribed to the Afanasievo culture were analyzed. Of the 14 samples of Y-DNA extracted, 10 belonged to R1b1a1a2a2, 3 belonged to Q1a2, and 1 belonged to R1b1a1a2a.

With respect to mtDNA, most samples belonged to subclades of U (particularly subclades of U5), although T, J, H and K was also detected. The authors of the study cited the results as evidence that the culture emerged as a result of a migration from the Pontic–Caspian steppe.

Because of its numerous traits attributed to the early Indo-Europeans, like metal-use, horses and wheeled vehicles, and cultural relations with Kurgan steppe cultures, the Afanasevans are believed to have been Indo-European-speaking.

However, state of the art bio-archaeological studies have demonstrated that Afansievo was replaced by the Siberian-originating Okunev culture, becoming locally extinct. Thus, there is no link between Afansievo and Tocharians which emerged thousands of years later. Numerous scholars have suggested that the Afanasevo culture was responsible for the introduction of metallurgy to China.

The Afanasevo culture was succeeded by the Okunev culture, which is considered as an extension of the local non-Indo-European forest culture into the region. The Okunev culture nevertheless displays influences from the earlier Afanasievo culture. The region was subsequently occupied by the Andronovo, Karasuk, Tagar and Tashtyk cultures, respectively.

Allentoft and coauthors (2015) study also confirms that the Afanasevo culture was replaced by the second wave of Indo-European migrations from the Andronovo culture during late Bronze Age and early Iron Age. Tarim mummies were also found to be genetically closer to the Andronovo culture than to the Yamnaya culture or Afanasevo culture.


Xinjiang, officially the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, is an autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China, located in the northwest of the country. The most well-known route of the historical Silk Road ran through the territory from the east to its northwestern border. It is home to a number of ethnic groups, including the Uyghur, Han, Kazakhs, Tibetans, Hui, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Mongols, Russians and Xibe.

More than a dozen autonomous prefectures and counties for minorities are in Xinjiang. Older English-language reference works often refer to the area as Chinese Turkestan. It is divided into the Dzungarian Basin in the north and the Tarim Basin in the south by a mountain range. Only about 9.7% of Xinjiang’s land area is fit for human habitation.

According to J. P. Mallory and Victor H. Mair, the Chinese describe the existence of “white people with long hair” or the Bai people in the Shan Hai Jing, who lived beyond their northwestern border.

The well-preserved Tarim mummies with Caucasoid features, often with reddish or blond hair, today displayed at the Ürümqi Museum and dated to the 2nd millennium BC (4000 years ago), have been found in the same area of the Tarim Basin.

Between 2009–2015, the remains of 92 individuals found at the Xiaohe Tomb complex were analyzed for Y-DNA and mtDNA markers. Genetic analyses of the mummies showed that the maternal lineages of the Xiaohe people originated from both East Asia and West Eurasia, whereas the paternal lineages all originated from West Eurasia.

Various nomadic tribes, such as the Yuezhi, Saka, and Wusun were probably part of the migration of Indo-European speakers who were settled in eastern Central Asia (possibly as far as Gansu) at that time. The Ordos culture in northern China east of the Yuezhi, is another example.

By the time the Han dynasty under Emperor Wu (r. 141–87 BC) wrestled the Western Regions of the Tarim Basin away from its previous overlords, the Xiongnu, it was inhabited by various peoples, such as Indo-European Tocharians in Turfan and Kucha and Indo-Iranian Saka peoples centered around Kashgar and Khotan.

Nomadic cultures such as the Yuezhi (Rouzhi) are documented in the area of Xinjiang where the first known reference to the Yuezhi was made in 645 BC by the Chinese Guan Zhong in his work Guanzi.

He described the Yúshì, or Niúshì, as a people from the north-west who supplied jade to the Chinese from the nearby mountains (also known as Yushi) in Gansu. The supply of jade from the Tarim Basin from ancient times is well documented archaeologically: “It is well known that ancient Chinese rulers had a strong attachment to jade.

All of the jade items excavated from the tomb of Fuhao of the Shang dynasty, more than 750 pieces, were from Khotan in modern Xinjiang. As early as the mid-first millennium BC, the Yuezhi engaged in the jade trade, of which the major consumers were the rulers of agricultural China.”

Traversed by the Northern Silk Road, the Tarim and Dzungaria regions were known as the Western Regions. It was inhabited by various peoples, including Indo-European Tocharians in Turfan and Kucha and Indo-Iranian Saka peoples centered around Kashgar and Khotan.

At the beginning of the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), the region was subservient to the Xiongnu, a powerful nomadic people based in modern Mongolia. In the 2nd century BC, the Han dynasty made preparations for war against Xiongnu when Emperor Wu of Han dispatched the explorer Zhang Qian to explore the mysterious kingdoms to the west and to form an alliance with the Yuezhi people in order to combat the Xiongnu.

As a result of these battles, the Chinese controlled the strategic region from the Ordos and Gansu corridor to Lop Nor. They succeeded in separating the Xiongnu from the Qiang peoples to the south, and also gained direct access to the Western Regions.

Han China sent Zhang Qian as an envoy to the states in the region, beginning several decades of struggle between the Xiongnu and Han China over dominance of the region, eventually ending in Chinese success.

In 60 BC Han China established the Protectorate of the Western Regions at Wulei, near modern Luntai, to oversee the entire region as far west as the Pamir Mountains, which would remain under the influence and suzerainty of the Han dynasty with some interruptions. For instance, it fell out of their control during the civil war against Wang Mang (r. AD 9–23). It was brought back under Han control in AD 91 due to the efforts of the general Ban Chao.

The Western Jin dynasty succumbed to successive waves of invasions by nomads from the north at the beginning of the 4th century. The short-lived kingdoms that ruled northwestern China one after the other, including Former Liang, Former Qin, Later Liang, and Western Liáng, all attempted to maintain the protectorate, with varying degrees of success.

After the final reunification of northern China under the Northern Wei empire, its protectorate controlled what is now the southeastern region of Xinjiang. Local states such as Shule, Yutian, Guizi and Qiemo controlled the western region, while the central region around Turpan was controlled by Gaochang, remnants of a state (Northern Liang) that once ruled part of what is now Gansu province in northwestern China.

During the Tang dynasty, a series of expeditions were conducted against the Western Turkic Khaganate, and their vassals, the oasis states of southern Xinjiang. Campaigns against the oasis states began under Emperor Taizong with the annexation of Gaochang in 640.

The nearby kingdom of Karasahr was captured by the Tang in 644 and the kingdom of Kucha was conquered in 649. The Tang Dynasty then established the Protectorate General to Pacify the West or Anxi Protectorate in 640 to control the region.

During the devastating Anshi Rebellion, which nearly led to the destruction of the Tang dynasty, Tibet invaded the Tang on a wide front, from Xinjiang to Yunnan. It occupied the Tang capital of Chang’an in 763 for 16 days, and took control of southern Xinjiang by the end of the century. At the same time, the Uyghur Khaganate took control of northern Xinjiang, as well as much of the rest of Central Asia, including Mongolia.

As both Tibet and the Uyghur Khaganate declined in the mid-9th century, the Kara-Khanid Khanate, which was a confederation of Turkic tribes such as the Karluks, Chigils and Yaghmas, took control of western Xinjiang in the 10th century and the 11th century.

Meanwhile, after the Uyghur Khaganate in Mongolia had been smashed by the Kirghiz in 840, branches of the Uyghurs established themselves in Qocha (Karakhoja) and Beshbalik, near the modern cities of Turfan and Urumchi.

This Uyghur state remained in eastern Xinjiang until the 13th century, though it was subject to foreign overlords during that time. The Kara-Khanids converted to Islam. The Uyghur state in eastern Xinjiang remained Manichaean, but later converted to Buddhism.

In 1132, remnants of the Liao dynasty from Manchuria entered Xinjiang, fleeing the rebellion of their neighbors, the Jurchens. They established a new empire, the Qara Khitai, which ruled over both the Kara-Khanid-held and Uyghur-held parts of the Tarim Basin for the next century. Although Khitan and Chinese were the primary languages of administration, the empire also administered in Persian and Uyghur.

Hexi Corridor

Hexi Corridor, or Gansu Corridor, is an important historical route in Gansu province of China. As part of the Northern Silk Road running northwest from the bank of the Yellow River, it was the most important route from North China to the Tarim Basin and Central Asia for traders and the military.

The corridor is a string of oases along the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. To the south is the high and desolate Tibetan Plateau and to the north, the Gobi Desert and the grasslands of Outer Mongolia.

At the west end the route splits in three, going either north of the Tian Shan or south on either side of the Tarim Basin. At the east end are mountains around Lanzhou before one reaches the Wei River valley and China proper.

The Hexi Corridor is a long, narrow passage stretching for some 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) from the steep Wushaolin hillside near the modern city of Lanzhou to the Jade Gate at the border of Gansu and Xinjiang. There are many fertile oases along the path, watered by rivers flowing from the Qilian Mountains, such as the Shiyang, Jinchuan, Ejin (Heihe), and Shule Rivers.

A strikingly inhospitable environment surrounds this chain of oases: the snow-capped Qilian Mountains (“Nanshan”) to the south; the Beishan mountainous area, the Alashan Plateau, and the vast expanse of the Gobi desert to the north. Geologically, the Hexi Corridor belongs to a Cenozoic foreland basin system on the northeast margin of the Tibetan Plateau.

The ancient trackway formerly passed through Haidong, Xining and the environs of Juyan Lake, serving an effective area of about 215,000 km2 (83,000 sq mi). It was an area where mountain and desert limited caravan traffic to a narrow trackway, where relatively small fortifications could control passing traffic.

There are several major cities along the Hexi Corridor. In western Gansu Province is Dunhuang (Shazhou), then Yumen, then Jiayuguan, then Jiuquan (Suzhou), then Zhangye (Ganzhou) in the center, then Jinchang, then Wuwei (Liangzhou) and finally Lanzhou in the southeast.

Yumen Pass, or Jade Gate or Pass of the Jade Gate, is the name of a pass of the Great Wall located west of Dunhuang in today’s Gansu Province of China. During the Han dynasty (202 BC – AD 220), this was a pass through which the Silk Road passed, and was the one road connecting Central Asia and China, the former called the Western Regions.

Just to the south was the Yangguan (lit: ‘Sun Gate’) pass, which was also an important point on the Silk Road. Yangguan Pass is a mountain pass that was fortified by Emperor Wu of the Western Han Dynasty around 120 BC and used as an outpost in the colonial dominions adjacent to ancient China.

It is located approximately 70 kilometres (43 mi) southwest of Dunhuang, in the Gansu territory to the west of the Shaanxi province in the far Northwest China, which was in ancient times the westernmost administrative center of China.

It was established as a frontier defense post, as well as a developed place in China’s remote western frontier; Emperor Wu encouraged Chinese to settle there. Today Yangguan is located in Nanhu Village, along the Hexi Corridor.

Yangguan is one of China’s two most important western passes, the other being Yumenguan. In Chinese, yang means “sunny”, but it can also be used to mean “south” (the sunny side of a hill being the southern side). Yangguan was therefore so-named because it lies to the south of the Yumenguan Pass.

In the past, Dunhuang was part of the area known as the Western Regions. South of Gansu Province, in the middle just over the provincial boundary, lies the city of Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province. Xining used to be the chief commercial hub of the Hexi Corridor.

The Jiayuguan fort guards the western entrance to China. It’s located in Jiayuguan pass at the narrowest point of the Hexi Corridor, some 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) southwest of the city of Jiayuguan. The Jiyaguyan fort is the first fortification of Great Wall of China in the west.

Cultivated wheat, originating at the Fertile Crescent, appeared in China around 2800 BC at Donghuishan at the Hexi corridor. Several other crops are also attested at this time period. Xishanping is another similar site in Gansu.

According to Dodson and coauthors (2013), wheat entered via the Hexi Corridor into northern Gangsu around 3000 BC, although other scholars date this somewhat later. The Chinese millets (Panicum miliaceum, and Setaria italica), rice, as well as other crops travelled the opposite way through the Corridor, and reached western Asia and Europe from the fifth millennium to the second millennium BC.

As early as the 1st millennium BCE, silk goods began appearing in Siberia, having traveled over the Northern branch of the Silk Road, including the Hexi Corridor segment.

At the end of the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE), the Yuezhi overcame previous settlers, the Wusun and Qiang, occupying the western Hexi Corridor. Later, Northern Xiongnu armies vanquished the Yuezhi and established dominance here during the early Han dynasty.

During the Han–Xiongnu War, Han China expelled the Xiongnu from the Hexi Corridor in 121 BCE and even drove them from Lop Nur when King Hunye surrendered to Huo Qubing in 121 BCE. The Han acquired a territory stretching from the Hexi Corridor to Lop Nur, thus cutting the Xiongnu off from their Qiang allies.

Again, Han forces repelled a joint Xiongnu-Qiang invasion of this northwestern territory in 111 BCE. After 111 BCE, new outposts were established, four of them in the Hexi Corridor, namely Jiuquan, Zhangye, Dunhuang, and Guzang (Wuwei).

From roughly 115–60 BCE, Han forces fought the Xiongnu over control of the oasis city-states in the Tarim Basin. Han was eventually victorious and established the Protectorate of the Western Regions in 60 BCE, which dealt with the region’s defense and foreign affairs.

During the turbulent reign of Wang Mang, Han lost control over the Tarim Basin, which was conquered by the Xiongnu in 63 CE, and used as a base to invade the Hexi Corridor. Dou Gu defeated the Xiongnu again at the Battle of Yiwulu in 73 CE, evicting them from Turpan and chasing them as far as Lake Barkol before establishing a garrison at Hami.

After the new Protector General of the Western Regions Chen Mu was killed in 75 CE by allies of the Xiongnu in Karasahr and Kucha, the garrison at Hami was withdrawn. At the Battle of the Altai Mountains in 89 CE, Dou Xian defeated the Northern Chanyu, who retreated into the Altai Mountains.

The Tang dynasty fought the Tibetan Empire for control of areas in Inner and Central Asia. There was a long string of conflicts with Tibet over territories in the Tarim Basin between 670–692 .

In 763 the Tibetans even captured the Tang capital of Chang’an for fifteen days during the An Lushan Rebellion. It was during this rebellion that the Tang withdrew its western garrisons stationed in what is now Gansu and Qinghai, which the Tibetans then occupied along with the area that is modern Xinjiang.

Hostilities between the Tang and Tibet continued until they signed a formal peace treaty in 821. The terms of this treaty, including fixed borders between the two countries, are recorded in a bilingual inscription on a stone pillar outside the Jokhang in Lhasa.

The Western Xia Dynasty, known also as the Tangut Empire, was established in the 11th century by Tangut tribes. Western Xia controlled from 1038 CE up to 1227 CE the areas in what are now the northwestern Chinese provinces of Gansu, Shaanxi, and Ningxia.

Genghis Khan began the Mongol conquest of the Jin dynasty around 1207 and Ögedei Khan continued it after his death in 1227. The Jin dynasty of the Jurchen people fell in 1234 CE with help from the Han Chinese dynasty of the Southern Song.

Ögedei also crushed the Western Xia in 1227, pacifying the Hexi Corridor region, which was later controlled by the Yuan dynasty established by Kublai Khan, the fifth Khagan of the Mongol Empire. The Yuan lasted officially from 1271-1368.

Tarim Basin

The Tarim Basin is an endorheic basin in northwest China. Located in China’s Xinjiang region, it is sometimes used synonymously to refer the southern half of the province, or Nanjiang (lit: ‘Southern Xinjiang’), as opposed to the northern half of the province known as Dzungaria or Beijiang (lit: ‘Northern Xinjiang’).

Its northern boundary is the Tian Shan mountain range and its southern boundary is the Kunlun Mountains on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. The Taklamakan Desert dominates much of the basin. The historical Uyghur name for the Tarim Basin is Altishahr, which means “six cities” in Uyghur.

Nanjiang and Beijiang are two geographically, historically, and ethnically distinct regions with different historical names, Dzungaria and the Tarim Basin (Altishahr), before Qing China unified them into one political entity called Xinjiang province in 1884.

The Northern Silk Road on one route bypassed the Tarim Basin north of the Tian Shan mountains and traversed it on three oases-dependent routes: one north of the Taklamakan Desert, one south, and a middle one connecting both through the Lop Nor region.

The northern Tarim route ran from Kashgar over Aksu, Kucha, Korla, through the Iron Gate Pass, over Karasahr, Jiaohe, Turpan, Gaochang and Kumul to Anxi. The southern Tarim route ran from Kashgar over Yarkant, Karghalik, Pishan, Khotan, Keriya, Niya, Qarqan, Qarkilik, Miran and Dunhuang to Anxi.

The middle Tarim route, allowing the shortest possible itinerary of all four routes, connected Korla on the northern Tarim route over Loulan across the Lop Nor region with Dunhuang on the southern Tarim route. The Lop Nor region became uninhabitable in the 4th century and the middle route has been deserted since the 6th century.

At the time of the Qing conquest in 1759, Dzungaria was inhabited by steppe dwelling, nomadic Tibetan Buddhist Dzungar people, while the Tarim Basin (Altishahr) was inhabited by sedentary, oasis dwelling, Turkic speaking Muslim farmers, now known as the Uyghur people. They were governed separately until 1884.

It is speculated that the Tarim Basin may be one of the last places in Asia to have become inhabited: It is surrounded by mountains and irrigation technologies might have been necessary. The earliest inhabitants of the Tarim Basin may be the Tocharians whose languages are the easternmost group of Indo-European languages.

Caucasoid mummies have been found in various locations in the Tarim Basin such as Loulan, the Xiaohe Tomb complex, and Qäwrighul. These mummies have been suggested to be of Tocharian origin, and these people may have inhabited the region since at least 1800 BCE. They may be related to the “Yuezhi” mentioned in Chinese texts.

Protected by the Taklamakan Desert from steppe nomads, elements of Tocharian culture survived until the 7th century, at the dawning of the 800s with the arriving Turkic immigrants from the collapsing Uyghur Khaganate of modern-day Mongolia began to absorb the Tocharians to form the modern-day Uyghur ethnic group.

Another people in the region besides Tocharian are the Indo-Iranian Saka people who spoke various Eastern Iranian Khotanese Scythian or Saka dialects. In the Achaemenid-era Old Persian inscriptions found at Persepolis, dated to the reign of Darius I (r. 522-486 BC), the Saka are said to have lived just beyond the borders of Sogdiana. Likewise an inscription dated to the reign of Xerxes I (r. 486-465 BC) has them coupled with the Dahae people of Central Asia.

The contemporary Greek historian Herodotus noted that the Achaemenid Persians called all of the Indo-Iranian Scythian peoples as the Saka. They were known as the Sai in ancient Chinese records. These records indicate that they originally inhabited Ili and Chu River valleys of modern Kazakhstan. In the Chinese Book of Han, the area was called the “land of the Sai”, i.e. the Saka.

Presence of a people believed to be Saka has also been found in various location in the Tarim Basin, for example in the Keriya region at Yumulak Kum (Djoumboulak Koum, Yuansha) around 200 km east of Khotan, with a tomb dated to as early as the 7th century BC.

According to the Sima Qian’s Shiji, the nomadic Indo-European Yuezhi originally lived between Tengri Tagh (Tian Shan) and Dunhuang of Gansu, China. However, the Yuezhi were assaulted and forced to flee from the Hexi Corridor of Gansu by the forces of the Xiongnu ruler Modu Chanyu, who conquered the area in 177-176 BC (decades before the Han Chinese conquest and colonization of Gansu or the establishment of the Protectorate of the Western Regions).

In turn the Yuezhi were responsible for attacking and pushing the Sai (i.e. Saka) west into Sogdiana, where in the mid 2nd century BC the latter crossed the Syr Darya into Bactria, but also into the Fergana Valley where they settled in Dayuan, southwards towards northern India, and eastward as well where they settled in some of the oasis city-states of the Tarim Basin.

Whereas the Yuezhi continued westward and conquered Daxia around 177-176 BC, the Sai (i.e. Saka), including some allied Tocharian peoples, fled south to the Pamirs before heading back east to settle in Tarim Basin sites like Yanqi and Qiuci.

The Saka are recorded as inhabiting Khotan by at least the 3rd century and also settled in nearby Shache, a town named after the Saka inhabitants (i.e. saγlâ). Although the ancient Chinese had called Khotan Yutian, it’s more native Iranian names during the Han period were Jusadanna, derived from Indo-Iranian Gostan and Gostana, the names of the town and region around it, respectively.

Around 200 BCE, the Yuezhi were overrun by the Xiongnu. The Xiongnu tried to invade the western region of China, but ultimately failed and lost control of the region to the Chinese. The Han Chinese wrested control of the Tarim Basin from the Xiongnu at the end of the 1st century under the leadership of General Ban Chao (32–102 CE), during the Han-Xiongnu War.

The Chinese administered the Tarim Basin as the Protectorate of the Western Regions. The Tarim Basin was later under many foreign rulers, but ruled primary by Turkic, Han, Tibetan, and Mongolic peoples.

The powerful Kushans, who conquered the last vestiges of the Indo-Greek Kingdom, expanded back into the Tarim Basin in the 1st–2nd centuries CE, where they established a kingdom in Kashgar and competed for control of the area with nomads and Chinese forces. The Yuezhi or Rouzhi were an ancient people first reported in Chinese histories as nomadic pastoralists living in an arid grassland area in the western part of the modern Chinese province of Gansu, during the 1st millennium BC.

After a major defeat by the Xiongnu, during the 2nd century BC, the Yuezhi split into two groups: the Greater Yuezhi and Lesser Yuezhi. They introduced the Brahmi script, the Indian Prakrit language for administration, and Buddhism, playing a central role in the Silk Road transmission of Buddhism to Eastern Asia.

Three pre-Han texts mention peoples who appear to be the Yuezhi, albeit under slightly different names. The philosophical tract Guanzi (73, 78, 80 and 81) mentions nomadic pastoralists known as the Yúzhī or Niúzhī, who supplied jade to the Chinese.

The Guanzi is now generally believed to have been compiled around 26 BC, based on older texts, including some from the Qi state era of the 11th to 3rd centuries BC. Most scholars no longer attribute its primary authorship to Guan Zhong, a Qi official in the 7th century BC.

The export of jade from the Tarim Basin, since at least the late 2nd millennium BC, is well-documented archaeologically. For example, hundreds of jade pieces found in the Tomb of Fu Hao (c. 1200 BC) originated from the Khotan area, on the southern rim of the Tarim Basin. According to the Guanzi, the Yúzhī/Niúzhī, unlike the neighbouring Xiongnu, did not engage in conflict with nearby Chinese states.

The Tale of King Mu, Son of Heaven (early 4th century BC) also mentions the Yúzhī. The Yi Zhou Shu (probably dating from the 4th to 1st century BC) makes separate references to the Yúzhī and Yuèdī. The latter may be a misspelling of the name Yuèzhī found in later texts, composed of characters meaning “moon” and “clan” respectively.

After the Han dynasty, the Kingdoms of the Tarim Basin began to have strong cultural influences on China as a conduit between the cultures of India and Central Asia to China. Indian Buddhists had previously travelled to China during the Han dynasty, but the Buddhist monk Kumārajīva from Kucha who visited China during the Six dynasties was particularly renowned. The music and dances from Kucha were also popular in the Sui and Tang periods.

During the Tang Dynasty, a series of military expeditions were conducted against the oasis states of the Tarim Basin, then vassals of the Western Turkic Khaganate. The campaigns against the oasis states began under Emperor Taizong with the annexation of Gaochang in 640. The nearby kingdom of Karasahr was captured by the Tang in 644 and the kingdom of Kucha was conquered in 649.

The expansion into Central Asia continued under Taizong’s successor, Emperor Gaozong, who dispatched an army in 657 led by Su Dingfang against the Western Turk qaghan Ashina Helu. Ashina was defeated and the khaganate was absorbed into the Tang empire. The Tarim Basin was administered through the Anxi Protectorate and the Four Garrisons of Anxi.

Tang hegemony beyond the Pamir Mountains in modern Tajikistan and Afghanistan ended with revolts by the Turks, but the Tang retained a military presence in Xinjiang. These holdings were later invaded by the Tibetan Empire to the south in 670. For the remainder of the Tang Dynasty, the Tarim Basin alternated between Tang and Tibetan rule as they competed for control of Central Asia.

As a consequence of the Han–Xiongnu War spanning from 133 BC to 89 AD, the Tarim Basin region of Xinjiang in Northwest China, including the Saka-founded oasis city-state of Khotan and Kashgar, fell under Han Chinese influence, beginning with the reign of Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BC) of the Han Dynasty. Much like the neighboring people of the Kingdom of Khotan, people of Kashgar, the capital of the Shule Kingdom, spoke Saka, one of the Eastern Iranian languages.

As noted by the Greek historian Herodotus, the contemporary Persians labelled all Scythians as the Saka. Indeed, modern scholarly consensus is that the Saka language, ancestor to the Pamir languages in northern India and Khotanese in Xinjiang, China belongs to the Scythian languages.

During China’s Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), the region once again came under Chinese suzerainty with the campaigns of conquest by Emperor Taizong of Tang (r. 626-649). From the late 8th to 9th centuries, the region changed hands between the Chinese Tang Empire and the rival Tibetan Empire. By the early 11th century the region fell to the Muslim Turkic peoples of the Kara-Khanid Khanate, which led to both the Turkification of the region as well as its conversion from Buddhism to Islam.

A document from Khotan written in Khotanese Saka, part of the Eastern Iranian branch of the Indo-European languages, listing the animals of the Chinese zodiac in the cycle of predictions for people born in that year; ink on paper, early 9th century. Suggestive evidence of Khotan’s early link to India are minted coins from Khotan dated to the 3rd century bearing dual inscriptions in Chinese and Gandhari Prakrit in the Kharosthi script.

Although Prakrit was the administrative language of nearby Shanshan, 3rd-century documents from that kingdom record the title hinajha (i.e. “generalissimo”) for the king of Khotan, Vij’ida-simha, a distinctively Iranian-based word equivalent to the Sanskrit title senapati, yet nearly identical to the Khotanese Saka hīnāysa attested in contemporary documents.

This along with the fact that the king’s recorded regnal periods were given in Khotanese as kṣuṇa, “implies an established connection between the Iranian inhabitants and the royal power”, according to the late Professor of Iranian Studies Ronald E. Emmerick (d. 2001). He contended that Khotanese-Saka-language royal rescripts of Khotan dated to the 10th century “makes it likely that the ruler of Khotan was a speaker of Iranian.”

Furthermore, he elaborated on the early name of Khotan: The name of Khotan is attested in a number of spellings, of which the oldest form is hvatana, in texts of approximately the 7th to the 10th century AD written in an Iranian language itself called hvatana by the writers.

The same name is attested also in two closely related Iranian dialects, Sogdian and Tumshuq…Attempts have accordingly been made to explain it as Iranian, and this is of some importance historically. My own preference is for an explanation connecting it semantically with the name Saka, for the Iranian inhabitants of Khotan…

In Northwest China, Khotanese-Saka-language documents, ranging from medical texts to Buddhist literature, have been found primarily in Khotan and Tumshuq (northeast of Kashgar). They largely predate the arrival of Islam to the region under the Turkic Kara-Khanids. Similar documents in the Khotanese-Saka language were found in Dunhuang dating mostly to the 10th century.

The collapse of the Uyghur Khaganate in 840 AD led to the movement of the Uyghurs south to Turpan and Gansu, and some absorbed by the Karluks. Tocharian languages became extinct due to Uyghur migrations to these areas. The Uyghurs of Turfan (or Qocho) became Buddhists. In the tenth century, the Karluks, Yagmas, Chigils and other Turkic tribes founded the Kara-Khanid Khanate in Semirechye, Western Tian Shan, and Kashgaria.

The Karakhanids became the first Islamic Turkic dynasty in the tenth century when Sultan Satuq Bughra Khan converted to Islam in 966 and controlled Kashgar. Satuq Bughra Khan and his son directed endeavors to preach Islam among the Turks and engage in conquests.

Satok Bughra Khan’s nephew or grandson Ali Arslan was slain by the Buddhists during the war. Buddhism lost territory to the Turkic Karakhanid Satok Bughra Khan during the Karakhanid reign around the Kashgar area. The Tarim Basin became Islamicized over the next few centuries.

Bounded by the Tian Shan mountain range to the south and the Altai Mountains to the north, Dzungaria extends into Western Mongolia and Eastern Kazakhstan. Formerly the term could cover a wider area, conterminous with the Dzungar Khanate, a state led by the Oirats, the westernmost group of the Mongols whose ancestral home is in the Altai region of Xinjiang and Western Mongolia, which was based in the area. 

Although geographically, historically and ethnically distinct from the Turkic-speaking Tarim Basin area, the Qing dynasty and subsequent Chinese governments integrated both areas into one province, Xinjiang.

The first people to inhabit the region were Indo-European-speaking peoples such as the Tocharians in prehistory and the Jushi Kingdom in the first millennium BC. Before the 21st century, all or part of the region has been ruled or controlled by the Xiongnu Empire, Han dynasty, Xianbei state, Rouran Khaganate, Turkic Khaganate, Tang Dynasty, Uyghur Khaganate, Liao dynasty, Kara-Khitan Khanate, Mongol Empire, Yuan Dynasty, Chagatai Khanate, Moghulistan, Qara Del, Northern Yuan, Four Oirat, Dzungar Khanate, Qing Dynasty, the Republic of China and, since 1950, the People’s Republic of China.

One of the earliest mentions of the Dzungaria region occurs when the Han dynasty dispatched an explorer to investigate lands to the west, using the northernmost Silk Road trackway of about 2,600 kilometres (1,600 mi) in length, which connected the ancient Chinese capital of Xi’an to the west over the Wushao Ling Pass to Wuwei and emerged in Kashgar. Istämi of the Göktürks received the lands of Dzungaria as an inheritance after the death of his father in the latter half of the sixth century AD.

Dzungaria is named after a Mongolian kingdom which existed in Central Asia during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It derived its name from the Dzungars, who were so called because they formed the left wing (züün, left; gar, hand) of the Mongolian army, self-named Oirats.  The name originates from the notion that the Western Mongols are on the left-hand side when the Mongol Empire began its division into East and West Mongols. After this fragmentation, the western Mongolian nation was called “Zuun Gar”.

Taklamakan Desert

The Taklamakan Desert is roughly oval in shape, about 1,000 km long and 400 km wide, surrounded on three sides by high mountains. The main part of the desert is sandy, surrounded by a belt of gravel desert.

The desert is completely barren, but in the late spring the melting snows of the surrounding mountains feed streams, which have been altered by human activity to create oases with mild microclimates and supporting intensive agriculture.

On the northern edge of the basin, these oases occur in small valleys before the gravels. On the southern edge, they occur in alluvial fans on the edge of the sand zone. Isolated alluvial fan oases also occur in the gravel deserts of the Turpan Depression to the east of the Taklamakan. From around 2000 BC, these oases supported Bronze Age settled agricultural communities of steadily increasing sophistication.

The necessary irrigation technology was first developed during the 3rd millennium BC in the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) to the west of the Pamir mountains, but it is unclear how it reached the Tarim. The staple crops, wheat and barley, also originated in the west.

J. P. Mallory and Victor H. Mair argue that the Tarim was first settled by Tocharian-speakers from the Afanasevo culture to the north, who occupied the northern and eastern edges of the basin.

The Afanasevo culture (c. 3500–2500 BC) displays cultural and genetic connections with the Indo-European-associated cultures of the Central Asian steppe yet predates the specifically Indo-Iranian-associated Andronovo culture (c. 2000–900 BC) enough to account for the isolation of the Tocharian languages from Indo-Iranian linguistic innovations like satemization.

The oldest of the Tarim mummies, bodies preserved by the desert conditions, date from 2000 BC and were found on the eastern edge of the Tarim basin. They seem to be Caucasoid types with light-colored hair.

A genetic study of remains from the oldest layer of the Xiaohe Cemetery found that the maternal lineages were a mixture of east and west Eurasian types, while all the paternal lineages were of west Eurasian type. It is unknown whether they are connected with the frescoes painted at Tocharian sites more than two millennia later, which also depict light eyes and hair color.

Later, groups of nomadic pastoralists moved from the steppe into the grasslands to the north and northeast of the Tarim. They were the ancestors of peoples later known to Chinese authors as the Wusun and Yuezhi. At least some of them spoke Iranian languages, but a minority of scholars suggest that the Yuezhi were Tocharian speakers.

During the 1st millennium BC, a further wave of immigrants, the Saka speaking Iranian languages, arrived from the west and settled along the southern rim of the Tarim. They are believed to be the source of Iranian loanwords in Tocharian languages, particularly related to commerce and warfare.

Oasis states

The first record of the oasis states is found in Chinese histories. The Book of Han lists 36 statelets in the Tarim basin in the last two centuries BC. These oases served as waystations on the trade routes forming part of the Silk Road passing along the northern and southern edges of the Taklamakan desert. The largest were Kucha with 81,000 inhabitants and Agni (Yanqi or Karashar) with 32,000.

Chinese histories give no evidence of ethnic changes in these cities between that time and the period of the Tocharian manuscripts from these sites. Situated on the northern edge of the Tarim, these small urban societies were overshadowed by nomadic peoples to the north and Chinese empires to the east. They conceded tributary relations with the larger powers when required, and acted independently when they could.

In 177 BC, the Xiongnu drove the Yuezhi from western Gansu, causing most of them to flee west to the Ili Valley and then to Bactria. The Xiongnu then overcame the Tarim statelets, which became a vital part of their empire.

The Chinese Han dynasty was determined to weaken their Xiongnu enemies by depriving them of this area. This was achieved in a series of campaigns beginning in 108 BC and culminating in the establishment of the Protectorate of the Western Regions in 60 BC under Zheng Ji.

The Han government used a range of tactics, including plots to assassinate local rulers, direct attacks on a few states (e.g. Kucha in 65 BC) to cow the rest, and the massacre of the entire population of Luntai (80 km east of Kucha) when they resisted. The Han controlled the Tarim states intermittently until their final withdrawal in 150 AD.

Kucha, the largest of the oasis cities, was ruled by the Bai family, sometimes autonomously and sometimes as vassals of outside powers. The government included some 30 named posts below the king, with all but the highest-ranking titles occurring in pairs of left and right. Other states had similar structures, though on a smaller scale.

The Book of Jin (Chapter 97) says of the city: “They have a walled city and suburbs. The walls are threefold. Within are Buddhist temples and stupas numbering a thousand. The people are engaged in agriculture and husbandry. The men and women cut their hair and wear it at the neck. The prince’s palace is grand and imposing, glittering like an abode of the gods”.

The inhabitants grew red millet, wheat, rice, legumes, hemp, grapes and pomegranates, and reared horses, cattle, sheep and camels. They also extracted a wide range of metals and minerals from the surrounding mountains. Handicrafts included leather goods, fine felts and rugs.

The Kushan Empire expanded into the Tarim during the 2nd century, bringing Buddhism, Kushan art, Sanskrit as a liturgical language and Prakrit as an administrative language (in the southern Tarim states). With these Indic languages came scripts, including the Brahmi script (later adapted to write Tocharian) and the Kharosthi script.

From the 3rd century, Kucha became a centre of Buddhist studies. Buddhist texts were translated into Chinese by Kuchean monks, the most famous of whom was Kumārajīva (344–412/5).

Captured by Lü Guang of the Later Liang in an attack on Kucha in 384, Kumārajīva learned Chinese during his years of captivity in Gansu. In 401, he was brought to the Later Qin capital of Chang’an, where he remained as head of a translation bureau until his death in 413.

The Kizil Caves lie 65 km west of Kucha, and contain over 236 Buddhist temples. Their murals date from the 3rd to the 8th century. Many of these murals were removed by Albert von Le Coq and other European archaeologists in the early 20th century, and are now held in European museums, but others remain in their original locations.

An increasingly dry climate in the 4th and 5th centuries led to the abandonment of several of the southern cities, including Niya and Krorän, with a consequent shift of trade from the southern route to the northern one.

Confederations of nomadic tribes also began to jostle for supremacy. The northern oasis states were conquered by Rouran in the late 5th century, leaving the local leaders in place. The Rouran were replaced in the mid-6th century by the Turks, who then split into western and eastern khaganates. The Bai family continued to rule Kucha, as vassals of the Western Turks.

The oldest surviving texts in Tocharian date from this period, and deal with a wide variety of administrative, religious and everyday topics.[60] They also include travel passes, small slips of poplar wood giving the size of the permitted caravans for officials at the next station along the road.

In the 7th century, Emperor Taizong of Tang China, having overcome the Eastern Turks, sent his armies west to attack the Western Turks and the oasis states. The first oasis to fall was Turfan, which was captured in 630 and annexed as part of China.

Next to the west lay the city of Agni, which had been a tributary of the Tang since 632. Alarmed by the nearby Chinese armies, Agni stopped sending Tribute to China and formed an alliance with the Western Turks. They were aided by Kucha, who also stopped sending tribute.

The Tang captured Agni in 644, defeating a Western Turk relief force, and made the king resume tribute. When that king was deposed by a relative in 648, the Tang sent an army under the Turk general Ashina She’er to install a compliant member of the local royal family.

Ashina She’er continued to capture Kucha, and made it the headquarters of the Tang Protectorate General to Pacify the West. Kuchean forces recaptured the city and killed protector-general, Guo Xiaoke, but it fell again to Ashina She’er, who had 11,000 of the inhabitants executed in reprisal for the killing of Guo. The Tocharian cities never recovered from the Tang conquest.

The Tang lost the Tarim basin to the Tibetan Empire in 670, but regained it in 692, and continued to rule there until it was recaptured by the Tibetans in 792. The ruling Bai family of Kucha are last mentioned in Chinese sources in 787. There is little mention of the region in Chinese sources for the 9th and 10th centuries.

The Uyghur Khaganate took control of the northern Tarim in 803. After their capital in Mongolia was sacked by the Yenisei Kyrgyz in 840, they established a new state, the Kingdom of Qocho with its capital at Gaochang (near Turfan) in 866.

Over centuries of contact and intermarriage, the cultures and populations of the pastoralist rulers and their agriculturalist subjects blended together. The Uighurs abandoned their state religion of Manichaeism in favour of Buddhism, and adopted the agricultural lifestyle and many of the customs of the oasis-dwellers. The Tocharian language gradually disappeared as the urban population switched to the Old Uyghur language.


Gansu is a landlocked province in Northwest China. Its capital and largest city is Lanzhou, located in the southeast part of the province. The Yellow River passes through the southern part of the province. Part of Gansu’s territory is located in the Gobi Desert. The Qilian mountains are located in the south of the Province.

Gansu lies between the Tibetan and Loess plateaus and borders Mongolia (Govi-Altai Province), Inner Mongolia and Ningxia to the north, Xinjiang and Qinghai to the west, Sichuan to the south and Shaanxi to the east.

The State of Qin originated in what is now southeastern Gansu and went on to form the first known Empire in what is now China. The Northern Silk Road ran through the Hexi Corridor, which passes through Gansu, resulting in it being an important strategic outpost and communications link for the Chinese empire.

Gansu is a compound of the names of Ganzhou (now a district of Zhangye) and Suzhou. The seat of Jiuquan Prefecture, formerly the two most important Chinese settlements in the area. Gansu is abbreviated as Gān or Lǒng, and is also known as Longxi (“[land] west of Long’) or Longyou (“[land] right of Long”‘), in reference to the Long Mountain east of Gansu.

The name is a compound name first used during the Song dynasty of two Sui and Tang dynasty prefectures Gan (around Zhangye) and Su (around Jiuquan). Its eastern part forms part of one of the cradles of ancient Chinese civilisation.

In prehistoric times, Gansu was host to Neolithic cultures. The Dadiwan culture (6000-3000 BC), from where archaeologically significant artifacts have been excavated, flourished in the eastern end of Gansu. The Majiayao culture and part of the Qijia culture took root in Gansu from 3100 BC to 2700 BC and 2400 BC to 1900 BC respectively.

The Yuezhi originally lived in the very western part of Gansu until they were forced to emigrate by the Xiongnu around 177 BCE. The State of Qin, known in China as the founding state of the Chinese empire, grew out from the southeastern part of Gansu, specifically the Tianshui area. The Qin name is believed to have originated, in part, from the area. Qin tombs and artifacts have been excavated from Fangmatan near Tianshui, including one 2200-year-old map of Guixian County.

Eurasian nomads

The Eurasian nomads were a large group of nomadic peoples from the Eurasian Steppe, who often appear in history as invaders of Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, East Asia, and South Asia. The generic title encompasses the varied ethnic groups who have at times inhabited the steppes of Central Asia, Mongolia, and what is now Russia. 

They domesticated the horse around 3500 BC, vastly increasing the possibilities of nomadic life, and subsequently their economy and culture emphasised horse breeding, horse riding and nomadic pastoralism; this usually involved trading with settled peoples around the steppe edges.

They developed the chariot, wagon, cavalry and horse archery and introduced innovations such as the bridle, bit and stirrup, and the very rapid rate at which innovations crossed the steppelands spread these widely, to be copied by settled peoples bordering the steppes.

During the Iron Age, Scythian cultures emerged among the Eurasian nomads, which was characterized by a distinct Scythian art. Scythia was a loose state or federation covering most of the steppe that originated as early as 8th century BC, composed mainly of people speaking Iranian languages, and usually regarded as the first of the nomad empires. The Roman army hired Sarmatians as elite cavalrymen.

Europe was exposed to several waves of invasions by horse people, including the Cimmerians in the 8th century BCE, various peoples during the Migration period, the Magyars in the Early Middle Ages, the Mongols and Seljuks in the High Middle Ages, the Kalmuks and the Kyrgyz and later the Kazakhs up to modern times.

The earliest example of an invasion by a horse people may have been by the Proto-Indo-Europeans themselves, following the domestication of the horse in the 4th millennium BCE. The Cimmerians were the first invading equestrian steppe nomads that are known from historical sources. Their military strength was always based on cavalry, usually marked by prowess as mounted archers.

Historically, areas to the north of China including Manchuria, Mongolia and Xinjiang were inhabited by nomadic tribes. Early periods in Chinese history involved conflict with the nomadic peoples to the west of the Wei valley. Texts from the Zhou dynasty (c.1050-256 BC) compare the Rong, Di and Qin dynasty to wolves, describing them as cruel and greedy. Iron and bronze were supplied from China.

An early theory proposed by Owen Lattimore suggesting that the nomadic tribes could have been self-sufficient was criticized by later scholars, who questioned whether their raids may have been motivated by necessity rather than greed.

Subsequent studies noted that nomadic demand for grain, cereals, textiles and ironware exceeded China’s demand for Steppe goods. Anatoly Khazanov identified this imbalance in production as the cause of instability in the Steppe nomadic cultures.

Later scholars argued that peace along China’s northern border largely depended on whether the nomads could obtain the essential grains and textiles they needed through peaceful means such as trade or intermarriage. Several tribes organized to form the Xiongnu, a tribal confederation that gave the nomadic tribes the upper hand in their dealings with the settled agricultural Chinese people.

During the Tang dynasty, Turks would cross the Yellow River when it was frozen to raid China. Contemporary Tang sources noted the superiority of Turkic horses. Emperor Taizong wrote that the horses were “exceptionally superior to ordinary [horses]”.

The Xiajiasi (Kyrgyz) were a tributary tribe who controlled an area abundant in resources like gold, tin and iron. The Turks used the iron tribute paid by the Kyrgyz to make weapons, armor and saddle parts.

Turks were nomadic hunters and would sometimes conceal military activities under the pretense of hunting. Their raids into China were organized by a khagan and success in these campaigns had a significant influence on a tribal leaders prestige.

In the 6th c. the Göktürk Khaganate consolidated their dominance over the northern steppe region through a series of military victories against the Shiwei, Khitan, Rouran, Tuyuhun, Karakhoja, and Yada.

By the end of the 6th century, following the Göktürk civil war, the short-lived empire had split into the Eastern and Western Turkic Khaganates, before it was conquered by the Tang in 630 and 657, respectively.

The concept of “horse people” was of some importance in 19th century scholarship, in connection with the rediscovery of Germanic pagan culture by Romanticism (see Viking revival), which idealised the Goths in particular as a heroic horse-people.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s Rohirrim may be seen as an idealised Germanic people influenced by these romantic notions. Tolkien’s Wainriders of eastern Rhûn recall ancient steppe peoples like the Scythians. Similarly, George R. R. Martin’s nomadic Dothraki people are heavily influenced by the lifestyles and cultures of historical horse people.

The Xianbei were an ancient nomadic people that once resided in the eastern Eurasian steppes in what is today Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, and Northeastern China. They originated from the Donghu people who splintered into the Wuhuan and Xianbei when they were defeated by the Xiongnu at the end of the 3rd century BC.

Donghu (lit: “Eastern foreigners” or “Eastern barbarians”) was a tribal confederation of nomadic people that was first recorded from the 7th century BCE and was destroyed by the Xiongnu in 150 BCE. They lived in northern Hebei, southeastern Inner Mongolia and the western part of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang along the Yan Mountains and Greater Khingan Range.

The Dōnghú later divided into the Wuhuan in the Yan Mountains and Xianbei in the Greater Khingan Range, the latter of which are the origin of the Khitan and Mongols.

The Classical Chinese name literally means “Eastern Barbarians”. The term Dōnghú contrasts with the term Xīhú meaning “Western barbarians”, meaning “non-Chinese peoples in the west” and Five Barbarians (Wǔ Hú) “five northern nomadic tribes involved in the Uprising of the Five Barbarians (304–316 CE).

Hill (2009:59) translates Xīhú as “Western Hu” and notes: The term hu was used to denote non-Han Chinese populations. It is, rather unsatisfactorily, commonly translated as ‘barbarian’. While sometimes it was used in this general way to describe people of non-Han descent, and carried the same negative overtones of the English term, this was not always the case. Most frequently, it was used to denote people, usually of Caucasoid or partial Caucasoid appearance, living to the north and west of China.

The term “Hu” can refer to a variety of different races and different ethnic groups. It was used by Han Chinese to describe anyone who is not of ethnic Han Chinese descent and were considered barbarians.

The peoples categorized as the Five Barbarians means “Five Hu” were the Xiongnu, Jie, Xianbei, Di, and Qiang. Of these five ethnic groups, the Xiongnu and Xianbei were nomadic peoples from the northern steppes.

The ethnic identity of the Xiongnu is uncertain, but the Xianbei appear to have been Mongolic. The Jie, another pastoral people, may have been a branch of the Xiongnu, who may have been Yeniseian or Indo-Scythian. It is widely theorized that the Xianbei spoke a language related to the Mongolic languages or Turkic languages.

The Di and Qiang were from the highlands of western China. The Qiang were predominantly herdsmen and spoke Sino-Tibetan (Tibeto-Burman) languages, while the Di were farmers who may have spoken a Sino-Tibetan or Turkic language.

The first significant contact the Xianbei had with the Han dynasty was in 41 and 45 when they joined the Wuhuan and Xiongnu in raiding Han territory. After the downfall of the Xiongnu, the Xianbei established their confederation in Mongolia starting from AD 93.

When the Donghu “Eastern Barbarians” were defeated by Modu Chanyu around 208 BC, the Donghu splintered into the Xianbei and Wuhuan. According to the Book of the Later Han, “the language and culture of the Xianbei are the same as the Wuhuan”.

The Xianbei were largely subordinate to larger nomadic powers and the Han dynasty until they gained prominence in 87 AD by killing the Xiongnu chanyu Youliu. However unlike the Xiongnu, the Xianbei political structure lacked the organization to pose a concerted challenge to the Chinese for most of their time as a nomadic people.

After suffering several defeats by the end of the Three Kingdoms period, the Xianbei migrated south and settled in close proximity to Chinese society and submitted as vassals, being granted the titles of Dukes.

As the Xianbei Murong, Tuoba and Duan tribes were one of the Five Barbarians who were vassals of the Han Chinese Western Jin and Eastern Jin dynasties, they took part in the Uprising of the Five Barbarians as allies of the Han Chinese Eastern Jin against the other four barbarians, the Xiongnu, Jie, Di and Qiang.

The Xianbei were at one point all defeated and conquered by the Di Former Qin empire before it fell apart at the Battle of Fei River at the hands of the Eastern Jin. The Xianbei later founded their own states and reunited northern China as the Northern Wei. These states opposed and promoted sinicization at one point or another but trended towards the latter and had merged with the general Chinese population by the Tang dynasty.

According to Sinologist Penglin Wang, some Xianbei had Caucasoid-featured traits such as blue eyes, blonde hair and white skin due to absorbing some Indo-European elements. The Xianbei were described as white on several occasions.

The Book of Jin states that in the state of Cao Wei, Xianbei immigrants were known as the white tribe. The ruling Murong clan of Former Yan were referred to by their Former Qin adversaries as white slaves.

According to Fan Wenlang et al. the Murong people were considered “white” by the Chinese due to the complexion of their skin color. In the Jin dynasty, Murong women were sold off to many bureaucrat and aristocrats and they were also given to their servants and concubines.

The mother of Emperor Ming of Jin, Lady Xun, was a lowly concubine possibly of Xianbei stock. During a confrontation between Emperor Ming and a rebel force in 324, his enemies were confused by his appearance, and thought he was a Xianbei due to his yellow beard.

Emperor Ming’s yelllowish hair could have been inherited from his mother, who was either Xianbei or Jie. During the Tang dynasty, the poet Zhang Ji described the Xianbei entering Luoyang as “yellow-headed”. During the Song dynasty, the poet and painter Su Shi was inspired by a painting of a Xianbei riding a horse and wrote a poem describing an elderly Xianbei with reddish hair and blue eyes..

There was undoubtedly some range of variation within their population. Yellow hair in Chinese sources could have meant brown rather than blonde and described other people such as the Jie rather than the Xianbei.

Historian Edward H. Schafer believes many of the Xianbei were blondes, but others such as Charles Holcombe think it is “likely that the bulk of the Xianbei were not visibly very different in appearance from the general population of northeastern Asia.”

Chinese anthropologist Zhu Hong and Zhang Quan‐chao studied Xianbei crania from several sites of Inner Mongolia and noticed that anthropological features of studied Xianbei crania show that the racial type is closely related to the modern East-Asians, and some physical characteristics of those skulls are closer to modern Mongols, Manchu and Han Chinese.

The Xiongnu, a mukti ethnical tribal confederation of nomadic peoples who, according to ancient Chinese sources, inhabited the eastern Eurasian Steppe from the 3rd century BC to the late 1st century AD, were a group of nomads who dominated the Asian Steppe, although it is not yet known whether they were proto-Mongols.

Chinese sources report that Modu Chanyu, the supreme leader after 209 BC, founded the Xiongnu Empire. He came to power by ordering his men to kill his father in 209 BCE. He ruled from 209 BCE to 174 BCE.

He was a military leader under his father Touman, and later Chanyu of the Xiongnu Empire, situated in modern-day Mongolia. The eastern border stretched as far as the Liao River, the western borders of the empire reached the Pamir Mountains, whilst the northern border reached Lake Baikal.

He secured the throne and established a powerful Xiongnu Empire by successfully unifying the tribes of the Mongolian-Manchurian grassland in response to the loss of Xiongnu pasture lands to invading Qin forces commanded by Meng Tian in 215 BCE.

While Modu rode and then furthered the wave of militarization and effectively centralized Xiongnu power, the Qin quickly fell into disarray with the death of the first emperor in 210, leaving Modu a free hand to expand his Xiongnu Empire into one of the largest of his time.

As Nicola Di Cosmo summarizes the sequence of events, the Qin invasion of the Ordos Plateau (the area within the bend of the Yellow River) came at the same time as a leadership crisis within the loose Xiongnu confederation.

Modu took advantage of Xiongnu militarization process that came in response to the Qin invasion, and ably created a newly centralized political structure that made possible his empire. He was aided by the rapid fall of Qin and the fact that the Han initially set up independent “kingdoms,” whose leaders, like Xin, King of Han, were as likely to ally with Xiongnu and attack Han as the other way around.

Han weakness meant that it supplied Modu and his successors with a steady flow of luxury and staple tribute they could pass down to the aristocracy supporting them. Without that tribute, the Xiongnu might not have been able to expand and maintain control.

After their previous rivals, the Yuezhi, migrated into Central Asia during the 2nd century BC, the Xiongnu became a dominant power on the steppes of north-east Central Asia, centered on an area known later as Mongolia.

The Xiongnu were also active in areas now part of Siberia, Inner Mongolia, Gansu and Xinjiang. Their relations with adjacent Chinese dynasties to the south east were complex, with repeated periods of conflict and intrigue, alternating with exchanges of tribute, trade, and marriage treaties (heqin).

During the Sixteen Kingdoms era, they were also known as one of the Five Barbarians who took part in an uprising against Chinese rule known as the Uprising of the Five Barbarians, or Wu Hu, a Chinese historical exonym for ancient non-Chinese peoples who immigrated to northern China in the Eastern Han dynasty, and then overthrew the Western Jin dynasty and established their own kingdoms in the 4th–5th centuries.

The Sino-Xiongnu War saw a Chinese army that had adopted Xiongnu military technology—wearing trousers and using mounted archers with stirrups—pursuing the Xiongnu across the Gobi in a ruthless punitive expedition. Fortification walls built by various Chinese warring states were connected to make a 2300-kilometer Great Wall along the northern border, as a barrier to further nomadic inroads.

The Xiongnu temporarily abandoned their interest in China and turned their attention westward to the region of the Altai Mountains and Lake Balkash, inhabited by the Yuezhi, an Indo-European-speaking nomadic people who had relocated from China’s present-day Gansu as a result of their earlier defeat by the Xiongnu.

Endemic warfare between these two nomadic peoples reached a climax in the latter part of the 3rd century and the early decades of the 2nd century BC; the Xiongnu were triumphant. The Yuezhi then migrated to the southwest where, early in the 2nd century, they began to appear in the Amu Darya Valley to change the course of history in Bactria, Iran, and eventually India.

Meanwhile, the Xiongnu again raided northern China about 200 BCE, finding that the inadequately defended Great Wall was not a serious obstacle. By the middle of the 2nd century BCE, they controlled all of northern and western China north of the Yellow River.

This renewed threat led the Chinese to improve their defenses in the north, while building up and improving the army, particularly the cavalry, and while preparing long-range plans for an invasion of Mongolia.

Between 130-121 BCE, Chinese armies drove the Xiongnu back across the Great Wall, weakening their hold on Gansu as well as on what is now Inner Mongolia, and finally pushed them north of the Gobi into central Mongolia.

Following these victories, the Chinese expanded into the areas later known as Manchuria, Mongolia, the Korean Peninsula, and Inner Asia. The Xiongnu, once more turning their attention to the west and the southwest, raided deep into the Amu Darya valley between 73-44 BCE. The descendants of the Yuezhi and their Chinese rulers, however, formed a common front against the Xiongnu and repelled them.

During the next century, as Chinese strength waned, border warfare between the Chinese and the Xiongnu was almost incessant. Gradually the nomads forced their way back into Gansu and the northern part of what is now China’s Xinjiang.

In about the middle of the first century CE, a revitalized Eastern Han (25-220 CE) slowly recovered these territories, driving the Xiongnu back into the Altai Mountains and the steppes north of the Gobi.

During the late first century, having reestablished the administrative control over southern China and northern Vietnam that had been lost briefly at beginning of this same century, the Eastern Han made a concerted effort to reassert dominance over Inner Asia.

The identity of the ethnic core of Xiongnu has been a subject of varied hypotheses, because only a few words, mainly titles and personal names, were preserved in the Chinese sources.

The name Xiongnu may be cognate with that of the Huns or the Huna, although this is disputed. Other linguistic links – all of them also controversial – proposed by scholars include Iranian, Mongolic, Turkic, Uralic, Yeniseian, Tibeto-Burman or multi-ethnic.

There are many cultural similarities between the Xiongnu and Mongols such as yurt on cart, mounted use of the composite bow, board game, horn bow and long song. The Mongolian long song is believed to date back at least 2000 years. A mythical origin of the long song is mentioned in the Book of Wei, volume 113.

Mongolian and other scholars have suggested that the Xiongnu spoke a language related to the Mongolic languages. Mongolian archaeologists proposed that the Slab Grave Culture people were the ancestors of the Xiongnu, and some scholars have suggested that the Xiongnu may have been the ancestors of the Mongols.

According to the “Book of Song”, (section Joujan), Joujan’s (Rouran Khaganate) alternative name was “Tatar” or “Tartar” and they were a Xiongnu tribe. Nikita Bichurin considered Xiongnu and Xianbei to be two subgroups (or dynasties) but the same ethnicity.

Genghis Khan refers to the time of Modu Chanyu as “the remote times of our Chanyu” in his letter to Daoist Qiu Chuji. Sun and moon symbol of Xiongnu that discovered by archaeologists is similar to Mongolian Soyombo symbol.

Harold Walter Bailey proposed an Iranian origin of the Xiongnu, recognizing all the earliest Xiongnu names of the 2nd century BC as being of the Iranian type. This theory is supported by turkologist Henryk Jankowski.

Central Asian scholar Christopher I. Beckwith notes that the Xiongnu name could be a cognate of Scythian, Saka and Sogdia, corresponding to a name for Northern Iranians.

According to Beckwith the Xiongnu could have contained a leading Iranian component when they started out, but more likely they had earlier been subjects of an Iranian people and learned from them the Iranian nomadic model.

Some sources say the ruling class was proto-Turkic, while others suggest it was proto-Hun. The Huns were a nomadic people who lived in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe, between the 4th and 6th century AD.

According to European tradition, they were first reported living east of the Volga River, in an area that was part of Scythia at the time; the Huns’ arrival is associated with the migration westward of an Iranian people, the Alans.

By 370 AD, the Huns had arrived on the Volga, and by 430 the Huns had established a vast, if short-lived, dominion in Europe, conquering the Goths and many other Germanic peoples living outside of Roman borders, and causing many others to flee into Roman territory.

The Huns, especially under their King Attila, made frequent and devastating raids into the Eastern Roman Empire. In 451, the Huns invaded the Western Roman province of Gaul, where they fought a combined army of Romans and Visigoths at the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields, and in 452 they invaded Italy. After Attila’s death in 453, the Huns ceased to be a major threat to Rome and lost much of their empire following the Battle of Nedao (454?).

Descendants of the Huns, or successors with similar names, are recorded by neighbouring populations to the south, east, and west as having occupied parts of Eastern Europe and Central Asia from about the 4th to 6th centuries. Variants of the Hun name are recorded in the Caucasus until the early 8th century.

In the 18th century, the French scholar Joseph de Guignes became the first to propose a link between the Huns and the Xiongnu people, who were northern neighbours of China in the 3rd century BC.

Since Guignes’ time, considerable scholarly effort has been devoted to investigating such a connection. The issue remains controversial. Their relationships to other peoples known collectively as the Iranian Huns are also disputed.

The term Iranian Huns is sometimes used for a group of different tribes that lived in Afghanistan and neighboring areas between the fourth and seventh centuries and expanded into northwest India. They are roughly equivalent to the Hunas. They also threatened the northeast borders of Sasanian Persia and forced the Shahs to lead many ill-documented campaigns against them.

Very little is known about Hunnic culture and very few archaeological remains have been conclusively associated with the Huns. They are believed to have used bronze cauldrons and to have performed artificial cranial deformation.

No description exists of the Hunnic religion of the time of Attila, but practices such as divination are attested, and the existence of shamans likely. It is also known that the Huns had a language of their own, however only three words and personal names attest to it.

Economically, they are known to have practiced a form of nomadic pastoralism; as their contact with the Roman world grew, their economy became increasingly tied with Rome through tribute, raiding, and trade.

They do not seem to have had a unified government when they entered Europe, but rather to have developed a unified tribal leadership in the course of their wars with the Romans. The Huns ruled over a variety of peoples who spoke various languages and some of whom maintained their own rulers. Their main military technique was mounted archery.

The Huns may have stimulated the Great Migration, a contributing factor in the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The memory of the Huns also lived on in various Christian saints’ lives, where the Huns play the roles of antagonists, as well as in Germanic heroic legend, where the Huns are variously antagonists or allies to the Germanic main figures.

In Hungary, a legend developed based on medieval chronicles that the Hungarians, and the Székely ethnic group in particular, are descended from the Huns. However, mainstream scholarship dismisses a close connection between the Hungarians and Huns. Modern culture generally associates the Huns with extreme cruelty and barbarism.

The Xiongnu language gave to the later Turkic and Mongolian empires a number of important culture words including Turkish tängri, Mongolian tenggeri, was originally the Xiongnu word for “heaven”, chengli (tháːŋ-wrə́j). Titles such as tarqan, tegin and kaghan were also inherited from the Xiongnu language and probably of Yeniseian origin.

The Hephthalites (or Ephthalites), sometimes called the White Huns, were a people who lived in Central Asia during the 5th to 8th centuries. Militarily important during 450 to 560, they were based in Bactria and expanded east to the Tarim Basin, west to Sogdia and south through Afghanistan to northern India.

They were a tribal confederation and included both nomadic and settled urban communities. They were part of the four major states known collectively as Xyon (Xionites) or Huna, being preceded by the Kidarites, and succeeded by the Alkhon and lastly the Nezak.

All of these peoples have often been linked to the Huns who invaded Eastern Europe during the same period, and/or have been referred to as “Huns”, but there is no consensus among scholars about such a connection.

The stronghold of the Hephthalites was Tokharistan on the northern slopes of the Hindu Kush, in what is present-day northeastern Afghanistan. By 479, the Hephthalites had conquered Sogdia and driven the Kidarites westwards, and by 493 they had captured parts of present-day Dzungaria and the Tarim Basin in what is now Northwest China. They expanded into northwestern India as well.

The sources for Hephthalite history are poor and historians’ opinions differ. There is no king-list and historians are not sure how they arose or what language they spoke. The Sveta Huna who invaded northern India are probably the Hephthalites, but the exact relation is not clear.

They seem to have called themselves Ebodalo (ηβοδαλο, hence Hephthal), often abbreviated Eb, a name they wrote in the Bactrian script on some of their coins. The origin of the name “Hephthalites” is unknown, possibly from either a Khotanese word *Hitala meaning “Strong” or from postulated Middle Persian *haft āl “the Seven”.

There are several theories regarding the origins of the Hephthalites, with the Iranian and Turkic theories being the most prominent. According to most specialist scholars, the spoken language of the Hephthalites was an Eastern Iranian language, but different from the Bactrian language written in the Greek alphabet that was used as their “official language” and minted on coins, as was done under the preceding Kushan Empire.

Recent scholarship, particularly by Hyun Jin Kim and Etienne de la Vaissière, has revived the hypothesis that the Huns and the Xiongnu are one and the same. De la Vaissière argues that ancient Chinese and Indian sources used Xiongnu and Hun to translate each other, and that the various “Iranian Huns” were similarly identified with the Xiongnu.

Kim believes that the term Hun was “not primarily an ethnic group, but a political category” and argues for a fundamental political and cultural continuity between the Xiongnu and the European Huns, as well as between the Xiongnu and the “Iranian Huns”.

Walter Pohl cautions that none of the great confederations of steppe warriors was ethnically homogenous, and the same name was used by different groups for reasons of prestige, or by outsiders to describe their lifestyle or geographic origin. […] It is therefore futile to speculate about identity or blood relationships between H(s)iung-nu, Hephthalites, and Attila’s Huns, for instance. All we can safely say is that the name Huns, in late antiquity, described prestigious ruling groups of steppe warriors.

In the early 20th century, researchers established the existence of a local Maykop animal style in the artifacts found. This style was seen as the prototype for animal styles of later archaeological cultures: the Maykop animal style is more than a thousand years older than the Scythian, Sarmatian and Celtic animal styles.

Turkic Language

There are a considarable number of Tocharian and Iranian loan words in Old Turkic. A good number of these may have been acquired, especially in the case of Sogdian terms, during the Tùrk impérial period, when the Sogdians were a subject people, an important mercantile-commercial element in the Tùrk state, and culture-bearers across Eurasia.

It also should be noted here that the early Tùrk rulers bore names of non-Turkic origin. The Ashina, also known as Asen, Asena, or Açina, were a tribe and the ruling dynasty of the ancient Turkic peoples. It rose to prominence in the mid-6th century when the leader, Bumin Qaghan, revolted against the Rouran Khaganate. The origin of the Ashina is from the Indo-Iranian Saka or Wusun.

The Wusun were an Indo-European semi-nomadic steppe people mentioned in Chinese records from the 2nd century BCE to the 5th century CE. The Wusun originally lived between the Qilian Mountains and Dunhuang (Gansu) near the Yuezhi. Around 176 BCE the Yuezhi were raided by the Xiongnu, who subsequently attacked the Wusun, killing their king and seizing their land.

The Xiongnu adopted the surviving Wusun prince and made him one of their generals and leader of the Wusun. Around 162 BCE the Yuezhi were driven into the Ili River valley in Zhetysu, Dzungaria, and Tian Shan, which had formerly been inhabited by the Saka (Scythians). The Wusun then resettled in Gansu as vassals of the Xiongnu.

In 133–132 BCE, the Wusun drove the Yuezhi out of the Ili Valley and settled the area. The Wusun then became close allies of the Han dynasty and remained a powerful force in the region for several centuries. The Wusun are last mentioned by the Chinese as having settled in the Pamir Mountains in the 5th century CE due to pressure from the Rouran. They possibly became subsumed into the later Hephthalites.

The two main branches of the family, one descended from Bumin and the other from his brother Istämi, ruled over the eastern and western parts of the Göktürk, Celestial Turks or Blue Turks, confederation, respectively.

The Göktürks were a nomadic confederation of Turkic peoples in medieval Inner Asia. The Göktürks, under the leadership of Bumin Qaghan (d. 552) and his sons, succeeded the Rouran Khaganate as the main power in the region and established the Turkic Khaganate, one of several nomadic dynasties which would shape the future geolocation, culture, and dominant beliefs of Turkic peoples.

The Proto-Turkic language is the linguistic reconstruction of the common ancestor of the Turkic languages that was spoken by the Proto-Turks before their divergence into the various Turkic peoples. One estimate postulates Proto-Turkic to have been spoken 2,500 years ago in Mongolia in East Asia.

The oldest records of a Turkic language, the Old Turkic Orkhon inscriptions of the 7th century Göktürk khaganate, already shows characteristics of eastern Common Turkic, and prove that Proto Turkic originated there.

The Western Common Turkic branches, such as Oghuz and Kypchak, as well as the western Oghur proper (Bulgar, Chuvash, Khazar) branched out of the Common Turkic (eastern) branches much later during Turkish migrations to Central Asia and beyond and thus their records date to a much later date than the Eastern Turkic languages.

Old Turkic (also East Old Turkic, Orkhon Turkic, Old Uyghur) is the earliest attested form of Turkic, found in Göktürk and Uyghur inscriptions dating from about the 7th century AD to the 13th century. It is the oldest attested member of the Orkhon branch of Turkic, which is extant in the modern Western Yugur language.

The Yugurs, Yughurs, Yugu or Yellow Uyghurs, as they are traditionally known, are a Turkic and Mongolic group and one of China’s 56 officially recognized ethnic groups, consisting of 13,719 persons according to the 2000 census. The Yugur live primarily in Sunan Yugur Autonomous County in Gansu, China. They are Tibetan Buddhists.

Old Turkic is attested in a number of scripts, including the Orkhon-Yenisei runiform script, the Old Uyghur alphabet (a form of the Sogdian alphabet), the Brāhmī script, the Manichean alphabet, and the Perso-Arabic script. Old Turkic often refers not to a single language, but collectively to the closely related and mutually intelligible stages of various Common Turkic branches that were spoken during the late 1st millennium AD.

However, it is not the ancestor of the language now called Uighur; the contemporaneous ancestor of Uighur to the west is called Middle Turkic, later Chagatai or Turki. Middle Turkic refers to a phase in the development of the Turkic language family, covering much of the Middle Ages (c. 900–1500 CE).

In particular the term Middle Turkic is used by linguists to refer to a group of Karluk and Oghuz and related languages spoken during this period in Central Asia, Iran, and other parts of the Middle East occupied by the Seljuk Turks. Its best known literary form is the Karakhanid (also called Khaqani Turkic) dialects spoken in Kashgar, Balasaghun and other cities along the Silk Road.

The literary language of the Chagatai Khanate is considered a later form of Middle Turkic. Confusingly, the Karluk and Oghuz “Middle Turkic” period overlaps with the East Turkic Old Turkic period, which covers the 8th to 13th centuries.

Chagatai is an extinct Turkic language that was once widely spoken in Central Asia and remained the shared literary language there until the early 20th century. It is the predecessor of the modern Karluk branch (also known as the Qarluq or Southeastern Common Turkic languages) of Turkic languages, which includes Uzbek and Uyghur.

The Karluk languages are a sub-branch of the Turkic language family that developed from the varieties once spoken by Karluks. Many Middle Turkic works were written in these languages. The language of the Kara-Khanid Khanate was known as Turki, Ferghani, Kashgari or Khaqani.

Karluk Turkic was spoken in the Kara-Khanid Khanate, Chagatai Khanate, Yarkent Khanate and the Uzbek speaking Khanate of Bukhara, Emirate of Bukhara, Khanate of Khiva and Kokand Khanate. The Chagatai Khanate was a Mongol and later Turkicized khanate that comprised the lands ruled by Chagatai Khan, second son of Genghis Khan, and his descendants and successors.


The proto-Mongols emerged from an area that had been inhabited by humans and predecessor hominin species as far back as the Stone Age over 800,000 years ago. The people there went through the Bronze and Iron Ages, forming tribal alliances, peopling, and coming into conflict with early China.

The proto-Mongols formed various tribal kingdoms that fought against each other for supremacy, such as the Rouran Khaganate from 333 to 555 AD until it was defeated by the Göktürks, who founded the Turkic Khaganate (552–744), which in turn was subdued by the growing strength of the Chinese Tang dynasty.

The destruction of the Uyghur Khaganate (744–848), a Turkic empire that existed for about a century between the mid 8th and 9th centuries, by the Yenisei Kirghiz resulted in the end of Turkic dominance in Mongolia.

The Yenisei Kyrgyz Khaganate was a Turkic empire that existed for about a century between the early 9th and 10th centuries, around the start of the Borjigin Mongol dynasty. The senior Borjigid provided ruling princes for Mongolia and Inner Mongolia until the 20th century.

The clan formed the ruling class among the Mongols and some other peoples of Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Today, the Borjigid are found in most of Mongolia, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, although genetic research has shown that descent from Genghis Khan is common in Central Asia.

The Yenisei Kyrgyz Khaganate ruled over the Yenisei Kyrgyz people, who had been located in South Siberia and Central Asia since the 6th century. By the 9th century, the Kyrgyz had asserted dominance over the Uyghurs who had previously ruled. The empire was established as a Khaganate from 840–1207.

The Kyrgyz Khaganate existed from 550 to 1219 CE; in 840, it took over the leadership of the Turkic Khaganate from the Uyghurs, expanding the state from the Yenisei territories into the Central Asia and Tarim Basin. The Yenisei Kyrgyz mass migration to the Jeti-su resulted in the formation of the modern Kyrgyz Republic land of the modern-day Kyrgyz.

Culturally and linguistically, the Yenisei Kirghiz were Turkic. The Kirghiz were described in Tang Dynasty texts as having primarily Caucasian features, with some having East Asian features. The descendants of the Yenisei Kirghiz today are the Kyrgyz, Khakas and Altai peoples.

The para-Mongol Khitan people founded a state known as the Liao dynasty (907–1125) in Central Asia and ruled Mongolia and portions of the eastern coast of Siberia now known as the Russian Far East, northern Korea, and North China.

Over the next few hundred years, the Jurchens in China, a term used to collectively describe a number of East Asian Tungusic-speaking peoples who lived in the northeast of China, later known as Manchuria, before the 18th century, subtly encouraged warfare among the Mongols as a way of keeping them distracted from invading China.

In the 12th century, Genghis Khan was able to unite or conquer the warring tribes, forging them into a unified fighting force that went on to create the largest contiguous empire in world history, the Mongol Empire, which was finally able to conquer the whole of China.

He begun with his invasion of the Jurchen Jin Dynasty, officially known as the Great Jin, lasted from 1115 to 1234 as one of the last dynasties in Chinese history to predate the Mongol conquest of China, and ending with his grandson Kublai Khan’s conquest of the Southern Song Dynasty, establishing the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty.

By the first millennium BC, bronze-working peoples lived in Mongolia. With the appearance of iron weapons by the 3rd century BC, the inhabitants of Mongolia had begun to form Clan alliances and lived a hunter and herder lifestyle.

The origins of more modern inhabitants are found among the forest hunters and nomadic tribes of Inner Asia. They inhabited a great arc of land extending generally from the Korean Peninsula in the east, across the northern tier of China to present-day Kazakhstan and to the Pamir Mountains and Lake Balkash in the west.

During most of recorded history, this has been an area of constant ferment from which emerged numerous migrations and invasions to the southeast (into China), to the southwest (into Transoxiana—modern Uzbekistan, Iran, and India), and to the west (across Scythia toward Europe).

By the eighth century BC, the inhabitants of western Mongolia evidently were nomadic Indo-European speakers, either Scythians or Yuezhi. In central and eastern parts of Mongolia were many other tribes, such as the Slab Grave culture and the Ordos culture.

Slab Grave culture

The Slab Grave culture is an archaeological culture of the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Mongols. According to various sources, it is dated from 1,300 to 300 BC. The Slab Grave Culture art has many common features with cultures of Southern Siberia: Karasuk, Tagar, and others.

The Slab Grave Culture became an eastern wing of a huge nomadic Eurasian world which at the beginning of the 1st millennium BC produced a civilization known as Scythian-Siberian. The anthropological type of the population is predominantly Mongoloid, the western newcomers from the area of Tuva and north-western Mongolia were Caucasoids.

The origin of this slab-grave culture is not definitely known. The ornamentation and shape of various bronze objects and especially the technology and stylistic methods used in the making of artistic bronzes found in the slab graves have led scholars to attribute at least some of them to the Karasuk period. At the same time it appears that the slab-grave culture shares some features with the Karasuk culture of southern Siberia.

Slab Grave cultural monuments are found in northern, central and eastern Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, Northwest China (Xinjiang region, Qilian Mountains etc.), Manchuria, Lesser Khingan, Buryatia, southern Irkutsk Oblast and southern and central Zabaykalsky Krai.

The name of the culture is derived from the main typology of the graves, its graves have rectangular fences (chereksurs) of vertically set slabs of gneiss or granite, with stone kurgans inside the fence. Were found settlements, burial and ritual structures, rock paintings, deer stones, and other remains of that culture.

The most recent graves date from the 6th century BC, and the earliest monuments of the next in time Xiongnu culture belong to the 2nd century BC. The gap is not less than three centuries, and the monuments that would fill this chronological gap are almost unknown.

The slab graves are both individual and collective in groups of 5-8 to large burials with up to 350 fences. Large cemeteries have a clear plan. In Aga Buryat District were found more than three thousand fences. Most of the graves are burials, some are ritual fences – cenotaphs. Graves are oriented along west-east axis. Deceased are laid on the back, with the head to the east.

The fences vary from 1.5 m to 9.6 m, a height of the slabs vary from 0,5 m to 3 m. The grave pits under stome kurgan mounds are covered with slabs that often are of considerable sizes. The depth of the burial pits vary from 0,6 m to 2,5–3 meters, in deep graves the side slabs were stacked and covered with several slab layers. In places within the fence sometimes were installed deer stones, single slabs with images of deer, less frequently of the horses, accompanied with solar signs and armaments.

A burial complex on the Lami mountain in the Nerchinsk area consisted of graves about 30 meters in length, divided into 4 sections. Not plundered fence was covered by several slabs each weighing up to 0,5 tons. Under cover slabs was an altar with skulls of horses, cows and sheep. Below were five burial chambers for inhumation.

Most of the graves were looted. The buried clothing and footwear is colorful, with various ornaments of bronze, bone and stone: plaques, buttons, necklaces, pendants, mirrors, cowrie shells. The accompanying tools are rare: Needles and needle beds, knives and axes-celts. Even less common are weapons: arrowheads, daggers, bow end caps. In some graves are horse harnesses, whip handles. There are bronze objects, fewer iron and precious metals.

Jars are round-bottom earthenware, some tripods. Vessel ornament are impressions, rolled bands, indentations. The art of the Slab Grave Culture belongs to the “animal style” art that depicts domesticated and wild animals, daily life and main occupations. 

Thousands of graves can now be seen in the southern Baikal area. In some cases they form a cemetery, with a clear plan and a strict order. For example, at lake Balzino about a hundred graves formed circles and rectangles.

They are usually located at higher elevation, exposed to sun. Monumental burials mark greatness of the people who once lived there. They became an integral part of the E.Baikal steppes cultural and historical landscape

According to anthropologists, they are classified as the southern Siberian branch of the greater Mongolian morphology. The genesis of the anthropological type is under discussion. Presumably, its origin comes from the anthropological type of the known Neolithic population of the southern Baikal and eastern Mongolia.

Qijia culture

The Qijia culture (2200 BC – 1600 BC) was an early Bronze Age culture distributed around the upper Yellow River region of Gansu (centered in Lanzhou) and eastern Qinghai, China. It is regarded as one of the earliest bronze cultures in China. Extensive domestication of horses are found at many Qijia sites.

The Qijia Culture is named after the Qijiaping Site in Gansu Province. Johan Gunnar Andersson discovered the initial site at Qijiaping in 1923. It was a sedentary culture, based on agriculture, and breeding pigs, which were also used in sacrifices.

Prior to Qijia culture, in the same area there existed Majiayao culture that was also familiar with metalwork. At the end of the third millennium B.C., Qijia culture succeeded Majiayao culture at sites in three main geographic zones: Eastern Gansu, Middle Gansu, and Western Gansu/Eastern Qinghai.

Qijia culture is distinguished by a presence of numerous domesticated horses, and practice of oracle divination, the metal knives and axes recovered apparently point to some interactions with Siberian and Central Asian cultures, in particular with the Seima-Turbino complex. Archeological evidence points to plausible early contact between the Qijia culture and Central Asia.

The archaeological sites at Lajia, Huangniangniangtai, Qinweijia, and Dahezhuang are associated with the Qijia culture. Qijia sites were also found in Ningxia province and Inner Mongolia. A total of over 350 sites of the Qijia culture have been found superimposed on the Majiayao culture.

Qijia culture produced some of the earliest bronze and copper mirrors found in China. Since this is significantly later than the discovery of bronze in Mesopotamia, bronze technology could have been imported rather than discovered independently in China.

While there may be reason to believe that bronzework developed inside China separately from outside influence, the discovery of European mummies in Xinjiang suggests a possible route of transmission from the West.

A large quantity of metal ware, mostly copper objects, including some bronzes, have been excavated from various sites in Gansu province and at Gamatai in Qinghai province. 25 pieces of metalwork were analyzed for their composition. Those made from copper were the most numerous, accounting for 64 per cent of the total. The rest represented various copper alloys, including tin.

Techniques of pottery-making are marked by a fine red ware and a coarse reddish-brown ware. There are also a few pieces of grey ware. They are handmade, there being no evidence of wheel-made ware.

While the Qijia culture pottery has its own stylistic characteristics, it also shares many traits in common with the Longshan culture in Shaanxi. Some elements of the Majiayao culture are also present.

Machang culture also flourished in 2500–2000 BC along the Yellow River; it was an outgrowth of the Banshan culture. Machang culture was partly contemporary with the Qijia; although they were quite different, there was cultural exchange between them. Some scholars consider Machang culture as only a phase of the larger Majiayao culture; they also say that the Qijia derived from the Machang.

The Qijia Culture Cemetery at Mogou in Lintan County, Gansu was excavated beginning from 2008. More than one thousand graves have been found there. The area was inhabited during the first half of the second millennium BCE. Thousands of funerary goods have been found, such as pottery vessels, bone ornaments and implements, shells, and metal objects.

To date, this represents by far the biggest find of copper and bronze objects ascribed to the Qijia culture, as more than three hundred items were found here. The finds are mostly implements, such as knives, and ornaments, such as buttons, earrings and beads. Some types of objects, such as torques and armbands, were not found before.

Examination reveals that tin bronze (Cu-Sn) was the most important alloy used at the Mogou site. Other alloys, such as Cu-Sn-Pb (lead) and Cu-Sn-As (arsenic), were also in use. Some items were manufactured by casting and hot-forging.

Two iron fragments were recently excavated at the Mogou cemetery. They have been dated to the 14th century BC. One of the fragments was made of bloomery iron rather than meteoritic iron.

During the late stages of the culture, the Qijia culture retreated from the west and suffered a reduction in population size. Some scholars hold that Siwa culture was a descendant of the Qijia culture. Also, Kayue culture is believed by some to have developed from the western part of the Qijia culture.

Okunev culture

Okunev culture is a Bronze Age culture dated to the first half of the 2nd millennium BC in Minusinsk Hollow of southern Siberia. The chief occupation of the population was stock raising (cattle, sheep, and goats), supplemented by hunting and fishing. There were no significant indications of property and social stratification.

It is named after the Okunev settlement in southern Khakassia. It was preceded by the Afanasevo culture and succeeded by the Andronovo culture. While the Afanasevo culture is considered Indo-European, the Okunev culture is generally regarded as an extension of the local non-Indo-European forest culture into the region.

The similarity between some of the objects from the Okunev burial grounds and objects found in sites in the vicinity of the middle Ob River and the Lake Baikal region indicates that the bearers of the Okunev culture came to southern Siberia from the northern taiga regions, although genetic evidence suggests bearears of the Afanasevo culture were partly ancestral to those of the Okunev culture, particularly among the more westerly subgroups of this culture.

The Okunev culture is represented by burial structures, which were composed of small, rectangular surface enclosures made of stone slabs placed vertically in the ground. Within these enclosures were graves that were also lined with stone slabs.

Finds from the Okunev culture include lavishly decorated jug-like and conical vessels; copper and bronze articles, including leaf-shaped knives, fishhooks, and temporal rings; and works of art, which included stone statues with human faces and images of birds and beasts engraved on bone plaques or hammered out on stone slabs.

Karasuk culture

The Karasuk culture (1500–800 BC), a group of Bronze Age societies who ranged from the Aral Sea to the upper Yenisei in the east and south to the Altai Mountains and the Tian Shan, was preceded by the Afanasevo culture. It was succeeded by the Tagar culture.

The distribution of the Karasuk culture covers the eastern parts of the Andronovo culture, which it appears to replace. The remains of settlements are minimal, and entirely of the mortuary variety. At least 2000 burials are known.

The Karasuk period persisted down to c. 700 BC. From c. 700 to c. 200 BC, culture developed along similar lines. Vital trade contact is traced from northern China and the Baikal region to the Black Sea and the Urals, influencing the uniformity of the culture.

The economy was mixed agriculture and stockbreeding. Its culture appears to have been more mobile than the Andronovo. The Karasuk were farmers who practiced metallurgy on a large scale. Arsenical bronze artefacts are present.

The economy was mixed agriculture and stockbreeding. Arsenical bronze artefacts are present. Their settlements were of pit houses and they buried their dead in stone cists covered by kurgans and surrounded by square stone enclosures.

Industrially, they were skilled metalworkers, the diagnostic artifacts of the culture being a bronze knife with curving profiles and a decorated handle and horse bridles. The pottery has been compared to that discovered in Inner Mongolia and the interior of China, with bronze knives similar to those from northeastern China.

Their settlements were of pit houses and they buried their dead in stone cists covered by kurgans and surrounded by square stone enclosures. Industrially, they were skilled metalworkers, the diagnostic artifacts of the culture being a bronze knife with curving profiles and a decorated handle and horse bridles.

The pottery has been compared to that discovered in Inner Mongolia and the interior of China, with burials bronze knives similar to those from northeastern China. Their realistic animal art probably contributed to the development of the Scytho-Siberian animal art style (Scythian art).

The origins of the Karasuk culture are complex, but it is generally accepted that its origins lie both with the Andronovo culture and local cultures of the Yenisei. It is generally believed that the culture has its origin in Mongolia, Northern China and Korea, characterized by Altaic idioms.

The ethnic identity of the Karasuk is problematic, as the Andronovo culture has been associated with the Indo-Iranians while the local cultures have been considered as unconnected to the steppe. Nevertheless, a specifically Proto-Iranian identity has been proposed for the Karasuk culture.

The Karasuk tribes have been described by archaeologists as exhibiting pronounced Europoid features. George van Driem has suggested a connection with the Yeniseian and Burushaski people, proposing a Karasuk languages group.

Other scholars have suggested a connection with the Yeniseian and Burushaski people, even suggesting a Karasuk languages group. Another possibility is that it was an early example of a Turkic culture and it perhaps could also be seen as a place of the first westward migration of early Turkic peoples.

In 2009, a genetic study of ancient Siberian cultures, the Andronovo culture, the Karasuk culture, the Tagar culture and the Tashtyk culture, was published in the journal Human Genetics. Four individuals of the Karasuk culture of four different sites from 1400 BC to 800 BC were surveyed.

Extractions of Y-DNA from two individuals were both determined to be of Y-chromosome haplogroup R1a1, which is thought to mark the eastward migration of the early Indo-Europeans. The individuals surveyed were all determined to be Europoid and light-eyed.

Extracted mtDNA from two female remains from this cultural horizon revealed they possessed the the Western Eurasian haplogroup U5a1 and U4 lineages. The study determined that the individuals had light hair and blue or green eyes.

The Karasuk language

The Karasuk language family, named after the Karasuk culture, is a language family proposed by George van Driem of the University of Leiden that links the Yeniseian languages, sometimes known as Yeniseic or Yenisei-Ostyak; occasionally spelled with -ss-, a language family whose languages are and were spoken in the Yenisei River region of central Siberia, with the Burushaski language of northern Pakistan.

The evidence for Karasuk is mostly morphological. For example, the second-person singular prefixes on intransitive verbs are [ɡu-, ɡó-] in Burushaski and [ku-, ɡu-] in Ket.

The Karasuk hypothesis, linking Yeniseian to Burushaski, has been proposed by several scholars, notably by A.P. Dulson and V.N. Toporov. George van Driem, the most prominent current advocate of the Karasuk hypothesis, postulates that the Burusho people took part in the Indo-Aryan migration out of Central Asia that resulted in the Indo-European conquest of the Indus Valley that resulted in the Indo-European conquest of the Indian sub-continent, while other Karasuk peoples migrated northwards to become the Yenisei. These claims have recently been picked up by linguist Roger Blench.

While Yeniseian, which share many contact-induced similarities with the South Siberian Turkic languages, Samoyedic languages, and Evenki, has been demonstrated to be related to the Na-Dene languages of North America, as part of a newly named Dene–Yeniseian family, the relevant morphological correspondences between Na-Dene and Yeniseian have not been found in Burushaski.

Until 2008, few linguists had accepted connections between Yeniseian and any other language family, though distant connections have been proposed with most of the ergative languages of Eurasia.

In 2008, Edward Vajda of Western Washington University presented evidence for a genealogical relation between the Yeneisian languages of Siberia and the Na–Dené languages of North America.

At the time of publication (2010), Vajda’s proposals had been favorably reviewed by several specialists of Na-Dené and Yeniseian languages—although at times with caution—including Michael Krauss, Jeff Leer, James Kari, and Heinrich Werner, as well as a number of other respected linguists, such as Bernard Comrie, Johanna Nichols, Victor Golla, Michael Fortescue, Eric Hamp, and Bill Poser (Kari and Potter 2010:12).

One significant exception is the critical review of the volume of collected papers by Lyle Campbell and a response by Vajda published in late 2011 that clearly indicate the proposal is not completely settled at the present time. Two other reviews and notices of the volume appeared in 2011 by Keren Rice and Jared Diamond.

As noted by Tailleur and Werner, some of the earliest proposals of genetic relations of Yeniseian, by M.A. Castrén (1856), James Byrne (1892), and G.J. Ramstedt (1907), suggested that Yeniseian was a northern relative of the Sino-Tibetan languages. These ideas were followed much later by Kai Donner and Karl Bouda.

Bouda, in various publications in the 1930s through the 1950s, described a linguistic network that (besides Yeniseian and Sino-Tibetan) also included Caucasian, and Burushaski, some forms of which have gone by the name of Sino-Caucasian. The works of R. Bleichsteiner and O.G. Tailleur, the late Sergei A. Starostin and Sergei L. Nikolayev have sought to confirm these connections.

Others who have developed the hypothesis, often expanded to Dené–Caucasian, include J.D. Bengtson, V. Blažek, J.H. Greenberg (with M. Ruhlen), and M. Ruhlen. George Starostin continues his father’s work in Yeniseian, Sino-Caucasian and other fields.

Tagar culture

The Tagar culture (800-300 BC) was a Bronze Age archeological culture which flourished between in South Siberia (Republic of Khakassia, southern part of Krasnoyarsk Territory, eastern part of Kemerovo Province). It is named after an island in the Yenisey River opposite Minusinsk, succeeded the Karasuk culture. The civilization was one of the largest centres of bronze-smelting in ancient Eurasia.

The Tagar culture was preceded by the Karasuk culture. The Tagar tribes, whose people use the same burial places, indicating a continuity in settlements, are thought to have been Caucasoids of the Scythian circle. They are usually considered a mixed population descended from peoples of the Afanasievo culture and Andronovo culture, who were themselves descended of migrants from the Pontic-Caspian steppe.

The Minusinsk basin was first excavated by Daniel Gottlieb Messerschmidt in 1722. Messerschmidt and Philip Johan von Strahlenberg were the first to point out similarities between the Tagar and Scythian cultures further west. Along with the people of the Pazyryk culture, the Tagar are often considered to have constituted the core of the Scythian cultures. The Tagar culture was succeeded by the Tashtyk culture.

The Tagar produced animal art motifs heavily influenced by Scythian art from Pazyryk culture, an Iron Age archaeological culture (ca. 6th to 3rd centuries BC) identified by excavated artifacts and mummified humans found in the Siberian permafrost in the Altay Mountains and nearby Mongolia.

They lived in timber dwellings heated by clay ovens and large hearths. Some settlements were surrounded by fortifications. They made a living by raising livestock, large horned livestock and horses, goats and sheep. Harvest was collected with bronze sickles and reaping knives. There are evidence of farmins with evidence of irrigation.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the culture are huge royal kurgans fenced by stone plaques, with four vertical stelae marking the corners.  Burials from the early Tagar period are characterized as single burials. In the later Tagar period, collective burials become more common. This has been interpreted as a sign of social evolution in Tagar society.

The Tagar people have been the subject of numerous studies by physical anthropologists. The Tagars have been described by researchers as having Europoid features. Ancient DNA extracted from the remains of six males who dated back to the Tagar culture were determined to be of Y-chromosome haplogroup R1a.

Extracted mtDNA from two female remains from this cultural horizon revealed they possessed the T3 and H lineages. The study determined that the majority of the individuals had light hair and blue or green eyes.

In 2009, a genetic study of ancient Siberian cultures, the Andronovo culture, tha Karasuk culture, the Tagar culture and the Tashtyk culture, was published in Human Genetics. Twelve indiduals of the Tagar culture from 800 BC to 100 AD were surveyed.

Extractions of mtDNA from ten individuals were determined to represent three samples of haplogroup T3, one sample of I4, one sample G2a, one sample of C, one sample of F1b and three samples of H (including one sample of H5).

Extractions of Y-DNA from six individuals were all determined to be of Y-chromosome haplogroup R1a1, which is thought to mark the eastward migration of the early Indo-Europeans. All individuals except from one mixed race individual were determined to be Europoid, with the majority being light-eyed and light haired.

In 2018, a study of mtDNA from remains of the Tagar culture was published in PLOS One. Remains from the early years of the Tagar culture were found to be closely related to those of contemporary Scythians on the Pontic steppe.

The authors of the study suggested that the source of this genetic similarity was an eastwards migration of West Eurasians during the Bronze Age, which probably played a role in the formation of the Tagar culture.

A genetic study published in Nature in May 2018 examined the remains of eight individuals ascribed to the Tagar culture. The three samples of Y-DNA collected all belonged to haplogroup R1. The samples of mtDNA collected were N1a1a1a1, N9a9, H5a1, W1c, U2e2, A8a1, U2e1h and F1b1b.

The Tagar had a higher amount of Eastern Hunter-Gatherer (EHG) ancestry than all other peoples of the Scythian cultures. They were determined to the of about 83,5% Western Steppe Herder (WSH) ancestry, 9% Ancient North Eurasian (ANE) ancestry, and 7,5% Siberian Hunter-Gather ancestry.

Tashtyk culture

The Tashtyk culture (100-400 CE), named after an island in the Yenisey River opposite Minusinsk, succeeded the Tagar culture. The Tashtyk culture, an archaeological culture that flourished in the Yenisei valley in Siberia, perhaps equivalent to the Yenisei Kirghiz. Located in the Minusinsk Depression, environs of modern Krasnoyarsk, eastern part of Kemerovo Oblast, it was preceded by the Tagar culture.

The Tashtyk culture was first surveyed by the Russian archaeologist Sergei Teploukhov. Teploukhov suggested that it had been initially Indo-European dominated, only to become overcome by the Yenisei Kirghiz around the 3rd century AD. The Yenisei Kirghiz are often associated with the Tashtyk culture.

According to recent historical findings, Kyrgyz history dates back to 201 BC. The early Kyrgyz lived in the upper Yenisey River valley, central Siberia (see Yenisei Kirghiz for details). Chinese and Muslim sources of the 7th–12th centuries AD describe the Kyrgyz as red-haired with fair complexion and green (blue) eyes.

First appearing in Chinese records of the Grand Historian as Gekun or Jiankun, and later as part of the Tiele tribes, they were once under the rule of Göktürks and Uyghurs. The descent of the Kyrgyz from the autochthonous Siberian population is confirmed on the other hand by the recent genetic studies (The Eurasian Heartland: A continental perspective on Y-chromosome diversity).

Remarkably, 63% of the modern Kyrgyz men share Haplogroup R1a1 (Y-DNA) with Tajiks (64%), Ukrainians (54%), Poles (56%) and even Icelanders (25%). Haplogroup R1a1 (Y-DNA) is believed to be a marker of the Proto-Indo-European language speakers.

Kyrgyz genesis legend tells about an ancestor and father of all Kyrgyzes Kyzyl Taigan (Red Dog). A daughter of the khan was in the habit to take long walks in a company of 40 maidens-servants. Once, on return home after her usual walk, the Princess saw that her native aul was ravaged by an enemy. In the aul they found only one alive creature, a red dog.

The princess and her 40 maids become mothers, in a company with only one male attraction, a red dog. By the number of matrons, the posterity of 40 maidens, kyrk-kyz, began to be called Kyrgyz people. The cult of the Heavenly Dog was widespread between the tribes west and east of the ancient China.

The Kyrgyz state reached its greatest expansion after defeating the Uyghur Khaganate in 840 AD. Then Kyrgyz quickly moved as far as as the Tian Shan range and maintained their dominance over this territory for about 200 years.

In the 12th century, however, the Kyrgyz domination had shrunk to the Altay Range and the Sayan Mountains as a result of the rising Mongol expansion. With the rise of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century, the Kyrgyz migrated south. Various Turkic peoples ruled them until 1685, when they came under the control of the Oirats (Dzungars).

Tashtyk settlements and hill-forts have been unearthed throughout the Yenisei region, particularly the Sayan canyon area. Their most imposing monuments were immense barrows-crypt structures; these have yielded large quantities of clay and metal vessels and ornaments. In addition, numerous petrographic carvings have been found.

Some of the graves contained leather models of human bodies with their heads wrapped in tissue and brightly painted. Inside the models there were small leather bags probably symbolising the stomach and containing burned human bones.

Scaled-down replicas of swords, arrows and quivers were placed nearby. The animal motis of the Tashtyk belonged to the Scytho-Altaic style, while they were also under significant Chinese influence.

During his excavations of the Oglahty cemetery south of Minusinsk, Leonid Kyzlasov discovered a number of mummies with richly decorated plaster funerary masks showing Western Eurasian features, though this would not rule out some East Asian admixture, as revealed by ancient DNA. There were also intact fur hats, silk clothes, and footwear.

Extracted mitochondrial DNA from five female Tashtyk remains of 100–400 AD from Bogratsky region, Abakano-Pérévoz I, Khakassia Republic, revealed that four possessed the Western Eurasian HV, H, N9a, and T1 haplogroups, while the other carried the East Asian haplogroup C.

The Western Eurasian Y-DNA haplogroup R1a1a was extracted from one male. The same haplogroup was found among the remains of the preceding Tagar culture. The study determined that the majority of the individuals had light hair and blue or green eyes.

In 2009, a genetic study of ancient Siberian cultures, the Andronovo culture, tha Karasuk culture, the Tagar culture and the Tashtyk culture, was published in Human Genetics. Six Tashtyk remains of 100–400 AD from Bogratsky region, Abakano-Pérévoz I, Khakassia were surveyed.

Extractions of mtDNA from three individuals was determined to belong to the Western Eurasian HV, H, and T1, while the others carried the North Asian haplogroup C and East Asian N9a.

Extractions of Y-DNA from the remains of one individual was determined to be of Y-chromosome haplogroup Western Eurasian R1a1, which is thought to mark the eastward migration of the early Indo-Europeans. All individuals surveyed were determined to be Caucasoid, and were, except for one individual, light-eyed and light-haired.

Zhukaigou culture

The Zhukaigou culture was a late Neolithic and early Bronze Age culture centered in the Ordos Plateau of Inner Mongolia, China. The type site at Zhukaigou was discovered in Ejin Horo Banner, Inner Mongolia, and excavated from 1977 to 1984.

Zhukaigou culture is a reputed progenitor of the Ordos bronze culture and accordingly a first “Northern Zone” culture, extending to northern and central Inner Mongolia, northern Shaanxi, and northern Shanxi, with the Ordos region at its center. Transition to metalworking is dated to around the end of the third millennium BCE, at the same time was attained a higher level in the ceramic. Zhukaigou culture lasted to c. 1500 BCE.

The culture appears to have begun as one of hunter-gatherers, followed by an agricultural phase, which following environmental degradation and perhaps the domestication of the horse, increasingly depended on pastoralism, perhaps the nomadic pastoralism of the succeeding Ordos culture.

The Zhukaigou culture is associated with about 327 burials, with recent maternal genetic evidence showing that they were related to the remains from Yinniugou, as well as modern populations like Daurs and Evenks.

The archaeological finds at the site are similar to those of the lower Xiajiadian culture. These finds are important as they are associated with the development of snake pattern designs on the decoration of weapon and animal-depicting artifacts which later would become a characteristic style of the Ordos.

Archaeologists have divided the culture into five phases, corresponding with the late stage of the Longshan culture, the early, middle and late stages of the Erlitou culture and the early stage of the Erligang culture.

The early phase of the culture was influenced by the Longshan culture, while the middle phases were influenced by the Qijia culture; it was during this time frame when bronze artefacts begin to appear in the material culture. At this point Zhukaigou people were agriculturalists, with millet as a main staple, they also had sheep, pigs, and cattle.

By the second millennium BC, the Zhukaigou people started using oracle-bone divination, a practice that was closely associated with Shang culture and statecraft. Shang-type artifacts suggest that around the mid-second millennium BCE increased contacts between the local Zhukaigou people and the Shang, or that the Shang culture extended northward. Shang ritual vessels, such as ding and jue, and weapons appear there during the Erlitou (2100–1800 [1500?] BCE) and Erligang (c. 1500–1,400 BCE) periods.

Bronze objects dated to the last period of existence of Zhukaigou culture c. 1500 BCE point to native production of a mixed complex of bronze objects that included typical “Northern Zone” items like daggers, with typical Shang ge dagger-axes, and knives that reveal both Shang and northern features.

In the late period of Zhukaigou culture, c. 1,500 BCE, motifs like snake patterns and the flower-shaped edge of the li vessel appeared, which archaeologists regard as characteristic of later nomadic peoples of this area. During the last phase of the Zhukaigou culture, the former practice of sheep and pig sacrifices was gradually being replaced by the practice of dog sacrifices.

Ordos culture

The Ordos culture was a culture occupying a region centered on the Ordos Loop (modern Inner Mongolia, China) during the Bronze and early Iron Age from the 6th to 2nd centuries BCE.

The Ordos culture is known for significant finds of Scythian art and is thought to represent either the easternmost extension of Indo-European Eurasian nomads, such as the Saka, or to represent a culture formed by Turkic peoples. Under the Qin and Han dynasties, from the 6th to 2nd centuries BCE, the area came under at least nominal control of contemporaneous Chinese states.

Equestrian nomads from the north-west occupied the area previously settled by the Zhukaigou culture from the 6th to the 2nd century BCE before being driven away by the Xiongnu.

The Ordos Plateau was covered by grass, bushes, and trees and was sufficiently watered by numerous rivers and streams to produce rich grazing lands.[6] At the time, it contained the best pasture lands on the Asian Steppe. However, it has now mostly turned to the Ordos Desert through a combination of overgrazing and climatic change.

The Ordos are mainly known from their skeletal remains and artifacts. The Ordos culture of about 500 BCE to 100 CE is known for its “Ordos bronzes”, blade weapons, finials for tent-poles, horse gear, and small plaques and fittings for clothes and horse harness, using animal style decoration with relationships both with the Scythian art of regions much further west, and also Chinese art. Its relationship with the Xiongnu is controversial; for some scholars they are the same and for others different. Many buried metal artefacts have emerged on the surface of the land as a result of the progressive desertification of the region.

The Ordos are thought to be the easternmost of the Iranian peoples of the Eurasian Steppe, just to the east of the better-known Yuezhi, also an Indo-European people. Because the people represented in archaeological finds tend to display Europoid features, also earlier noted by Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen, Iaroslav Lebedynsky suggests the Ordos culture had “a Scythian affinity”.

Other scholars have associated it with the Yuezhi. The weapons found in tombs throughout the steppes of the Ordos are very close to those of the Scythians and Saka. A Turkic origin is also suggested by some historians.

While the ethnolinguistic origins and character of the Ordos culture are unknown, the population appears to have been significantly influenced either by Indo-European cultures, or by Turkic peoples.

However, the art of the Ordos culture appears to have influenced that of the Donghu people, a Mongolic-speaking nomadic tribe located to the east, suggesting that the two had close ties. (The Donghu may also have been connected to a people known as the Northern Di in Chinese annals.

The Ordos population was also in contact – and reportedly often at war – with the pre-Han and Han peoples. The Ordos culture covered, geographically, regions later occupied by the Han, including areas just north of the later Great Wall of China and straddling the northernmost hook of the Yellow River.

To the west of the Ordos culture was another Indo-European people, the Yuezhi, although nothing is known of relations between the two. (The Yuezhi were later vanquished by the Xiongnu and Wusun, who reportedly drove them westward, out of China; a subgroup of the Yuezhi is widely believed to have migrated to South Central Asia, where it constituted the ruling elite of the Kushan Empire.)

In Chinese accounts, the Xiongnu first appear at Ordos in the Yi Zhou Shu and Classic of Mountains and Seas during the Warring States period before it was occupied by the states of Qin and Zhao. It is generally thought to be their homeland; however, when exactly they came to occupy the region is unclear and archaeological finds suggest it might have been much earlier than traditionally thought.

As the Xiongnu expanded southward into Yuezhi territory around 160 BCE under Modun, the Yuezhi in turn defeated the Sakas and pushed them away at Issyk Kul. It is thought the Xiongnu also occupied the Ordos area during the same period, when they came in direct contact with the Chinese. From there, the Xiongnu conducted numerous devastating raids into Chinese territory (167, 158, 142, 129 BCE).

The Han–Xiongnu War began with Emperor Wu of Han, and the Han colonized the area of the Ordos as the commandery of Shuofang in 127 BCE. Prior to this campaign, there were already earlier commanderies established by Qin and Zhao before they were overrun by the Xiongnu in 209 BCE.

The Tarim mummies

In 1934 Swedish archaeologist Folke Bergman discovered some 200 mummies, bodies preserved by the desert conditions, on the eastern edge of the Tarim Basin in Northwest China (a region known as Xinjiang, East Turkestan or Uyghurstan). The oldest of these mummies date back to 2000 BC.

They seem to be Caucasoid types with light-colored hair and all 7 male remains tested by Li et al. (2010), were positive for the R1a1 mutations. The modern inhabitants of the Tarim Basin, the Uyghurs, belong both to this R1b-M73 subclade (about 20%) and to R1a1 (about 30%).

The first theory about the origins of the Tarim mummies is that a group of early horse riders from the Repin culture (3700-3300 BCE) migrated from the Don-Volga region to the Altai mountain, founding the Afanasevo culture (c. 3600-2400 BCE), whence they moved south to the Tarim Basin.

Another possibility is that the Tarim mummies descend from the Proto-Indo-Iranian people who expanded all over Central Asia around 2000 BCE from the Sintashta-Petrovka culture. An offshoot would have crossed the Tian Shan mountains, ending up in the Tarim Basin.

This theory has the merit of matching the dating of the Tarim mummies. Either way, most of the mummies tested for mtDNA belonged to the Mongoloid haplogroup C4, and only a few to European or Middle Eastern haplogroups (H, K and R).

There is some controversy regarding the possible link between the Tarim mummies and the Tocharian languages, a Centum branch of the Indo-European family which were spoken in the Tarim Basin from the 3rd to 9th centuries CE. It is easy to assume that the Tarim mummies were Proto-Tocharian speakers due to the corresponding location and the Indo-European connection.

However, the Tarim mummies predate the appearance of Tocharian by over two millennia, and Tocharian is a Centum language that cannot be descended from the Satem Proto-Indo-Iranian branch. Other Centum branches being all related to haplogroup R1b, and Tocharian being the only eastern Centum language, it is possible that the Tocharian speakers is instead associated to the Central Asian R1b1b1 (M73) subclade, also found among the modern Uyghurs inhabiting the Tarim basin.


The Tarim Basin in western China, known for its amazingly well-preserved mummies, has been for thousands of years an important crossroad between the eastern and western parts of Eurasia. Despite its key position in communications and migration, and highly diverse peoples, languages and cultures, its prehistory is poorly understood.

The Xiaohe Cemetery, literally “Little River Cemetery”, and also known as Ördek’s Necropolis, is a bronze age site located near Lop Nur, in Xinjiang, Western China. It contains about 330 tombs, about 160 of which were looted by grave robbers before archaeological research could be carried out.

The cemetery resembles an oblong sand dune. From it the remains of more than 30 people, the earliest of whom lived around 4,000 years ago, have been excavated. The bodies, which have been buried in air-tight ox-hide bags, are so well-preserved that they have often been referred to as mummies.

While the mummies appear to be mostly caucasoid, analysis of their genetic makeup has revealed that they represented an admixed population, that combined both West Eurasian and East Eurasian ancestry. Their paternal lineages were almost exclusively West Eurasian, while their maternal lineages were a mixture of east and west Eurasian.

The Xiaohe cemetery complex contains the largest number of mummies found at any single site in the world to date. The bodies are likely to have been transported significant distances for burial at Xiaohe, as no contemporaneous settlement is known to have existed near the tomb complex.

A local hunter named Ördek found the site around 1910. Later, in 1934, with Ördek’s help, Swedish explorer and archeologist Folke Bergman located the site which he named Ördek’s Necropolis. The tomb complex appeared as a small oval mound, and the top of the burial mound was covered with a forest of erect wooden posts whose tops had been splintered by strong winds. Oar-shaped wooden monuments and wooden human figures were found at the site.

The coffins were assembled over the bodies which had become mummified. Bergman excavated 12 burials and recovered approximately 200 artifacts that were transported back to Stockholm. Bergman noted the surprising resemblance in the clothing, especially the fringed loin-cloths, to Bronze Age grave finds in Denmark, but dismissed any direct connection.

In October 2003, an excavation project, organized by the Xinjiang Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute, began at the site. A total of 167 tombs have been uncovered since the end of 2002, and excavations have revealed hundreds of smaller tombs built in layers. In 2006, a coffin wrapped with ox hide in the shape of a boat was found. It contained a remarkably intact mummy of a young woman, which came to be called the Beauty of Xiaohe (or Beauty of Loulan).

Each tomb is marked by a vertical poplar post near the upper end of the coffin. A skull or horn of an ox may be suspended from the post. The ends of the posts can be either torpedo-shaped or oar-shaped, representing the phallus and vulva respectively.

The male burials were marked with the oar-shaped posts, while the female burials were marked with the phallic posts. Bows and arrows were found with the male burials. The posts and coffins may be painted red. Each coffin is made of two massive pieces of plank assembled over the body, resembling an overturned boat, and then covered with cowhides.

A few special tombs containing females have an extra rectangular coffin on top covered with layers of mud. Small masks of human faces and wooden human figures may accompany the burials. Twigs and branches of ephedra were placed beside the body.

Between 2009 and 2015, the remains of 92 individuals found at the Xiaohe Tomb complex were analyzed for Y-DNA and mtDNA markers. Genetic analyses of the mummies showed that the maternal lineages of the Xiaohe people originated from both East Asia and West Eurasia, whereas all of the paternal lineages had links to modern populations of West Eurasia.

Mitochondrial DNA analysis, which reveals the maternal ancestry, showed that maternal lineages carried by the Xiaohe people include West Eurasian haplogroups H, K, U5, U7, U2e, T and R*; East Asian haplogroups B5, D and G2a; haplogroups of most likely Central Asian or Siberian origin C4 and C5; as well as typically South Asian haplogroups M5 and M*.

On the other hand, nearly all (11 out of 12 – or around 92%) of surveyed paternal lines are of West Eurasian haplogroup R1a1, and one is of exceptionally rare basal paragroup K*. The geographic location of this admixing is unknown, although south Siberia is likely.

According to a comment posted on 18 July 2014 by Hui Zhou, one of study’s co-authors, the Xiaohe R1a1 lineages belonged to a specifically European branch rather than the more common Central Asian R-Z93.

To shed light on the origin of the populations of the Tarim Basin, we analysed mitochondrial DNA polymorphisms in human skeletal remains excavated from the Xiaohe cemetery, used by the local community between 4000 and 3500 years before present, and possibly representing some of the earliest settlers.

The Tarim Basin in the Xinjiang region of China is situated on the Silk Road, the collection of ancient trade routes that for several millennia linked China to the Mediterranean. The present-day inhabitants of the Tarim Basin are highly diverse both culturally and biologically as a result of extensive movements of peoples and cultural exchanges between east and west Eurasia.

Archaeological and anthropological investigations have helped to formulate two main theories to account for the origin of the populations in the Tarim Basin. The first, so-called “steppe hypothesis”, maintains that the Tarim region experienced at least two population influxes from the Russo-Kazakh steppe.

The earliest settlers may have been nomadic herders of the Afanasievo culture (ca. 3300–2000 B.C.), a primarily pastoralist culture derived from the Yamna culture of the Pontic-Caspian region and distributed in the Eastern Kazakhstan, Altai, and Minusinsk regions of the steppe north of the Tarim Basin.

This view is based on the numerous similarities between the material culture, burial rituals and skeletal traits of the Afanasievo culture and the earliest Bronze Age sites in the Tarim Basin, such as Gumugou (ca. 3800 BP), one of the oldest sites with human burials in Xinjiang.

These first settlers were followed by people of the Late Bronze Age Andronovo cultural complex (ca. 2100–900 B.C.), another pastoralist culture derived from the Yamna culture, primarily distributed in the Pamirs, the Ferghana Valley, Kazakhstan, and the Minusinsk/Altai region.

This is signaled by the introduction of new material culture, clothing styles and burial customs around 1200 B.C. The second model, known as the “Bactrian oasis hypothesis”, also postulates a two-step settlement of the Tarim Basin in the Bronze Age, but maintains that the first settlers were farmers of the Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex (or BMAC, also known as the Oxus civilization) (ca. 2200–1500 B.C.) west of Xinjiang in Uzbekistan (north Bactria), Afghanistan (south Bactria), and Turkmenistan, followed later by the Andronovo people from the northwest.

This model emphasises the environmental similarities between the Xinjiang and Central Asian desert basins, and suggests that certain features, including the irrigation systems, wheat remains, woolen textiles, bones of sheep and goats, and traces of the medicinal plant Ephedra found in Xinjiang could be evidence of links with the Oxus civilization.

These contrasting models can be tested using DNA recovered from archaeological bones. Previous genetic evidence on the origin of the earliest settlers was based on the analysis of mtDNA from burials at the Gumugou cemetery in the eastern edge of the Tarim Basin.

In that study, researchers sequenced the first mtDNA hypervariable region (HVRI), but the results were inconclusive. The discovery of another Bronze Age site of a similar age to Gumugou, with many well-preserved mummies, including individuals with European facial features, provided a unique opportunity to obtain genetic evidence about the first settlers of the Tarim Basin.

The Xiaohe tomb complex is an important Bronze Age site in the eastern edge of the Tarim Basin. Discovered originally in 1934 by the Swedish archaeologist Folke Bergman, it was subsequently lost, but rediscovered in 2000 by a team from the Xinjiang Archaeological Institute using global positioning equipment. The cemetery was excavated between 2002 and 2005, and consisted of five strata with radiocarbon dates ranging from 4000 to 3500 years before present.

The site has many notable features, including numerous large phallus and vulva posts made of poplar, striking wooden human figures and masks, well-preserved boat coffins, leather hides, wheat and millet grains, and many artifacts.

Importantly, it contains the oldest and best-preserved mummies so far discovered in the Tarim Basin, possible those of the earliest people to settle the region. Genetic analysis of these mummies can provide data to elucidate the affinities of the earliest inhabitants, and help understand later patterns of human migration in the Eurasian continent.

The necropolis consisted of five layers of burials spanning half a millennium, offering the opportunity to determine the extent of interactions between the people of Xiaohe and other populations after the original settlement of the Tarim Basin.

Analysis of DNA recovered from the deepest and oldest layer of burials of the Xiaohe site, the fifth layer, corresponding to the earliest inhabitants reveals that the first settlers carried both European and central Siberian maternal lineages. These findings agreed with the archaeological evidence for a close connection to the Afanasievo culture of the steppe north of the Tarim Basin, in other words with the “steppe hypothesis”.

Analysis of DNA from the deepest layer of burials of the Xiaohe site revealed that the first settlers had European paternal lineages, and maternal lineages of European and central Siberian origin, consistent with the “steppe hypothesis” of the origins of the first inhabitants of the Tarim Basin.

36 successfully typed individuals recovered from the remaining four burial layers yielded 21 distinct mtDNA haplotypes, of which 18 could be assigned to 12 previously defined haplogroups by means of HVRI and coding region polymorphisms. The haplogroups were the west Eurasian H, K, T, U7, U5a, U2e, the east Eurasian B, C4, C5, D, G2a, and the Indian M5.

The west Eurasian haplogroups of the Xiaohe people were more diverse, but less abundant (9 individuals versus 26 individuals) than the East Eurasian haplogroups. The predominant lineage was UK, of which four different subhaplogroups were observed: one K, two U7, two U5a, and one U2e.

One individual with Hg T and one individual with Hg H were detected. The latter carried the HVRI Cambridge Reference Sequence (CRS), very common in living Europeans. This sequence has also been observed in ancient human remains of Neolithic Europe, the Bronze Age in central Asia, as well as the Mongolian Altai Mountains, and the Iron Age in southern Siberia.

The T haplotype observed in Xiaohe is found exclusively in Europeans, with the exception of Iran in modern people, and found mostly as T2. It has also been observed in human remains of Neolithic Europe, the Eneolithic/Bronze Age in the Pontic Caspian steppe, and the Bronze Age in Kazakhstan.

No exact match was found for the Xiaohe K haplotype in our database. The network shows that it clusters into one subclade with the 16093 mutation, which is mainly distributed in Europe and Iran. Therefore, the K haplotype sequenced in Xiaohe is currently uninformative about population affinity.

There are two U5a haplotypes observed in Xiaohe, the basal U5a*(16192 T-16256 T-16270 T) was found broadly in Europe and central Asia, while the derived U5a haplotype(16192 T-16256 T-16270 T-291 T) was found exclusively in Europe for modern people. These two sequences have also been found in Neolithic Europe.

U5a is a very ancient and important European haplogroup and is thought to have expanded eastward into central Siberia. It has been observed in human remains of the Neolithic in the Baikal regions and the Bronze Age in the Altai and Xinjiang.

The U2e sequence observed in Xiaohe did not match any sequence in our database, the most matching sequences (showing one to two np differences) were mainly found in Europe. U2e also was an ancient European lineage like U5, and had spread into Central Eurasia in the Bronze Age.

The presence of individuals of Hgs H, T, U5a and U2e in Xiaohe indicates maternal lineages with an ultimate origin in Europe. HgU7 is absent in many parts of Europe, but its frequency increases to >4 % in the Near East and up to 5 % in Pakistan, reaching almost 10 % in Iranians, and its highest frequency in Gujarat.

U7 haplogroup probably originated in the region between Iran and Indian Gujarat. The U7 variant observed in Xiaohe is currently found mostly in Iran, Europe and the Tibetan plateau. In addition, we found one individual with the Indian lineage M5.

Nowadays, the M5 variant observed in this study is found mainly in south and southwest Asia. The presence of hgs U7 and M5 in the Xiaohe people suggests that populations of west/south Asia contributed to the gene pool of the Tarim Basin during the Bronze Age.

The most dominant east Eurasian haplogroup in the Xiaohe people was C, found in 18 of the 36 individuals (47 %) and associated with five distinct mtDNA C4 haplotypes and one C5 haplotype. Nine Xiaohe individuals carried the variant 16223-16298-16309-16327 and five carried the variant 16298–16327.

The first of these variants, 16223-16298-16309-16327, has to our knowledge not been previously observed in ancient or living populations, while the variant 16298–16327 was only observed in present-day Siberia, although at low frequencies.

A variant characterised by substitutions 16223-16298-16327, observed in one Xiaohe individual, is found widely in present-day Eurasia, with the highest frequency in central/eastern Siberia. It also been detected in a number of ancient individuals, three from Neolithic central Siberia, one from northeast Siberia (3600 yBP), six from northeast Europe (3500yBP), twelve from the Bronze Age West Siberian Plain, one from southern Xinjing(2800-2011yBP) and four from late Neolithic northwest China.

Haplotype 16129-16223-16298-16327 is found mainly in currently northeast, central and south Siberian populations, in Mongolia and central Asia. It also was found in one ancient Mongolian (2000 yBP).

Haplotype 16093-16129-16223-16298-16311-16327 is probably rare, since it has only been detected previously in four present-day individuals, one in south Siberia, one in Tibet, one in Southeast Asia, and one in China. One Xiaohe individual carried Hg C5 (16223-16288-16298-327), of a variant only observed previously in one individual of southern Siberia, and in one of the Tibetan Plateau.

The second most frequent east Eurasian haplogroup in the Xiaohe people was D, found in four individuals, with four different variants. The first, 16051-16223-16362, is found mainly in Southeast Asia. The second, 16223-16234-16316-16362, is found throughout the Eurasian continent, including China, Japan, Siberia, and Eastern Europe. The remaining two D haplotypes had no exact match in any of the available databases.

Interestingly, hg D has been observed at high frequency in Hami people, a Bronze Age population of northeast Xinjiang. It is also been observed in Neolithic Chinese and Siberians. In the Network Tree, We can see that some Xiaohe D haplotypes cluster into the East Asian subclade, the others cluster into the Siberian subclade. Therefore, the D haplotype sequenced in Xiaohe is currently uninformative about population affinity.

One individual carried G2a, but no matching sequence was found in the database. G2a is relatively abundant in northern China and central Asia, reaching significant levels in Southern Siberia. However, Xiaohe G2a haplotype clusters into one of the East Asian clades in the Network tree, indicating close affinities to East Asians.

One single individual carried hg B, an important East Asian haplogroup, of a particular variant not previously observed. The presence of haplogroups C4, C5, D, G2a and B in Xiaohe people indicates close affinities to Siberians and East Asians.

In order to characterise the genetic relationship between the Xiaohe population and other ancient and extant Eurasian populations, the PCA based on the mtDNA haplogroup frequencies and the MDS plot based on genetic distance between sequences were conducted.

However, as many individuals had identical C4 haplotypes, indicating potential maternal relationships within the population, the frequency of C4 was likely to be overestimated. To account for this, we assumed a scenario of extreme maternal kinship, where identical haplotypes in several individuals of the same layer were only counted once.

The PCA plot of the first two components showed that present-day populations largely segregate into three main clusters: Europeans, Siberians, and Central/East Asians. Europeans and Central/East Asians were separated along the first component axis (23.34 % of the variance), reflecting their longitude. Europeans and Siberians were separated along the second component axis (23.04 % of the variance).

Xiaohe maternal lineages were closest to the Xinjiang populations (modern Xinjiang population and ancient Hami people), and second-closest to the central Siberians (Tuvinians). An MDS plot confirmed the genetic affinity with Siberians inferred from the PCA, but showed a long distance with Central /East Asians.

In the present study, analysis of the remaining four, more recent burial layers, confirmed that the origin of the mitochondrial lineages is more widespread, and we detected west Eurasian lineages H, K, U5, U7, U2e, T, east Eurasian lineages B, C4, C5, D, G2a, and Indian lineage M5.

Haplotypes H, K, U5 and T are found mostly in Europe, suggesting genetic affinities with Europe. While Xiaohe U2e haplotype has not been observed in living populations, the hg U2e is thought to have originated in Europe, from where it had been spread into central Siberia in the Bronze Age.

The distribution of these haplogroups overlaps with the regions of the Afanasievo culture, Andronovo culture or Yamna culture, but is remote from the Oxus civilization. These west Eurasian genetic components in the Xiaohe people corroborate the “steppe hypothesis”.

However, layers 1–4 also had individuals with hgs U7 and M5, common in west/south Asian populations today, but rare in Europeans and Siberians. Although the genetic structure of the oasis people in the Bronze Age is unclear, archaeological evidence indicates that settled populations of the oasis civilization in central Asia descended from farmers from the southwest.

These ancient central Asians had been in contact with south Asians and likely received a genetic contribution from them. Considering the archaeological materials and the environmental similarities between central Asia and the Tarim Basin, hgs U7 and M5 observed in Xiaohe people more likely originated from the oasis peoples but not directly from west/south Asians.

This suggests populations from the oasis may have made a later contribution to the gene pool of the Xiaohe people, giving some credence to the “oasis hypothesis”. The later Xiaohe people (layers 1–4) carried diverse east Asian maternal lineages, including the predominant C4, as well as C5, which has a similar geographical distribution to C4, suggesting links with Siberia, especially central/south Siberian populations.

Although hgs B, D and G2a are common in East Asians and Mongolians besides Siberians, except for broomcorn millet (P. miliaceum), there was no archaeological or anthropological evidence in the Xiaohe cemetery for links with East Asia.

However, hgs C and D have also been observed in Bronze Age human remains from North Xinjiang (Hami), a place where culture and human features appear to indicate a blend of both east and west. DNA analysis showed that the Hami people had close affinities with Neolithic people in Ganqing region of China.

Recently archaeobotanical analysis considered that East Asian domesticated broomcorn likely was introduced into Central Eurasia via the route of North Xinjiang from Ganqing region at middle third millennium BC.

Therefore, some eastern components in the later Xiaohe people may have derived from North Xinjiang and have an ultimate origin in East Asia but not central/southern Siberia, something still consistent with the “steppe hypothesis”. This was indicated by the close relationship of the Xiaohe population with populations of Xinjiang in the PCA graph.

Xiaohe people displays higher and higher levels of haplotype diversity (fifth layer Hd = 0.7381, fourth layer Hd = 0.9004, layers1-3 Hd = 0.9890) from earlier to later, suggesting multiple population incursions into the Tarim Basin after its initial settlement.

People carrying European maternal lineages may have spread east into south Siberia, where they mingled with local populations and eventually spread south into Xinjiang via the Ertix River. However, ancient DNA analyses indicate that the west Eurasian lineages observed in ancient south Siberia were associated with the eastward spread of Europeans of the Afanasievo culture.

This suggests that the European components could have reached north Xinjiang later, via the Kazakh steppe northwest of the Tarim Basin. Interestingly, the cattle excavated from the Xiaohe cemetery carried mainly lineage T3, typical of European cattle.

These diverse lines of evidence support the“steppe hypothesis”. In contrast, people bearing the south /west Asian components could have reached the Tarim Basin through the Pamirs, moving eastward along the south or north edges of the Tarim Basin.

Recently one study showed that agricultural populations had contact with nearby mobile pastoralists at the beginning of the second millennium BC in Central Asia, indicating that genetic components of agriculturalists might also introgress into pastoralist populations.

This was confirmed by the evidence that one Indian haplogroup was found in ancient Kazakhstan. Therefore, people bearing the south/west Asian components could have first married into pastoralist populations, and reached North Xinjiang through the Kazakh steppe following the movement of pastoralist populations.

They then spread from north Xinjiang southward into the Tarim Basin across the Tianshan Mountains, and intermarried with the earlier inhabitants of the region, giving rise to the later, admixed Xiaohe community.

Given that the south/west Asian components are relatively minor in the Xiaohe population, it is likely that nomadic herders from northern steppe had a greater impact on the eastern Tarim Basin than the Central Asian oasis farmers.

The archaeological evidence for woolen textiles and the medicinal plant Ephedra in the earliest Xiaohe layer and the Gumugou site indicate that the oasis culture had reached the Tarim Basin in the early Bronze Age. It is well known that Ephedra was used by oasis farmers, whereas it does not grow in the Russo-Kazakh steppe, nor is associated with the Afanasievo or Andronovo cultures.

Furthermore, the wheat excavated from Xiaohe was hexaploid bread wheat, a cereal grain cultivated originally in the Near East. Therefore, it is possible that the oasis route may have been significant in the peopling of Xinjiang in the early Bronze Age, at least northern or western Xinjiang.

This was supported by the evidence that Indian haplogroup M25 was observed in one ancient individual from later Neolithic Ganqing region (data unpublished). The groups reaching the Tarim Basin through the oasis route may have interacted culturally with earlier populations from the steppe, with limited gene flow, resulting in a small genetic signal of the oasis agriculturalists in the Xiaohe community.

Our results indicate that the people of the Tarim Basin had a diverse maternal ancestry, with origins in Europe, central/eastern Siberia and southern/western Asia. These findings, together with information on the cultural context of the Xiaohe cemetery, can be used to test contrasting hypotheses of route of settlement into the Tarim Basin.

The data indicate multiple population influences in the Tarim Basin during 4000–3500 yBP, consistent mainly with the “steppe hypothesis”, but with elements of the “oasis hypothesis”. Meanwhile, we can’t exclude the possibility that East Asians had an indirect impact on the Tarim Basin at Bronze Age.

Qäwrighul culture

The Qäwrighul culture is a late Bronze Age culture which flourished along the Kongque River in Xinjiang from ca. 2100 BC to 1500 BC. The Qäwrighul culture is primarily known for its cemeteries. The best attested of these are the cemeteries of Qäwrighul itself, in which at least forty-two burials have been uncovered. Qäwrighul tombs are divided into two types.

The first type of Qäwrighul tomb is characterized by shaft graves. These included evidence of wooden planking. Sometimes, wooden poles were erected on the western and eastern ends of the chamber. The deceased in these tombs were buried in an extended position with their heads to the east. They bore felt hats and were wrapped in woolen fabrics. On their chests, twigs of ephedra have been discovered.

Grave goods in these tombs include bone ornaments, antler awls, wooden basins, stone implements, and bowls. Although traces of metal, both copper and bronze, have been discovered, no evidence of ceramics have been found. The physical type of these burials have been connected those of the earlier Afanasievo culture.

The second type of Qäwrighul was characterised by shaft graves surrounded by concentric circles of poles. Other poles radiate out to form what appears to be solar symbols. The burials are exclusively confined to males. The forms of pole circles have been compared to the stone circles characteristic of the Andronovo culture. The physical type of these burials are also similar to those of the Andronovo culture.

The differences of the two types of Qäwrighul burial has been variously interpreted. Some have explained them as belonging to people with different status belonging to the same culture, while others have explained them as belonging chronologically separate cultures belonging to different populations. The preservation of the bodies range from poor to incredible well preserved mummies. Which is a result of the arid sandy conditions of the area.

From the limited remains of the Qäwrighul culture it appears that their economy included wheat, sheep, goat and horses. Deer and fish have also been discovered. The burials of the Qäwrighul culture are Europoid.

These are the earliest evidence for the presence of Europoid populations in the Tarim Basin. Its burials in shaft-graves, lined with stone or timber, and surrounded by enclosures, and the presence of offering-places associated with the heads and legs of horses, are strikingly similar to the graves of cultures located further west on the Eurasian Steppe.

The physical type of the Qäwrighul people is similar to that of people of the earlier Afanasievo culture, and people of the contemporary Andronovo culture. On this basis, the Qäwrighul culture has been considered a possible candidate as an ancestor of the Tocharians.

Jushi Kingdom

The Jushi or Gushi were a people who established a kingdom during the 1st millennium BC in the Turpan basin (modern Xinjiang, China). The kingdom included the area of Ayding Lake, in the eastern Tian Shan range.

During the late 2nd and early 1st century BC, the area was increasingly dominated by the Han Dynasty and the northern neighbours of the Jushi, the Xiongnu, and became one of the many minor states of the Western Regions of Han dynasty China.

The Jushi capital (Jiaohe, later known as Yarkhoto, and Yarghul) was destroyed in a Mongol attack in the 13th century. Contemporary Chinese sources suggest that the Jushi were Caucasoid in appearance. They may have been one of the Tocharian peoples and spoken one of the associated languages.

According to J. P. Mallory and Victor H. Mair, the earliest accounts of the Jushi report them to have “lived in tents, followed the grasses and waters, and had considerable knowledge of agriculture. They owned cattle, horses, camels, sheep and goats. They were proficient with bows and arrows”.

Jushi and the kingdom of Kröran were linked in the account of Zhang Qian (d. 113 BC), in part because both were under the control of the Xiongnu. In or about 60 BC, the Han – ruled at the time by Emperor Xuan – defeated Xiongnu forces at the Battle of Jushi, during the Han-Xiongnu War.

Afterwards the main part of the Jushi lands was divided into two states: a southern area controlled by the Han, who referred to it as “Nearer Jushi” (or “Anterior Jushi”), and a northern area known to the Han as “Further Jushi” (or “Posterior Jushi”) that was dominated by the Xiongnu.

Nearer Jushi was administered by the Han from a capital at Jiaohe (16 kilometres west of the site of modern Turpan). The capital of Further Jushi appears to have been called Yuli or Yulai, and was located about 10 km north of Jimasa, 200 km north of Jiaohe. The Jushi never regained their independence.

A 2,700-year-old grave discovered in 2008 at the Yanghai Tombs, an ancient cemetery (54,000 m2 in area), has been attributed to the Jushi or a precursor culture. The grave contains the remains of a shaman who had blue eyes and light-coloured hair.

Near the shaman’s head and foot were a large leather basket and wooden bowl filled 789 grams of dried cannabis, superbly preserved by climatic and burial conditions. An international team demonstrated that this material contained tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive component of cannabis.

According to psychopharmacological researcher Ethan B. Russo, the cannabis was clearly “cultivated for psychoactive purposes,” rather than as fibre for clothing or as food. It may have been employed as a medicinal agent, or an aid to divination.

This is the oldest known use of cannabis as a pharmacological agent. The extremely dry conditions and alkaline soil acted as preservatives, allowing a team of scientists to carefully analyze the stash, which still looked green though it had lost its distinctive odour.


Jiaohe or Yarkhoto is a ruined city in the Yarnaz Valley, 10 km west of the city of Turpan in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China. It was the capital of the Jushi Kingdom. It is a natural fortress located atop a steep cliff on a leaf-shaped plateau between two deep river valleys.

The Hou Hanshu says: “The king of Nearer Jushi [Turfan]1 lives in the town of Jiaohe [Yarkhoto, 20 li west of Turfan]. A river divides into two and surrounds the town, which is why it is called Jiaohe [‘River Junction’].”

Lionel Giles recorded the following names for the city (with his Wade-Giles forms of the Chinese names substituted with pinyin): Jiaohe, the ancient capital of Turfan [Han], Jushi Qianwangting (Royal Court of Anterior/Nearer Jushi) [Later Han], and Gaochang Jun [Jin], Xi Zhou [Tang], Yarkhoto [modern name]. Aurel Stein has suggested that the name Yarkhoto is a combination of Turkic and Mongolian words, being derived from yar (Turki: ravine) and khoto (Mongolian: town).

From 108 BC to 450 AD Jiaohe was the capital of the Anterior Jushi Kingdom. It was an important site along the Silk Road trade route leading west, and was adjacent to the Korla and Karasahr kingdoms to the west. From 450 AD until 640 AD it became Jiao prefecture in the Tang Dynasty, and in 640 AD it was made the seat of the new Jiaohe County.

From 640 AD until 658 AD it was also the seat of the Protector General of the Western Regions, the highest level military post of a Chinese military commander posted in the west. Since the beginning of the 9th century it had become Jiaohe prefecture of the Uyghur Khaganate, until their kingdom was conquered by the Kyrgyz soon after in the year 840. Yarkhoto was also built on a plateau and this plateau is 30m high.

The city was built on a large islet (1650 m in length, 300 m wide at its widest point) in the middle of a river which formed natural defenses, which would explain why the city lacked any sort of walls. Instead, steep cliffs more than 30 metres high on all sides of the river acted as natural walls.

The layout of the city had eastern and western residential districts, while the northern district was reserved for Buddhist sites of temples and stupas. Along with this there are notable graveyards and the ruins of a large government office in the southern part of the eastern district. It had a population of 7,000 according to Tang dynasty records. It was finally abandoned after its destruction during an invasion by the Mongols led by Genghis Khan in the 13th century.

The ruins were visited by the archaeologist and explorer Aurel Stein, who described “a maze of ruined dwellings and shrines carved out for the most part from the loess soil”, but complained that a combination of local farmers’ use of the soil and government interference in his activities prevented examination. The site was partially excavated in the 1950s and has been protected by the PRC government since 1961. There are now attempts to protect this site and other Silk Road city ruins.

Both the Nara National Cultural Properties Research Institute and the Xinjiang Cultural Relics Bureau have been cooperating in a joint venture to preserve the ruins of the site since 1992. In 2014, the Jiaohe Ruins became part of the Silk Road UNESCO World Heritage Sites, after several years of preparation.

Kingdom of Loulan

Loulan, also called Krorän or Kroraina, was an ancient kingdom based around an important oasis city along the Silk Road already known in the 2nd century BCE on the northeastern edge of the Lop Desert. The term Loulan is the Chinese transcription of the native name Krorän and is used to refer to the city near Lop Nur as well as the kingdom.

The kingdom was renamed Shanshan after its king was assassinated by an envoy of the Han dynasty in 77 BCE; however, the town at the northwestern corner of the brackish desert lake Lop Nur retained the name of Loulan. The kingdom included at various times settlements such as Niya, Charklik, Miran, and Qiemo.

It was intermittently under Chinese control from the early Han dynasty onward until its abandonment centuries later. The ruins of Loulan are near the now-desiccated Lop Nur in the Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture, Xinjiang, and they are now completely surrounded by desert.

A number of mummies, now known as the Tarim mummies, have been found in Loulan and in its surrounding areas. One female mummy has been dated to c. 1800 BCE (3,800-year-old), indicating very early settlement of the region.

Loulan was on the main route from Dunhuang to Korla, where it joined the so-called “northern route,” and was also connected by a route southwest to the kingdom’s seat of government in the town of Wuni in the Charkhlik/Ruoqiang oasis, and from thence to Khotan and Yarkand.

The interactions between Loulan and the Han court (206 BCE – 220 CE) were described in some detail in the Book of Han (completed in 111 CE). The first contemporaneous mention of Loulan, in Chinese records, are from 126 BCE.

A letter from the Chanyu of the Xiongnu to the Chinese emperor, in which the Chanyu boasted of conquering Loulan, as well as the Yuezhi, Wusun, Hujie and another “26 states nearby”. In the same year, the Chinese envoy Zhang Qian described Loulan as a fortified city near the great salt lake or marsh known as Lop Nur.

During the late 2nd century BCE, Emperor Wu of Han (r. 141 BCE – 87 BCE) was interested in extending contact with Dayuan (Fergana), following the reports of it by the Chinese envoy, Zhang Qian. However, according to Chinese sources, Han envoys to Fergana were harassed by Loulan and the kingdom of Gushi (or Jushi).

Consequently, in 108 BCE, Loulan was attacked by a Han force led by Zhao Ponu and its king captured, after which Loulan agreed to pay a tribute to Han China. The Xiongnu, on hearing of these events, also attacked Loulan. The king of Loulan therefore elected to send one of his sons as a hostage to the Xiongnu, and another to the Han court. Due to Loulan’s association with the Xiongnu, the Book of Han records:

The Emperor commanded [Jen] Wen to lead the troops by a suitable route, to arrest the king of Lou-lan and to bring him to the palace at the capital city. [Jen Wen] interrogated by presenting him with a bill of indictment, which he answered by claiming that [Lou-lan] was a small state lying between large states, and that unless it subjected itself to both parties, there would be no means of keeping itself in safety; he therefore wished to remove his kingdom and take up residence within the Han territory.

The Han emperor was satisfied with the statement and released the king, but retained his son as hostage. When this particular king of Loulan died, in 92 BCE, his court requested that the Han court release the king’s son and heir be returned to Loulan.

In the meantime, however, this prince from Loulan had been castrated for infringing Han law, without the knowledge of Loulan. The Han court replied that its Emperor had grown too fond of the prince to release him, and that another son should be enthroned in Loulan.

The son of the new king was also sent to the Han court as a hostage, yet another was sent to the Xiongnu. After the death of this king of Loulan, the Xiongnu returned the hostage sent previously by Loulan – a prince named Chang Gui or An Gui, who became king of Loulan. When the Han court heard of this, it demanded that the new king present himself to the Han court. Chang Gui refused, on his wife’s advice – because the Han court had previously failed to return hostages.

In 77 BCE, after several Han envoys had been intercepted and killed in or near Loulan, a Chinese delegation was sent, including an envoy named Fu Jiezi – who had been ordered to kill the king of Loulan. Fu Jiezi gained entry to Loulan by claiming to carry gold and valuables as gifts for the king.

After the king of Loulan became drunk, Fu Jiezi stabbed him to death, severed his head and had it hung from a tower above the northern gate. While the king’s younger brother Weituqi succeeded him as king, the Han court apparently tightened its grip on Loulan from this point – a step symbolized by the Han court obliging Loulan to adopt a new official name, the non-native exonym Shanshan.

Because of its strategic position on what became the main route from China to the West, during the Han dynasty, control of it was regularly contested between the Chinese and the Xiongnu until well into the 2nd century CE.

After the Han dynasty had gained control of Loulan, the renamed kingdom of Shanshan became a Chinese puppet state. The newly installed king, fearing retribution from the sons of the assassinated king, requested that a contingent of Han forces be established in Yixun (variously identified as Charklik or Miran).

Chinese army officers were sent to colonize the area, and an office of commandant was established at Yixun. A number of settlements in the Tarim Basin such as Qiemo and Niya were described in the Book of Han as independent states, but these later became part of Shanshan. While the name of the kingdom was changed to Shanshan by the Chinese, the Loulan region continued to be known as Kroran by the locals.

The region remained under Chinese control intermittently, and when China was weak in the Western Regions, Loulan was essentially independent. In 25 CE it was recorded that Loulan was in league with the Xiongnu. In 73 CE, the Han army officer Ban Chao went with a small group of followers to Shanshan, which was also receiving a delegation from the Xiongnu at the same time.

Ban Chao killed the Xiongnu envoys and presented their heads to the King, after which King Guang of Shanshan submitted to Han. Around 119, Ban Yong recommended that a Chinese colony of 500 men be established in Loulan. A later military colony was established at Loulan by General Suo Man.

It was recorded that in 222 CE, Shanshan sent tribute to China, and that in 283, the son of the king was sent as a hostage to the Chinese court during the reign of Emperor Wu of Jin. Loulan was also recorded as a dependent kingdom of Shanshan in the 3rd century Book of Wei.

The town of Loulan was abandoned in 330 CE, likely due to lack of water when the Tarim River, which supported the settlement, changed course; the military garrison was moved 50 kilometres (31 mi) south to Haitou. The fort of Yingpan to the northwest remained under Chinese control until the Tang dynasty.

According to the Book of Wei, King Bilong of Shanshan fled to Qiemo together with half of his countrymen after an attack by Juqu Anzhou in 442 CE so Shanshan came to be ruled by Qiemo. In 445 Shanshan submitted to the Northern Wei. At the end of the 6th century, the Sui dynasty reestablished the city state of Shanshan.

After the 5th century, however, the land was frequently invaded by nomadic states such as Tuyuhun, the Rouran Khaganate, and the Dingling and the area gradually was abandoned. Circa 630, at the beginning of the Tang period, Shanfutuo led the remaining Shanshan people to Hami.

The Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang passed through this region in 644 on his return from India to China, visited a town called Nafubo (thought to be Charklik) of Loulan, and wrote of Qiemo, “A fortress exists, but not a trace of man”.

According to the Book of Han, Han envoys described the troops of Loulan as weak and easy to attack. Shanshan was said to have 1,570 households and 14,000 individuals, with 2,912 persons able to bear arms. It further described the region thus:

The land is sandy and salt, and there are few cultivated fields. The state hopes to obtain [the produce of] cultivated fields and look to neighbouring states for field-crops. It produces jade and there is an abundance of rushes, tamarisk, the balsam poplar, and white grass.

In company with their flocks and herds the inhabitants go in search of water and pasture, and there are asses, horses and large number of camels. [The inhabitants] are capable of making military weapons in the same way as the Ch’o of the Ch’iang tribes.

According to the Commentary on the Water Classic, General Suo Mai (also Suo Man) of Dunhuang introduced irrigation techniques to the region by damming the Zhubin (possibly the Kaidu River) to irrigate the fields and produced bumper harvests for the next three years.

The Buddhist pilgrim Faxian who stayed in Shanshan in 399 on the way to India, described the country: “[A] country rugged and hilly, with a thin and barren soil. The clothes of the common people are coarse, and like those worn in our land of Han, some wearing felt and others coarse serge or cloth of hair; — this was the only difference seen among them.

The king professed (our) Law, and there might be in the country more than four thousand monks who were all students of the hînayâna. The common people of this and other kingdoms (in that region), as well as the śramans, all practise the rules of India, only that the latter do so more exactly, and the former more loosely”.

The earliest known residents in Loulan are thought to be a subgroup of the Tocharians, an Indo-European people of the Tarim Basin. Excavations in Loulan and the surrounding areas have found mummies believed to be remains of these people, for example the so-called “Beauty of Loulan” which was found by Chinese archaeologists in 1979–1980 at Qäwrighul (Gumugou), around 70 km west-north-west of Loulan. The mummies have been dated to as early as 1800 BCE.

The official language found in 3rd century CE documents in this region is Gandhari Prakrit written in Kharosthi script; their use in Loulan and elsewhere in the Tarim Basin was most likely due to the cultural legacy of the Kushan Empire, and introduced by Gandharan migrants from the Kushan Empire. These Gandharan migrants are also believed to have introduced Buddhism to Loulan.

Although Gandhari was used as the administrative language, some words generally thought to be of Tocharian origin are found in the documents, suggesting that the locals spoke a language that belongs to the Tocharian group of languages.

This original language of Loulan is referred to as Krorainic or “Tocharian C”, due to its relatedness to the two other Tocharian languages. It has been partially reconstructed from around 100 loanwords and over a thousand proper names used in these Prakrit documents that cannot be ascribed to Indic. In 2018, documents from Loulan written in Tocharian C were published, indicating a relationship to Tocharian A and B, but transcription of the texts in this study has been rejected by other scholars.

The native name of Loulan was “Kroraina” or “Krorän”, written in Chinese as Loulan (*glu-glân in reconstructed Han dynasty pronunciation, an approximation of Krorän).[36] Centuries later in 664 CE the Tang Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang mentioned a place in Loulan named “Nafupo”, which according to Dr. Hisao Matsuda is a transliteration of the Sogdian word Navapa meaning “new water.”

Sogdians, an Eastern Iranian people, maintained minority communities in various places in China at the time, especially Dunhuang in Gansu and Turfan in the Tarim Basin. Documents found in Loulan showed that Sogdians were present in the area in 313 CE, as well as Han Chinese and Tibetan tribesmen, indicating an ethnically diverse population in Loulan.

The ruined city of Loulan was discovered by Sven Hedin, who excavated some houses and found a wooden Kharosthi tablet and many Chinese manuscripts from the Western Jin Dynasty (265–420), which recorded that the area was called “Krorän” by the locals in Kharosthi but was rendered as “Lou-lan” in Chinese. Hedin also proposed that a change in the course of the Tarim river resulted in Lop Nur drying up may be the reason why Loulan had perished.

Aurel Stein made further excavations in 1906 and 1914 around the old lake of Lop Nur and identified many sites in the area. He designated these sites with the letter L (for Loulan), followed by a letter of the alphabet (A to T) allocated in the chronological order the sites were visited. Stein recovered many artifacts, including various documents, a wool-pile carpet fragment, some yellow silk, and Gandharan architectural wood carvings.

In 1979 and 1980, three archaeological expeditions sponsored by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Xinjiang Branch performed excavations in Loulan. They discovered a canal 15 feet (4.6 m) deep and 55 feet (17 m) wide running through Loulan from northwest to southeast, a 32-foot (9.8 m) high earthen dome-shaped Buddhist stupa; and home 41 feet (12 m) long by 28 feet (8.5 m) wide, apparently for a Chinese official, housing 3 rooms and supported by wooden pillars.

They also collected 797 objects from the area, including vessels of wood, bronze objects, jewellery and coins, and Mesolithic stone tools Other reported (2003) finds in the area include additional mummies and burial grounds, ephedra sticks, a string bracelet that holds a hollowed jade stone, a leather pouch, a woolen loincloth, a wooden mask painted red and with large nose and teeth, boat-shaped coffins, a bow with arrows and a straw basket.

Kingdom of Khotan

The Kingdom of Khotan was an ancient Iranian Saka Buddhist kingdom located on the branch of the Silk Road that ran along the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert in the Tarim Basin (modern Xinjiang, China). The ancient capital was originally sited to the west of modern-day Hotan at Yotkan.

The kingdom of Khotan was one of the many small states found in the Tarim Basin that included Yarkand, Loulan (Shanshan), Turfan, Kashgar, Karashahr, and Kucha (the last three together with Khotan made up the four Garrisons during the Tang dynasty).

It was surrounded by powerful neighbours, such as the Kushan Empire, China, Tibet, and for a time the Xiongnu, all of which had exerted or tried to exert their influence over Khotan at various times. To the west were Central Asian kingdoms of Sogdiana and Bactria.

From the Han dynasty until at least the Tang dynasty it was known in Chinese as Yutian. This largely Buddhist kingdom existed for over a thousand years until it was conquered by the Muslim Kara-Khanid Khanate in 1006, during the Islamicisation and Turkicisation of Xinjiang.

Built on an oasis, Khotan’s mulberry groves allowed the production and export of silk and carpets, in addition to the city’s other major products such as its famous nephrite jade and pottery.

Despite being a significant city on the silk road as well as a notable source of jade for ancient China, Khotan itself is relatively small – the circumference of the ancient city of Khotan at Yōtkan was about 2.5 to 3.2 km (1.5 to 2 miles). Much of the archaeological evidence of the ancient city of Khotan however had been obliterated due to centuries of treasure hunting by local people.

The inhabitants of Khotan used Khotanese, an Eastern Iranian language, and Gandhari Prakrit, an Indo-Aryan language related to Sanskrit. There is debate as to how much Khotan’s original inhabitants were ethnically and anthropologically South Asian and speakers of the Gāndhārī language versus the Saka, an Indo-European people of Iranian branch from the Eurasian Steppe.

From the 3rd century onwards they also had a visible linguistic influence on the Gāndhārī language spoken at the royal court of Khotan. The Khotanese Saka language was also recognized as an official court language by the 10th century and used by the Khotanese rulers for administrative documentation.

The geographical position of the oasis was the main factor in its success and wealth. To its north is one of the most arid and desolate desert climates on the earth, the Taklamakan Desert, and to its south the largely uninhabited Kunlun Mountains (Qurum). To the east there were few oasis beyond Niya making travel difficult, and access is only relatively easy from the west.

Khotan was irrigated from the Yurung-kàsh and Kara-kàsh rivers, which water the Tarim Basin. These two rivers produce vast quantities of water which made habitation possible in an otherwise arid climate.

The position next to the mountain not only provided irrigation for crops but it also increased the fertility of the land as the rivers reduce the gradient and deposited their sediment, creating a more fertile soil.

This therefore increased the productivity of the agricultural industry which has made Khotan famous for its cereal crops and fruits. Therefore, Khotan’s lifeline was its vicinity to the Kunlun mountain range and without this Khotan would not have become one of the largest and most successful oasis cities along the Silk Roads.

From an early period, the Tarim Basin had been inhabited by different groups of Indo-European speakers such as the Tocharians and Saka people. Jade from Khotan had been traded into China for a long time before the founding of the city, as indicated by items made of jade from Khotan found in tombs from the Shang (Yin) and Zhou dynasties. The jade trade is thought to have been facilitated by the Yuezhi.

There are four versions of the legend of the founding of Khotan, these may be found in accounts given by the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang and in Tibetan translations of Khotanese documents. All four versions suggest that the city was founded around the third century BC by a group of Indians during the reign of Ashoka.

According to one version, the nobles of a tribe in ancient Taxila, who traced their ancestry to the deity Vaiśravaṇa, were said to have blinded Kunãla, a son of Ashoka. In punishment they were banished by the Mauryan emperor to the north of the Himalayas, where they settled in Khotan and elected one of their members as king.

However war then ensued with another group from China whose leader then took over as king, and the two colonies merged. In a different version, it was Kunãla himself who was exiled and founded Khotan.

The legend suggests that Khotan was settled by people from northwest India and China, and may explain the division of Khotan into an eastern and western city since the Han dynasty. Others however argued that the legend of the founding of Khotan is a fiction as it ignores the Iranian population, and that its purpose was to explain the Indian and Chinese influences that were present in Khotan in the 7th century AD.

By Xuanzang’s account, it was believed that the royal power had been transmitted unbroken since the founding of Khotan, and evidence indicates that the kings of Khotan used an Iranian-based word as their title since at least the 3rd century AD, suggesting that they may be speakers of an Iranian language.

In the 1900s, Aurel Stein discovered Prakrit documents written Kharoṣṭhī in Niya, and together with the founding legend of Khotan, Stein proposed that these people in the Tarim Basin were Indian immigrants from Taxila who conquered and colonized Khotan.

The use of Prakrit however may be a legacy of the influence of the Kushan Empire. There were also Greek influences in early Khotan based on evidence such as Hellenistic artworks found at various sites in the Tarim Basin, for example, the Sampul tapestry found near Khotan, tapestries depicting the Greek god Hermes and the winged pegasus found at nearby Loulan, as well as ceramics that may suggest influences from as far as the Hellenistic kingdom of the Ptolemaic Egypt.

 One suggestion is therefore that the early migrants to the region may have been an ethnically mixed people from the city of Taxila led by a Greco-Saka or an Indo-Greek leader, and established Khotan using the administrative and social organizations of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom.

A document from Khotan written in Khotanese Saka, part of the Eastern Iranian branch of the Indo-European languages, listing the animals of the Chinese zodiac in the cycle of predictions for people born in that year; ink on paper, early 9th century.

Surviving documents from Khotan of later centuries indicate that the people of Khotan spoke the Saka language, an Eastern Iranian language that was closely related to the Sogdian language (of Sogdiana); as an Indo-European language, Saka was more distantly related to the Tocharian languages (also known as Agnean-Kuchean) spoken in adjoining areas of the Tarim Basin. It also shared areal features with Tocharian.

It is not certain when the Saka people moved into the Khotan area. Archaeological evidence from the Sampul tapestry of Sampul, near Khotan may indicate a settled Saka population in the last quarter of the first millennium BC, although some have suggested they may not have moved there until after the founding of the city.

The Saka may have inhabited other parts of the Tarim Basin earlier – presence of a people believed to be Saka had been found in the Keriya region at Yumulak Kum (Djoumboulak Koum, Yuansha) around 200 km east of Khotan, possibly as early as the 7th century BC.

The Saka people were known as the Sai in ancient Chinese records. These records indicate that they originally inhabited the Ili and Chu River valleys of modern Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. In the Chinese Book of Han, the area was called the “land of the Sai”, i.e. the Saka.

According to the Sima Qian’s Shiji, the Indo-European Yuezhi, originally from the area between Tängri Tagh (Tian Shan) and Dunhuang of Gansu, China, were assaulted and forced to flee from the Hexi Corridor of Gansu by the Mongolic forces of the Xiongnu ruler Modu Chanyu in 177-176 BC.

In turn the Yuezhi were responsible for attacking and pushing the Sai (i.e. Saka) south. The Saka crossed the Syr Darya into Bactria around 140 B.C. Later the Saka would also move into Northern India, as well as other Tarim Basin sites like Khotan, Karasahr (Yanqi), Yarkand (Shache) and Kucha (Qiuci).

One suggestion is that the Saka become Hellenized in the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, and they or an ethnically-mixed Greco-Scythians either migrated to Yarkand and Khotan, or a bit earlier from Taxila in the Indo-Greek Kingdom.

Documents written in Prakrit dating to the 3rd century AD from neighbouring Shanshan show that the king of Khotan was given the title hinajha (i.e. “generalissimo”), a distinctively Iranian-based word equivalent to the Sanskrit title senapati.

This along with the fact that the king’s recorded regnal periods were given as Khotanese kṣuṇa, “implies an established connection between the Iranian inhabitants and the royal power,” according to the late Professor of Iranian Studies Ronald E. Emmerick (d. 2001).

He contended that Khotanese-Saka-language royal rescripts of Khotan dated to the 10th century “makes it likely that the ruler of Khotan was a speaker of Iranian.” Furthermore, he elaborated on the early name of Khotan:

The name of Khotan is attested in a number of spellings, of which the oldest form is hvatana, in texts of approximately the 7th to the 10th century AD written in an Iranian language itself called hvatana by the writers.

The same name is attested also in two closely related Iranian dialects, Sogdian and Tumshuq…Attempts have accordingly been made to explain it as Iranian, and this is of some importance historically.

My own preference is for an explanation connecting it semantically with the name Saka, for the Iranian inhabitants of Khotan spoke a language closely related to that used by the used by the Sakas in the north-west of India from the first century B.C. onwards.

Later Khotanese-Saka-language documents, ranging from medical texts to Buddhist literature, have been found in Khotan and Tumshuq (northeast of Kashgar). Similar documents in the Khotanese-Saka language dating mostly to the 10th century have been found in Dunhuang.

In the second century BC a Khotanese king helped the famous ruler Kanishka of the Kushan Empire of South Asia (founded by the Indo-Iranian Yuezhi people) to conquer the key town of Saket in the Middle kingdoms of India:

Afterwards king Vijaya Krīti, for whom a manifestation of the Ārya Mañjuśrī, the Arhat called Spyi-pri who was propagating the religion (dharma) in Kam-śeṅ [a district of Khotan] was acting as pious friend, through being inspired with faith, built the vihāra of Sru-ño.

Originally, King Kanika, the king of Gu-zar [Kucha] and the Li [Khotanese] ruler, King Vijaya Krīti, and others led an army into India, and when they captured the city called So-ked [Saketa], King Vijaya Krīti obtained many relics and put them in the stūpa of Sru-ño.

According to Chapter 96A of the Book of Han, covering the period from 125 BC to 23 AD, Khotan had 3,300 households, 19,300 individuals and 2,400 people able to bear arms.

Khotan began to exert its power in the first century AD. It was first ruled by Yarkand, but revolted in 25-57 AD and took Yarkand and the territory as far as Kashgar, thereby gaining control part of the southern silk road. The town grew very quickly after local trade developed into the interconnected chain of silk routes across Eurasia.

King Guangde of Khotan submitted to the Han dynasty in 73 AD. Khotan at the time had relation with the Xiongnu, who during the reign of Emperor Ming of Han (57-75 AD) invaded Khotan and forced the Khotanese court to pay them large annual amounts of tribute in the form of silk and tapestries.

When the Han military officer Ban Chao went to Khotan, he was received by the King with minimal courtesy. The soothsayer to the King suggested that he should demand the horse of Ban, and Ban killed the soothsayer on the spot. The King, impressed by Ban’s action, then killed the Xiongnu agent in Khotan and offered his allegiance to Han.

By the time of the Han dynasty exerted its dominance over Khotan, the population had more than quadrupled. Han influence on Khotan, however, would diminished when Han power declined. The Tang campaign against the oasis states began in 640 AD and Khotan submitted to the Tang emperor. The Four Garrisons of Anxi were established, one of them at Khotan.

The Tibetans later defeated the Chinese and took control of the Four Garrisons. Khotan was first taken in 665, and the Khotanese helped the Tibetans to conquer Aksu. Tang China later regained control in 692, but eventually lost control of the entire Western Regions after it was weakened considerably by the An Lushan Rebellion.

After the Tang dynasty, Khotan formed an alliance with the rulers of Dunhuang. The Buddhist entitites of Dunhuang and Khotan had a tight-knit partnership, with intermarriage between Dunhuang and Khotan’s rulers and Dunhuang’s Mogao grottos and Buddhist temples being funded and sponsored by the Khotan royals, whose likenesses were drawn in the Mogao grottoes. Khotan was conquered by the Tibetan Empire in 792 and gained its independence in 851.

In the 10th century, the Iranic Saka Buddhist Kingdom of Khotan was the only city-state that was not conquered yet by the Turkic Uyghur (Buddhist) and the Turkic Qarakhanid (Muslim) states. During the latter part of the tenth century, Khotan became engaged in a struggle against the Kara-Khanid Khanate.

The Islamic conquests of the Buddhist cities east of Kashgar began with the conversion of the Karakhanid Sultan Satuq Bughra Khan to Islam in 934. Satuq Bughra Khan and later his son Musa directed endeavors to proselytize Islam among the Turks and engage in military conquests, and a long war ensued between Islamic Kashgar and Buddhist Khotan.

Satuq Bughra Khan’s nephew or grandson Ali Arslan was said to have been killed during the war with the Buddhists. Khotan briefly took Kashgar from the Kara-Khanids in 970, and according to Chinese accounts, the King of Khotan offered to send in tribute to the Chinese court a dancing elephant captured from Kashgar.

Accounts of the war between the Karakhanid and Khotan were given in Taẕkirah of the Four Sacrificed Imams, written sometime in the period from 1700-1849 in the Eastern Turkic language (modern Uyghur) in Altishahr probably based on an older oral tradition.

It contains a story about four Imams from Mada’in city (possibly in modern-day Iraq) who helped the Qarakhanid leader Yusuf Qadir Khan conquered Khotan, Yarkand, and Kashgar. There were years of battles where “blood flows like the Oxus”, “heads litter the battlefield like stones” until the “infidels” were defeated and driven towards Khotan by Yusuf Qadir Khan and the four Imams. The imams however were assassinated by the Buddhists prior to the last Muslim victory.

Despite their foreign origins, they are viewed as local saints by the current Muslim population in the region. In 1006, the Muslim Kara-Khanid ruler Yusuf Kadir (Qadir) Khan of Kashgar conquered Khotan, ending Khotan’s existence as an independent Buddhist state.

Some communications between Khotan and Song China continued intermittently, but it was noted in 1063 in a Song source that the ruler of Khotan referred to himself as kara-khan, indicating dominance of the Karakhanids over Khotan.

Despite scant information on the socio-political structures of Khotan, the shared geography of the Tarim city-states and similarities in archaeological findings throughout the Tarim Basin enable some conclusions on Khotanese life.

A seventh-century Chinese pilgrim named Xuanzang described Khotan as having limited arable land but apparently particularly fertile, able to support “cereals and producing an abundance of fruits”.

He further commented that the city “manufactures carpets and fine-felts and silks” as well as “dark and white jade”. The city’s economy was chiefly based upon water from oases for irrigation and the manufacture of traded goods.

Xuanzang also praised the culture of Khotan, commenting that its people “love to study literature”, and said “[m]usic is much practiced in the country, and men love song and dance.” The “urbanity” of the Khotan people is also mentioned in their dress, that of ‘light silks and white clothes’ as opposed to more rural “wools and furs”.

Khotan was the first place outside of inland China to begin cultivating silk. The legend, repeated in many sources, and illustrated in murals discovered by archaeologists, is that a Chinese princess brought silkworm eggs hidden in her hair when she was sent to marry the Khotanese king. This probably took place in the first half of the 1st century AD but is disputed by a number of scholars.

One version of the story is told by the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang who describes the covert transfer of silkworms to Khotan by a Chinese princess. Xuanzang, on his return from India between 640 and 645, crossed Central Asia passing through the kingdoms of Kashgar and Khotan (Yutian in Chinese).

According to Xuazang, the introduction of sericulture to Khotan occurred in the first quarter of the 5th century. The King of Khotan wanted to obtain silkworm eggs, mulberry seeds and Chinese know-how – the three crucial components of silk production. The Chinese court had strict rules against these items leaving China, to maintain the Chinese monopoly on silk manufacture.

Xuanzang wrote that the King of Khotan asked for the hand of a Chinese princess in marriage as a token of his allegiance to the Chinese emperor. The request was granted, and an ambassador was sent to the Chinese court to escort the Chinese princess to Khotan. He advised the princess that she would need to bring silkworms and mulberry seeds in order to make herself robes in Khotan and to make the people prosperous.

The princess concealed silkworm eggs and mulberry seeds in her headdress and smuggled them through the Chinese frontier. According to his text, silkworm eggs, mulberry trees and weaving techniques passed from Khotan to India, and from there eventually reached Europe.

Khotan, throughout and before the Silk Roads period, was a prominent trading oasis on the southern route of the Tarim Basin – the only major oasis “on the sole water course to cross the desert from the south”.

Aside from the geographical location of the towns of Khotan it was also important for its wide renown as a significant source of nephrite jade for export to China. There has been a long history of trade of jade from Khotan to China. Jade pieces from the Tarim Basin have been found in Chinese archaeological sites.

Chinese carvers in Xinglongwa and Chahai had been carving ring-shaped pendants “from greenish jade from Khotan as early as 5000 BC”. The hundreds of jade pieces found in the tomb of Fuhao from the late Shang dynasty by Zheng Zhenxiang and her team all originated from Khotan.

According to the Chinese text Guanzi, the Yuezhi, described in the book as Yuzhi, or Niuzhi, supplied jade to the Chinese. It would seem, from secondary sources, the prevalence of jade from Khotan in ancient Chinese is due to its quality and the relative lack of such jade elsewhere. Xuanzang also observed jade on sale in Khotan in 645 and provided a number of examples of the jade trade.

At the cemetery in Sampul, ~14 km from the archaeological site of Khotan in Lop County, where Hellenistic art such as the Sampul tapestry has been found (its provenance most likely from the nearby Greco-Bactrian Kingdom), the local inhabitants buried their dead there from roughly 217 BC to 283 AD.

Mitochondrial DNA analysis of the human remains has revealed genetic affinities to peoples from the Caucasus, specifically a maternal lineage linked to Ossetians and Iranians, as well as an Eastern-Mediterranean paternal lineage.

Seeming to confirm this link, from historical accounts it is known that Alexander the Great, who married a Sogdian woman from Bactria named Roxana, encouraged his soldiers and generals to marry local women; consequentially the later kings of the Seleucid Empire and Greco-Bactrian Kingdom had a mixed Persian-Greek ethnic background.

The Wusun

The Wusun were an Indo-European semi-nomadic steppe people mentioned in Chinese records from the 2nd century BCE to the 5th century CE. The Wusun originally lived between the Qilian Mountains and Dunhuang (Gansu) near the Yuezhi.

Around 176 BCE the Yuezhi were raided by the Xiongnu, who subsequently attacked the Wusun, killing their king and seizing their land. The Xiongnu adopted the surviving Wusun prince and made him one of their generals and leader of the Wusun.

Around 162 BCE the Yuezhi were driven into the Ili River valley in Zhetysu, Dzungaria, and Tian Shan, which had formerly been inhabited by the Saka (Scythians). The Wusun then resettled in Gansu as vassals of the Xiongnu. In 133–132 BCE, the Wusun drove the Yuezhi out of the Ili Valley and settled the area.

The Wusun then became close allies of the Han dynasty and remained a powerful force in the region for several centuries. The Wusun are last mentioned by the Chinese as having settled in the Pamir Mountains in the 5th century CE due to pressure from the Rouran. They possibly became subsumed into the later Hephthalites.

Wusun literally means wū ‘crow, raven’ + sūn ‘grandson, descendant’. There are several theories about the origin of the name. Sinologist Victor H. Mair compared Wusun with Sanskrit áśva ‘horse’, aśvin ‘mare’ and Lithuanian ašvà ‘mare’. The name would thus mean ‘the horse people’. Hence he put forward the hypothesis that the Wusun used a satem-like language within the Indo-European languages.

However, the latter hypothesis is not supported by Edwin G. Pulleyblank. Christopher I. Beckwith’s analysis is similar to Mair’s, reconstructing the Chinese term Wusun as Old Chinese *âswin, which he compares to Old Indic aśvin ‘the horsemen’, the name of the Rigvedic twin equestrian gods.

The Wusun were first mentioned by Chinese sources as vassals of the Yuezhi living between the Qilian Mountains and Dunhuang (Gansu), although different locations have been suggested for these toponyms. Beckwith suggests that the Wusun were an eastern remnant of the Indo-Aryans, who had been suddenly pushed to the extremities of the Eurasian Steppe by the Iranian peoples in the 2nd millennium BCE.

Around 210–200 BCE, prince Modu Chanyu, a former hostage of the Yuezhi and prince of the Xiongnu, who were also vassals of the Yuezhi, became leader of the Xiongnu and conquered the Mongolian Plain, subjugating several peoples. Around 176 BCE Modu Chanyu launched a fierce raid against the Yuezhi. Around 173 BCE, the Yuezhi subsequently attacked the Wusun, at that time a small nation, killing their king.

According to legend Nandoumi’s infant son Liejiaomi was left in the wild. He was miraculously saved from hunger being suckled by a she-wolf, and fed meat by ravens.

The Wusun ancestor myth shares striking similarities with those of the Hittites, the Zhou Chinese, the Scythians, the Romans, the Goguryeo, Turks, Mongols and Dzungars. Based on the similarities between the ancestor myth of the Wusun and later Turkic peoples, Denis Sinor has suggested that the Wusun, Sogdians, or both could represent an Indo-Aryan influence, or even the origin of the royal Ashina Türks.

In 162 BCE, the Yuezhi were finally defeated by the Xiongnu, after which they fled Gansu. According to Zhang Qian, the Yuezhi were defeated by the rising Xiongnu empire and fled westward, driving away the Sai (Scythians) from the Ili Valley in the Zhetysu and Dzungaria area. The Sai would subsequently migrate into South Asia, where they founded various Indo-Scythian kingdoms.

After the Yuezhi retreat the Wusun subsequently settled the modern province of Gansu, in the valley of the Ushui-he (Chinese Raven Water river), as vassals of the Xiongnu. It is not clear whether the river was named after the tribe or vice versa.

The Xiongnu ruler was impressed with Liejiaomi, considering him a supernatural being, and adopted the child. When the child grew up the Chanyu made him leader of the Wusun and a Xiongnu general.

He won many victories for the Xiongnu and the Wusun became powerful. Liejiaomi constantly requested the Xiongnu ruler for permission to revenge his father, and around 133–132 BCE, he successfully attacked the Yuezhi in the Ili Valley.

The Yuezhi then migrated to Sogdia and then Bactria, where they became unified under Kujula Kadphises and expanded into South Asia, founding the Kushan Empire, which at its peak under Kanishka stretched from Turpan in the Tarim Basin to Pataliputra on the Gangetic plain and played an important role in the development of the Silk Road and the transmission of Buddhism to China.

The Wusun subsequently took over the Ili Valley, expanding over a large area and trying to keep away from the Xiongnu. According to Shiji, Wusun was a state located west of the Xiongnu. When the Xiongnu ruler died, Liejiaomi refused to serve the Xiongnu.

The Xiongnu then sent a force to against the Wusun but were defeated, after which the Xiongnu even more than before considered Liejiaomi a supernatural being, avoiding conflict with him.

In the 5th century CE the Wusun were pressured by the Rouran and may have migrated to the Pamir Mountains. They are last mentioned in Chinese historical sources in 436 CE, when a Chinese envoy was sent to their country and the Wusun reciprocated.

It is possible that they became subsumed into the later Hephthalites. After this event the Wusun seem to disappear from Chinese records, though their name was last mentioned on an offering to the court of Liao Dynasty on 22 September 938 CE.

The Hanshu and Shiji do not make any special note of the physical appearance of the Wusun. The first description of the Wusun’s physical appearance is found in a Western Han dynasty book of divination, the Jiaoshi Yilin, which describes the women of the Wusun as “ugly and dark colored people with deep eye sockets,” suggesting a South Asian origin.

A later 7th century commentary to the Hanshu by Yan Shigu says: Among the barbarians in the Western Regions, the look of the Wusun is the most unusual. The present barbarians who have green eyes and red hair, and look like macaque monkeys, are the offspring of this people.

Initially, when only a few number of skulls from Wusun territory were known, the Wusun were recognized as a Caucasoid people with slight Mongoloid admixture. Later, in a more thorough study by Soviet archaeologists of eighty-seven skulls of Zhetysu, the six skulls of the Wusun period were determined to be purely Caucasoid or close to it.

The Wusun are generally believed to have been an Indo-Aryan-speaking people. They are thought to be Iranian-speaking by the archaeologist Elena Kuzmina, linguist János Harmatta, Joseph Kitagawa, David Durand-Guédy, Turkologist Peter B. Golden and Central Asian scholar Denis Sinor. That the Wusun were Iranian-speakers is supported by archaeological evidence.

The Sinologist Edwin G. Pulleyblank has suggested that the Wusun, along with the Yuezhi, the Dayuan, the Kangju and the people of Yanqi, could have been Tocharian-speaking. Colin Masica and David Keightley also suggest that the Wusun were Tocharian-speaking. Sinor finds it difficult to include the Wusun within the Tocharian category of Indo-European until further research.

J. P. Mallory has suggested that the Wusun contained both Tocharian and Iranian elements. Central Asian scholar Christopher I. Beckwith suggests that the Wusun were Indo-Aryan-speaking. The first syllable of the Wusun royal title Kunmi was probably the royal title while the second syllable referred to the royal family name. Beckwith specifically suggests an Indo-Aryan etymology of the title Kunmi.

Some scholars historically suggested that the Wusun spoke a Proto-Turkic language. Chinese scholar Han Rulin, as well as G. Vambery, A. Scherbak, P. Budberg, L. Bazin and V.P. Yudin, noted that the Wusun king’s name Fu-li, as reported in Chinese sources and translated as ‘wolf’, resembles Proto-Turkic *bȫrü ‘wolf’ (cf. Uyghur böri).

This suggestion however is rejected by Classical Chinese Literature expert Francis K. H. So, Professor at National Sun Yat-sen University. Other words listed by these scholars include the title bag, beg ‘lord’.

The above-mentioned theories have been criticized by modern Turkologists, including Peter B. Golden and Carter V. Findley, who explain that none of the mentioned words are actually Turkic in origin.

Findley notes that the term böri is probably derived from one of the Indo-Aryan languages of Central Asia (cf. Khotanese birgga-). Meanwhile, Findley considers the title beg as certainly derived from the Sogdian baga ‘lord’, a cognate of Middle Persian baγ (as used by the rulers of the Sassanid Empire), as well as Sanskrit bhaga and Russian bog.

According to Encyclopædia Iranica: “The origin of beg is still disputed, though it is mostly agreed that it is a loan-word. Two principal etymologies have been proposed. The first etymology is from a Middle Iranian form of Old Iranian baga; though the meaning would fit since the Middle Persian forms of the word often mean ‘lord,’ used of the king or others. The second etymology is from Chinese po ‘eldest (brother), (feudal) lord’.

Gerhard Doerfer on the other hand seriously considers the possibility that the word is genuinely Turkish. Whatever the truth may be, there is no connection with Turkish berk, Mongolian berke ‘strong’ or Turkish bögü, Mongolian böge ‘wizard, shaman.'”

Numerous sites belonging to the Wusun period in Zhetysu and the Tian Shan have been excavated. Most of the cemeteries are burial grounds with the dead interred in pit-graves, referred to as the Chil-pek group, which probably belong the local Saka population.

A second group of kurgans with burials in lined “catacomb” chamber graves, of the so-called Aygîrdzhal group, are found together with the Chil-pek tombs from the 2nd century BCE to the 5th century CE, and have been attributed to the Yuezhi. Graves of the Wusun period typically contain personal belongings, with the burials of the Aygîrdzhal group often containing weapons.

A famous find is the Kargali burial of a female Shaman discovered at an altitude of 2,300 m, near Almaty, containing jewellery, clothing, head-dress and nearly 300 gold objects. A beaufiful diadem of the Kargali burial attest to the artistic skill of these ancient jewellers. Another find at Tenlik in eastern Zhetysu contained the grave of a high-ranking warrior, whose clothing had been decorated with around 100 golden bosses.

Some scholars such as Peter B. Golden have proposed that the Wusun may have been identical with the people described by Herodotus (IV. 16–25) and in Ptolemy’s Geography as Issedones (also Issedoni, Issedoi or Essedoni).

Their exact location of their country in Central Asia is unknown. The Issedones are “placed by some in Western Siberia and by others in Chinese Turkestan,” according to E. D. Phillips. French historian Iaroslav Lebedynsky suggests that the Wusun may have been the Asii of Geographica.

A genetic study published in Nature in May 2018 examined the remains of four Wusun buried between ca. 300 BC and 100 BC. The sample of Y-DNA extracted belonged to haplogroup R1. The samples of mtDNA extracted belonged to C4a1, HV6, J1c5a and U5b2c.

The authors of the study found that the Wusun and Kangju had less East Asian admixture than the Xiongnu and Sakas. Both the Wusun and Kangju were suggested to be descended from Western Steppe Herders (WSHs) of the Late Bronze Age who admixed with Siberian hunter-gatherers and peoples related to the Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex.

The Yuezhi

The Yuezhi were an ancient people first described in Chinese histories as nomadic pastoralists living in an arid grassland area in the western part of the modern Chinese province of Gansu, during the 1st millennium BC. After a major defeat by the Xiongnu in 176 BC, the Yuezhi split into two groups migrating in different directions: the Greater Yuezhi and Lesser Yuezhi.

The Yuezhi were described in the Records of the Great Historian and the Book of Han as living in the grasslands of Gansu, in the northwest of modern-day China, until their King was beheaded by the Xiongnu who were also at war with China, which eventually forced them to migrate west in 176–160 BCE. The five tribes constituting the Yuezhi are known in Chinese history as Xiūmì, Guìshuāng, Shuāngmǐ, Xìdùn, and Dūmì.

The Greater Yuezhi initially migrated northwest into the Ili Valley (on the modern borders of China and Kazakhstan), where they reportedly displaced elements of the Sakas. They were driven from the Ili Valley by the Wusun and migrated southward to Sogdia and later settled in Bactria.

The Greater Yuezhi have consequently often been identified with peoples mentioned in classical European sources as having overrun the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, like the Tókharioi (Greek Τοχάριοι; Sanskrit Tukhāra) and Asii (or Asioi).

During the 1st century BC, one of the five major Greater Yuezhi tribes in Bactria, the Kushanas, began to subsume the other tribes and neighbouring peoples. The subsequent Kushan Empire, at its peak in the 3rd century AD, stretched from Turfan in the Tarim Basin in the north to Pataliputra on the Gangetic plain of India in the south. The Kushanas played an important role in the development of trade on the Silk Road and the introduction of Buddhism to China.

The Lesser Yuezhi migrated southward to the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Some are reported to have settled among the Qiang people in Qinghai, and to have been involved in the Liangzhou Rebellion (184–221 AD). Others are said to have founded the city state of Cumuḍa (now known as Kumul and Hami) in the eastern Tarim. A fourth group of Lesser Yuezhi may have become part of the Jie people of Shanxi, who established the Later Zhao state of the 4th century AD (although this remains controversial).

Many scholars believe that the Yuezhi were an Indo-European people. Although some scholars have associated them with artifacts of extinct cultures in the Tarim Basin, such as the Tarim mummies and texts recording the Tocharian languages, the evidence for any such link is purely circumstantial.

The earliest detailed account of the Yuezhi is found in chapter 123 of the Records of the Great Historian by Sima Qian, describing a mission of Zhang Qian in the late 2nd century BC. Essentially the same text appears in chapter 61 of the Book of Han, though Sima Qian has added occasional words and phrases to clarify the meaning.

Both texts use the name Yuèzhī, composed of characters meaning “moon” and “clan” respectively. Several different romanizations of this Chinese-language name have appeared in print. The Iranologist H. W. Bailey preferred Üe-ṭşi. Another modern Chinese pronunciation of the name is Ròuzhī, based on the theory that the character 月 in the name is a scribal error for 肉.

The account begins with the Yuezhi occupying the grasslands to the northwest of China at the beginning of the 2nd century BC: “The Great Yuezhi was a nomadic horde. They moved about following their cattle, and had the same customs as those of the Xiongnu. As their soldiers numbered more than hundred thousand, they were strong and despised the Xiongnu. In the past, they lived in the region between Dunhuang and Qilian”.

The area between the Qilian Mountains and Dunhuang lies in the western part of the modern Chinese province of Gansu, but no archaeological remains of the Yuezhi have yet been found in this area.

Some scholars have argued that “Dunhuang” should be Dunhong, a mountain in the Tian Shan, and that Qilian should be interpreted as a name for the Tian Shan. They have thus placed the original homeland of the Yuezhi 1,000 km further northwest in the grasslands to the north of the Tian Shan (in the northern part of modern Xinjiang).

Other authors suggest that the area identified by Sima Qian was merely the core area of an empire encompassing the western part of the Mongolian plain, the upper reaches of the Yellow River, the Tarim Basin and possibly much of central Asia, including the Altai Mountains, the site of the Pazyryk burials of the Ukok Plateau.

By the late 3rd century the Xiongnu monarch Touman even sent his eldest son Modu as a hostage to the Yuezhi. The Yuezhi often attacked their neighbour the Wusun to acquire slaves and pasture lands. Wusun originally lived together with the Yuezhi in the region between Dunhuang and Qilian Mountain. The Yuezhi attacked the Wusuns, killed their monarch Nandoumi and took his territory. The son of Nandoumi, Kunmo fled to the Xiongnu and was brought up by the Xiongnu monarch.

Gradually the Xiongnu grew stronger, and war broke out with the Yuezhi. There were at least four wars according to the Chinese accounts. The first war broke out during the reign of the Xiongnu monarch Touman (who died in 209 BC) who suddenly attacked the Yuezhi. The Yuezhi wanted to kill Modu, the son of the Xiongnu king Touman kept as a hostage to them, but Modu stole a good horse from them and managed to escape to his country. He subsequently killed his father and became ruler of the Xiongnu.

It appears that the Xiongnu did not defeat the Yuezhi in this first war. The second war took place in the 7th year of Modu era (203 BC). From this war, a large area of the territory originally belonging to the Yuezhi was seized by the Xiongnu and the hegemony of the Yuezhi started to shake. The third war probably was at 176 BC (or shortly earlier) and the Yuezhi were badly defeated.

Shortly before 176 BC, led by one of Modu’s tribal chiefs, the Xiongnu invaded Yuezhi territory in the Gansu region and achieved a crushing victory. Modu boasted in a letter (174 BC) to the Han emperor that due to “the excellence of his fighting men, and the strength of his horses, he has succeeded in wiping out the Yuezhi, slaughtering or forcing to submission every number of the tribe.”

The son of Modu, Laoshang Chanyu (ruled 174–166 BC), subsequently killed the king of the Yuezhi and, in accordance with nomadic traditions, “made a drinking cup out of his skull.” Nevertheless, in about 173 BC, the Wusun were apparently defeated by the Yuezhi, who killed a Wusun king known as Nandoumi.

After their defeat by the Xiongnu, the Yuezhi split into two groups. The Lesser or Little Yuezhi (Xiao Yuezhi) moved to the “southern mountains”, believed to be the Qilian Mountains on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, to live with the Qiang.

The so-called Greater (or Great) Yuezhi began migrating north-west in about 165 BC, first settling in the Ili valley, immediately north of the Tian Shan mountains, where they defeated the Sai (Sakas): “The Yuezhi attacked the king of the Sai who moved a considerable distance to the south and the Yuezhi then occupied his lands” (Book of Han 61 4B). This was “the first historically recorded movement of peoples originating in the high plateaus of Asia.”

In 132 BC the Wusun, in alliance with the Xiongnu and out of revenge from an earlier conflict, again managed to dislodge the Yuezhi from the Ili Valley, forcing them to move south-west. The Yuezhi passed through the neighbouring urban civilization of Dayuan (in Ferghana) and settled on the northern bank of the Oxus, in the region of northern Bactria, or Transoxiana (modern Tajikistan and Uzbekistan).

The Central Asian people who called themselves Kushana, who were among the conquerors of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom during the 2nd century BC, are widely believed to have originated as a dynastic clan or tribe of the Yuezhi.

The area of Bactria they settled came to be known as Tokharistan. Because some inhabitants of Bactria became known as Tukhāra (Sanskrit) or Tókharoi (Τοχάριοι; Greek), these names later became associated with the Yuezhi. The Kushana spoke Bactrian, an Eastern Iranian language.

In the 3rd century BC, Bactria had been conquered by the Greeks under Alexander the Great and since settled by the Hellenistic civilization of the Seleucids. The resulting Greco-Bactrian Kingdom lasted until the 2nd century BC.

The area came under pressure from various nomadic peoples and the Greek city of Alexandria on the Oxus was apparently burnt to the ground in about 145 BC. The last Greco-Bactrian king, Heliocles I, retreated and moved his capital to the Kabul Valley.

In about 140–130 BC, the Greco-Bactrian state was conquered by the nomads and dissolved. The Greek geographer Strabo mentions this event in his account of the central Asian tribes he called “Scythians”: “All, or the greatest part of them, are nomads. The best known tribes are those who deprived the Greeks of Bactriana: the Asii, Pasiani, Tochari, and Sacarauli, who came from the country on the other side of the Jaxartes [Syr Darya], opposite the Sacae and Sogdiani”.

The Roman historian Pompeius Trogus (1st century BC) attributes destruction of the Greco-Bactrian state to the Sacaraucae and the Asiani “kings of the Tochari”. Both Pompeius and Justin (2nd century AD) record that the Parthian king Artabanus II was mortally wounded in a war against the Tokhari in 124 BC. Several relationships between these tribes and those named in Chinese sources have been proposed, but remain contentious.

After they settled in Bactria, the Yuezhi became Hellenized to some degree – as shown by their adoption of the Greek alphabet and by some remaining coins, minted in the style of the Greco-Bactrian kings, with the text in Greek.

The area of the Hindu Kush (Paropamisadae) was ruled by the western Indo-Greek king until the reign of Hermaeus (reigned c. 90 BC–70 BC). After that date, no Indo-Greek kings are known in the area. According to Bopearachchi, no trace of Indo-Scythian occupation (nor coins of major Indo-Scythian rulers such as Maues or Azes I) have been found in the Paropamisade and western Gandhara. The Hindu Kush may have been subsumed by the Yuezhi,[original research?] who by then had been dominated by Greco-Bactria for almost two centuries.

As they had done in Bactria with their copying of Greco-Bactrian coinage, the Yuezhi copied the coinage of Hermeaus on a vast scale, up to around 40 AD, when the design blends into the coinage of the Kushan king Kujula Kadphises. Such coins may provide the earliest known names of Yuezhi yabgu (a minor royal title, similar to prince), namely Sapadbizes[original research?] and/or Agesiles, who both lived in or about 20 BC.

After that point, they extended their control over the northwestern area of the Indian subcontinent, founding the Kushan Empire, which was to rule the region for several centuries. Despite their change of name, most Chinese authors continued to refer to the Kushanas as the Yuezhi.

The Kushanas expanded to the east during the 1st century AD. The first Kushan emperor, Kujula Kadphises, ostensibly associated himself with King Hermaeus on his coins. The Kushanas integrated Buddhism into a pantheon of many deities and became great promoters of Mahayana Buddhism, and their interactions with Greek civilization helped the Gandharan culture and Greco-Buddhism flourish.

During the 1st and 2nd centuries, the Kushan Empire expanded militarily to the north and occupied parts of the Tarim Basin, putting them at the center of the lucrative Central Asian commerce with the Roman Empire. The Kushanas collaborated militarily with the Chinese against their mutual enemies.

This included a campaign with the Chinese general Ban Chao against the Sogdians in 84 CE, when the latter were trying to support a revolt by the king of Kashgar. In around AD 85,[citation needed] the Kushanas also assisted the Chinese in an attack on Turpan, east of the Tarim Basin.

Following the military support provided to the Han, the Kushan emperor requested a marriage alliance with a Han princess and sent gifts to the Chinese court in expectation that this would occur. After the Han court refused, a Kushan army 70,000 strong marched on Ban Chao in 86 AD. The army was apparently exhausted by the time it reached its objective and was defeated by the Chinese force. The Kushanas retreated and later paid tribute to the Chinese emperor Han He (89–106).

In about 120 AD, Kushan troops installed Chenpan—a prince who had been sent as a hostage to them and had become a favorite of the Kushan Emperor—on the throne of Kashgar, thus expanding their power and influence in the Tarim Basin. There they introduced the Brahmi script, the Indian Prakrit language for administration, and Greco-Buddhist art, which developed into Serindian art.

Following this territorial expansion, the Kushanas introduced Buddhism to northern and northeastern Asia, by both direct missionary efforts and the translation of Buddhist scriptures into Chinese.

Major Kushan missionaries and translators included Lokaksema (born c. 147 CE) and Dharmaraksa (c. 233 – c. 311), both of whom were influential translators of the Mahayana sutras into Chinese. They went to China and established translation bureaus, thereby being at the center of the Silk Road transmission of Buddhism.

Soon afterwards, the military power of the Kushanas began to decline. The rival Sasanian Empire of Persia extended its dominion into Bactria during the reign of Ardashir I around 230 CE. The Sasanians also occupied neighboring Sogdia by 260 AD and made it into a satrapy.

During the course of the 3rd and 4th centuries, the Kushan Empire was divided and conquered by the Sasanians, the Hephthalite tribes from the north, and the Gupta and Yaudheya empires from India.

Kushan Empire

The Kushan Empire was a syncretic empire in South Asia originally formed by the Yuezhi in the early 1st century CE under Kujula Kadphises in the territories of ancient Bactria around the Oxus River (Amu Darya), and later based near Kabul, Afghanistan.

The Kushan Empire spread to encompass much of Afghanistan, and then the northern parts of the Indian subcontinent at least as far as Saketa and Sarnath near Varanasi (Benares), where inscriptions have been found dating to the era of the Kushan Emperor Kanishka the Great.

The Kushans spread from the Kabul River Valley to defeat other Central Asian tribes that had previously conquered parts of the northern central Iranian Plateau once ruled by the Parthians, and reached their peak under the Buddhist emperor Kanishka (127–151), whose realm stretched from Turfan in the Tarim Basin to Pataliputra on the Gangetic Plain.

The empire spread to encompass much of Afghanistan, and then the northern parts of the Indian subcontinent at least as far as Saketa and Sarnath near Varanasi (Benares), where inscriptions have been found dating to the era of the Kushan Emperor Kanishka the Great.

The Kushans were most probably one of five branches of the Yuezhi confederation, an Indo-European nomadic people of possible Tocharian origin, who who had migrated from the Tarim Basin and settled in ancient Bactria. They possibly used the Greek language initially for administrative purposes, but soon began to use Bactrian language.

Emperor Kanishka was a great patron of Buddhism. He played an important role in the establishment of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent and its spread to Central Asia and China. He sent his armies north of the Karakoram mountains.

A direct road from Gandhara to China remained under Kushan control for more than a century, encouraging travel across the Karakoram and facilitating the spread of Mahayana Buddhism to China.

The Kushan dynasty had diplomatic contacts with the Roman Empire, Sasanian Persia, the Aksumite Empire and the Han dynasty of China. The Kushan Empire was at the center of trade relations between the Roman Empire and China: according to Alain Daniélou, “for a time, the Kushana Empire was the centerpoint of the major civilizations”.

While much philosophy, art, and science was created within its borders, the only textual record of the empire’s history today comes from inscriptions and accounts in other languages, particularly Chinese.

The Kushan empire fragmented into semi-independent kingdoms in the 3rd century AD, which fell to the Sasanians invading from the west, establishing the Kushano-Sasanian Kingdom in the areas of Sogdiana, Bactria and Gandhara. In the 4th century, the Guptas, an Indian dynasty also pressed from the east. The last of the Kushan and Kushano-Sasanian kingdoms were eventually overwhelmed by invaders from the north, known as the Kidarites, and then the Hephthalites.

Chinese sources describe the Guishuang, i.e. the Kushans, as one of the five aristocratic tribes of the Yuezhi. There is scholarly consensus that the Yuezhi were a people of Indo-European origin. A specifically Tocharian origin of the Yuezhi is often suggested.

An Iranian, specifically Saka, origin, also has some support among scholars. Others suggest that the Yuezhi might have originally been a nomadic Iranian people, who were then partially assimilated by settled Tocharians, thus containing both Iranian and Tocharian elements.

The Yuezhi were described in the Records of the Great Historian and the Book of Han as living in the grasslands of Gansu, in the northwest of modern-day China, until their King was beheaded by the Xiongnu who were also at war with China, which eventually forced them to migrate west in 176–160 BCE. The five tribes constituting the Yuezhi are known in Chinese history as Xiūmì, Guìshuāng, Shuāngmǐ, Xìdùn, and Dūmì.

The Yuezhi reached the Hellenic kingdom of Greco-Bactria (in northern Afghanistan and Uzbekistan) around 135 BC. The displaced Greek dynasties resettled to the southeast in areas of the Hindu Kush and the Indus basin (in present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan), occupying the western part of the Indo-Greek Kingdom.

In India, Kushan emperors regularly used the dynastic name “Koshano” on their coinage. Several inscriptions in Sanskrit in the Brahmi script, such as the Mathura inscription of the statue of Vima Kadphises, refer to the Kushan Emperor as Gupta allahabad ku.jpg Gupta gujarat ssaa.jpg Gupta ashoka nn.svg Ku-shā-ṇa (“Kushana”).

Some later Indian literary sources referred to the Kushans as Turushka, a name which in later Sanskrit sources was confused with Turk, “probably due to the fact that Tukharistan passed into the hands of the western Turks in the seventh century. Yet, according to Wink, “nowadays no historian considers them to be Turkish-Mongoloid or ‘Hun’, although there is no doubt about their Central-Asian origin.”

Some traces remain of the presence of the Kushans in the area of Bactria and Sogdiana in the 2nd-1st century BCE, where they had displaced the Sakas, who moved further south. Archaeological structures are known in Takht-i Sangin, Surkh Kotal (a monumental temple), and in the palace of Khalchayan.

On the ruins of ancient Hellenistic cities such as Ai-Khanoum, the Kushans are known to have built fortresses. Various sculptures and friezes from this period are known, representing horse-riding archers, and, significantly, men such as the Kushan prince of Khalchayan with artificially deformed skulls, a practice well attested in nomadic Central Asia.

Some of the Khalchayan sculptural scenes are also thought to depict the Kushans fighting against the Sakas. In these portrayals, the Yuezhis are shown with a majestic demeanour, whereas the Sakas are typically represented with side-wiskers, and more or less grotesque facial expressions.

The Chinese first referred to these people as the Yuezhi and said they established the Kushan Empire, although the relationship between the Yuezhi and the Kushans is still unclear. Ban Gu’s Book of Han tells us the Kushans (Kuei-shuang) divided up Bactria in 128 BC. Fan Ye’s Book of Later Han “relates how the chief of the Kushans, Ch’iu-shiu-ch’ueh (the Kujula Kadphises of coins), founded by means of the submission of the other Yueh-chih clans the Kushan Empire.”

The earliest documented ruler, and the first one to proclaim himself as a Kushan ruler, was Heraios. He calls himself a “tyrant” in Greek on his coins, and also exhibits skull deformation. He may have been an ally of the Greeks, and he shared the same style of coinage. Heraios may have been the father of the first Kushan emperor Kujula Kadphises.

The Chinese Book of Later Han chronicles then gives an account of the formation of the Kushan empire based on a report made by the Chinese general Ban Yong to the Chinese Emperor c. 125 AD: “More than a hundred years later [than the conquest of Bactria by the Da Yuezhi], the prince [xihou] of Guishuang (Badakhshan) established himself as king, and his dynasty was called that of the Guishuang (Kushan) King.

He invaded Anxi (Indo-Parthia), and took the Gaofu (Kabul) region. He also defeated the whole of the kingdoms of Puda (Paktiya) and Jibin (Kapisha and Gandhara). Qiujiuque (Kujula Kadphises) was more than eighty years old when he died. His son, Yangaozhen [probably Vema Tahk (tu) or, possibly, his brother Sadaṣkaṇa ], became king in his place. He defeated Tianzhu [North-western India] and installed Generals to supervise and lead it. The Yuezhi then became extremely rich. All the kingdoms call [their king] the Guishuang [Kushan] king, but the Han call them by their original name, Da Yuezhi”.

In the 1st century BCE, the Guishuang gained prominence over the other Yuezhi tribes, and welded them into a tight confederation under yabgu (Commander) Kujula Kadphises. The name Guishuang was adopted in the West and modified into Kushan to designate the confederation, although the Chinese continued to call them Yuezhi.

Gradually wresting control of the area from the Scythian tribes, the Kushans expanded south into the region traditionally known as Gandhara (an area primarily in Pakistan’s Pothowar and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region) and established twin capitals in Begram and Peshawar, then known as Kapisa and Pushklavati respectively.

The Kushans adopted elements of the Hellenistic culture of Bactria. They adopted the Greek alphabet to suit their own language (with the additional development of the letter Þ “sh”, as in “Kushan”) and soon began minting coinage on the Greek model.

On their coins they used Greek language legends combined with Pali legends (in the Kharoshthi script), until the first few years of the reign of Kanishka. After the middle of Kanishka’s reign, they used Kushan language legends (in an adapted Greek script), combined with legends in Greek (Greek script) and legends in Prakrit (Kharoshthi script).

The Kushans “adopted many local beliefs and customs, including Zoroastrianism and the two rising religions in the region, the Greek cults and Buddhism”. From the time of Vima Takto, many Kushans started adopting aspects of Buddhist culture, and like the Egyptians, they absorbed the strong remnants of the Greek culture of the Hellenistic Kingdoms, becoming at least partly Hellenised.

The great Kushan emperor Vima Kadphises may have embraced Shaivism (a sect of Hinduism), as surmised by coins minted during the period. The following Kushan emperors represented a wide variety of faiths including Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Shaivism.

The rule of the Kushans linked the seagoing trade of the Indian Ocean with the commerce of the Silk Road through the long-civilized Indus Valley. At the height of the dynasty, the Kushans loosely ruled a territory that extended to the Aral Sea through present-day Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan into northern India.

The loose unity and comparative peace of such a vast expanse encouraged long-distance trade, brought Chinese silks to Rome, and created strings of flourishing urban centers.


The Tocharians, or Tokharians were an Indo-European people who inhabited the medieval oasis city-states on the northern edge of the Tarim Basin (modern Xinjiang, China) in ancient times. Their Tocharian languages (a branch of the Indo-European family) are known from manuscripts from the 6th to 8th centuries AD, after which they were supplanted by the Turkic languages of the Uyghur tribes.

Agricultural communities first appeared in the oases of the northern Tarim circa 2000 BC. (The earliest Tarim mummies, which may not be connected to the Tocharians, date from c. 1800 BC.) Some scholars have linked these communities to the Afanasievo culture found earlier (c. 3500–2500 BC) in Siberia, north of the Tarim or Central Asian BMAC culture.

Some scholars have linked the Tocharians with the Afanasevo culture of eastern Siberia (c. 3500 – 2500 BC), the Tarim mummies (c. 1800 BC) and the Yuezhi of Chinese records, most of whom migrated from western Gansu to Bactria in the 2nd century BC and then later to northwest India where they founded the Kushan Empire.

It is likely that the population of the Afanasevo culture was speaking a language that was the ancestor of the Tocharian language. The Tocharians are perhaps the most mysterious of all of the Indo-European branches. Thankfully, recent DNA evidence has provided a vital ingredient when it comes to telling their story but, despite this, it is a somewhat complicated story.

However, the mystery of the Tocharians may be that there is no mystery. The Tocharians are revealed to have been just another West Asian branch of the Indo-European family that, unlike most of its cousins, went east, absorbed Northern Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and South Asian population elements, emerged long enough in history to leave us a written record of their presence, before succumbing to the Xiongnu and the Mongols.

Thankfully, by combining the remnants of their language, and fragments of their DNA in their descendants, we are able to reconstruct the history of this, once forgotten people. An explanation for the presence of R-M343 in Xinjiang is West Asia, or at least Central Asia west of the Tarim, is that there can be found at a high frequency in Armenians, Turks, north Iranians, and Lezgins among others.

The Kushan Empire was an empire in South Asia originally formed in the early 1st century CE under Kujula Kadphises in the territories of ancient Bactria around the Oxus River (Amu Darya), and later based near Kabul, Afghanistan.

By the 2nd century BC, these settlements had developed into city-states, overshadowed by nomadic peoples to the north and Chinese empires to the east. These cities, the largest of which was Kucha, also served as way stations on the branch of the Silk Road that ran along the northern edge of the Taklamakan desert.

From the 8th century AD, the Uyghurs – speakers of a Turkic language from the Kingdom of Qocho – settled in the region. The peoples of the Tarim city-states intermixed with the Uyghurs, whose Old Uyghur language spread through the region. The Tocharian languages are believed to have become extinct during the 9th century.

Around the beginning of the 20th century, archaeologists recovered a number of manuscripts from oases in the Tarim Basin written in two closely related but previously unknown Indo-European languages.

Another text recovered from the same area, a Buddhist work in Old Turkic, included a colophon stating that the text had been translated from Sanskrit via a toxrï language, which Friedrich W. K. Müller guessed was one of the newly discovered languages.

Müller called the languages “Tocharian” (German Tocharisch), linking this toxrï with the ethnonym Tókharoi (Ancient Greek: Τόχαροι, Ptolemy VI, 11, 6, 2nd century AD) applied by Strabo to one of the Scythian tribes that overran the Greco-Bactrian kingdom (present day Afghanistan-Pakistan) in the second half of the 2nd century BC.

This term was itself derived from Indo-Iranian (cf. Old Persian tuxāri-, Khotanese ttahvāra, and Sanskrit tukhāra), the source of the term “Tokharistan” usually referring to 1st millennium Bactria, as well as the Takhar province of Afghanistan.

The Tókharoi are often identified by modern scholars with the Yuezhi of Chinese historical accounts, who founded the Kushan Empire. These people are now known to have spoken Bactrian, an Eastern Iranian language that is quite distinct from the Tocharian languages, and Müller’s identification is now a minority position among scholars. Nevertheless, “Tocharian” remains the standard term for the languages of the Tarim Basin manuscripts and for the people who produced them.

The name of Kucha in Tocharian B was Kuśi, with adjectival form kuśiññe. The word may be derived from Proto-Indo-European *keuk “shining, white”. The Tocharian B word akeññe may have referred to people of Agni, with a derivation meaning “borderers, marchers”. One of the Tocharian A texts has ārśi-käntwā as a name for their own language, so that ārśi may have meant “Agnean”, though “monk” is also possible.

Most Tocharian inscriptions are from Buddhist monastical texts, suggesting that Tocharians largely embraced this religion. Pre-Buddhist beliefs are largely unknown, but several Chinese goddesses are similar to those of the speculated Proto-Indo-European sun goddess and the dawn goddess, implying influence from them through trade routes in Tocharian territories and therefore their worship there.

Tocharian B has a noun swāñco derived from the name of the Proto-Indo-European sun goddess, while Tocharian A has koṃ, a loanword etymologically connected to the Turkic sun goddess Gun Ana. Besides this, they might have also worshipped a lunar deity (meñ-) and an earth one (keṃ-).

Most Tocharian inscriptions are from Buddhist monastical texts, suggesting that Tocharians largely embraced this religion. Pre-Buddhist beliefs are largely unknown, but several Chinese goddesses are similar to those of the speculated Proto-Indo-European sun goddess and the dawn goddess, implying influence from them through trade routes in Tocharian territories and therefore their worship there.

Tocharian B has a noun swāñco derived from the name of the Proto-Indo-European sun goddess, while Tocharian A has koṃ, a loanword etymologically connected to the Turkic sun goddess Gun Ana. Besides this, they might have also worshipped a lunar deity (meñ-) and an earth one (keṃ-).

Tocharian languages

Tocharian, also spelled Tokharian, is an extinct branch of the Indo-European language family. The Tocharian languages are known from manuscripts from the 6th to 8th centuries AD, which were found in oasis cities on the northern edge of the Tarim Basin (now part of Xinjiang in northwest China) and the Lop Desert.

The discovery of this language family in the early 20th century contradicted the formerly prevalent idea of an east–west division of the Indo-European language family on the centum–satem isogloss, and prompted reinvigorated study of the family.

Identifying the authors with the Tokharoi people of ancient Bactria (Tokharistan), early authors called these languages “Tocharian”. Although this identification is now generally considered mistaken, the name has remained.

The documents record two closely related languages, called Tocharian A (also East Tocharian, Agnean, or Turfanian) and Tocharian B (West Tocharian or Kuchean). The subject matter of the texts suggests that Tocharian A was more archaic and used as a Buddhist liturgical language, while Tocharian B was more actively spoken in the entire area from Turfan in the east to Tumshuq in the west.

A body of loanwords and names found in Prakrit documents from the Lop Nor basin have been dubbed Tocharian C (Kroränian). A claimed find of ten Tocharian C texts written in Kharoṣṭhī script has been discredited.

The oldest extant manuscripts in Tocharian B are now dated to the 5th or even late 4th century AD, making Tocharian a language of Late Antiquity contemporary with Gothic, Classical Armenian and Primitive Irish.

The name “Tocharian” was given to them by modern scholars, who identified their speakers with a people who inhabited Bactria from the 2nd century BC, and were known in ancient Greek sources as the Tókharoi (Latin Tochari). This identification is generally considered erroneous, but the name “Tocharian” remains the most common term for the languages and their speakers.

The Tocharian languages are known from around 7600 documents dating from about 400 to 1200 AD, found at 30 sites in the northeast Tarim area. The manuscripts are written in two distinct, but closely related, Indo-European languages, conventionally known as Tocharian A and Tocharian B.

Tocharian A (Agnean or East Tocharian) was found in the northeastern oases known to the Tocharians as Ārśi, later Agni (i.e. Chinese Yanqi; modern Karasahr) and Turpan (including Khocho or Qočo; known in Chinese as Gaochang).

Some 500 manuscripts have been studied in detail, mostly coming from Buddhist monasteries. Many authors take this to imply that Tocharian A had become a purely literary and liturgical language by the time of the manuscripts, but it may be that the surviving documents are unrepresentative.

Tocharian B (Kuchean or West Tocharian) was found at all the Tocharian A sites and also in several sites further west, including Kuchi (later Kucha). It appears to have still been in use in daily life at that time. Over 3200 manuscripts have been studied in detail.

The languages had significant differences in phonology, morphology and vocabulary, making them mutually unintelligible. Tocharian A shows innovations in the vowels and nominal inflection, whereas Tocharian B has changes in the consonants and verbal inflection. Many of the differences in vocabulary between the languages concern Buddhist concepts, which may suggest that they were associated with different Buddhist traditions.

The differences indicate that they diverged from a common ancestor between 500 and 1000 years before the earliest documents, that is, some time in the 1st millennium BC. Common Indo-European vocabulary retained in Tocharian includes words for herding, cattle, sheep, pigs, dogs, horses, textiles, farming, wheat, gold, silver, and wheeled vehicles.

Prakrit documents from 3rd century Krorän, Andir and Niya on the southeast edge of the Tarim Basin contain around 100 loanwords and 1000 proper names that cannot be traced to an Indic or Iranian source.

Thomas Burrow suggested that they come from a variety of Tocharian, dubbed Tocharian C or Kroränian, which may have been spoken by at least some of the local populace. Burrow’s theory is widely accepted, but the evidence is meagre and inconclusive, and some scholars favour alternative explanations.


The Guti or Quti, also known by the derived exonyms Gutians or Guteans, from the Zagros, a nomadic people of West Asia, around the Zagros Mountains (Modern Iran) during ancient times. that attacked the Sumerians and founded a dynasty.

Their homeland was known as Gutium (Sumerian: Gu-tu-umki or Gu-ti-umki). Little is known of the origins, material culture or language of the Guti, as contemporary sources provide few details and no artifacts have been positively identified.

Conflict between people from Gutium and the Akkadian Empire has been linked to the collapse of the empire, towards the end of the 3rd millennium BCE. The Guti subsequently overran southern Mesopotamia and formed the Gutian dynasty of Sumer. The Sumerian king list suggests that the Guti ruled over Sumer for several generations, following the fall of the Akkadian Empire.

By the 1st millennium BCE, usage of the name Gutium, by the peoples of lowland Mesopotamia, had expanded to include all of western Media, between the Zagros and the Tigris. Various tribes and places to the east and northeast were often referred to as Gutians or Gutium.

For example, Assyrian royal annals use the term Gutians in relation to populations known to have been Medes or Mannaeans. As late as the reign of Cyrus the Great of Persia, the famous general Gubaru (Gobryas) was described as the “governor of Gutium”.

As the Gutian language lacks a text corpus, apart from some proper names, its similarities to other languages are impossible to verify. The names of Gutian-Sumerian kings suggest that the language was not closely related to any languages of the region, including Sumerian, Akkadian, Hurrian, Hittite, and Elamite.

B. Henning suggested that the different endings of the king names resembled case endings in the Tocharian languages, a branch of Indo-European known from texts found in the Tarim Basin (in the northwest of modern China) dating from the 600-800 CE, making Gutian the earliest documented Indo-European language. He further suggested that they had subsequently migrated to the Tarim.

Gamkrelidze and Ivanov explored Henning’s suggestion, as possibly supporting their proposal of an Indo-European Urheimat in the Near East, to the effect that the ancestors of the Tocharians could be identified with the Gutians.

However, most scholars reject the attempt to connect two groups of languages, Gutian and Tocharian, that were separated by more than two millennia. Most scholars reject the proposed link to Gutian, a language spoken on the Iranian plateau in the 22nd century BC and known only from personal names.

However, this hypothesis would place the ancestors of the Tocharians in the “right spot”: virtually all of their Caucasoid Y-chromosome gene pool could be explained with an origin in north Iran (The Armenian Highland).

Haplogroup R1a

Haplogroup R1a probably branched off from R1* around the time of the Last Glacial Maximum (19,000 to 26,000 years before present). Little is know for certain about its place of origin. Some think it might have originated in the Balkans or around Pakistan and Northwest India, due to the greater genetic diversity found in these regions. The diversity can be explained by other factors though.

The Balkans have been subject to 5000 years of migrations from the Eurasian Steppes, each bringing new varieties of R1a. South Asia has had a much bigger population than any other parts of the world (occasionally equalled by China) for at least 10,000 years, and larger population bring about more genetic diversity.

The most likely place of origin of R1a is Central Asia or southern Russia/Siberia. The oldest identified presence of European mtDNA around Mongolia and Lake Baikal dates back to over 6,000 years ago.

R1a is thought to have been the dominant haplogroup among the northern and eastern Proto-Indo-European language speakers, that evolved into the Indo-Iranian, Thracian, Baltic and Slavic branches.

The Proto-Indo-Europeans originated in the Yamna culture (3300-2500 BCE). Their dramatic expansion was possible thanks to an early adoption of bronze weapons and the domestication of the horse in the Eurasian steppes (circa 4000-3500 BCE).

The southern Steppe culture is believed to have carried predominantly R1b (M269 and M73) lineages, while the northern forest-steppe culture would have been essentially R1a-dominant.

The migration of the R1b people to central and Western Europe left a vacuum for R1a people in the southern steppe around the time of the Catacomb culture (2800-2200 BCE).

Bronze Age Proto-Indo-Europeans

R1a is thought to have been the dominant haplogroup among the northern and eastern Proto-Indo-European tribes, who evolved into the Indo-Iranian, Thracian, Baltic and Slavic people.

The Proto-Indo-Europeans originated in the Yamna culture (3300-2500 BCE). Their dramatic expansion was possible thanks to an early adoption of bronze weapons and the domestication of the horse in the Eurasian steppes (circa 4000-3500 BCE).

Individuals from the southern part of the Steppe are believed to have carried predominantly lineages belonging to haplogroup R1b (L23 and subclades), while the people of northern forest-steppe to the north would have belonged essentially to haplogroup R1a. The first expansion of the forest-steppe people occured with the Corded Ware Culture.

The migration of the R1b people to central and Western Europe left a vacuum in the southern steppe, which was filled by the R1a-dominant tribes with the expansion of the Catacomb culture (2800-2200 BCE). The forest-steppe origin of this culture is obvious from the usage of corded pottery and the abundant use of polished battle axes, the two most prominent features of the Corded Ware culture.

This is also probably the time when the satemisation process of the Indo-European languages began, considering that the Balto-Slavic and Indo-Iranian language groups belong to the same Satem isogloss and both appear to have evolved from the the Catacomb culture.

Ancient DNA testing has confirmed the presence of haplogroup R1a-M417 in samples from the Corded Ware culture in Germany (2600 BCE), from Tocharian mummies (2000 BCE) in Northwest China, from Kurgan burials (circa 1600 BCE) from the Andronovo culture in southern Russia and southern Siberia, as well as from a variety of Iron-age sites from Russia, Siberia, Mongolia and Central Asia.

Haplogroup R1b

When R1b crossed the Caucasus in the Late Neolithic, it split into two main groups. The western one (L51) would settle the eastern and northern of the Black Sea. The eastern one (Z2103) migrated to the Don-Volga region, where horses were domesticated circa 4600 BCE. R1b probably mixed with indigenous R1a people and founded the Repin culture (3700-3300 BCE) a bit before the Yamna culture came into existence in the western Pontic Steppe.

R1b would then have migrated with horses along the Great Eurasian Steppe until the Altai mountains in East-Central Asia, where they established the Afanasevo culture (3600-2400 BCE). Afanasevo people might be the precursors of the Tocharian branch of Indo-European languages. In 2014, Clément Hollard of Strasbourg University tested three Y-DNA samples from the Afanasevo culture and all three turned out to belong to haplogroup R1b, including two to R1b-M269.

The R1b people who stayed in the Volga-Ural region were probably the initiators of the Poltavka culture (2700-2100 BCE), then became integrated into the R1a-dominant Sintashta-Petrovka culture (2100-1750 BCE) linked to the Indo-Aryan conquest of Central and South Asia.

Nowadays in Russia R1b is found at higher frequencies among ethnic minorities of the Volga-Ural region (Udmurts, Komi, Mordvins, Tatars) than among Slavic Russians. R1b is also present in many Central Asian populations, the highest percentages being observed among the Uyghurs (20%) of Xinjiang in north-west China, the Yaghnobi people of Tajikistan (32%), and the Bashkirs (47%, or 62.5% in the Abzelilovsky district) of Bashkortostan in Russia (border of Kazakhstan).

R1b-M73, found primarily in North Asia (Altai, Mongolia), Central Asia and the North Caucasus is thought to have spread during the Neolithic from the Middle East to Central and North Asia, and therefore can be considered to be pre-Indo-European.

Haplogroup R-M17

R-M17 is the most common subclade within the family of Y DNA lineages referred to as R1a or R-M420, which share in common the M420 SNP mutation, and before the discovery of M420, R-M17 was itself referred to as R1a.

Archaeologists recognize a complex of inter-related and relatively mobile cultures living on the Eurasian steppe, part of which protrudes into Europe as far west as Ukraine. These cultures from the late Neolithic and into the Iron Age, with specific traits such as Kurgan burials and horse domestication, have been associated with the dispersal of Indo-European languages across Eurasia.

Nearly all samples from Bronze and Iron Age graves in the Krasnoyarsk area in south Siberia belonged to R-M17 and appeared to represent an eastward migration from Europe.

In central Europe, Corded Ware period human remains at Eulau from which Y-DNA was extracted appear to be R-M17(xM458) (which they found most similar to the modern German R-M17* haplotype.

The modern distribution of R-M17 is distinctive. There are two widely separated areas of high frequency, one in South Asia, around India, and the other in Eastern Europe, around Poland and Ukraine. The demographic reasons for this are the subject of on-going discussion and attention among population geneticists and genetic genealogists, however, such patterns could be the combined result of (i) migrations and admixture, (ii) natural selection, and (iii) random genetic drift.

Despite deserved criticism by most archaeologists and anthropologists, even prominent historians and archaeologists have recently attempted to “marry” the evidence from the social sciences with that of genetic anthropology. Whilst the notion that genes, language and culture are co-eval is highly questionable, the link between R1a and “Indo-Europeans” remains a topic of considerable scholarly interest.

Until 2012, there was extensive scholarly debate as to the origins of haplgroup R-M17. This was a result of (i) a lack of further phylogenetic resolution of R-M17 into ‘daughter’ sub-clades and (ii) the evidently erroneous belief that measure of “STR diversity” can unambigiuosly qualify as to which population harbours the ‘oldest’ R-M17 haplogroups.

A large corpus of scholars had found that Indian, or more generally, South Asian populations, had the highest STR diversity.

On the basis of these studies, and using the Evolutionary Effective Mutation Rate, several of the above authors concluded that R-M17 has been present in South Asian populations since the Neolithic, having originated there. They further used this evidence to refute the hypothesis that R-M17 arrived with Indo-European invaders from the north.

However, the use of this mutation rate has received criticism, as it should not be used with haplogroup populations which clearly show evidence of population expansion, such as R-M17. Thus, using this mutation rate could artificially ‘blow out’ the actual age of R-M17 by as much as three-fold.

Indeed, authors using the contrary, “germline mutation rate” (which is the rate empirically observed in father-son studies) arrive at more recent age estimates. In fact, Busby et al recently argued that the use of STR diversity in calculating ‘ages’ of haplogroups is highly problematical. Other studies variously proposed Eastern European, Central Asian and even Western Asian origins for R – M17.

The decade-long debate as to which Eurasian region possessed the most diverse, hence oldest, STR values within R-M17 has been effectively put to an end with the discovery of R-M17 sub-clades. SNPs offer a clearer and more robust resolution than STRs. These findings have actually been known for a few years by genealogical companies and enthusiast genealogists, however, two academic, peer-reviewed papers were finally produced by Pamjav et al (2012, 2013). They discovered that all their tested Indian R-M17 samples belong to the Z-93 sub-clade, which is a derivative, “daughter” branch of R-M17.

In contrast, Eastern European populations belong to different daughter branches of R-M17, namely Z- 280 and M-458. The former is widely distributed over south-eastern, central-eastern and eastern Europe, and as far as Central Asia.(Pamjav 2012) Indeed, Central Asia “is an overlap zone for the R1a1-Z280 and R1a1-Z93”, being found in Mongol and Uzbek populations . On the other hand, M-458 is more geographically restricted to central-eastern Europe.

Furthermore, this study found that the undifferentiated, ‘parental’ M-198 existed in the European populations, but was not found in the Indian groups sampled (consisting of 256 Malaysian Indians, 301 Roma, 203 Dravidians from India).

Nevertheless, the authors concluded that “This pattern implies that an early differentiation zone of R1a1-M198 conceivably occurred somewhere within the Eurasian Steppes or the Middle East and Caucasus region as they lie between South Asia and Eastern Europe”, from where “South Asian’ Z-93 and “European” Z-283 sub-clades differentiated and spread in opposite directions.

There was a time, well before the Turkic population movements, when central Asia was speaking Indo-european languages. During antiquity, Indo-iranian languages were once spoken by populations from the east of Europe up to the Altai mountains of south Siberia (Scythians, Sakas and Sarmatians were such peoples) and down to south Asia.

Nevertheless, prior to this situation, another kind of Indo-european language was apparently present in Asia. The first (supposedly) Indo-european migration eastwards (from its ancestral home of Ukraine and south Russia) we find tracks of, occured right before 3,500 BC and gave birth to the Afanasevo culture (3300 to 2500 BC), whose extent was from Kazakhstan to south Siberia and Mongolia.

Shahrizor Survey Project


Anatolian Languages



Central Asia_- Tocharians

Tocharian Origins

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