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Copenhagen Studies in Indo-European
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Indo-European Etymological Dictionary
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. Their Tocharian languages,
a branch of the Indo-European family, are known from manuscripts from
the 6th to 8th centuries AD. 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
Agricultural communities first appeared in the oases of the northern
Tarim around 2000 BC, with the earliest
Tarim mummies dating from c.
1800 BC. Some scholars have linked them with the
Afanasevo culture of
southern Siberia (c. 3500 – 2500 BC). By the 1st 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, served as waystations along the branch
Silk Road that ran along the northern edge of the Taklamakan
desert. From the 9th century, the people of the oases intermixed with
Uyghurs of the Kingdom of
Qocho and shifted to the Old Uyghur
3 Settlement of the Tarim basin
4 Oasis states
Xiongnu and Han empire
4.2 Flourishing of the oasis states
4.3 Tang conquest and aftermath
5 See also
8 Further reading
9 External links
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
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:
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.[a] 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
Tarim Basin manuscripts and for the people who produced
The name of
Kucha in Tocharian B was Kuśi, with adjectival form
kuśiññe. The word may be derived from
"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
Main article: Tocharian languages
Fragment of a manuscript in Tocharian B
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
Tocharian A (Agnean or East Tocharian) was found in the northeastern
Karasahr (ancient Agni, Chinese Yanqi) and
Gaochang or Qocho). 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 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
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
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.
Settlement of the Tarim basin
Satellite image of the Tarim basin in winter
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
Archaeological cultures to the north and west of the Tarim basin
The necessary irrigation technology was first developed during the 3rd
millennium BC in the
Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex
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
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.
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
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 1800 BC and were found on the eastern edge of
the Tarim basin. They seem to be
Caucasoid types with light-colored
hair. 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
Yuezhi. At least some of them spoke Iranian languages, but a
minority of scholars suggest that the
Yuezhi were Tocharian
During the first 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.
Major oasis states of the ancient Tarim Basin
The first record of the oasis states is found in Chinese histories.
Book of Han
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.
Xiongnu and Han empire
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 determined to weaken
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
Protectorate of the Western Regions in 60
BC. 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 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.
Flourishing of the oasis states
Wooden tablet describing a piece of land, Kucha, 6th–7th century
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.
Book of Jin 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.
— Book of Jin, chapter 97
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.
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
Tocharian donor figures from the
Kizil Caves near Kucha, 3rd to 8th
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.
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
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. 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
Tang conquest and aftermath
See also: Tang campaign against the oasis states
Emperor Taizong's campaign against the oasis states
In the 7th century,
Emperor Taizong of Tang
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,
sending Tribute to
China and formed an alliance with the Western
Turks. They were aided by Kucha, who also stopped sending tribute. The
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
Uighur princes, Bezeklik mural
Uyghur Khaganate took control of the northern Tarim in 803. After
their capital in Mongolia was sacked by the Kirghiz 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
Tocharian language gradually disappeared as
the urban population switched to the Old Uyghur language.
Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves
^ "Most of the Scythians, beginning from the Caspian Sea, are called
Dahae Scythae, and those situated more towards the east
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)
^ a b Tocharian Online: Series Introduction Archived 2015-06-29 at the
Wayback Machine., Todd B. Krause and Jonathan Slocum, University of
Texas as Austin.
^ Mallory & Mair (2000), pp. 270–297.
^ Beckwith (2009), pp. 83–84.
^ Mallory & Adams (1997), p. 509.
^ Adams (2013), p. 198.
^ Adams (2013), pp. 2–3.
^ Adams (2013), p. 57.
^ a b Mallory (2015), pp. 6–7.
^ Winter (1998), p. 154.
^ a b Mallory (2015), p. 4.
^ Kim, Ronald (2012). "Introduction to Tocharian" (PDF).
^ a b Winter (1998), p. 155.
^ Mallory (2015), p. 7.
^ Mallory (2015), pp. 7–8.
^ Mallory (2015), pp. 17–19.
^ Mallory & Mair (2000), pp. 277–278.
^ Mallory & Mair (2000), pp. 278–279.
^ a b c Chen & Hiebert (1995), p. 247.
^ Chen & Hiebert (1995), p. 248.
^ Chen & Hiebert (1995), pp. 250–272.
^ Chen & Hiebert (1995), p. 245.
^ Mallory & Mair (2000), pp. 262, 269.
^ Mallory & Mair (2000), p. 269.
^ Mallory & Mair (2000), pp. 294–296, 317–318.
^ Mallory & Mair (2000), pp. 181–182.
^ a b Mallory & Mair (2000), p. 318.
^ John E. Hill (2009). Through the Jade Gate to Rome. Booksurge
Publishing. p. 311. ISBN 1-4392-2134-0.
^ Beckwith (2009), pp. 84, 380–383.
^ Mallory & Mair (2000), pp. 268, 318.
^ Mallory & Mair (2000), pp. 310–311, 318.
^ Mallory & Mair (2000), p. 66.
^ Millward (2007), p. 6.
^ Mallory & Mair (2000), pp. 68, 72.
^ Mallory & Adams (1997), p. 591.
^ Mallory & Mair (2000), p. 72.
^ Yü (1986), pp. 405, 407.
^ Yü (1986), p. 407.
^ Yü (1986), pp. 409–411.
^ Loewe (1979), p. 49.
^ a b Hansen (2012), p. 66.
^ Millward (2007), pp. 22–24.
^ Hansen (2012), pp. 66, 75.
^ Di Cosmo (2000), p. 398.
^ a b Millward (2007), p. 28.
^ Mallory & Mair (2000), p. 73.
^ a b Mallory & Mair (2000), p. 74.
^ Mallory & Mair (2000), p. 97.
^ Mallory & Mair (2000), p. 115.
^ Walter (1998), pp. 5–9.
^ Hansen (2012), p. 68.
^ Walter (1998), pp. 21–17.
^ Hansen (2012), pp. 61–65.
^ Millward (2007), p. 26.
^ Hansen (2012), p. 75.
^ Hansen (2012), p. 76.
^ Hansen (2012), p. 77.
^ Wechsler (1979), p. 220.
^ Wechsler (1979), p. 225.
^ Wechsler (1979), p. 226.
^ Wechsler (1979), pp. 226, 228.
^ Wechsler (1979), p. 228.
^ Hansen (2012), p. 80.
^ Mallory & Mair (2000), p. 272.
^ Mallory & Mair (2000), pp. 272–273.
^ Hansen (2012), p. 108.
^ Millward (2007), p. 48.
^ Mallory & Mair (2000), p. 101.
^ Mallory & Mair (2000), p. 273.
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Modern studies are developing a Tocharian dictionary.
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