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Tarim Basin Timeline

This timeline is intended to give an idea of the relationships, temporal and spatial, between the various archaeological finds and the manuscripts or language evidence in the Tarim Basin area. The Tarim Basin is in the Uyghur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang), now a part of China. The emphasis here is on Indo-European languages, especially the Tocharian languages, polytheistic religions and farming, not so much on non-Indo-European languages and monotheistic religions. I have tried to group together events related to particular cultures so that the rise and fall of kingdoms may be seen.

Modern jade pendant in similar style to ancient Chinese jade The history of the Tarim Basin has been very controversial because of nationalistic motives and also because of a tendency for people to leap to conclusions about what can be known or reasonably inferred from the various sorts of evidence.

(Tarim) means in the Tarim Basin or very nearby, such as the surrounding mountains
(outside) means outside the Tarim Basin
“site” usually refers to places where mummies have been found desiccated or frozen.
BCE = Before Common Era, CE = Common Era

    Archaeological Cultures (outside Tarim Basin)
  • 3000/3500 to 2500 BCE, Afanasievo culture, north of Tarim
    • 2500, Minusinsk basin, 4 wheeled ox cart, stone stelae
  • 2300 to 1700, BMAC culture = Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex, from Merv to Balkh, Central Asia bronze age
  • 2200 BCE, Guti and Tukri tribes from Zagros mountains, ruled Sumerians for 100 years with King Gudea as first king, texts in Old Akkadian cuneiform, (Iran)
  • 2000-900 BCE, Andronovo culture, tin bronze, chariots, horse gear, nomads/cereals, Urals to Yenisei River, and in Dzungarian (Jungghar) basin
  • mid 2nd mill, Qiemu’erqieke site, in Dzungarian basin, stone stelae
    Tarim Basin
  • 2000, humans first appear in Tarim basin
  • 2nd to 1st mill BCE, jade found in Khotan and Yarkand, in Tarim, traded to Chinese
  • 2000 to 1st century BCE, Tarim Mummies of the Loulan or Qäwrighul culture
    • 2000-1500 BCE, Qäwrighul (Gumugou) site, “Beauty of Loulan” wheat, sheep, string skirt, basketry, wool weaving, no ceramics
    • 1800-1500 BCE, Xiaohe (Small River) site
    • Northern Cemetery site, cattle, goats and sheep, wheat
  • (1370, Egtved girl with string skirt found in Denmark, tree ring dated)
  • c.1300 BCE, horse chariots, tin bronze to China; horses into Tarim, possibly from Andronovo culture (very uncertain, and controversial in China)
  • 1261-1041 BCE “Yanghai mummy”, Yanghai tombs near Flaming Mts. east of Turfan (date very uncertain)
  • 1200-700 BCE, Cherchen or Chärchän site, Zaghunluq cemetery, with head and hoof burial (Tarim)
  • 1100-500 BCE, Yanbulaq cemetery with 29 mummies of which 21 are Mongoloid. These are the earliest Mongoloid mummies found in Tarim
  • 900-500 BCE, Shambabay/Xiangbaobao site (Scythians), eastern side of Pamir mountains
  • 800-550 BCE, Qizilchoqa site near Hami (town), plaid twill, horse and carts (n.e. part of Turfan basin, near Tarim)
  • 700 BCE, Gushi tribes, around Turfan and at Jiaohe town (modern Yarkhoto)
    • c. 700 BCE, “Yanghai Shaman” mummy, with harp, bridles, marijuana
    • c. 60 BCE, Gushi area fell to Chinese, called Jushi, later Uyghur, Kyrgyz
    • 13th cent CE, Jiaohe town destroyed by Genghis Khan, abandoned
    Saka and Scythian are often used interchangeably, however Saka is a particular language in the Indo-Iranian language group, whereas Scythian eventually is applied to any mounted archers and may refer to cultural groups speaking various languages.
  • 8th-3rd BCE, Saka, a large group of tribes, Danube to Yenisei River (outside)
  • 8th-3rd BCE, Scythian art style, animals locked in combat (no language)
  • 8th-1st BCE, Tagar of Minusinsk culture, Saka (north of Tarim)
  • 700 to 4th BCE, Subeshi site, with pointed hats (near Turfan, near Tarim)
  • 550-250 BCE, Saka cemetery at Zhongyangchang in Tian Shan
  • c. 516 BCE, Darius I at Persepolis, inscriptions refer to Sakas, with bas reliefs
    • 513, Darius chases Scythians out of the Danube region.
  • 500 BCE, Kurgan burials (outside)
    • c. 300 BCE, Pazyryk site (Scythian) at Ili River in Kazakhstan
  • c. 440 BCE, Scythians described in Herodotus’ Histories, with language
  • 5th BCE to 4th CE, Sarmatian culture, Scythians (around Caspian Sea) [fuggle26]
  • 331 BCE, Alexander the Great, blew through Afghanistan, India, Egypt; development of satraps (outside)
  • 250-125 BCE, Bactrian or Kushan language along Silk Road (Afghanistan)
  • 247 BCE to 226 CE, Parthian Kingdom (Arsacid, outside)
  • 268-239 BCE, Ashoka, Maurya dynasty in India, benefactor of Buddhism (outside)
  • 206 BCE to 220 CE, Han Chinese dynasty
  • 1st BCE, Great Wall of China (begun in the east 700 BCE, with continuing repair) eventually ending near Lop Nur, Dunhuang (near Tarim)
    In Tarim Basin
  • 2nd BCE to 5th CE, Wusun, Indo-European horse nomads, in Tarim basin
  • 2nd/1st BCE, Xiongnu nomads (possibly = Huns?) into Tarim
    • 1st CE, Xiongnu pushed out of Tarim
  • 2nd BCE to 3rd CE, Sampul cemetery at Khotan (Tarim)
    Kushans, west of Tarim Basin
  • 176-160 BCE, Kushan = Guishang = Greater Yuezhi tribes speaking Indo-European (Tocharian?) driven west by Xiongnu from Tarim
    • Greater Yuezhi migrate to Ili River
    • Lesser Yuezhi remain in northern Tarim, move up into northern mountains, speaking Tocharian B
  • 126 BCE, Zhang Qian, a Chinese envoy, returned with travel reports on Yuezhi (Tarim)
  • 124 BCE, Tochari fought with Parthians, overran them
  • 100 BCE, Kushan Buddhists, Buddhist temple at Fayez Tepe, (Uzbekistan)
    • 3rd cent CE, temple later destroyed by Sassanians
  • c. 24 BCE, Strabo names Skythai, Tokharoi, Sakai tribes (outside)
    Common Era (CE) begins
  • 1st to 3rd centuries CE, Kushan Kings, with Greek, Zoroastrian, Buddhist, Indian deities, (at Gandhara, outside)
  • 127 CE, King Kaniska adopts Bactrian/Kushan as official language, Bactria called Tocharistan
  • 2nd CE, Kushan Kings in Gandhara, expand to India
    • Buddhist texts in prakrit (Gandhara dialect) and Kharosthi script in Gandhara and Tarim
    • Kushans possibly back to Tarim
  • 170 CE, Lokaksema, a Kushan Buddhist monk, translated Buddhist texts to Chinese
  • 230-375 CE, Kushan Kings (called Saka Kings) in Indus valley (conflict with Jains in India)
  • 220 CE, end of Han Chinese dynasty in Tarim
  • 224-651 CE, Sassanian empire (651, Arabs conquer Persia) (outside)
  • 3rd-4th CE, Niya site, village, cemetery and Buddhist temples, Kharosthi Prakrit (Gandhara dialect) on wooden tablets (Tarim)
    Tocharian languages, Tarim basin
  • 300 CE, Tocharian C names in Prakrit context, at Kröran/Loulan (town)
    • 330 CE, Tarim River shifts south, desolating Loulan town
  • 400-1200 CE, Tocharian B at Kucha, Turfan, Karashahr and Korla (towns), and also in Tocharian A area; spoken, administrative use
    • Kizil caves, Kumtara cave with Buddhist murals of Tocharians with inscriptions
    • Some Kuchan Buddhist monks converted to Mahayana Buddhism
  • 700-1000 CE, Tocharian A at Turfan, Qarasharar/Agni, liturgical language used for translations of religious texts, by Buddhist Uyghurs
    There are no mummies specifically identified as Tocharians possibly because the Tocharians cremated their dead. Tarim mummies may be “European” looking but most cannot be identified with what language they spoke. When they can, it is usually either Saka or Sogdian, languages in the Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family.
  • 300-700 CE, Han Chinese residents at Astana, tombs of East Asians, with over 2000 manuscript fragments in Chinese, food items, Tang figures, (northeast of Tarim)
  • 395-414 CE, Fa-Hsien, a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim to India (through Tarim)
  • 629-705 CE, Empress Wu, Tang Chinese dynasty, organized Silk Road, held route open
  • 629-644 CE, Xuan Zang, a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim to India (through Tarim in 630)
  • 640’s, Chinese military campaign in Tarim Basin
  • 4th to at least 8th CE, Sogdians at Turfan, Qočo, language of merchants, Buddhism, Manicheans, Nestorian Christians, Bezeklik murals (Tarim)
  • 4th-5th, Yingpan mummy, a Sogdian merchant (Tarim)
  • 4th-10th, Khotanese Saka language at Khotan, administrative, Mahayana Buddhism with Indo-European deities (Tarim)
  • 7th and 8th, Avestan, liturgical language of Zoroastrians, fire temple at Khotan (Sassanians in Tarim)
    Khotan coin with Kharosthi inscription on one side and Chinese inscription on the other Image of coin minted at Khotan with Saka inscription and horse on one side and Chinese inscription with coin value on the other (from eBay)
  • 961-981, Karakhanid Moslems war on Buddhists at Khotan, Kashgar and Yarkand; cities destroyed. Khotanese Saka language falls out of use and probably Tocharian too
  • 5th century, “White Huns” to India (outside)
  • 5th century, collapse of Rome, but Silk Road still goes to Byzantium (outside)
  • 678, Tibetans capture Silk Road, reopened about 699, Old Tibetan Annals mention city of Kucha by 687. Tibetan Buddhist manuscripts at Dunhuang
  • 704-787, Hyecho, a Korean Buddhist pilgrim to India (Qarasharar/Agni in Tarim)
  • 842 CE, Uyghurs, speaking a Turkish language, enter Tarim basin after destruction of their kingdom in Kazakhstan; Old Uyghur language used for Book of Omens, Manichaeanism, Buddhism
  • 842-c. 1200, Uyghurs rule Tarim and Dzungaria basins, period of peace
  • 9th-10th, Uyghurs in Bezeklik Buddhist Caves with murals, near Turfan
  • 10th century, Tocharians gradually absorbed by the Uyghurs
  • c. 1200, Uyghurs became administrators for Mongol empire
  • c. 1500, Uyghur conversion to Islam
  • 973-1048, Al-Biruni, report on Armenians, Bactrians, Hindus (Afghanistan, India)
  • 1206-1360, Mongol Age, stability along Silk Road, probably because everyone was dead
  • 1206, Genghis Khan destroyed Silk Road
  • 1207-1210, Uyghurs acquiesce to Mongol rule probably, in Tarim basin, civil servants for Mongols, using Uyghur script
  • 1215, Genghis Khan sacked Beijing
    • 1195-1235, population in northern China declines from 50 million to 8.5 million over 30 years according to censuses
  • 1220, Mongols annihilated populations of Samarkand, Bukhara, Urgench and the Khwaresmian empire (Silk Road)
  • 1271-1368, Kublai Khan to China, begins Yuan dynasty
  • 1271-1295, Marco Polo traveling to China, (1271-1275 at court of Kublai Khan)
  • 1323, Mongols converted to Islam
  • 1370-1405, Timur/Tamerlane, (“new Mongol Empire”)
    Turkish/Mongolian forces massacred 17 million people (Silk Road)
  • 1453, Constantinople fell to Ottoman Turks (gunpowder), Silk Road failed completely; Europeans shifted to sea routes

The Dunhuang fortress and nearby Mogao Caves are outside the Tarim Basin, a bit to the east in the Gansu/Kansu corridor, but they are very important because, in 1900, a library of thousands of manuscripts was discovered there with many languages and texts from the Tarim Basin area. See the IDP International Dunhuang Project in References.

Current situation: The Tarim basin is part of the larger Xinjiang region, also known as Chinese Turkestan or Uyghurstan. It came under Chinese control in 1884 under the Manchu dynasty. Currently the Chinese government follows a policy of destruction of the culture and identity of the Uyghurs, who are Muslims speaking a language related to Turkish. The government of China has pursued a resettlement policy so that the population of Xinjiang has been shifted from 90%Uyghur/10%Chinese to 50% Uyghur/50%Chinese in the past few decades. The Chinese government has methodically destroyed the ancient cities of the Uyghurs. Unrest in the Uyghur homeland is met with denial and violent suppression. The Chinese government has also refused to make information about the Tarim mummies available to archaeologists and other researchers possibly because of embarrassment that wheels and bronze were introduced to China from the West, although this is still being argued.

Ancient Buddhist Scrolls from Gandhara, the British Library Kharoṣṭhī Fragments, by Richard Salomon, University of Washington, Press, Seattle, 1999.
• “Ancient Human Settlements in Xinjiang and the Early Silk Road Trade” (monograph), Jan Romgard, No 185, Nov. 2008, retrieved 6/6/2016, from the Sino-Platonic Papers which are mostly published for free on the internet, see list of publications at http://sino-platonic.org/
Archaeology in the USSR by Alexander Mongait, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1959.
• “Bronze Age Languages of the Tarim Basin” (article) by J. P. Mallory, University of Pennsylvania Museum, Expeditions, Vol. 52, No. 3, pp. 44-53, November, 2010.
Emperor Wu Zhao and Her Pantheon of Devis, Divinities, and Dynastic Mothers by Norman H. Rothschild, Columbia University Press, 2015.
Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans: A Reconstruction and Historical Analysis of a Proto-Language and a Proto-Culture by Thomas V. Gamkrelidze and Vjaceslav V. Ivanov, (Trends in Linguistics: Studies and Monographs 80, 2 Vol. Set), with Werner Winter, ed., and Johanna Nichols, translator (original title Indoevropeiskii iazyk i indoevropeistsy), M. De Gruyter, Berlin & NY, 1995. Lists of words in Tocharian dialects A and B are published on pp. 786-791.
• The International Dunhuang Project or IDP is a project to publish the Silk Road manuscripts online, especially the massive library found at Dunhuang (Mogao Caves) but also manuscripts from other sites along the Silk Road. There are websites at a number of major institutions around the world in a variety of languages, including Chinese. The link for the IDP at the British Library is at http://idp.bl.uk/, which has the interface in English. This website gives links to IDP sites in other languages
• “The Mummies of East Central Asia” (article) by Victor H. Mair, University of Pennsylvania Museum, Expeditions, Vol. 52, No. 3, pp. 23-32, November, 2010.
The Mummies of Ürümchi by Elizabeth Wayland Barber, W. W. Norton & Co., New York and London, 1999.
• “Tocharians, Who They Were, Where They Came From and Where They Lived”, by Václav Blažek and Michal Schwarz, Lingua Posnaniensis, Number 50, pp. 47-74, 2008. Retrieved June 10, 2016, from http://www.safarmer.com/Indo-Eurasian/Tocharians2009.pdf

© 2016, last updated 2/6/2018, piereligion.org/tarimtl.html

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