Sunday, 14 August 2011
The Tocharians - Indo-Europeans of the East
The Tocharians were an Indo-European people and the easternmost branch of Indo-European culture. Despite their eventual location in the Tarim Basin of Xinjiang province in western China, their cultural and linguistic links to Central and Northern Europe are stronger than to the neighbouring Indo-Iranians, a parallel branch of Indo-Europeans who dominated the Eurasian steppes until the Mongol and Turkic expansion of the Middle Ages. Around the same time, in the 9th century, the Tarim Basin was overrun by Uyghur Turks, who destroyed the Tocharian people and assimilated their remnants.
The Tocharians are frequently associated with a series of mummies discovered in the Tarim Basin, which date from 1900 BCE to 200 CE. Physical anthropologists propose the movement of at least two Europoid physical types and associate these types with the Tocharian and Iranian (Saka) branches of the Indo-European language family, respectively.
It is the Afanasevo culture to which Mallory & Mair trace the earliest Bronze Age settlers of the Tarim and Turpan basins. The Afanasevo culture (c. 3500-2500 BCE) displays cultural and genetic connections with the Indo-European-associated cultures of the Eurasian Steppe yet predates the specifically Indo-Iranian-associated Andronovo culture (c. 2000-900 BCE) enough to isolate the Tocharian languages from Indo-Iranian linguistic innovations like satemisation. Within this culture, over 90% of the Bronze Age period mtDNA haplogroups and Y-DNA haplogroups were of European origin and a study determined that at least 60% of the individuals overall (out of the 26 Bronze and Iron Age human remains' samples of the study that could be tested) had light hair and blue or green eyes.
The Roman historian Pliny the Elder reports a curious description of the Seres (in the territories of northwestern China) made by an embassy from Taprobane (Ceylon) to Emperor Claudius, saying that they "exceeded the ordinary human height, had flaxen hair, and blue eyes, and made an uncouth sort of noise by way of talking", suggesting they may be referring to the ancient Indo-European populations of the Tarim Basin.
The new finds are also forcing a reexamination of old Chinese books that describe historical or legendary figures of great height, with deep-set blue or green eyes, long noses, full beards, and red or blond hair. Scholars have traditionally scoffed at these accounts, but it now seems that they may be accurate.