Tracking the Tocharians from Europe to China: a linguistic reconstruction


Tocharian is an extinct branch of the Indo-European language family, which includes a.o. English, Latin, Greek, Persian and Sanskrit. Tocharian was discovered in manuscripts from the Tarim Basin in Northwest China, which date from ca. 500-1000 CE. The Indo-European languages stretch from Ireland to the Sea of Bengal in one uninterrupted belt, but Tocharian, found in an isolated region of China, is a notorious exception to this geographic distribution. This project intends to find out how Tocharian ended up there.

The common ancestor of the Indo-European languages, Proto-Indo-European, can be hypothetically reconstructed and is often located in the east of present-day Ukraine. Consequently, speakers of Tocharian must have made a long trek eastward before they settled in the Tarim Basin. Archaeological and genetic evidence suggests that they first moved east to southern Siberia in the 3rd millennium BCE and then south to the Tarim Basin, where they may have arrived as early as the 2nd millennium BCE. The arrival of the Tocharians in the Tarim Basin is possibly linked to ancient corpses found there: the so-called Tarim Mummies.

The proposed project intends to provide an integrated linguistic assessment of the hypothesised migration route of the Tocharians.

If the Tocharians had already moved east to southern Siberia in the 3rd millennium BCE, this requires an early departure from the Proto-Indo-European homeland. The starting point of the migration of the Tocharians will be clarified through a systematic analysis of the affinities of Tocharian with the other Indo-European languages.

Languages preserve precious information about their prehistory through the effects of language contact. Through close scrutiny and periodisation of the different layers of contact of Tocharian and its prehistorical neighbours, we aim at reconstructing the migration route of the Tocharians from the Proto-Indo-European homeland all the way to China.


Chapter in book

  • M Peyrot, I Konczak-Nagel, L Russel-Smith(2016): The Ruins of Kocho. Traces of wooden architecture on the ancient Silk Road. pp. 127 - 134 , Berlin
  • Team Turfanforschung, J Wilkens, M Peyrot(2017): Zur lichten Heimat. Studien zu Manichäismus, Iranistik und Zentralasienkunde im Gedenken an Werner Sundermann pp. 683 - 709 , Wiesbaden
  • M Peyrot, JM Kelder, SPL de Jong, A Mouret(2017): Aspects of globalisation. Mobility, exchange and the development of multi-cultural states pp. 12 - 17 , Leiden
  • M Peyrot, BSS Hansen, A Hyllested, A Jørgensen, GJ Kroonen, JH Larsson, B Nielsen Whitehead, ThK Olander, TM Søborg(2017): Usque ad radices. Indo-European studies in honour of Birgit Anette Olsen pp. 633 - 642 , Copenhagen
  • F Dragoni(2017): Handbuch der Iranistik, Band 2 pp. 394 - 402 , Wiesbaden
  • M Peyrot, L van Beek, A Kloekhorst, G Kroonen, M Peyrot, T Pronk, M de Vaan(2018): Farnah. Indo-Iranian and Indo-European Studies in Honor of Sasha Lubotsky. Ann Arbor: Beech Stave. 270–283. pp. 270 - 283 , Ann Arbor
  • C Le Feuvre, M Peyrot, D Petit, G-J Pinault(2018): Verbal Adjectives and Participles in Indo-European Languages / Adjectifs verbaux et participes dans les langues indo-européennes pp. 327 - 341 , Bremen
  • GJ Kroonen, M Peyrot, JP Mallory, B Comrie(2018): Talking Neolithic pp. 242 - 277 , Washington DC
  • M Peyrot, O Hackstein, D Gunkel(2018): Language and meter pp. 319 - 345
  • M Peyrot(2018): Supplementary Materials to Damgaard et al. 2018, "137 ancient human genomes from across the Eurasian steppe" pp. 10 - 14
  • M Peyrot, A Kloekhorst, T Pronk(2019): The precursors of Proto-Indo-European. The Indo-Anatolian and Indo-Uralic hypotheses pp. 186 - 202 , Leiden

Scientific article

  • M Peyrot, A Semet(2016): A comparative study of the beginning of the 11th act of the Tocharian A Maitreyasamitināṭaka and the Old Uyghur Maitrisimit Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae pp. 355 - 378 ISSN: 0001-6446.
  • M Peyrot(2016): Further Sanskrit–Tocharian bilingual Udānavarga fragments Tocharian and Indo-European Studies pp. 153 - 211 ISSN: 1012-9286.
  • GJ Pinault, M Peyrot, J Wilkens(2017): Tocharian B parallels to the Supāraga-Avadāna of the Old Uyghur Daśakarmapathāvadānamālā Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae pp. 295 - 315
  • CBAS Bernard(2017): Review of: Gholami S, Farahmand A (2016) Zoroastrian Dari (Behdini) in Kerman Wekwos pp. 305 - 308
  • K Meier, M Peyrot(2017): The word for ‘honey’ in Chinese, Tocharian and Sino-Vietnamese Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft pp. 7 - 22
  • GJ Pinault, M Peyrot, J Wilkens(2017): Śāriputra and the Girl Reborn as a Dog: A Further Tocharian B Parallel to the Old Uyghur Daśakarmapathāvadānamālā Studies on the Inner Asian languages — Nairiku Ajia gengo no kenkyu pp. 15 - 31
  • M Peyrot(2018): Interrogative stems in Hittite and Tocharian Indogermanische Forschungen pp. 65 - 90
  • P de B Damgaard, N Marchi, S Rasmussen, M Peyrot, G Renaud, T Korneliussen, JV Moreno-Mayar, MW Pedersen, A Goldberg, E Usmanova, N Baimukhanov, V Loman, L Hedeager, AG Pedersen, K Nielsen, G Afanasiev, K Akmatov, A Aldashev, A Alpaslan, G Baimbetov, VI Bazaliiskii, A Beisenov, B Boldbaatar, B Boldgiv, C Dorzhu, S Ellingvag, D Erdenebaatar, R Dajani, E Dmitriev, V Evdokimov, KM Frei, A Gromov, A Goryachev, H Hakonarson, T Hegay, Z Khachatryan, R Khaskhanov, E Kitov, A Kolbina, T Kubatbek, A Kukushkin, I Kukushkin, N Lau, A Margaryan, I Merkyte, IV Mertz, VK Mertz, E Mijiddorj, V Moiseyev, G Mukhtarova, B Nurmukhanbetov, Z Orozbekova, I Panyushkina, K Pieta, V Smrčka, I Shevnina, A Logvin, K-G Sjögren, T Štolcová, K Tashbaeva, A Tkachev, T Tulegenov, D Voyakin, L Yepiskoposyan, S Undrakhbold, V Varfolomeev, A Weber, N Kradin, ME Allentoft, L Orlando, R Nielsen, M Sikora, E Heyer, K Kristiansen, E Willerslev(2018): 137 ancient human genomes from across the Eurasian steppes Nature pp. 369 - 374 ISSN: 1476-4687.
  • GJ Kroonen, G Barjamovic, M Peyrot(2018): Linguistic supplement to Damgaard et al. 2018: Early Indo-European languages, Anatolian, Tocharian and Indo-Iranian Zenodo pp. 1 - 24
  • CBAS Bernard(2018): Review of Erik Anonby, Ashraf Asadi. 2015. Bakhtiari Studies. Phonology, Text, Lexicon Abstracta Iranica pp. doc - 1
  • M Peyrot(2018): On the East Iranian genitive plural ending Indo-Iranian Journal pp. 118 - 130
  • CBAS Bernard(2018): Review of: Maryam Nourzaei, Carina Jahani, Erik Anonby, Abbas Ali Ahangar. 2015. Koroshi. A Corpus-based Grammatical Description Abstracta Iranica pp. doc - 2
  • P de Barros Damgaard, R Martiniano, J Kamm, JV Moreno-Mayar, G Kroonen, M Peyrot, G Barjamovic, S Rasmussen, C Zacho, N Baimukhanov, V Zaibert, V Merz, A Biddanda, I Merz, V Loman, V Evdokimov, E Usmanova, B Hemphill, A Seguin-Orlando, FE Yediay, I Ullah, K-G Sjögren, K Højholt Iversen, J Choin, C de la Fuente, M Ilardo, H Schroeder, V Moiseyev, A Gromov, A Polyakov, S Omura, S Yücel Senyurt, H Ahmad, C McKenzie, A Margaryan, A Hameed, A Samad, N Gul, MH Khokhar, OI Goriunova, VI Bazaliiskii, J Novembre, AW Weber, L Orlando, ME Allentoft, R Nielsen, K Kristiansen, M Sikora, AK Outram, R Durbin, E Willerslev(2018): The first horse herders and the impact of early Bronze Age steppe expansions into Asia Science pp. 1422 - 1422

Publications for the general public

  • L van Beek, A Kloekhorst, G Kroonen, M Peyrot, T Pronk, M de Vaan(2018): Farnah. Indo-Iranian and Indo-European studies in honor of Sasha Lubotsky


Project number


Main applicant

Dr. M. Peyrot

Affiliated with

Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie für Wissenschaften/Turfanforschung

Team members

Ch. B. Bernard, F. Dragoni MA, Dr. M. Peyrot