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The Tocharians were an Indo-European people who inhabited the Tarim basin in what is now Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, northwestern People's Republic of China from the 1st millennium BCE to the end of the 1st millennium CE.



The Tarim mummies suggest that precursors of these easternmost speakers of an Indo-European language may have lived in the region of the Tarim Basin from around 1800 BCE until finally they were assimilated by Uighur Turks in the 8th century CE.

Missing image
"Tocharian donors", possibly the "Knights with Long Swords" of Chinese accounts, depicted with light hair and light eye color anddressed in Sassanian style. 6th century CE fresco, Qizil, Tarim Basin. Graphical analysis reveals that the third donor from left is performing a Buddhist vitarka mudra. These frescoes are associated with annotations in Tocharian and Sanskrit made by their painters.

There is evidence both from the mummies and Chinese writings that some of them had blond or red hair and blue eyes, characteristics also found in present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Central Asia, due to the populations' high genetic diversity. (The high frequency of blonds in Europe today is due to selection, with Finns having the highest; though in ancient times, it seems the Thracians were commonly regarded as the original blonde race.) This suggests the possibility that they were part of an early Indo-European migration that ended in what is now the Tarim Basin in western China. According to a controversial theory, early invasions by Turkic speakers may have pushed Tocharian speakers out of the Tarim Basin and into modern Afghanistan, India, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

The Tarim Basin mummies (1800 BCE) and the Tocharian texts and frescoes from the Tarim Basin (800 CE) have been found in the same general geographical area, and are both connected to an Indo-European origin. The mummies and the frescoes both point to Caucasian types with light eyes and hair color. There is no evidence that directly connects them however, as no texts were recovered from the grave sites.

A recent article (Hemphill and Mallory, 2004) reaches the following conclusions.

"This study confirms the assertion of Han ([1998]) that the occupants of Alwighul and Krorän are not derived from proto-European steppe populations, but share closest affinities with Eastern Mediterranean populations. Further, the results demonstrate that such Eastern Mediterraneans may also be found at the urban centers of the Oxus civilization located in the north Bactrian oasis to the west. Affinities are especially close between Krorän, the latest of the Xinjiang samples, and Sapalli, the earliest of the Bactrian samples, while Alwighul and later samples from Bactria exhibit more distant phenetic affinities. This pattern may reflect a possible major shift in interregional contacts in Central Asia in the early centuries of the second millennium B.C."

However, another theory states that the earliest Bronze Age settlers of the Tarim and Turpan basins originated from the steppelands and highlands immediately north of East Central Asia. These colonists were related to the Afanasievo culture which exploited both open steppelands and upland environments employing a mixed agricultural economy. The Afanasievo culture formed the eastern linguistic periphery of the Indo-European continuum of languages whose centre of expansion lay much farther to the west, north of the Black and Caspian seas. This periphery was ancestral to the historical Tocharian languages. See: (J. P. Mallory and Victor H. Mair, The Tarim Mummies - 2000 Thames and Hudson Ltd ISBN 0-500-05101-1)

Textile analysis has shown some similarities to the Iron Age civilizations of Europe dating from 800BC, including woven twill and tartan patterns strikingly similar to Celtic tartans from Northwest Europe. One of the unusual finds with one of the mummies was a classical "witch's hat", worn by the witches of European myth, suggesting very ancient Indo-European roots for this tradition. Similar hats were traditionally worn by women of Lapland, and perhaps coincidentally, the Mi'kmaw people of Atlantic Canada. Tocharian women also wore the same kind of skirts as have been found preserved in graves from the Nordic Bronze Age. Pointed hats were also worn in ancient times by Saka (Scythians),and shown on Hindu temples and Hittite reliefs.


Main article: Tocharian languages

The Tocharians spoke a group of Indo-European languages called the Tocharian languages, also sometimes referred to as Kuchean. Their nearest linguistic relative appears to be Hittite, used in Asia minor from ca. 1600 BC to 1100 BC.

Besides the religious Tocharian texts, the texts include monastery correspondence and accounts, commercial documents, caravan permits, medical and magical texts. Their late manuscript fragments, of the 7th and 8th centuries, suggest that they were no longer either as nomadic or as barbaric as the Chinese had considered them.

Historic role

Blue-eyed  (Tocharian?) and East-Asian Buddhist monks, Bezaklik, Eastern , 9th-10th century.
Blue-eyed Central Asian (Tocharian?) and East-Asian Buddhist monks, Bezaklik, Eastern Tarim Basin, 9th-10th century.

The Tocharians, living along the Silk Road, had contacts with the Chinese and Persians, and Turkic, Indian and Iranian tribes. They may have been the same as, or were related to, the Indo-European Yuezhi who fled from their settlements in the eastern Tarim Basin under attacks from the Xiongnu in the 2nd century BCE (Shiji Chinese historical Chronicals, Chap. 123) and expanded south to Bactria and northern India to form the Kushan Empire.

The Tocharians who remained in the Tarim Bassin adopted Buddhism, which, like their alphabet, came from northern India in the first 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. Many apparently also practised some variant of Manichaeanism.

Protected by the Taklamakan desert from steppe nomads, the Tocharian culture survived past the 7th century. The Kingdom of Khotan was one of the centers of this ancient civilization.


The term Tocharians has a somewhat complicated history. It is based on the ethnonym Tokharoi (Greek Τόχαροι) used by Greek historians (viz. Ptolemy VI, 11, 6). These are identified with the Kushan Empire, and the term Tokharistan usually refers to 1st millennium Bactria (Chinese Daxia 大夏). Today, the term is associated with the Indo-European languages known as "Tocharian". Based on a Turkic reference to Tocharian A as twqry, these langauages were associated with the Kushan ruling class, but the exact relation of the speakers of these languages and the Kushan Tokharoi is uncertain, and some consider the "Tocharian languages" a misnomer. Tocharian A is also known as East Tocharian, or Turfanian (of the city of Turfan), and Tocharian B is also known as West Tocharian, or Kuchean (of the city of Kucha)

The term is so widely used, however, that this question is somewhat academic. Tocharians in the modern sense are, then, defined as the speakers of the Tocharian languages. These were originally nomads, and lived in today's Xinjiang (Tarim basin), known by the Chinese as the Yuezhi, first mentioned by Chinese historians in the 3rd century BCE as having been defeated and displaced by the Xiongnu. The native name of the historical Tocharians of the 6th to 8th centuries was, according to JP 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".

See also


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

  • Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. 1999. The Mummies of Ürümchi. London. Pan Books.
  • Mallory, JP and Mair, Victor H. 2000. The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West. Thames & Hudson, London. ISBN 0500051011
  • 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.
  • 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] (

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