Wednesday, January 11, 2023

New discoveries of inscriptions in Tajikistan provide clues about a mysterious language and script

About two months ago a rather significant discovery was made in the Almosi Gorge in Tajikistan as a collection of rock inscriptions were uncovered. A local inhabitant of the village came across these unfamiliar inscriptions and had informed archaeologists who then investigated duly. The original article can be read here: Discovery of inscriptions in the Almosi Gorge, Tajikistan

One of these inscriptions was written in the Greek alphabet in Bactrian. You can see the inscription here:

It reads:





Which according to the renowned Nicholas Sims-Williams is to be interpreted as "This is ... the king of kings Vima Tactu."

That is Vima Takto, one of the emperors of the Kushan empire who also was the son of Kudjula Kadphises, the one who had united the Yuezhi tribes in Bactria and thus was the founder of the Kushan dynasty and empire.

Here you have a coin showcasing Vima Takto. Just like the usage of Greek alphabet, this coin was minted in Greek style.

This inscription dedicated to Vima Takto was not the only one uncovered at Almosi Gorge. Several other inscriptions were also found, but these were not written in the Greek Alphabet. It is these inscriptions that will be the focus of this entry.

Fascinating right? Given the amount of characters the marks on them you can see that this is not a proper alphabet like the phoenician alphabets and its many children, like the Greek alphabet, but an abugida, where each character represents a consonant-vowel combination, with the consonant represented by the character itself and the vowel by a diacritic marking on the consonant character.

When this news broke out, a good friend of mine pointed out to me that the letters were very similar if not identical to the inscriptions of a cup from a Saka burial at Issyk, Kazakhstan. And my friend was right, as you can clearly see the similarities:

The Issyk inscription is not the only one of its kind, several cases of this mysterious script have turned up in Central Asia, including these examples [1]:

1. Surkh Kotal, three lines, written with black ink on a small fragment of stone.

2. Dasht-i Nawur, stone inscription, nine lines.

3. Khalchayan, one inscription on a potsherd, another on a tile.

4. Kara-tepe, three fragmentary inscriptions on potsherds.

5. Ay Khanum, inscription on a silver ingot.

6. Issîk (50 km to the east of Alma Ata), inscription on a silver cup.

7. Khatîn-Rabat (in southern Tajikistan), fragmentary inscription on a potsherd.

8. Tekkuz-tepe (in southern Tajikistan), inscription on a potsherd, unpublished.

9. Old Merv, inscription (s?) on a potsherd, unpublished.

10. Fayaz-tepe (near Termez), several inscriptions on earthenware, unpublished.

11. Kafirnigan-tepe (40 km to the south of Dushanbe), fragment of a wall inscription (?),


The Almosi Gorge inscriptions can be added to this list now as well.

The mainstream academic position is that this is an undeciphered script of an unknown language. In Russian academic circles it is referred to as the Issyk script, but in German scholarship the more neutral term Issyk-Bactrian script (Issyk-Bactrien Schrift) is utilised. 

This being considered an undeciphered script might be a bit of a surprise to some people, because if you go to the wikipedia page of the Issyk inscription you will see this interpretation prominently featured:


  1. za(ṃ)-ri ko-la(ṃ) mi(ṃ)-vaṃ vaṃ-va pa-zaṃ pa-na de-ka mi(ṃ)-ri-to ,

  2. ña-ka mi pa-zaṃ vaṃ-va va-za(ṃ)-na vaṃ.

English translation

  1. The vessel should hold wine of grapes, added cooked food, so much, to the mortal

  2. then added cooked fresh butter on

Coming from no one else than famed linguist and historian Janos Harmatta himself.

I want to mention something about Harmatta’s rendition of the Issyk inscription, as well as the others. Harmatta’s interpretation of the Issyk inscription is commonly shared because Harmatta was able to conceive it as a phrase written in Kharosthi and Khotanese “Saka”, seemingly a sensible proposition. It doesn’t help that other candidates for the interpretation of this inscription are in Turkic, whereas the scientific consensus is that these areas were entirely iranian-speaking. Not only that, Khotanese “Saka” is an east Iranian language which is obviously going to be similar to the languages spoken to the nomads in this region.

By the way I put Saka in quotations because Khotanese is unlikely to actually be a Saka language. You can read more about that in this blog entry of mine (which I am quite proud of so if you haven't read it please check it out!): Did the Saka migrate to the Tarim Basin, and founded the Kingdom of Khotan?

Harmatta was not just able to interpret the Issyk inscription as Khotanese Saka written in Kharoshti, but also the other inscriptions. Like here with the Dasht-i-Nawur inscriptions:

1. ye rva-da-ti ri a-[ja]-ti vi(m. )-ja-rka ka- [ tvi-sa] [ku]-s. a-n. A

2. mi mri pa(m. )-ra-mmi-na sta-nam. pa(m. )-ri-vam¯ . si´ -d. a va- [ ri] kam¯ . ham¯ .

3. sa gra-vam¯ . ti-rma da-bha sa-di pa ka(m. )-pi-sa(m. ) sa´ -di-ña

4. ha-mri(m. )-ja kam. - [d. ]a vam. -yi-ñam kam ¯ . -ju-vam¯ . si´ -ks. a-si dha ´ -kam.

5. jham. -sam. ka- [d. ]a ta-rma pa a-jam. nam. -vam¯ . ha-mri-ka sa-n. a si´ -jha

6. mri-kam. si kam ´ . - [ ju] -vam. mi-[sta ha ´ -ra]-[ sta]ha-mi ha-mi ha-ya-d. a ja-sta ha-sa

7. he-ko mri(m. )-ka mi ho-kam. jyom. pa-pam¯ . -sa vam¯ . -ta ham. -mi-ga-sa´ 

8. mla ka-ña e-si ham ´ . -da- [d. a ]pam. -mri pu- [d. a ] tam. -ka u-da[da-ri ja] -rmi[ ja] -sta ja.

1. Behold! [We] King of Kings, the noble, great Katvisa, the Kus. an¯ . a,

2. now, here, we order to erect the commanded text for the welfare as heroic words:

3. He [Katvisa] mounted on the mountains, [he] was able to cross the high region. He inspected Kapi ¯ sa.

4. [He] put relief to [his] advancing domestics, moved forward [his] forces,

5. fought a battle, crossed the region, pursued, captured the crushed Sanas [= Avestan Saini ¯ -], destroyed [them].

6. Graciously he rested [his] servants, he offe[red] pres[ents] to all of them. He celebrated a feast for the god

7. being devoted and gracious. Then he held feastings for the officers and the warriors altogether.

8. He ordered to engrave on the rock the favourable report [that] he removed the tax and contribution from [the sanctuary of] the supreme god. 

As amazing as that is, his opinion is not shared by most scholars however. Even in 2014 Sims-Williams and Falk had this to say on the matter [2]:

A few Kushan inscriptions are written in an undeciphered script; one can only speculate about the language which this conceals.

I respect many of Harmatta’s academic works and given that he isn't around to defend his positions anymore I don’t like saying this, but he had a tendency to sometimes be a bit too imaginative. I’ve come across enough of these cases for me to come up with the term “Harmattisms”, joining the list of Beckwithisms and Parpaloisms (although I certainly place Harmatta far above these two, Beckwith in particular).

A good example of these Harmattaisms is him being able to read a bunch of scribbles on a Srubnaya pottery as a variant of Hieroglyphic Luwian [3]:

There exist, however, some powerful arguments which definitely speak against such an assumption. First, it should be noted that the script of Sakkez only coincides with Hieroglyphic Hittite script partially, i.e. the two alphabets are not fully identical. Secondly, the text of Sakkez was not written in the Hieroglyphic Hittite (Hieroglyphic Luwian) language but in some Old Iranian dialect, apparently in the language of the Transcaucasian Scythians. These decisive facts are best explained by the assumption that the Scythians or their ancestors had already adopted the Hieroglyphic Hittite script at an earlier date and adapted it to write their own Old Iranian language. Indeed, such a theory can be verified by the Hieroglyphic inscription which were discovered on the pots of the timber grave culture of South Russia. Two of them, that of Pereyezdnaya and the one of Serko at Nikopol, can be deciphered and interpreted: they consist of 8 and 10 signs respectively. They are still written in Proto-Iranian.22 In all probability, the Proto-Iranian tribes of the Eastern European steppes adopted the Hieroglyphic Hittite script and adapted it to their language in the second half of the 2nd millennium B.C. Thus, they were able to bring with them this writing system to Transcaucasia in a further developed form which appears in Sakkez later. This hieroglyphic script was possibly used by the Scythians even later if the short hieroglyphic inscriptions of Scythian arrow-heads can really be regarded as its monuments.

Unfortunately I could not track down a copy of Harmatta’s article where he was able to figure out the Proto-Iranian nature of these scribbles. I was able to find examples of the markings, line 1 being Nikopol, Serko and line 2 being Pereyezdnaya.

Imagine retrieved from: А. А. Формозов. Сосуды срубной культуры с загадочными знаками

I don’t think I need to explain that such an interpretation is quite imaginative. It doesn’t fit the illiterate nature of bronze age Indo-Iranian tribes of the Rigveda and Avesta, nor is there any sign of continuity of these hieroglyphs from bronze age Srubnaya times into Scythian times. Not to mention that the resemblance is very limited to say the least, and that no other authors interpret these symbols in this manner.

What does this mean for the Issyk script interpretations by Harmatta? Are they entirely nonsensical? Probably not, as you will see later in this entry, but the decipherment of Harmatta requires some asterisks next to them because there are some gaps he filled with his own imagination.


Back to the inscriptions at hand, let’s have a look at the part where the first complex matter comes in, the dating of this script and the chronology of the attestations. Understanding this is rather important if we want to determine which people this script belonged to and perhaps which language it was written in. What I will do is highlight some of these inscriptions and mention the contexts they were found in, as well as the dates to which they belong.

Issyk bowl

The Issyk inscription was found in a Saka mound in southeastern Kazakhstan, part of the Issyk burial mound complex and is generally held to date between the 4-2nd century BC, but this is based on the archaeological context, the burial mound in which this bowl was uncovered.

Retrieved from: К.А. Акишев, Курган Иссык.Искусство саков Казахстана.

However it is possible that we are dealing with a layer collapse, where a younger item falls into an older layer for whatever reason. It may also be possible that this bowl was an offering made by descendants/people who viewed themselves as descendants of the person buried in the Issyk kurgan at a later period. This is not a mere hypothetical, we know that people reopened graves. Thus there is a degree of uncertainty with this burial on its own. If the uncertainty is to be ignored, then this is the oldest example of the Issyk script we have knowledge of.

The Issyk mound complex is also where the Golden man of Issyk was uncovered, which is considered one of the most spectacular archaeological finds of Kazakhstan.

Ai Khanoum

Next up we have the inscription found at Ai Khanoum. Ai Khanoum is an archaeological site of a Graeco-Bactrian city in modern day Takhar province of Afghanistan. The name of the city is unknown, although some scholars have proposed that it might have been Ostobara/Oxobara.

Ai Khanoum is of interest because it shows a layer of destruction, implying that an invading force came in and conquered the city. There was continued habitation during this period, which implies that the conquerors stayed around. In the midst of this layer there is another example of this inscription [4]:

It would be easy to blame this layer of destruction on the Yuezhi as they were the ones who ended the Graeco-Bactrian period, but the destruction/conquest archaeological layer can be relatively reliably dated to 145 BC [4], being about 15 years too early for the Yuezhi in these areas. The Saka, which had been forced southwards due to the Yuezhi migrating to the Ili valley on the other hand are a perfect culprit for this destruction.

Images of warriors on the Orlat plaques. It is likely that these warriors depicted are Kangju, but Indo-Saka coins depict similar gear being employed by the late Saka warriors.

Here too there can be a bit of an archaeological uncertainty when it comes to the objects containing the Issyk inscription, for similar reasons as for the Issyk bowl. That said, the chances of both of these examples of the Issyk script having these early dates due to layer collapsing are quite low. The appearance of this script amongst two archaeological sites which are connected to the Saka is unlikely to be a coincidence.


Another case of this script of which I was able to come across was that of Dasht-I-Nawur, found in the Ghazni province of Afghanistan. This was a multilingual edict featuring the Bactrian language written in the Greek alphabet (DN I, II), an Indic language written in Kharosthi (DN IV) and this mysterious script was featured as well (DN III, V). [6] Apparently these inscriptions do not exist anymore as they had been destroyed, which is unfortunate because these are probably the most informative examples for the purpose of deciphering this script and understanding the language they were composed in. Luckily they were recorded before the inscriptions were destroyed.

The Greek alphabet and Kharosthi forms are considered to be the same text, but written in Bactrian and Indo-Aryan. It would make sense then that the Issyk script version was also the same text.

Unfortunately this inscription is not exactly the Issyk script equivalent of the Rosetta Stone, as the inscriptions when uncovered were quite damaged, therefore some sentences are incomplete and others can be interpreted in several manners.

The Bactrian inscriptions in the Greek alphabet are the most preserved, here are images:

Harmatta interprets this as the following, and no this is not a Harmattism:

1. 6O2 0oρπ ιαιoυ ιε

[Era-year] 279, 15th [day of the month] Gorpiaios.

2. Þαoνανo Þαo ι αζ αδo

King of Kings, the noble,

3. oαζ oρκo Ooηµo Tακπ ισo

great Ooemo Takpiso,

4. κoÞανo ι µαυoζ ινιγ o ι λαδothe Kus.

an¯ . a protégé of the moon [god], the right

5. γ o ι βαγ o oζ oλαδo ειδo

cous, the Majesty had this prepared,

6. χoζ oγ αργ o αβo ζ αχφαo

he, the benefactor for the welfare.

7. Ooηµo Þαo ασo Aνδηζ o ατo

King Ooemo came both here from

8. µαλo αγ αδo ατ ηo 6ανιγ ε

Andezo and the Sanigos

9. νoµoρδανδo oδo µαλo

were destroyed by him. And here

10. φρoµαδo Aνδηζ o πoρσo

he ordered: ‘Be the tax paid by Andezo

11. βooηιo χ ιβδo αβo βαγ ανo

its own for the sanctuary

12. oδo ιαζ αδo ι χαρισ αρo αβo αµειγ o

and the warlike divinity for ever!’

13. ατo oτ ανo µoλo χoανδo

For that because he was called by them here

If you recall the interpretations of Harmatta I posted earlier, the interpretation of the Issyk script rendition is quite more detailed than the Bactrian one. Harmatta interprets this as the Issyk script rendering the most important version of this proclamation, meant for the Kushans themselves. As I don’t know any Iranian nor understand this script, I cannot comment whether his interpretation of the text being more detailed holds up.

DN III is the Issyk inscription equivalent, which you can look at here:

Figuring out the dating of this inscription was quite the puzzle. The Greek inscriptions mention the year 279 and the month Gorpiaios, which was the ancient Macedonian equivalent of August. But 279 here does not mean 279 AD, and Fussmann in his article went through great lengths deriving dates by comparing Arsacid and Seleucid calendars. What is certain is that the DN inscriptions mention Vima Kadphises, and were likely engraved a\very early into his reign. Fussmann interpreted this as 32 AD, with the reign of Kanishka starting at year 78.

Harnessing the powers of half a century of hindsight however can tell you that this is not correct. The reign of Vima Kadphises dates to roughly 113 AD, and that of his successor, the great Kanishka dates to 127 AD. The date of 279 could be in reference to the era of Eucratides I, whose exact year of rule is debated but would range in between 170 and 160 BC, which would make the year 279 range in between 110-119 AD.

Another layer of complexity is that there is some variety in terms of the Issyk script, as according to Fussman the variant utilized at Dasht-I-Nawur differs from that of the variant used at Issyk and other inscriptions. However this can be explained by evolution over time or just a lack of standardisation in terms of characters employed.

Luckily the same article by Fussman also featured images of the inscription uncovered at Surkh Kotal, in the modern day Baghlan province of Afghanistan. I think this might be the first case of this script uncovered, I am not sure however. It dates to the same year as the Dasht-I-Nawur inscription, the year 279.

The featured Almosi Gorge examples, if contemporary to the Greek inscription, would be dated to the first century AD as that was during the reign of Vima Takto, the son of the founder of the Kushan empire. These would then slightly predate the Dasht-I-Nawur inscriptions. It would be interesting to know if the differences of the Dasht-I-Nawur inscriptions compared to some of the other inscriptions were also present at the Almosi Gorge inscriptions.

With the distribution in other areas of Central Asia it seems there is somewhat of a correlation between the inscriptions and the sphere of influence of the Kushan empire, or specifically the Central Asian parts of the Kushan empire, as this script has not been found in South Asia yet. The other examples of this script all seem to date in between the first and third centuries AD.

Origins of script

Besides the mystery of who used this script, and the mystery of where it came from, is the mystery of how this script came to be. So many mysteries! 

Given the history of writing in Central Asia, the most logical interpretation is that this script has its basis in the Aramaic alphabet. This alphabet became one of the standard forms of writing during the Achaemenid empire, utilised both for administrative purposes and public inscriptions. A collection of texts written in Aramaic were found in Bactria and Sogdiana, showcasing it had a presence in those regions. You also have Aramaic being employed in several edicts by Ashoka, being employed next to Kharosthi and Brahmi scripts.

Unlike Aramaic proper, the Issyk script was an abugida, similar to contemporary scripts in South Asia. This does make me wonder if the Issyk script was based on Aramaic directly or on an intermediary which had already developed into an abugida.

The origins of Kharosthi itself are quite mysterious. Here we have an obvious derivative of Aramaic as well, in particular Aramaic used for administrative purposes rather than public inscriptions such as edicts. [7]

Despite the glaring connections, Kharoshti has quite some significant differences from Aramaic too. What is unknown is if this script developed over a longer period of time or if it was the work of one man, because Kharosthi inscriptions show up from the 3rd century BC in consistent forms.

Another point of contention is the Brahmi script. Because variants of this script are still used today I find that much of the discussion on its origins has political implications aside from historical ones and are thus a bit tainted, but it is the case that with Brahmi even an Aramaic origin is disputed. I think it is derived from Aramaic however. Just like Kharoshti, Brahmi script has no “intermediaries” and shows up fully developed from one point forwards.

Thus we possibly have three distinct scripts, all from South Asia or Central Asia. Two of these show up for sure in the 3rd century BC and not earlier, whereas the Issyk script’s appearance can range from 300-145 BC. All three scripts have a connection to Aramaic and all three are abugidas. The presence of this inscription as far north as Kazakhstan, at a date contemporary to or even slightly earlier than the Kharosthi and Brahmi script is something I do not have a solid explanation for yet. 

What makes this difficult is that in Bactria or Sogdia we have no signs of different Aramaic-derived abugidas either, and the cases of the Issyk script in the region are younger than in other areas. As mentioned earlier we do see Aramaic in both areas, but Bactria adopts the Greek alphabet early on, being introduced nearly a full century before Kharosthi and Brahmi are attested. The Sogdian alphabet based on Aramaic and/or Syriac already had an early form in the first century AD [8], attested through the Kultobe inscriptions.

Plaque with Proto-Sogdian Inscription No. 4, 1st–3rd century CE. Baked clay; H. 14 x W. 31 cm. Central State Museum of Kazakhstan, Almaty, KP 26859/1.Photograph © A. N. Podushkin.

Who does the script belong to?

Now that we have a decent overview of when and where this script was present, the speculation of who this script really belongs to can commence! Taking the history of the relevant regions and the opinions of the scholars in mind, I can present three options which I personally find the most probable.

Option #1: The Saka.

The iron age nomads of Central Asia, the Saka are one of the main candidates of being the progenitors of this script. In particular the Saka along the Tian Shan mountains and Pamir-Alay region, which I would connect to the historical Saka Haumavarga/Amyrgians (right place, right time). These nomads were on the northeastern periphery of the Achaemenid empire, which provided ample opportunity to be in contact with Aramaic, the alphabet this script was based on.

The biggest evidence for this are the Issyk and AI Khanoum artefacts which date to a period in which the Saka were involved in their respective regions. The only thing that seems to be missing is any examples of this script in the parts of Sistan or South Asia where the Saka settled, and there also is a bit of a lack of attestation of this script in archaeological sites of the Saka period.

Option #2: The Kushans

The main evidence for this is the distribution of this script having quite a correlation with the Kushan empire, with the Issyk inscription actually being the only example of this script outside the boundaries of the sphere of Kushan influence. This script has also been found in several sites with direct links to the Kushans such as Khalchayan, and edicts which were clearly erected by Kushan rulers.

The biggest pieces of evidence against it is the presence of this script at  both Issyk and Ai Khanoum, which predate the migration of the Yuezhi and are unlikely to both be cases of misdated finds. As you would expect given the distance to the Achaemenid world, this script also has not turned up yet in the archaeological record of eastern Xinjiang and Gansu, areas where the Yuezhi were present before their migration westwards. Note though that excavations during this period are severely lacking. The connection between the Kushans and this script seems limited to (southern) Central Asia, because in the South Asian parts of the Kushan empire this script also has not shown up either.

Option #3: Southern central asian Iranians

The third option is that this script belonged to one of the various southern central asian Iranian peoples such as Bactrians or Sogdians. Most of the examples come from southern central Asia, with the Issyk inscription being once again the notable exception. Southern Central Asia was also part of the Achaemenid empire, and it is here that we find direct evidence of Aramaic being utilised.

The issues with this hypothesis however is that this script only appears in southern central asia during the period of nomadic migrations, was not widely employed and the languages were mainly recorded in other alphabets, such as Greek for Bactrian and the Sogdian alphabet for Sogdian.

I guess it is clear from my writing, but given the information we currently have I would have to say that the first option, the Saka, is the most likely. It is hard to beat both the Issyk and Ai Khanoum inscriptions after all. 

However this does not mean that the second option is completely wrong as there does seem to be quite the correlation between this script and the Yuezhi-Kushan tribes. Considering that the book of Han describes the kingdom of Wusun as being inhabited by both Saka and Yuezhi tribes and that Strabo described the Yuezhi conquest of Greco-Bactria as following:

But the best known of the nomads are those who took away Bactriana from the Greeks, I mean the Asii, Pasiani, Tochari,1 and Sacarauli, who originally came from the country on the other side of the Iaxartes River that adjoins that of the Sacae and the Sogdiani and was occupied by the Sacae.

- Strabo, Geography, Book 11, chapter 8, section 2

Assuming that Sacarauli mentioned here were one of the Saka factions, it might be the case that plenty of Saka were part of the Yuezhi confederation in Central Asia. Thus it could and would make sense that some Saka groups utilised this script, which the Yuezhi then adopted. Another point is that many of the finds in Central Asia also seem to be in the earlier part of the Kushan period rather than the later one. So it is possible that this script then got phased out for the Greek alphabet employed for both Greek and Bactrian as the Yuezhi had become more entrenched into southern Central Asia. 


In the end, solving the nature of the script and the language it recorded is a bit like solving a puzzle with half of the pieces missing. It might be the case that with further archaeological excavations we find a lot more information on this script, and perhaps earlier examples.

For now though, we can assume that this script was based on Aramaic or an Aramaic-derived abugida. This script was adopted or invented by the Saka, as shown by the oldest two examples being the Issyk and Ai Khanoum inscriptions. The Yuezhi-Kushan tribes migrating into Southern Central Asia then came to employ this script as well, perhaps as a result of merging with some Saka tribes. Following this we see a wider spread of this script in southern Central Asia, often in multilingual contexts such as the Dasht-I-Nawur inscriptions, or the most recently uncovered ones at Almosi Gorge.

The script was used for several centuries, but seemingly quite sporadically. Amongst the Saka, despite the hundreds of mounds excavated during the Soviet period we only have one example really, and another at Ai Khanoum which can be tentatively linked to the Saka as well. In the context of the Kushans the script seems to be mainly utilised in the earlier phase of their empire, and only in the northern parts of the empire. Presumably because of the Kushan tribes, the people who could read this language were settled in those parts of the empire. Bactria ended up being named Tokharistan after all, after the Tokharoi (one of the Kushan tribes, not the Tocharian peoples). 

Eventually only Bactrian and Indo-Aryan languages were attested and it is generally held that the Kushans had adopted these languages due to the process of assimilation. I sure hope that the recent findings at Almosi Gorge will reinvigorate archaeologists to investigate more sites and find more examples of this script!


  1. Harmatta, J. (1994)- Languages and literature in the Kushan empire.History of civilizations of Central Asia, v. 2: The Development of sedentary and nomadic civilizations, 700 B.C. to A.D. 250

  2. Sims-Williams, N. and Falk, H. (2014) - "KUSHAN DYNASTY  ii. Inscriptions of the Kushans",  Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2014, available at

  3. Harmatta, J. (1990) - Herodotus, historian of the Cimmerians and the Scythians

  4. Rapin, C. (1992) - La Trésorerie du palais hellénistique d'Aï Khanoum. L'Apogée et la chute du royaume grec de Bactriane, Fouilles d'Aï Khanoum VIII, Mémoires de la Délégation archéologique française en Afghanistan XXXIII

  5. Martinez-Sève, L. (2018) - Ai Khanoum after 145 bc The Post-Palatial Occupation*

  6. Fussman, G. (1974) - Documents épigraphiques kouchans. In: Bulletin de l'Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient. Tome 61, 1974. pp. 1-76.DOI :

  7. Dias, M., & Miriyagalla, D. (2007) - BRAHMI SCRIPT IN RELATION TO MESOPOTAMIAN CUNEIFORM. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, 53, 91–108.

  8. Sims-Williams N. Grenet F. - The Sogdian Inscriptions from Kultobe 2006 // Shygys 2006, 1, p. 95

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Dwarves and giants of ancient Scythia

I recently came across an interesting little article about a Uyuk-Sagly culture burial which included a skeleton of a male suffering from dwarfism, pituitary dwarfism in particular. Pituitary dwarfism is caused by a deficiency in growth hormone and leads to a short stature, but generally with typical body proportions. 

For some reason the title of the article incorrectly places the individual in the early bronze age, but the article is quite clearly referring to an iron age male from the Uyuk-Sagly culture in modern day Tuva [1]:

Grave 2, in which the skeleton was discovered, was excavated in mound 12, one of the Dogehe-Baary group of mounds, situated on the high right-bank terrace of the Biy-Khem (the Bolshoy, or Big, Yenisei), 5 km upstream from its confluence with the Kaa-Khem (the Maly, or Small, Yenisei). The burial dates from the early stage of the Uyuk-Sagly culture, 6th – 4th centuries BC (Chugunov, 1998).

The article itself is quite technical so I won’t dwell too much on it, but the conclusion at the end of the article summarizes it quite nicely:

A comprehensive examination of the abnormal skeleton from an early nomadic burial associated with the UyukSagly culture (Tuva, 6th – 4th centuries BC) has made it possible to diagnose the condition as pituitary dwarfism. The sex of the individual was tentatively determined as male, although secondary sexual characteristics are quite indistinct in such a condition. The individual’s peculiarities possibly included a clumsy gait, limping, a barrel-shaped chest, scoliosis, permanent pain in the joints, and their reduced mobility. All this, along with the underdevelopment of apophyses of the upper and lower limb bones must have caused decreased mobility and, as a likely result, obesity. The cranium exhibits healed injuries, suggesting that the individual was the target of aggression. In fact, he could have died following a brain injury. His age at death, however, was no less than 45. Such a long life span for pituitary dwarfism complicated by epiphyseal dysplasia is unique even at the present level of medicine.

Various estimations of body size were provided in the article, based on the left side bones and right side bones respectively. The first value with Manouvrier's method is body length estimated for males, the second value refers to females.

Taking the averages would mean a height inbetween 124 cm and 131 cm, however it might also go up to 138.4 if we taken the largest height estimation.  Looking at his skull you can see that it is proportionate, lacking one of the common characteristics of the most prevalent form of dwarfism, achondroplasia.

Interesting to note that this male lived to at least 45 years old. Unfortunately he seemed to have been a target for violence, indicated by his injuries. The targeting of violence reminds me a bit of a Yamnaya grave which contained a disabled male who had been tortured before being killed. I can’t really be sure if the context would be similar, especially as the Sagly little person got buried in a proper barrow whereas the disabled yamnaya male did not receive such honours [2].

I wonder what his social status must’ve been within his society. One one hand he managed to live quite long, wasn't a victim of infanticide and was buried underneath a mound, which might indicate he he came from a family of higher standing. On the other hand, the article suggests he may have been a victim of repeated violence and possibly died from violence.

The giant of Edirey

On the other side of the spectrum we have a male buried in Edirey-3, an iron age burial site  near the village of Edirey, in the Karaganda region of Kazakhstan. The burial dates to roughly the 8th century BC and was part of the Tasmola culture. This male also had pituitary issues, however instead of having a deficiency he had an excessive production, leading to acromegaly, and probably gigantism as well. These two conditions are caused by the same growth hormone issues and are often conflated, but they are considered to be two different conditions. Gigantism occurs when there is an overproduction of human growth hormone during childhood leading to excessive growth in height, whereas acromegaly occurs in adulthood and refers to the excessive growth of hands, feet and the jaw.

This male stood at an imposing figure somewhere in between 200-215 cm [3], an indicator he probably had excess human growth hormone production during his childhood as well. However these heights can also be reached without having growth hormone issues at all, so it may be possible that he only suffered from acromegaly rather than both, but I find that highly unlikely. His age would have been between 30 and 45 years.

Luckily his skull was remained quite well, and when looking at his jawline you can clearly see the excessive growth [4]:

Here is his skull compared to that of a male skull from the Bidaik cemetery, being quite typical for the Tasmola culture and described as having a “fairly large size”. The difference between the two  is immediately noticeable however.

In addition, the same article also provided a detail of his grave:

I expected this giant to be buried with a giant club, or at least an akinakes adjusted to his size. However the burial goods only contain some arrowheads, a knife which must’ve looked absolutely tiny in his hands,  and a large bronze mirror. Perhaps he was more of a gentle giant?


The talented crew of AncestralWhispers recently made a reconstruction of the Edirey Giant, this can give you a view of what this giant may have looked like.

I might as well also highlight another one of their recent reconstructions, a reconstruction of a male from the Uyuk-Sagly culture, the same culture the shorter of the two gentlemen I presented belonged to.

If you enjoyed this post you might find these two older posts of mine interesting:


  1. Aristova, E.S., Chikisheva, T.A., Seidman, A.M. et al. Pituitary dwarfism in an early bronze age individual from tuva. Archeol.Ethnol. Anthropol. Eurasia 27, 139–147 (2006).

  2. Murphy, E., & Khokhlov, A. (2016). Biocultural Analysis of the Prehistoric Populations of the Volga Region. In D. Anthony, D. Brown, A. Khokhlov, P. Kuznetsov, & O. Mochalov (Eds.), A Bronze Age Landscape in the Russian Steppes: The Samara Valley Project. 

(pp. 149-216). Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, UCLA.

  1. Beisenov, A. - Археолого-антропологические данные из могильника Едирей-3. Караганда, 2007 (Archaeological and anthropological data from the Edirei-3 burial ground. Karaganda, 2007)

  2. Beisenov A.Z., Ismagulova A.O., Kitov E.P., Kitova A.O. Население Центрального Казахстана в I тыс. до н.э. Алматы. (The population of Central Kazakhstan in the 1st millennium BC Almaty. 2015.) Page 44