Prospecting for archaeological Tocharians

The Problem of Tocharian Origins: An Archaeological Perspective

J. P. Mallory
Sino-Platonic Papers 259 (November, 2015)

This study explores the problem of Tocharian origins in a series of stages, beginning with the archaeological identification of the historical Tocharians, the immediate antecedents of the historical Tocharians, the potential for identifying a source for the Tocharian languages outside the Tarim Basin, and, finally, how proposed external origins might accommodate some of the various models of Indo-European expansion. The material culture that may be assigned to the proto-Tocharians on the basis of lexical-cultural analysis is also evaluated against the archaeological record of Xinjiang and adjacent regions.


[…] Unlike the Saka, the Tocharians do not have closely related siblings outside the Tarim Basin. We lack the type of anchors (both linguistic and archaeological) that we can employ to position the immediate ancestors of the Saka. Second, we do not even possess an effective Tocharian archaeology within the Tarim Basin itself. The people who left us Tocharian documents had assimilated their native culture to urbanism and Buddhism and, while they are depicted in glorious detail on the walls of cave shrines, they are portrayed either as Buddhist monks in Indian dress or as warriors in Sassanian clothing. We can tell that they were Europoids in the physical sense but little more. Determining the origins of the Tocharians on the basis of such evidence is a little like trying to discern the origins of the Japanese from the images depicted on their baseball cards.