Indo-Europeans on the Silk Road

by Edward Pegler on 10 September, 2010

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?

Chariot Petroglyph from upper Tibet

Chariot petroglyphs from Changthang, Upper Tibet, of unknown date, but likely before 300 BC and probably second millennium BC on artistic grounds. .

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.

Occurences of Indo-European languages and steppe cultures in Central Asia

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 ā€“ 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 ā€“ 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, (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.)

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Neeraj July 13, 2011 at 4:02 pm

Your comment about silk road and indo-europeans seems very plausible…
probably even before trading with china, I was thinking that indo-iranians pastoral nomads might have been involved in land-based trade between indus valley and mesopotamia.( much before 1500 bc…may be since beginning of 3100 bc..when these civilizations started taking shape). That’s how they have close acquaintance with these civilization, and that’s how they eventually ( after 1500 b.c.) culturally could have dominant influence in these regions. ( pastoral nomads from periphery takes over the civilization and culturally dominate them…this pattern repeats again and again).
It also seems the case that most of the language families with wide geographic spread have originated in pastoral nomad cultures…( indo-european, semitic, nilosaharan, turkic). As warrior, tradesman, and producers of raw products ( meat, wool, )…pastoral nomads seems to have interacted with the civilization centers often..and eventually dominated some of the civilizations.

Thus in place of pastoral nomads coming out of blue from some unknown territories with warrior horses and chariots….the alternate explanation would be pastoral nomads were the people in the periphery of civilization who used wagons ( chariots) for trade/ migration…they were from the similar mileu as that of the civilizations..just in periphery…and closely interacted with the civilization centers..and at some point taken over some of these civilization centers, culturally intermingling with it, and partly dominating it.

what do you think?


Edward Pegler July 16, 2011 at 6:40 pm

Dear N

Sorry to have taken a while to get back to you. I’ve been away a few days. Anyway…

Yes. What you say seems very coherent. I agree that nomadism was probably an important early trade method. I wrote a some stuff on it ages ago but never published it (maybe I’ll get back to it). Nomads, although generally an antisocial bunch, do exchange with civilisations and carry portable wealth which can be exchanged at the other end of their range. If such nomads operated along the silk road in stretches where agriculture was impossible (perhaps before irrigation) then they may have had a significant role to play in any trade before, say, 3500BC. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were involved in the export of lapis from afghanistan.

The language problem is interesting, and I was intrigued to see what you had to say about it. When it comes to nomads, even when they invade civilisations historically they have rarely left a linguistic legacy (e.g. Mongols in China, Goths in Roman Empire, Persians in India), generally taking up the language of the civilisation that they invaded. Much the most effective method of linguistic dominance before book-learning was to swamp the population, either through large scale migration, disease (e.g. English in north America) or, perhaps, massacre. I suspect that the Turks in Anatolia did just that, either through the spread of plague in existing populations or through slaughter, although this is beyond detailed history. I find it difficult to understand otherwise how they would have replaced the existing Greek or Indo-European languages existing there.

The Mitanni chariot language was an elite language and could have been introduced to the civilisations of Mesopotamia and southern Anatolia by a small dominant nomad elite, as you argue.

This next part is more speculative and I may change my mind. To me, Persian in southern Iran and Vedic in India were either indigenous already by say 2000 BC or were introduced by large scale migration and disease. I struggle to see how a small elite force of ‘aryans’ could have had such a profound linguistic effect otherwise.

Let me know your thoughts in return



John Vincent Bellezza February 11, 2011 at 4:18 pm

No problem, glad you like the image. The above is my actual email. I don’t use the one in my site because it is flooded with spam. Just relaunching site now, so hopefully when people such as yourself want to contact me, they will be able.



Edward Pegler February 11, 2011 at 5:32 pm

Dear John

Thankyou. I’ve updated the link to your August Newsletter so it should go to the right page version now.



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