Why are so many Indo-European languages strung out along the Silk Road? Did it have something to do with chariots but not so much to do with the steppe?
Turkish, the language of modern Turkey, is part of the Turkic language family, a group of related languages spread extensively across central Asia all the way to north-eastern Siberia. Turkish itself is part of a particular branch of the family known as Oghuz. This branch is concentrated in a belt which extends east from Turkey through northern Iran around the bottom of the Caspian sea, into Turkmenistan and on to Uzbekistan.
Turkic people are first recorded in the far east, mentioned in Chinese records from the first millennium AD. Historically, Turks are known to have been nomadic peoples who extended their territories westward into Turkey during that same millennium, famously winning the battle of Manzikert in 1071 which gave them dominance in Anatolia.
What can be seen from the distribution of the Oghuz branch is that the future inhabitants of Turkey are likely to have arrived in Anatolia by travelling along the Silk Road. Indeed, as the high-speed route from east to west it would have been a good route to choose.
Indo-Iranian and the Silk road
An interesting comparison can be made with the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family. It’s languages are distributed today from India through Pakistan and Afghanistan to Iran, and north into Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Historically, the language branch is known to be present in Iran as far back as the second millennium BC and in India to at least the first millennium BC. Interestingly, there is also a small legacy of this branch in Mitannian charioteering and religious terms of south-eastern Anatolia, occurring in writings of the second millennium BC.
What seems surprising to me is that most Indo-European linguists seem to assume that the Indo-Iranian branch of Indo-European came from the migration of peoples from the European steppe, to the north of the Silk Road.
An often cited reason for this is the distribution of historical Indo-Iranian languages, as they extend north of the Black Sea and around the Caspian Sea. However, Scythian, the main northern Indo-Iranian dialect, is – on linguistic grounds – thought to have been derived from the south-east, perhaps in northern Iran. So this may not be good evidence for such a model.
An alternative interpretation therefore is that Indo-Iranian languages spread initially along the Silk Road between Anatolia and Uzbekistan at some time in or before the second millennium BC. Scythian-related languages may then have spread north into the Steppe from this homeland.
Indo-European and the Silk Road
But that’s not the end of the Silk Road connections for Indo-European languages. At one end of the Silk Road, on the Anatolian plain, is what many linguists consider the most primitive branch of the Indo-European language family – Anatolian, which includes Hittite.
More interesting still is that quite near the other end of the Silk Road, in the Taklamakan Desert, is the written evidence of another primitive Indo-European branch, Tocharian, dating to the first millennium AD.
Tocharian has long been associated with the Afanesievo culture of the second millenium BC, in the steppe to the North. However, why a culture in one place and time should be associated with a language group in a different place and time has never been satisfactorily explained to me. As Tocharian lies on the Silk Road, the Silk Road association seems stronger.
Going further east to the end of the Silk Road in China there are loan words in Chinese from a Tocharian family language, again emphasising the Silk Road as the connecting element. Curiously, like Hurrian in Anatolia, those loan words are often related to charioteering terms.*
Indo-Europeans moving where?
Now I don’t really want to get into Indo-European stuff as it seems like a way to fill your life without any reward. But I have to get this off my chest, then I can go back to thinking about other stuff… like pointlessly sorting out the artwork on my iPod, say. But…
Indo-European languages have conventionally been taken by many academics to have spread from the eastern European steppe eastward into central Asia and then down, into Iran, into India and into China. However, it seems strangely obvious to me that the Silk Road must surely have something to do with the spread of Indo-European languages between west and east, even if that isn’t the whole story.
As for chariots, they are supposed to have come from steppe cultures such as the Sintashta culture at the end of the third millennium. But I see no reason why their chariots couldn’t have been an imported idea from the south, say the Silk Road.
What I’d be very reluctant to do is get into an argument about is which way the Indo-European languages might have spread. Did they move, as generally believed, from the west to the east, or did they move, like the Turkic languages, the other way? Perhaps, with the aid of chariots, they moved both east and west quite freely. I think the whole story has the potential to get very messy indeed.
*Lubotsky, A.1998 Tocharian Loan Words in Old Chinese: Chariots, Chariot Gear and Town Building, In: Mair, The Bronze Age and Early Iron Age peoples of Central Asia, p379-390.
Belleza, J. V. 2010 ‘Flight of the Khyung‘ August newsletter, TibetArchaeology.com (a surprising page on chariot petroglyphs from the late second or early first millennium BC in upper Tibet – John, in the unlikely event that you’re reading this I tried to e-mail you to ask for permission to use your image but your e-mail didn’t work. I hope you’ll not be too offended that I went ahead. It’s such a fine image.)