Archaeological exploration of the Pre-Islamic period of Afghanistan began in Afghanistan in earnest after World War II and proceeded until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan disrupted it in December of 1979.
Louis Dupree, the University of Pennsylvania, the Smithsonian Institute and others suggests that humans were living in ancient Afghanistan at least 50,000 years ago, and that farming communities of the country were among the earliest in the world. Artifacts typical of the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron ages were found.
Between 2000–1200 BCE, a branch of Indo-European-speaking tribes known as the Aryans began migrating into the region. They appear to have split into old Persian peoples, Nuristani, and Indian groups at an early stage, possibly between 1500 and 1000 BCE in what is today Afghanistan or much earlier as eastern remnants of the Indo-Aryans drifted much further west as with the Mitanni. The Aryans (thought to be ancestors of Pashtoons), Nuristanis, and western Indo-Aryans dominated the modern day plateau, while the Indo-Aryans ultimately headed towards the Indian subcontinent. The western Indo-Aryans stayed in Afghanistan and North Western Province of Pakistan, which is the Pashtoons. The Avesta is believed to have been composed possibly as early as 1800 BCE and written in ancient Ariana (Aryana), the earliest name of Afghanistan which indicates an early link with today's Iranian tribes to the west, or adjacent regions in Central Asia or northeastern Iran in the 6th century BCE. Due to the similarity between early Avestan and Sanskrit (and other related early Indo-European languages such as Latin and Ancient Greek), it is believed that the split between the old Persians and Indo-Aryan tribes had taken place at least by 1000 BCE. There are striking similarities between the Old Afghan language of Avestan and Sanskrit, which may support the notion that the split was contemporary with the Indo-Aryans living in Afghanistan at a very early stage. Also, the Avesta itself divides into Old and New sections and neither mention the Medes who are known to have ruled Afghanistan starting around 700 BCE. This suggests an early time-frame for the Avesta that has yet to be exactly determined as most academics believe it was written over the course of centuries if not millennia. Much of the archaeological data comes from the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC and indus Valley Civilization) that probably played a key role in early Aryanic civilization in Afghanistan.
It has also been surmised by many researchers that the Aryan prophet Zoroaster was born somewhere in ancient Aryana, possibly in the ancient city of Balkh, and the timeframe of his life literally spans millennia from as early 2000 BCE to as late as 600 BCE. Zoroastrianism spread throughout the region alongside early pagan beliefs and centuries later Buddhism.
During this early period, the Pashtuns or some of their early Aryan ancestors are believed to have originated near the vicinity of Kandahar and/or the Sulaiman Mountains and possibly begun to expand into other parts of Afghanistan. Herodotus mentions a tribe called the Pactyan as inhabiting much of what is today Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan, and it is speculated by some that these people were the ancient ancestors of the Pashtuns, although, aside from phonetic name similarities, this remains unproven. Others such as Strabo relate the existence of tribes west of the Indus as part of Ariana, whereas the east is referred to as 'India',it is somehow clear abouth the various Pashtun tribes that Strabo is referring to. Arrian's Indica also makes reference to various tribes west of the Indus who may have been ancestors of the Pashtuns. The Rig Veda makes mention of a group called the Pakhat and it is possible that either this is a reference to the ancestors of the Pashtuns or a reference to an Indo-Aryan-speaking group or some other tribe altogether. Though predominantly pagan, some Pashtuns may have adopted Buddhist and Zoroastrian traditions, whereas other eastern Afghans remained pagans not unlike their neighbors the Kafirs of Nuristan as well as the Kalash.
The Medes, a Western Persian people, arrived from what is today Kurdistan sometime around the 700s BCE and came to dominate most of ancient Afghanistan. They were an early tribe that forged the first empire on the present Iranian plateau and were rivals of the Persians whom they initially dominated in the province of Fars to the south. Median domination of Afghanistan would last until the Persians challenged and ultimately replaced them from their original base in Fars in southern Iran near ancient Elam.
The Assakenois and Aspasios of the classical writings or the Ashvakas of the Sanskrit texts are believed by numerous scholars to have been sub-sections of the ancient Kambojas in reference to their equestrian nature. See for this Dr E. Lamotte, Dr K. P. Jayswal, Dr Buddha Parkash, Dr L. M. Joshi, Dr Fauja Singh, Dr H. C. Raychaudhury, Dr B. N. Mukerjee, Dr Romila Thapar, Dr J. L. Kamboj, and several others.
The rock edict V of Emperor Ashoka found at Shahbazgarhi and Mansehra prominently refers to the Yonas (Ionian Greeks), Kambojas and Gandharas, while rock edict XIII refers to the Greeks and Kambojas (Yonakambojesu) as people of the western frontiers. It is noteworthy that Ashoka’s rock edicts/inscriptions written exclusively in Aramaic have been discovered only in the Paropamisade (region between river Kabol and Hindukush Mt), whereas those in Greek and Aramaic were discovered in Arachosia (south-east Afghanistan) and in Prakrit and Aramaic in Gandhara region (Peshawer to Rawalpindi). Scholars believe that the Greek version of Ashokan inscriptions was intended for the Yonas (the Greeks or Aryans), the Prakrit version for the Indo-Aryan Gandharas, while the Aramaic version was directed at the Kambojas (See: Aramaic edicts of Ashoka, 1980, p 66, notes 11–13; Political History of Ancient India, 1996, pp 610–13; Scerrato in Pugliese Carratelli and Garbini, 1964, 14–15; Colloque, L’Archeologie de l'empire achemenide, Paris, Nov, 21–22, 2003 etc). This shows that Paropamisade region (an Aramaic territory) was inhabited by early Persian Kambojas as the Aramaic was an official language for the Persian tribes under Achaemenid rulers. Moreover, as a Greco-Aramaic inscription (known as Shar-i-Kuna inscription) was discovered in 1957 in Kandhahar also, this, according to some scholars, may attest that a section of the Aramaic-knowing Kambojas (or other Iranian tribes) were also possibly located north of Kandhahar as neighbors to the Greeks. Dr Michael Witzel identifies the region from Kabol valley to as far as Kandhahar as inhabited by the ancestors of Pashtoons, Persica-9, 1981, pp 86–123). The compound expression Yonakambojesu of Ashoka’s Rock Edict XIII as well as of Buddhist Majjhima Nikaya (43.1.3), powerfully supports this view. It is now generally accepted by many Indic scholars that the Kambojas were an early Pashtoon people who migrated to today's Iran who may have been partially absorbed into larger tribes in Afghanistan and/or else partially forced to move east where they were further absorbed into the populations of what is today northern Pakistan and India. Current minuscule population of Kamboj, Kamboh and Kamoz, the modern representatives of ancient Kambojas, in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan is estimated to be approximately around 1.5 millions.
The city of Bactria (which later became Balkh), is believed to have been the home of Zarathustra, who founded the Zoroastrian religion. The Avesta refers to eastern Bactria as being the home of the Zoroastrian faith, but this can be a reference to either a region in modern Afghanistan or Border line of Afghan-Pakistan. Regardless of the debate as to where Zoroaster was from, Zoroastrianism spread to become one of the world's most influential religions and became the main faith of the old Aryan people for centuries. It also remained the official religion of Persia until the defeat of the Sassanian ruler Yazdegerd III—over a thousand years after its founding—by Muslim Arab. In what is today southern Iran, the Persians emerged to challenge Median supremacy on the Iranian plateau. By 550 BCE, the Persians had replaced Median rule with their own dominion and even began to expand past previous Median imperial borders. Both Gandhara and Kamboja Mahajanapadas of the Buddhist texts soon fell a prey to the Achaemenian Dynasty during the reign of Achaemenid, Cyrus the Great (558–530 BCE), or in the first year of Darius I. According to Pliny's evidence, Cyrus II had destroyed Kapisa in Capiscene (Naturalis Historia, VI, 25, 92) which was a Kamboja city. The former region of Gandhara and Kamboja (upper Indus) had constituted seventh satrapy of the Achaemenid Empire and annually contributed 170 talents of gold dust as a tribute to the Achaemenids.
Bactria had a special position in old Afghanistan, being the capital of a vice-kingdom. By the fourth century BCE, Persian control of outlying areas and the internal cohesion of the empire had become somewhat tenuous. Although distant provinces like Bactriana had often been restless under Achaemenid rule, Bactrian troops nevertheless fought in the decisive Battle of Gaugamela in 330 BCE against the advancing armies of Alexander the Great. The Achaemenids were decisively defeated by Alexander and retreated from his advancing army of Greco-Macedonians and their Iranian allies. Darius III, the last Achaemenid ruler, tried to flee to Bactria, but was assassinated by a subordinate lord, the Bactrian-born Bessus, who proclaimed himself the new ruler of Persia as Artaxerxes, but was unable to mount a successful resistance to the growing military might of Alexander's army. Fleeing to his native Bactria, Bessus attempted to rally local Aryan tribes to his side, but was instead turned over to Alexander who proceeded to have him tortured and executed for having committed regicide.
It had taken Alexander only SIX months to conquer Iran, but it took him nearly THREE YEARS (from about 330 BCE–327 BCE) to subdue the area that is now Afghanistan. Moving eastward from the area of Herat, the Macedonian leader encountered fierce resistance from the local rulers of what is today the Pashtun satraps (i.e. Aspasio, Assakenoi and Saka clans) as well as the ancestors of the Pushtuns. In a letter to his mother, Alexander described his encounters with the eastern southern Aryans (Afghan Pashtuns) thus: "I am involved in the land of a 'Leonine' (lion-like) and brave people, where every Foot of the ground is like a well of steel, confronting my soldier. You have brought only one son into the world, but Everyone in this land can be called an Alexander.” Local resistance and the difficult terrain made it difficult for Alexander's forces to subdue the region as many invaders have found the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan similar to a maze that often trapped outside invaders. Alexander also met his Bactrian/Sogdian bride, Roxana—who was reportedly born in Balkh—while trying to consolidate his rule over ancient Afghanistan and adjacent regions in Central Asia. Their union reportedly produced one sole heir, Alexander IV, who was later killed in Greece by Cassander. Although Alexander's expedition through ancient Afghanistan was brief, he left behind a Hellenic cultural influence that lasted several centuries.
Upon Alexander's death in 323 BCE, his empire, which had never been politically consolidated, broke apart as his companions began to divide it amongst themselves. Alexander's cavalry commander, Seleucus, took nominal control of the eastern lands and founded the Seleucid dynasty. Under the Seleucids, as under Alexander, Greek colonists and soldiers colonized Bactria, roughly corresponding to modern Afghanistan's borders. However, the majority of Macedonian soldiers of Alexander the Great wanted to leave the east and return home to Greece. Later, Seleucus sought to guard his eastern frontier and moved Ionian Greeks (also known as Yavanas to many local groups) to Bactria in the third century BCE.
Inscriptions made by the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka, a fragment of Edict 13 in Greek, as well as a full Edict, written in both Greek and Aramaic has been discovered in Kandahar. It is said to be written in excellent Classical Greek, using sophisticated philosophical terms. In this Edict, Ashoka uses the word Eusebeia ("Piety") as the Greek translation for the ubiquitous "Dharma" of his other Edicts written in Prakrit:
In the middle of the 3rd century BCE, an independent, Hellenistic state was declared in Bactria and eventually the control of the Seleucids and Mauryans was overthrown in western and southern Afghanistan. Graeco-Bactrian rule spread until it included a large territory which stretched from northeastern Iran in the west to the Punjab in India in the east by about 170 BCE. Graeco-Bactrian rule was eventually defeated by a combination of internecine disputes that plagued Greek and Hellenized rulers to the west, continual conflict with Indian kingdoms, as well as the pressure of two groups of nomadic invaders from Central Asia—the Parthians and Sakas.
In the third and second centuries BC, the Parthians, a nomadic Iranian people, arrived in ancient Afghanistan. The Parthians established control in most of what is Iran as early as the middle of the 3rd century BC; about 100 years later another Indo-European group from the north—the Tocharian Kushans (a subgroup of the tribe called the Yuezhi by the Chinese)—entered the region that is now Afghanistan and established an empire lasting almost four centuries.
The Kushan Empire spread from the Kabul River valley to defeat other Central Asian tribes that had previously conquered parts of the northern central Iranian Plateau once ruled by the Parthians. By the middle of the 1st century BCE, the Kushans' base of control became Afghanistan and their empire spanned from the north of the Pamir mountains to the Ganges river valley in India. Early in the 2nd century under Kanishka, the most powerful of the Kushan rulers, the empire reached its greatest geographic and cultural breadth to become a center of literature and art. Kanishka extended Kushan control to the mouth of the Indus River on the Arabian Sea, into Kashmir, and into what is today the Chinese-controlled area north of Tibet. Kanishka was a patron of religion and the arts. It was during his reign that Mahayana Buddhism , imported to northern India earlier by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka (ca. 260 BCE–232 BCE), reached its zenith in Central Asia. Though the Kushanas were predominantly Zoroastrian themselves, they also supported local Buddhists and Hindus as well as the worship of various local deities.
In the 3rd century, Kushan control fragmented into semi-independent kingdoms that became easy targets for conquest by the rising Iranian dynasty, the Sassanians (ca. 224–561) which annexed Afghanistan by 300 CE. Sassanian control was tenuous at times as numerous challenges from Central Asian tribes led to instability and constant warfare in the region.
The disunited Kushan and Sassanian kingdoms were in a poor position to meet the threat of a new wave of nomadic, Indo-European invaders from the north. The Hephthalites (or White Huns) swept out of Central Asia around the fourth century into Bactria and to the south, overwhelming the last of the Kushan and Sassanian kingdoms. Some have speculated that the name Afghanistan land of the Afghans derives from which could be an adjective such as brave, chivlarious, valour, which was to use for the people in today's Afghanistan. Historians believe that Hepthalite control continued for a century and was marked by constant warfare with the Sassanians to the west who exerted nominal control over the region.
By the middle of the sixth century the Hephthalites were defeated in the territories north of the Amu Darya (the Oxus River of antiquity) by another group of Central Asian nomads, the Göktürks, and by the resurgent Sassanians in the lands south of the Amu Darya. It was the ruler of western Göktürks, Sijin (aka Sinjibu, Silzibul and Yandu Muchu Khan) who led the forces against the Hepthalites who were defeated at the Battle of Chach (Tashkent) and at the Battle of Bukhara.
The Shahi dynasties ruled portions of the Kabul Valley (in eastern Afghanistan) and the old province of Gandhara (northern Pakistan and Kashmir) from the decline of the Kushan Empire in third century to the early ninth century. They are split into two eras the Buddhist Turk-Shahis (also known as the Kushano-Hephthalites and the later Hindu-Shahis with the change-over occurring around 870, and ruled up until the Islamic conquest of Afghanistan.
When Hsüan-tsang visited the region early in the 7th century CE, the Kabul valley region was ruled by a Kshatriya king, who is identified as the Shahi Khingal, and whose name has been found in an inscription found in Gardez. The Turk Shahi regency was overthrown and replaced by a Mohyal Shahi dynasty of Brahmins who began the first phase of the Hindu Shahi dynasty.
These Hindu Shahi kings of Kabul and Gandhara may have had links to some ruling families in neighboring Kashmir and other areas to the east. The Shahis, though Hindu, were rulers of a predominantly Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Hindu and Muslim populations and were thus patrons of numerous faiths, and various artifacts and coins from their rule have been found that display their multicultural domain. In 964AD, the last Mohyal Hindu Shahi was succeeded by the Janjua overlord, Jayapala, of the Panduvanshi dynasty.
See for fuller details the main article "Shahi"
Most of these early Zoroastrian, Greek, Hellenistic, Buddhist, and Hindu cultures were replaced by the coming of Islam and little influence remains in Afghanistan today. Along ancient trade routes, however, stone monuments of the once flourishing Buddhist culture did exist as reminders of the past. The two massive sandstone Buddhas of Bamyan, thirty-five and fifty-three meters high overlooked the ancient route through Bamyan to Balkh and dated from the third and fifth centuries. They survived until 2001, when they were destroyed by the Taliban. In this and other key places in Afghanistan, archaeologists have located frescoes, stucco decorations, statuary, and rare objects from as far away as China, Phoenicia, and Rome, which were crafted as early as the 2nd century and bear witness to the influence of these ancient civilizations upon Afghanistan.