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"Tocharian donors", 6th-century AD fresco from the Kizil Caves
Regions with significant populations
Tocharian languages
Buddhism and Manichaeism
Related ethnic groups
Other Indo-European peoples, Indo-Iranian peoples, Yuezhi, Kushans

The Tocharians or Tokharians (/təˈkɛəriənz/ or /təˈkɑːriənz/) were Indo-European peoples who inhabited the medieval oasis city-states on the northern edge of the Tarim Basin (modern Xinjiang, China) in ancient times.[1] 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.

These people were called "Tocharian" by late-19th century scholars who identified them with the Tókharoi described by ancient Greek sources as inhabiting Bactria. Although this identification is now generally considered mistaken, the name has become customary.

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 northwestern Indian subcontinent where they founded the Kushan Empire.


Around the beginning of the 20th century, archaeologists recovered from oases in the Tarim Basin a number of manuscripts 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.[2]

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.[3] 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.[4][5] 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.[2][6]

The two languages are known as Tocharian A (also East Tocharian or Turfanian, from the city of Turpan) and Tocharian B (also West Tocharian or Kuchean, from the city of Kucha).[2] The native name of the historical Tocharians of the 6th to 8th centuries was, according to J. P. Mallory, possibly kuśiññe "Kuchean" (Tocharian B), "of the kingdom of Kucha and Agni", and ārśi (Tocharian A); one of the Tocharian A texts has ārśi-käntwā, "In the tongue of Arsi" (ārśi is probably cognate to argenteus, i.e. "shining, brilliant"). According to Douglas Q. Adams, the Tocharians may have called themselves ākñi, meaning "borderers, marchers".

The historian Bernard Sergent has called them Arśi-Kuči, recently revised to Agni-Kuči.[7]

Early inhabitants of the Tarim Basin

The geographic area the Afanasevo culture covered

J. P. Mallory and Victor H. Mair argue that the Tocharian languages were introduced to the Tarim and Turpan basins from the Afanasevo culture to their immediate north. 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 isolate the Tocharian languages from Indo-Iranian linguistic innovations like satemization.[8][9]

Tarim mummies

The Tarim Basin mummies (1800 BC) have been found in the same general geographical area as the Tocharian texts and frescoes from the Tarim Basin (3rd to 9th centuries AD), and are both connected to an Indo-European origin and point to Caucasoid types with light eyes and hair color. However it is unknown whether the mummies and frescoes are connected.

In 2008, the remains of another male were discovered near Turpan. Thought by researchers to be a member of the Gushi culture, the man was buried with a number of practical and ceremonial objects, including archery equipment and a harp, and 789 grams of cannabis. Through genetic analysis and carbon dating, the burial has been dated to roughly 700 BC. Only two of the 500 graves at the site contain cannabis, leading researchers to suggest shamanic roles for the two individuals.

In 2009, the remains of 30 individuals found at the Xiaohe Tomb complex were analyzed for Y-DNA and mtDNA markers. They suggest that an admixed population of both western and eastern origin lived in the Tarim basin since the early Bronze Age. The Xiaohe people maternal lineages were predominantly East Asian haplogroup C with smaller numbers of H and K, while the paternal lines were all West Eurasian R1a1a (R-M420). The geographic location of this admixing is unknown, although south Siberia is likely.[10]


The Historical Records by the Western Han historian Sima Qian describe a people called the Yuezhi who lived between the Qilian Mountains and Dunhuang, until they were driven out by the Xiongnu in the 2nd century BC. The majority (the Greater Yuezhi) are said to have moved west and conquered Bactria (Chinese: 大夏 Dàxià), while a smaller group (the Lesser Yuezhi) took refuge in the "Southern Mountains".[11]

The Greater Yuezhi are often identified with the Tókharoi mentioned by the Greek historians,[4] and believed to be the predecessors of the Kushans, who in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD built an empire in northern India and Central Asia which under Kanishka stretched from Turfan in the Tarim Basin to Pataliputra on the Gangetic Plain. A minority of scholars also connect them to the Tocharians.[12] Based on comparison of names used by ancient authors, Christopher Beckwith has argued that these people were originally Tocharian-speakers who switched to the local Iranian language on entering the region. He claims that the first character of their name, , usually read as Old Chinese *ŋʷjat > Mod. yuè,[13] could have been pronounced in an archaic northwestern dialect as *tokwar or *togwar, a form that resembles the Bactrian name Toχοαρ (Toχwar ~ Tuχwar) and the medieval form Toχar ~ Toχâr.[5][14]


Wooden plate with inscriptions in the Tocharian language. Kucha, China, 5th–8th century. Tokyo National Museum.

The Tocharians appear to have originally spoken two distinct languages of the Indo-European Tocharian family, an Eastern ("A") form and a Western ("B") form. According to some, only the Eastern ("A") form can be properly called "Tocharian", as the native name for the Western form is referred to as Kuchean. Tocharian shares commonalities with all other Indo-European languages, which does not help in identifying a next neighbor. However, nearly all lexicostatistical studies put it as next neighbor to Hittite, with which it e.g. shares the absence of palatalization, common among regional neighbors such as Indic and Iranian.

Tocharian A of the eastern regions seems to have declined in use as a popular language or mother tongue faster than did Tocharian B of the west, where it was more insulated from outside linguistic influences.[15] It appears that Tocharian A ultimately became a Buddhist liturgical language, no longer a living one, at the same time that Tocharian B was still widely spoken in daily life. Among the Buddhist monasteries of the lands inhabited by Tocharian B speakers, Tocharian A seems to have been used in ritual alongside the Tocharian B of daily life.[16]

Historic role

The Tocharians, living along the Silk Road, had contacts with the Chinese, the Persians, the Indians and Turkic tribes. They adopted Buddhism, which, like their alphabet, came from northern India in the 1st century of the 1st millennium, through the proselytism of Kushan monks. The Kushans and the Tocharians seem to have played a part in the Silk Road transmission of Buddhism to China.[17]

Protected by the Taklamakan Desert from steppe nomads, elements of Tocharian culture survived until the 7th century, when the arrival of Turkic immigrants from the collapsing Uyghur Khaganate of modern-day Mongolia began to absorb the Tocharians to form the modern-day Uyghur ethnic group during the Islamicisation and Turkicisation of Xinjiang.[18]

See also


  1. Mallory 1997, p. 590-594
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Tocharian Online: Series Introduction, Todd B. Krause and Jonathan Slocum, University of Texas as Austin.
  3. "Most of the Scythians, beginning from the Caspian Sea, are called Dahae Scythae, and those situated more towards the east Massagetae and Sacae; the rest have the common appellation of Scythians, but each separate tribe has its peculiar name. 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 Iaxartes, opposite the Sacae and Sogdiani" (Strabo, 11-8-2)
  4. 4.0 4.1 Mallory & Mair (2000), pp. 270–297.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Beckwith, Christopher (2009). Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Asia from the Bronze Age to the Present. Princeton University Press. pp. 380–383. ISBN 978-0-691-15034-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Mallory, J.P.; Adams, Douglas Q., eds. (1997). Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. London: Fitzroy Dearborn. p. 509. ISBN 978-1-884964-98-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Sergent, Bernard (2005) [1995]. Les Indo-Européens: Histoire, langues, mythes (2nd ed.). Payot. pp. 113–117.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Mallory & Mair (2000), pp. 260, 294–296, 314–318.
  9. Anthony, David W. (2007). The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. pp. 264–265. ISBN 978-0-691-05887-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Li, Chunxiang. "Evidence that a West-East admixed population lived in the Tarim Basin as early as the early Bronze Age". BMC Biology. Retrieved 17 February 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Shiji Original text: 始月氏居敦煌、祁連閒,及為匈奴所敗,乃遠去,過宛,西擊大夏而臣之,遂都媯水北,為王庭。其餘小眾不能去者,保南山羌,號小月氏。 Translation: "The Yüeh-chih originally lived in the area between the Ch'i-lien or Heavenly Mountains and Tun-huang, but after they were defeated by the Hsiung-nu they moved far away to the west, beyond Ta-yüan, where they attacked and conquered the people of Ta-hsia and set up the court of their king on the northern bank of the Kuei River. A small number of their people who were unable to make the journey west sought refuge among the Ch'iang barbarians in the Southern Mountains, where they are known as the Lesser Yüeh-chih." —Burton Watson (trans.), Records of the Grand Historian of China: The age of Emperor Wu, 140 to circa 100 B.C. Columbia University Press, 1961, p. 268.
  12. John E. Hill (2009). Through the Jade Gate to Rome. Booksurge Publishing. p. 311. ISBN 1-4392-2134-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Baxter, William H. (1992). A Handbook of Old Chinese Phonology. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. p. 806. ISBN 978-3-11-012324-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Hitch, Doug (2010). "Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present" (PDF). Journal of the American Oriental Society. 130 (4): 654–658. He equates the Tokharians with the Yuezhi, and the Wusun with the Asvins, as if these are established facts, and refers to his arguments in appendix B. But these identifications remain controversial, rather than established, for most scholars.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Winter, Werner. 1998. "Tocharian." In Ramat, Anna Giacalone and Paolo Ramat (eds). The Indo-European languages, 154–168. London: Routledge.
  16. Kim, Ronald (2012). "Introduction to Tocharian" (PDF). p. 30.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. "Virtual Art Exhibit – The Tarim Basin". University of Washington. Retrieved 2012-02-13.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. "The mystery of China's celtic mummies". The Independent. August 28, 2006. Retrieved 2008-06-28.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Books and magazines

Note: Recent discoveries have rendered obsolete some of René Grousset's classic The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia, published in 1939, which, however, still provides a broad background against which to assess more modern detailed studies.

  • Baldi, Philip. 1983. An Introduction to the Indo-European Languages. Carbondale. Southern Illinois University Press.
  • Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. 1999. The Mummies of Ürümchi. London. Pan Books.
  • Beekes, Robert. 1995. Comparative Indo-European Linguistics: An Introduction. Philadelphia. John Benjamins.
  • Hemphill, Brian E. and J.P. Mallory. 2004. "Horse-mounted invaders from the Russo-Kazakh steppe or agricultural colonists from Western Central Asia? A craniometric investigation of the Bronze Age settlement of Xinjiang" in American Journal of Physical Anthropology vol. 125 pp 199ff.
  • Lane, George S. 1966. "On the Interrelationship of the Tocharian Dialects," in Ancient Indo-European Dialects, eds. Henrik Birnbaum and Jaan Puhvel. Berkeley. University of California Press.
  • Mallory, J. P. (1997). Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 1884964982. Retrieved January 2, 2016.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Mallory, J. P.; Mair, Victor H. (2000). "The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West". London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-05101-1. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Walter, Mariko Namba 1998 Tocharian Buddhism in Kucha: Buddhism of Indo-European Centum Speakers in Chinese Turkestan before the 10th Century C.E. Sino-Platonic Papers No. 85. October, 1998.
  • Xu, Wenkan 1995 "The Discovery of the Xinjiang Mummies and Studies of the Origin of the Tocharians" The Journal of Indo-European Studies, Vol. 23, Number 3 & 4, Fall/Winter 1995, pp. 357–369.
  • Xu, Wenkan 1996 "The Tokharians and Buddhism" In: Studies in Central and East Asian Religions 9, pp. 1–17. [1]

External links