The dissemination of iron and the spread of languages

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This incredibly fine NHK documentary on "The Iron Road" will only be available online until November 8.  Since I do not know whether and in what form it will be available after November 8, I'm including it here only as a link embedded in the title.  If anyone discovers that, after November 8, it might be available on YouTube, Vimeo, or other easily accessible platform, I would be very grateful.  In any event, if you are interested in the history and transmission of ferrous metallurgy across Eurasia, together with its cultural and political impact, as well as Hittite and Scythian art, architecture, and language, and what came before the Silk Road, I strongly urge you to view this video by November 8.  This is one of the best Eurasian archeology documentaries that I have ever seen.

Here's the summary of the 50 minute film provided by the producers:

Before the Silk Road, another route carried iron eastward from Western Asia to Japan. Recent discoveries along its path are shedding light on ancient civilizations once shrouded in mystery. With special access to archeological sites, and featuring exquisite, highly sophisticated artifacts, this program highlights iron's role in shaping history. This metal was forged into awesome weapons of war. But it also promoted peace and commerce by revolutionizing the way we travel and grow our food.

In our many discussions on the spread of languages across Eurasia, the question often arises how the word for a cultural artifact or concept can be transmitted across long distances when we cannot document cultural continuity from starting point A to ending point B, even though the cultural phenomenon (and sometimes the word associated with it) at point A and point B are uncannily similar in shape, meaning, and sound.  What distinguishes the research presented in this documentary is the way that it accounts for what happened when and where in the intervening stages between the point of origin and the point of furthest arrival.

In tracing the impact of the spread of iron across Eurasia, the film focuses on weapons, horse equipage (especially the bit), and agricultural implements.  In all three of these areas of human endeavor, iron revolutionized the way people interacted and carried out their affairs.

Let us take the short sword, the akinakes, as a concrete example:

The acinaces, also spelled akinakes (Greek ἀκῑνάκης) or akinaka (unattested Old Persian *akīnakah, Sogdian kynʼk) is a type of dagger or short sword used mainly in the first millennium BC in the eastern Mediterranean region, especially by the Medes, Scythians and Persians, then by the Greeks.

The acinaces is of Scythian origin, but was made famous by the Persians, and rapidly spread throughout the ancient world. The Romans believed this weapon originated with the Medes.


Through its highly distinctive features, the akinakes can be traced all the way from Crimea to Japan.  The main carriers of this short sword were the Scythians, who play the central role in this documentary.  This is particularly interesting for those of us who have recently been following the research of Christopher Beckwith on the centrality of Scythian modes of thought in first millennium BC Eurasia (see "Selected readings" below).  This documentary on The Iron Road provides powerful support for the overall thrust of Beckwith's thesis.

C. Scott Littleton, who was heavily influenced by the theories of Georges Dumézil and the co-author (with Linda Malcor) of the extraordinary From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail, referred to such distinctive weaponry found in far-flung places as "epi-Scythian".

The documentary, in magisterial manner, presents the origins of iron production and utilization among the Hittites, and pays due attention to Hittite language (the oldest Indo-European tongue) and script.

Japanese, Russian, Turkish, and Mongolian archeologists contributed to this magnificent documentary, which I recommend to one and all with great enthusiasm.  I have barely begun to touch upon its many riches.

Just as the new technology of iron — closely associated with the Hittites and Scythians (Iranians) — transformed human life and society during the second and first millennia BC so did bronze technology — closely associated with Iranians and Tocharians — transform human life and society during the third and second millennia BC.  I touched upon this phenomenon in the ancillary materials for my translations of the Tao Te Ching: The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way (1990) and The Art of War: Sun Zi's Military Methods (2009).



A dictionary of Tocharian B by Douglas Q. Adams (Leiden Studies in Indo-European 10), xxxiv, 830 pp., Rodopi: Amsterdam – Atlanta, 1999. [The k̂ of that book is called ḱ here.]

A second, much enlarged, edition (964 pp.) has appeared in print and on-line in 2013.

ārkwi (adj.) ‘white’
[m: ārkwi, -, -//-, -, arkwinäṃ] [f: arkwañña, -, arkwaññai//arkwina, -, -] /// āst=arkwina ‘white bones’ (28b3), tseñān=arkwina meñ[äṃ] ‘blue and white moons’ (73a4), /// [yaik]ormeṃ arkwīna pīrat ṣa[māni] [arkwīna = BHS śuklāṃ] (299a4), se laiko ārkwi yamaṣäṃ ‘this bath makes [one] white’ (W-11a5). ∎TchA ārki and B ārkwi reflect PTch *ārkw(ä)i (for the relationship of –k– vs. –kw– one should compare A kip and B kwipe ‘shame’), a derivative of PIE *h2erǵ– ‘bright, white.’ This root always appears suffixed, inter alia, by –i [: Hittite harkis ‘white,’ and further suffixed or compounded in Greek argikéraunos ‘with bright, vivid lightning,’ árgillos ~ árgīlos (< *arginlo-?) ‘white clay, potter's earth,’ arginóeis ‘bright-shining, white,’ etc.], –ro– [: Greek argós (< *argrós) ‘white; swift,’ Sanskrit ṛjrá– ‘brilliant’], or –u [always further suffixed, as in Greek árguros (m.) ‘silver,’ Sanskrit árjuna– ‘light, white’]. We also find *-ṇt-o– in a derivative early specialized in the meaning ‘silver,’ *h2(e)rǵṇto– (nt.) [: with full-grade in Latin argentum, Yezdi āl-ī, Khotanese āljsata, zero-grade in Avestan ərəzatəm, Ossetic ärzätbronze,’ indeterminate as to grade Old Persian ardata, Old Irish airget, and Middle Welsh ariant, and perhaps in Armenian arcat` (if –at` is by contamination with erkat` ‘iron’) (P:64; MA:518)] (Mallory and Huld, 1984). PTch *ārkwi must reflect in some fashion PIE *h2erǵ-u(i)-n-. It appears that PIE *-u– and *-wi– normally fall together after a velar and before another consonant. We have -KwäCC- but -KwiCV- for both. Starting from *h2erǵ-u-i-n– makes it easier to account for masculine accusative singular (extended also to the nominative) ārkwi, if from *h2erǵuyenṃ (the alternative *h2erǵwenṃ should have given *ārś). Likewise *h2erǵ-u-i-n– makes it easier to account for the plural forms seen in TchA, m. nom. ārkyañc, f. nom./acc. ārkyant. They would be from a *h2erǵu-yon-t-. This etymology goes back in embryo to Meillet and Lévi (1911:149) (see also VW:167). See also arkwiññe, arkwaññaṣṣe, arśakärśa, and ñkante.


Selected readings


[Thanks to Chau Wu]


  1. Chris Button said,

    November 6, 2020 @ 6:53 am

    This reminds me of our discussion about 鐵 *ɬə́c "iron" (and its counterpart 錫 *ɬác "tin") and its possible association with Balto-Slavic *geleź-/*gelēź- "iron".

  2. slz said,

    November 6, 2020 @ 2:36 pm

    Hi Professor Mair, it is possible to download the video to local disk with the Python tool youtube-dl: .

    As a side note, youtube-dl's code repository on Github was taken down by a DMCA notice from the RIAA, prompting much internet uproar, and also causing many copies of the repository to spring up all over the internet in yet another instance of the Streisand effect.

  3. david said,

    November 6, 2020 @ 2:40 pm

    Very nice video, thank you Victor!

    Interestingly, the Altai region is also where the Denisovan hominid DNA was discovered. And there was once an Altaic language classification that has gone out of favor.

  4. cameron said,

    November 6, 2020 @ 4:33 pm

    In David W. Anthony's book The Horse the Wheel and Language there is much discussion of archaeological evidence concerning an early iron industry that flourished in the foothills of the southern Ural Mountains. I was mildly surprised those sites weren't mentioned.

    They spent a bit too much time on the goofy battle reenactments, but otherwise it was a well-done film.

  5. KevinM said,

    November 6, 2020 @ 7:22 pm

    Endlessly fascinating. Thank you for this.
    @cameron agree re the battles, but the reenactors riding horses with no saddles or stirrups were awesome.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    November 15, 2020 @ 8:05 pm

    Episode 185: The Anvil and Forge That Created the Modern World
    Historically Thinking

    Tags: Asian History, Central Asia, History of Europe, World History
    November 11 , 2020

    Podcast: Download (Duration: 1:07:44 — 93.1MB)

    For generations, both Asians and Europeans have thought of the Silk Road has been thought of as a highway connecting east to west. But what if both Asians and Europeans have gotten the whole point of the Silk Road wrong. What if instead of connecting the two important ends of Eurasia by bridging the empty central bit, the whole point of the Silk Road was that it was really a network that connected the heart of Eurasia to its distant peripheries. And what if it was thanks to the influences that filtered down that network of roads, the societies at the peripheries were transformed over a period of millennia, with certain eras seeing very rapid changes indeed—particularly from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century

    My guest today is Pamela Crossley, the Charles and Elfriede Collis Professor of History at Dartmouth College, where she specializes in the quing empire and modern Chinese history. Her most recent book is Hammer and Anvil: Nomad Rulers at the Forge of the Modern World, published in 2019; and it is the focus of our conversation today.

    For Further Investigation

    Akhilesh Pillalamarri, “The Epic Story of How the Turks Migrated From Central Asia to Turkey: How did modern Anatolia come to be occupied by the Turks? The historical story may surprise you.” The Diplomat (June 5, 2016)

    Peter Golden, “The Turkic Peoples: A Historic Sketch

    Global and Eurasian History: A research and reading guide created by the Rutgers University Libraries

    Sino-Platonic Papers: who can resist a website with such an intriguing title?

  7. Victor Mair said,

    November 15, 2020 @ 8:22 pm

    First two paragraphs of a long article.

    > The Silk Road
    > Jul 6, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald
    > The Term "Silk Road"
    > "Silk Road", in Chinese sichou zhi lu 絲綢之路, or short silu 絲路, is a designation for the ancient trade routes between China, Central Asia, India, and the Levant. The term was coined by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833-1905), who used it (in German "Seidenstraße") in his five-volume book on the geography and geology of China, China: Ergebnisse eigner Reisen und darauf gegründeter Studien (Berlin: Reimer, 1877-1912).
    > The Silk Road itself was first investigated by Albert Herrmann (1886-1945), author of Die alten Seidenstraßen zwischen China und Syrien: Beiträge zur alten Geographie Asiens (Berlin: Weidmann, 1910), Die Verkehrswege zwischen China, Indien und Rom um 100 nach Chr. Geburt (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1922), Marco Polo: Am Hofe der Großkhans. Reisen in Hochasien und China (Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1924), and Lou-lan: China, Indien und Rom im Lichte der Ausgrabungen am Lobnor (Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1931)….

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