The Tocharian Trek: PIE and migration across Eurasia

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In recent weeks and months, Language Log has been quite active in discussions on Tocharian and its relationship to other members of Indo-European.  Today's post takes a different approach from this post made just yesterday and many earlier posts.

"Europe's ancient languages shed light on a great migration and weather vocabulary"

by Ali Jones, Horizon: The EU Research & Innovation Magazine (8/15/23)

Painstaking archaeological exploration is a familiar, often widely admired, method of unearthing history. Less celebrated, but also invaluable, is the piecing together of fragments of ancient languages and analyzing how they changed over thousands of years.

Historical linguists have reconstructed a common ancestral tongue for most of the languages spoken today in Europe and South Asia. English, German, Greek, Hindi and Urdu—among others in the Indo-European family of languages—can all trace their origins to a single spoken one named Proto-Indo-European (PIE).

The Horizon article also reports on the light being shed upon weather terminology in the daughter languages of PIE through another EU-funded project called IE CLIMATE, but the main thrust of the article in on the movement of Tocharian from Europe to the Tarim Basin in Central Asia.

Linguistic ripples

The language is believed to have been spoken from roughly 4,500 BC to 2,500 BC. No written traces remain.

The people who spoke PIE probably lived in an area that is now eastern Ukraine. As groups broke away over the centuries to migrate across the continent, daughter languages stretched from Ireland to the Indian Ocean.

Yet the pattern included a notable exception: a now-extinct branch of the Indo-European language family made its way from Europe more than 4,000 kilometers eastward to end up at the Tarim Basin in northwest China.

Learning how and when these people, known as the Tocharians, undertook the odyssey are the goals of an EU-funded research project.

"It gives us a fascinating insight about how far people could migrate and what sort of risks and hardships they were actually prepared to expose themselves to," said Professor Michaël Peyrot of the Center for Linguistics at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.

Peyrot coordinates the European project, which is called TheTocharianTrek and is due to end in December 2023 after almost six years.

The research is helping to pin down where the Tocharians were located in the period between 3,500 BC, when they may have left their ancestral home, and their first written history in 400 AD.

In sum, the initiative is mapping the migration route from the PIE homeland all the way to China.

Through the journey, the Tocharians brought their dialect of PIE into contact with people speaking different languages. This influenced and changed the way the Tocharians spoke until finally their recorded languages evolved.

Archaeological and suggests that the Tocharians first moved to southern Siberia.

Peyrot and his research colleagues have sought to provide a linguistic assessment of this route. Their work reveals that, indeed, some of the quirkiest features of the language fit very well with tongues spoken in southern Siberia.

"Languages preserve precious information about their prehistory through the effects of language contact," said Peyrot. "Observing the effects of language contact, such as borrowed words, enables us to draw conclusions about the proximity of the speakers of and at which point in time the contact took place."

As an example of a borrowed word, he cited a term for sword in a language strand known as Tocharian B: "kertte" was taken from "karta" in Old Iranian.

The research team has concluded that the Tocharians arrived in the Tarim Basin in around 1,000 BC—later than was previously thought.

As result, their window of influence in the Tarim Basin has narrowed and the Tocharians are being assigned a more muted role in the prehistory of the area than they have traditionally been given.

Instead, the project has found a strengthened role for Iranian languages and peoples in the area, especially Khotanese, its relative Tumshuqese and Niya Prakrit. All influenced Tocharian.

There's no doubt that Iranian peoples were moving into the Tarim Basin during the first millennium BC.  We know that from archeological, physical anthropological, cultural, and other types of evidence, so these findings of the European project are not the least bit surprising.  On the other hand, we also know that there were Europoid groups in the Tarim Basin from the early part of the second millennium BC whose archeological, physical anthropological, and cultural attributes — differing from the Iranian groups coming into the Tarim Basin during the first millennium BC — are not taken into account by The Tocharian Trek project.  As I have maintained throughout my research in the Tarim Basin from the early 90s and up to the present day, the most parsimonious explanation for the palpable existence of those second millennium inhabitants of Eastern Central Asia (ECA) — taking into account the abundant evidence of all types concerning them — is that they were the Tocharians or some closely related ancestral group.

Selected readings


[thanks to Hiroshi Kumamoto]


  1. David Marjanović said,

    August 21, 2023 @ 10:21 am

    the most parsimonious explanation for the palpable existence of those second millennium inhabitants of Eastern Central Asia (ECA) — taking into account the abundant evidence of all types concerning them — is that they were the Tocharians or some closely related ancestral group.

    As in the previous thread, I would like to draw attention to this open-access paper on the genetics (in archeological context of course) of the Tarim and Dzuungar basins throughout the last 5000 years. Its relevance here is to show that Tocharians or some closely related ancestral group arrived in the general area pretty early, a thousand years before (Indo-)Iranians, but they were never the whole story.

  2. Wally said,

    August 21, 2023 @ 2:40 pm

    Are there any estimates for the population size of these groups at that time.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    August 21, 2023 @ 10:02 pm

    @David Marjanović:

    Thank you very much for the reference to the paper by Vikas Kumar, Wenjun Wang, Jie Zhang, Yongqiang Wang, […] and Qiaofu Mei +21 others in Science, vol. 376, no. 6588 (3/31/22), pp. 62-69 titled "Bronze and Iron Age population movements underlie Xinjiang population history" ( In terms of its understanding of the totality of the archeological, genetic, linguistic, and other evidence, it is superior to the paper by Fan Zhang, Christina Warinner, and Yingqiu Cui + 30 others in Nature, 599, pages 256–261 (2021) titled "The genomic origins of the Bronze Age Tarim Basin mummies" ( Published more than a decade earlier and only dealing with mtDNA, but still valuable is "Mitochondrial DNA analysis of human remains from the Yuansha site in Xinjiang, China, by Gao ShiZhu, Cui YinQiu, Yang YiDai, Duan RanHui, Idelisi Abuduresule, Victor H. Mair, Zhu Hong, & Zhou Hui, published in several places and in slightly different versions, e.g., Science in China Series C: Life Sciences volume 51 (2008), pp. 205-213 (


    Small River cemetery no. 5 (early 2nd millennium BC), a necropolis in the northeast quadrant of the Tarim Basin, had hundreds of burials.

    See: Mair, Victor H. “The Rediscovery and Complete Excavation of Ördek’s Necropolis.” Journal of Indo-European Studies 34 (2006):273–318.

    Archeological surveys of Bronze Age sites in the same quadrant of the Tarim Basin, especially around the ancient city of Loulan (Kroraina) identified hundreds of 2nd millennium sites, each with cemeteries bearing scores or more burials,

    See also "Silk Road Symposium: The Northern Cemetery: Epigone or Progenitor of Small River Cemetery No. 5?", lecture by Victor H. Mair, University of Pennsylvania Museum (3/19/11).

    During the 1st millennium BC (Bronze Age / Iron Age), when iranian peoples flooded into the Tarim Basin and surrounding areas, there were hundreds of cemeteries, some of vast scope, and each with scores or hundreds of burials.

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