The Turkic migration as defined in this article was the expansion of the Turkic peoples across most of Central Asia into Europe and the Middle East between the 6th and 11th centuries AD (the Early Middle Ages). Tribes less certainly identified as Turkic began their expansion centuries earlier as the predominant element of the Huns. Their prehistoric point of origin was the hypothetical Proto-Turkic region of the Far East including North China, especially Xinjiang Province and Inner Mongolia with parts of Mongolia and Siberia possibly as far west as Lake Baikal and the Altai Mountains. They may have been among the peoples of the multi-ethnic historical Saka known as early as the Greek writer Herodotus.
Certainly identified Turkic tribes were known by the 6th century and by the 10th century most of Central Asia, formerly dominated by Iranian peoples, was settled by Turkic tribes. The Seljuk Turks from the 11th century invaded Anatolia, ultimately resulting in permanent Turkic settlement there and the establishment of the nation of Turkey. Meanwhile the other Turkic tribes either ultimately formed independent nations, such as Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan or formed enclaves within other nations, such as Chuvashia. Turkics also survived on the original range as the Uyghur people in China and the Sakha Republic of Siberia, as well as in other scattered places of the Far East and Central Asia.
None of these modern nations formed in the early Middle Ages; in fact, movements of Turkic-speaking populations continued for centuries after, just as they had begun centuries before. The term "migration" applied to so many populations over so long a time period is a mere historical convenience encouraging misconception if not properly understood. It should not be conceived as a displacement of a population from one region to another; such short-term events did occur, but seldom over such distances and for such a long time. Turkic migrations in that sense were not that.
All nomads migrate on a seasonal basis sometimes over quite large distances. In most cases the Turkics merely extended their ranges into other regions at the direction of a multi-tribal hierarchy. The "Turkic empires" were not sedentary states as they are known today although such states descended from them. The imperial hierarchy simply directed the overall movements of all the member peoples and arranged for mutual defense (or aggression). To the sedentary states of the west the Turkic peoples appeared to have very large armies. The entire people on the move was the "army", which descending all at once on a small region was typically irresistible and gave the impression of a "horde." The unstructured connotations of horde are totally false. Member peoples moved into or out of the structure by inclination or as the exigencies of circumstance dictated. Thus, although some Ostrogoths fled the Huns as refugees, most were accepted into the Hunnic structure and remained on location, contributing their own cavalry.
Western historians therefore see the movements of the Turkic nomads as "waves of migration", meaning periodic displacements, a misleading concept. "Turkish migration" either by specific tribes or as a period means many things to many historians. Although certain themes recur frequently in their writings there is no standard of which themes are always to be included or over what period. This article defines a migrational period of the early Middle Ages. It covers the expansion of Turkic languages from the Far East to the vicinity of Europe.
Apparently the Xiong-nu were a number of tribes and geographic groups, not all of which were probably Turkic (considering the later mixed ethnicity). The Shi Ji mentions the Mianshu, Hunrong and Diyuan west of Long; the Yiqu, Dali, Wiezhi and Quyan north of the Qi and Liang mountains and Jing and Qi Rivers; the Forest Barbarians and Loufan north of Jin and the Eastern Barbarians and Mountain Barbarians north of Yan. Later the treatise mentions others.
The Xianyun, says the Shi Ji, move about
in search of water and pasture and have no walled cities or fixed dwellings, nor do they engage in any kind of agriculture ... in periods of crisis they take up arms and go off on plundering and marauding expeditions.
There were apparently many of the latter. At the end of the Xia Dynasty, about 1569 BC by the Shi Ji's reckoning, the Chinese founded a city, Bin, among the Rong tribe of barbarians. In 1269 the Rong and the Di forced the relocation of Bin. About 1169 the Quanyishi tribe was attacked by the Zhou Dynasty, which in 1159 forced all the barbarians into "the submissive wastes" north of the Jing and Luo Rivers. In 969 BC "King Mu attacked the Dog Rong and brought back with him four white wolves and four white deer ...." The early Turkic peoples believed that shamans could shape-shift into wolves.
In 769 Marquis Shen of the Zhou enlisted the assistance of the Dog Rong in rebelling against the emperor You. The barbarians did not then withdraw but took Jiaohuo between the Jing and Wei Rivers and from there went marauding into central China, but were driven out. In 704 the Mountain Barbarians marauded through Yan, and in 660 BC attacked the Zhou emperor Xiang in Luo. He had discarded a barbarian queen. The barbarians put another on the throne. They went on plundering until driven out in 656 BC.
Subsequently the Chinese drove out the Di and subordinated all the Xiong-nu (temporarily at least). Around 456 BC the Chinese took Dai from them. The Yiqu tribe tried building fortifications but lost them to the Chinese in this period of their expansion. Here the detail of the narrative multiplies concerning the rise of the Qin Dynasty, which is no doubt mainly historical rather than legendary. The Qin kept the Xiong-nu at bay.
The physical characteristics of populations of Turkic language speakers are roughly clustered about two poles, which might be called races depending on the classificatory scheme: eastern and western. The western, Caucasoid or Europoid look applies to Turkic peoples in or near Europe; the eastern or Mongoloid look applies to Turkic peoples of the Far East. In between; that is, Central Asia, the look is mixed.
In trying to answer such questions as what race were the Proto-Turkic speakers neither anthropometric nor genetic studies have been of much assistance to date. What few DNA analyses have been done arrive at the problem as an answer: affinity to primarily western populations in the west, eastern in the east, and a mixture on a gradient from east to west or vice versa in between. These biological circumstances suggest racial evolution over the region is earlier than can be considered in the time of the distribution of languages; i.e., the languages may have evolved among populations that were already mixed.
Concerning the cultural genesis of the Huns, the Cambridge Ancient History of China asserts: "Beginning in about the eighth century BC, throughout inner Asia horse-riding pastoral communities appeared, giving origin to warrior societies." These were part of a larger belt of "equestrian pastoral peoples" stretching from the Black Sea to Mongolia known to the Greeks as the Scythians. The Scythians on the west were Iranian, the last of the Indo-Europeans to descend in an unbroken line from the Proto-Indo-Europeans on their original range. The communities of the northern belt north of China were the Proto-Xiongnu. Their mode of life was indistinguishable from that of the other Scyths: nomadic life on horseback, temporary camps in portable yurts furnished with rugs and tapestries richly decorated with the ornate animal style. The period is dated 650-350 BC and runs contemporaneously from the middle of the Spring and Autumn Period through the Warring States Period of Chinese history.
The Warring States Period is the start of the Iron Age in China, some centuries after it began in the west. A previous transitional period, 1000 BC - 650 BC, was entirely within the Bronze Age, contemporaneously with the western Zhou Dynasty and early Spring and Autumn of China. China was expanding then but the Chinese of the northern frontier must have been encountering "aristocratic warrior elites" who were not equestrian nomads but were "increasingly more specialized pastoralists." Their metallurgy was the best of the region and was comparable to that in the west. The Bronze Age did not begin in this region until about 1500 BC, again trailing the west by several centuries, which suggests that Xiong-nu society was being transformed from an earlier non-equestrian pastoral phase by an impulse from the Scythians, who were reaching maximum eastward expansion along the Silk Route.
From about 1500 BC to 1000 BC, contemporaneously with the Shang Dynasty, a mix of pastoralism and agriculture prevailed in Central Asia, south Siberia and the northern zone on the north of China. The population were shepherds and farmers who supplemented their diet by hunting. They were beginning to use bronze weapons. The Bronze Age began about 1500 BC. Before then the northern region was sedentary, agricultural and divided into a number of Neolithic cultures deriving from the Ordos culture, which stretched back into the Palaeolithic. Racial developments are perhaps to be considered in the Ordos and language developments no later than the sedentary Neolithic. By 1500 BC both Turkic and Mongolian languages in some form of diversity or lack of it must have been in place. An archaeological culture that can be specifically labeled Xiong-nu is found over the northern range in the 650-350 period. Typical of it is the complex of elite burial structures 45 km west of Noyon Ulul in Mongolia. This high-altitude cemetery of wealthy Xiong-nu leaders contained 212 burials at 8 locations in 3 valleys connected by passes. Very likely the Xiong-nu frequented the place only to lay their chieftains to rest.
A single tomb is a burial chamber within a mound accessed by a ramp down. Over the chamber are layers of stone, soil and logs or planks. The chamber is constructed of Larex sibericus. The deceased was interred with a rich endowment of grave goods: felt or woven carpets, silk, jade, semiprecious stones from Central Asia, fine Chinese lacquered ware and gold jewelry. The weaves are those of Bactria and animal remains include those of the Bactrian camel.
Other complexes like this are scattered over the entire range from the Altai to northern China. The culture represents perhaps the empire of the Huns on the verge of westward expansion. It contradicts the myth of a few obscure tribes about to be uprooted by Chinese expansion. Here in fact is the first Turkic empire.
In material that is more certainly historical the Xiong-nu appear as a confederacy of marauding nomads against whom the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty sent an army in 215 BC. On the fall of Qin in 206 the problem resumed. They attacked Shanxi Province of the Han Dynasty in 201 BC. The Han emperor Gao Zu bought them off with jade, silk and a Chinese wife for the Shanyu, or leader. Relations with the Xiong Nu continued to be troubled and in 133 BC the Han emperor Wu Di proceeded against them with 300,000 men. Eighty-one years and fourteen expeditions later in 52 BC the southern Xiong Nu surrendered and the northern desisted from raiding.
Apparently the Xiong Nu were only biding their time. The emperor Wang Mang planned expeditions against them in 11 AD and 21 AD but they were not undertaken because China was regarded then as militarily weak. Plundering went on. One especially severe round of episodes in the early 4th century has led to the certain identification of the Xiong Nu with the Huns. Luoyang was sacked in 311; Ye in 307 and 313; Chang'an in 311.
A letter (Letter II) written in the ancient Sogdian language excavated from a Han Dynasty watchtower in 1911 identified the perpetrators of these events as the xwn, "Huns", supporting de Guignes' 1758 identification. The equivalence was not without its critics, notably Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen, who argued that xwn was a general name and could refer to anyone. More recently other evidence was noticed: Zhu Fahu, a monk, translated Sanskrit Hūṇa in the Tathāgataguhya Sūtra and the Lalitavistara as Xiongnu. Vaissière reconstructs the pronunciation as *Xiwong nuo. Moreover the Book of Wei states that the king of the Xiongnu killed the king of Sogdiana and took the country, which event is dateable to the time of the Huns, who did exactly that; in short, "... the name of the Huns is a precise referent and not generic.
Scholastic promulgation of the erroneous concept caused by this statement led to another, that there was some sort of time gap between the Huns and the Xiong-nu preventing the identification of the one with the other. When all the sources: Chinese, classical, Iranian, Armenian and other are considered, there are no unaccounted time and place requiring a sudden vanishment of the Xiong-nu and materialization of the Huns; the concept is a trick of considering only selected evidence.
The previous two errors together invite a third aetiology: if the Huns had disappeared they must have been en route from China to Europe and therefore require a reason for migration. They were perhaps driven from their homeland by the Chinese; most likely the Han Dynasty. That dynasty, however, was militarily too weak to attack the Xiong-nu by its own admission at the time the Huns would have departed; moreover, when the Huns were in central Asia the Xiong-nu were sacking Chinese cities. The Xiong-nu were never uprooted from Mongolia and north China; if they had been, they could not have recombined as the five Hu or the Ruanruan.
The Huns were not literate (according to Procopius) and left nothing linguistic with which to identify them except their names, which derive from Germanic, Iranian, Turkic, unknown and a mixture. Some, such as Ultinčur and Alpilčur, are like Turkish names ending in -čor, Pecheneg names in -tzour and Kirghiz names in -čoro. Names ending in -gur, such as Utigur and Onogur, and -gir, such as Ultingir, are like Turkish names of the same endings.
The Huns called themselves the Acatir (Greek Akatiroi, Latin Acatiri), which Wilhelm Tomaschek derived from Agac-ari, "forest men", reminiscent of the "Forest Barbarians" of the Shi-Ji. The Agaj-eri are mentioned in a 1245 AD Turko-Arabian Dictionary. The name Agac-eri occurred in later history in Anatolia and Khuzistan. Maenchen-Helfen rejects this etymology on the grounds that g is not k and there appears to be no linguistic rule to make the connection. Herodotus, however, mentions the Agathyrsi, whom Latham connects with some early Acatiri in Dacia.
Jordanes places the "most mighty race of the Acatziri, ignorant of agriculture, which lives upon its herds and upon hunting" south of the Aesti (in part Prussians). A number of sources identify the Bulgars with the Huns. Another branch were the Saviri, or Sabir people. The strongest candidate for a remnant of the speakers of the Hunnic language are the Chuvash, who are on or near the location of the Volga Bulgars.
Various peoples continued to call themselves Huns even though acting autonomously, such as the Sabir people. According to the Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, the last state to call itself Hunnic was the Caucasian Kingdom of the Huns, visited in 682 AD by an Albanian bishop. Many of these peoples were Turkic but meanwhile other coalitions leading to explicitly named Turkic empires had been forming on the original range of the Xiong-nu. Their expansion has been conventionally called the "Turkic migration" but in fact the Turkics had already been "migrating" for some centuries.
The precise date of the initial expansion from the early homeland remains unknown. The first state known as "Turk", giving its name to the many states and peoples afterwards, was that of the Göktürks (gök = 'blue' or 'celestial') in the 6th century. The head of the Ashina clan led his people from Li-jien (modern Zhelai Zhai) to the Rouran seeking inclusion in their confederacy and protection from China. His tribe comprised famed metal smiths and was granted land near a mountain quarry that looked like a helmet, from which they got their name 突厥. A century later their power had increased such that they conquered the Rouruan and set about establishing a Göktürk Empire.
The Turkic family of languages were spoken by Bulgars, Pechenegs, Cumans, Dingling, Gaoche peoples long before the Göktürk Khanate came into prominence. Many groups speaking 'Turkic' languages never adopted the name "Turk" for their own identity. Among the peoples that came under Göktürk dominance and adopted its political culture and lingua-franca, the name "Turk" wasn't always the preferred identity. In other words, there wasn't a unified movement westward by a culture under one unified ethnic identity, such as that of the Mongol conquest of Eurasia under the Chinggisid political leadership. Rather, Turkic languages – both peripheral ones like the Bulgar branch and central ones like the Oghuz and Karluk-Chagatay branches – drifted westward by autonomous movements of diverse tribes and migrating traders, soldiers and townspeople, outnumbering and assimilating non-Turkic indigenous peoples along the way, and being partly replaced by other linguistic families that have become prominent in the east, such as Mongolic languages on the Mongolian steppes, Indic languages in India, and Persian in post-Timurid Iran.
The land of the Turkic or other Altaic nomads north of Persia (later approximately coinciding with Khorasan) was vaguely named "Turan" by pre-Islamic Persians. In contrast, on their own country the Persians conferred the name "Iran", or "Land of Aryans". Also, ancient Persian national myths attribute the names of Turan and Iran to the names of mystical heroes, not unlike the Magyars' original myth which connected the birth of the Magyar and Hunnish nations to the brothers Hunor and Magor.
In a legend of Iranian folklore first alluded to in the Avesta and subsequently developed in the early Islamic-era Shahnameh, when the primordial king Thraetaona (Fereydun) had ruled for 500 years, he divided his kingdom (which encompassed the world) amongst his three sons. To the youngest he gave Iran, which lay in the middle. To another son, he gave the semitic lands that lay to the west. To his eldest son, Turya/Tuirya, he gave the lands in the north and north-east. Avestan language 'Turya'—in later Iranian languages as 'Tur'—is the stem of the word 'Turan', a semi-mythological region beyond the Jaxartes River. Through a process not reconstructable, but complete by at least the 10th century Shahnameh, these peoples—who were of various ethnic groups, to include ethnic Turks—came to be known collectively as Turks, or Turkmens. Through Persian language influence these regions eventually received a -stan suffix, thus generating both Turk-e-stan and Turkmen-i-stan.
While the Karakhanid state remained in this territory until its conquest by Genghis Khan, the Turkmen group of tribes was formed around the core of westward Oghuz. The name "Turkmen" originally simply meant "I am Turk" in the language of the diverse tribes living between the Karakhanid and Samanid states. Thus, the ethnic consciousness among some, but not all Turkic tribes as "Turkmens" in the Islamic era came long after the fall of the non-Muslim Gokturk (and Eastern and Western) Khanates. The name "Turk" in the Islamic era became an identity that grouped Islamized Turkic tribes in contradistinction to Turkic tribes that were not Muslim, such as the Nestorian Naiman (which became a major founding stock for the Muslim Kazakh nation) and Buddhist Tuvans. Thus the ethnonym "Turk" for the diverse Islamized Turkic tribes somehow served the same function as the name "Tajik" did for the diverse Iranic peoples who converted to Islam and adopted Persian as their lingua-franca. Both names first and foremost labeled Muslimness, and to a lesser extend, common language and ethnic culture. Long after the departure of the Turkmens from Transoxonia towards the Karakum and Caucasus, consciousness associated with the name "Turk" still remained, as Chagatay and Timurid period Central Asia was called "Turkestan" and the Chagatay language called "Turki", even though the people only referred to themselves as "Mughals", "Sarts", "Taranchis" and "Tajiks". This name "Turk", was not commonly used by most groups of the Kypchak branch, such as the Kazakhs, although they are closely related to the Oghuz (Turkmens) and Karluks (Karakhanids, Sarts, Uyghurs). Neither did Bulgars (Kazan Tatars, Chuvash) and non-Muslim Turkic groups (Tuvans, Yakuts, Yugurs) come close to adopting the ethnonym "Turk" in its Islamic Era sense. Among the Karakhanid period Turkmen tribes rose the Atabeg Seljuq of the Kinik tribe, whose dynasty grew into a great Islamic empire stretching from India to Anatolia.
Turkic soldiers in the army of the Abbasid caliphs emerged as the de facto rulers of much of the Muslim Middle East (apart from Syria and North Africa) from the 13th century. The Oghuz and other tribes captured and dominated various countries under the leadership of the Seljuk dynasty, and eventually captured the territories of the Abbasid dynasty and the Byzantine Empire.
Meanwhile, the Kyrgyz and Uyghurs were struggling with one another and with the Chinese Empire. The Kyrgyz people ultimately settled in the region now referred to as Kyrgyzstan. The Batu hordes conquered the Volga Bulgars in what is today Tatarstan and Kypchaks in what is now Southern Russia, following the westward sweep of the Mongols in the 13th century. Other Bulgars settled in Europe in the 7-8th centuries, but were assimilated by the Slavs, giving the name to the Bulgarians and the Slavic Bulgarian language.
It was under Seljuq suzerainty that numerous Turkmen tribes, especially those that came through the Caucasus via Azerbaijan, acquired fiefdoms (beyliks) in newly conquered areas of Anatolia, Iraq and even Levent. Thus, the ancestors of the founding stock of the modern Turkish nation were most closely related to the Oghuz Turkmen groups that settled in the Caucasus and later became the Azerbaijani nation.
By early modern times, the name "Turkestan" has several definitions: