On the ethnogenesis of the Kyrgyz people1

The various Turkic groups evolved along diverse processes of Turkification. Various ethnic layers are superimposed and are by now thoroughly interfused, but along a few dimensions such as music they can still be differentiated in some regards. The old Samoyedic, Ugric, Ket and other elements of Turkic tongues also raise the question to what extent the original strata deemed Turkic were themselves Turkified. (Sinor 1979-80:768-773)

Though to different degrees, there are common layers in Turkic groups, e.g. Kipchak elements in the Karachay-Balkar, Noghay, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Bashkir and other groups. Of course, these common elements were not homogeneous in most cases, and the substratum of each group always played an important role. (Sultanov 1982:7-8.)

The Turks Turkified nearly every area they occupied for lengthy periods of time and in great numbers. What is more, in Central Asia in the Azeri areas and in Anatolia they even Turkified the local population outnumbering them. An important factor contributing to the success of Turkification was certainly the lack of force. In that period it was irrelevant to have a common official language; the Turkic ruling elite often used Persian in state administration or in literature.

It is an intriguing analogy that in North Africa Arabic, a structurally and genetically similar language to Turkic, spread from the cities towards the nomadic population, gradually Arabizing them. This process is still going on. (Moscati et all 1964:15-17).

In Persian Central Asia a similar process might have taken place, although the Iranian character is more markedly preserved in the cities here. Besides, the Turks learnt Islam from the Persian towns, which largely promoted the Turkification of the Iranian population.

Siberia’s Turkification is drawing to its close in our days upon the major Uralic, paleo-Siberian and, more importantly, the Iranian substrata. Nor should it be forgotten that for nearly a thousand years before the Turkic groups the Eurasian steppe was dominated by Iranian-speaking nomads masses of whom were most probably absorbed by the Turks.

The situation today when states play the leading role is very different from ancient times. A state normally comprises diverse ethnic groups forging them into a single entity. In the late 19th-early 20th century several Turkic peoples (e.g. Ottoman, Azeri, Volga Tatar, Uzbek or for that matter Kyrgyz) created their nation states, while some others (e.g. Khakassians, Yakuts) haven’t started the process yet. The processes that went on in the Soviet Union were also of a different nature. But let us now have a look at the evolution of the Kyrgyz.

Central Asian or Aral-Caspian Kipchaks

The Kipchak tribal alliance played a decisive role in the emergence of several ethnicities (e.g. Noghays, Bashkirs, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz) and a less im­portant role in the rise of Turkmen and Siberian Turkic groups. The Kipchaks of the Golden Horde were later joined by Mongolian tribes who became Kip­cha­kized.

The key differentiator among various groups was the proportion of the constituent elements. Beyond the Kipchak and Qangli woods, we can find Kipchakized Mongols in several – if not all – groups (Nayman, Qungrat, Manğıt, Jalayir, Kerey, Duğlat). Soviet scholars thought that in anthropological terms the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz evolved from very similar but at least partly different ethnic sources.

The Kyrgyz

The first written evidence of the Kyrgyz people appeared in the 2nd Millen­nium B.C. in Chinese chronicles. A large number of ethnics who lived over the vast areas of Southern Siberia and Central Asia participated in the forma­tion of the Kyrgyz people. In the 4th-3rd centuries B.C. the ancient Kyrgyz formed part of powerful tribal alliances of nomads, who presented serious concern to China. It was precisely the time that the construction of the Great Chinese Wall began.

In the 2nd-1st centuries B.C. some Kyrgyz tribes left the rule of Hun for Yenisey and Baikal. It was there that they established the Kyrgyz Khaganate, which existed from the 6th to the 13th centuries. It was the center of consolidation of the Kyrgyz people and the formation of their culture. Here appeared the first written works, runic inscriptions were preserved on stone monuments.

From the middle of the 9th till the beginning of the 10th century the great Kyrgyz Khanate was embracing Southern Siberia, Mongolia, Baikal, the upper reaches of the Irtysh, part of Kashgar, Issyk-kul and Talas. In the 11-12th centuries their possessions were cut back to Altay and Sayan.

The final stage of ethnogenesis was connected with Mongolian, Oirot, Naiman and other peoples of Central Asia. Up to the 18th century the Yenisey Kyrgyz were under the rule of the Golden Horde and then of Oirot, Djungar khans.

The ethnogenesis of today’s Kyrgyz raises several problems. The central question is: Have they anything to do with the earlier Yenisey Kyrgyz? A connection like that would postulate migration, language replacement, ethnic and physical changes, for the Yenisey Kyrgyz had a dominant Europid component, unlike the present-day Kyrgyz. However, such a massive change over several centuries would not be anything extraordinary.

Soviet anthropologists date the intermingling of Mongoloid elements to the Xiung-nu era (late 3rd c. BC – 4th c. AD). They presume that the Mongoloid somatic type became predominant in the Chinggisid period. (Abdushelishvili et al. 1968: 5, 34). That is to say that the alleged physical difference between the Yenisey and Tien-Shan Kyrgyz was not the outcome of discontinuity but the mixing with different ethnics. More recent theories stress that the two ethnic groups can at most be marginally related.

In Kyzlasov’s view the Khakass evolved from a mixing of the Yenisey Kyrgyz and some Turkified paleo-Siberian ethnics. He looks for the ancestors of the Tien-Shan Kyrgyz among the Kipchaks and other tribes who used to live in the area between the Altay range and the Xingan. He regards the Tien-Shan Kyrgyz as the descendants of so-called Inner Asian Kyrgyz, a Turkic group which assumed the name Kyrgyz as a political designation. In the early Chinggisid era they lived in Northern Mongolia (and not along the Yenisey) from where they migrated to their present-day habitat.

Abramson (1963: 21-70) also tends to accept that the Tien-Shan Kyrgyz name has more political than ethnic implications. In his reconstruction not the Yenisey but the Easter Tien-Shan was the melting pot of today’s Kyrgyz people. He contends that the Kyrgyz people evolved in the 14-17th centuries, uniting local Turkic tribes of the former Turk, Uighur, Yenisei Kyrgyz and Karakhanid states with groups coming from southern Siberia and Inner Asia as well as Mongolian and Eastern Kipchak (Kazakh-Noghay) tribes. The different mig­rations were caused by the Mongolian invasion, with some people already mig­rating earlier. In his view, there was no mass-scale migration away from the Yenisey.

Petrov has similar views, but he assigns a greater role to the Yenisey area. He thinks that modern Kyrgyz evolved along the Upper Yenisey and the south­ern Altay in Kipchak milieu. By this hypothesis, modern Kyrgyz is the out­come of three elements: 1) the Turk and Turkified inhabitants of today’s terri­tory (Karluk, Uyghur and Kangli-Kipchak), 2) Mongolian tribes of Ögedey and Chagatay, 3) Turkic tribes called Kyrgyz between the Yenisey and the Irtysh rivers calling themselves Western Mongols, Kimek-Kipchaks, as well as the Turkic tribes of the Yenisey Kyrgyz state and the western Kipchaks. He thus postulates an admixture of diverse ethnics and linguistic elements, too. (Petrov 1963:23-32).

Following Kyzlasov’s theory, Soucek (2000) also takes the Yenisey Kyrgyz for Turkified Samoyed and Ostyak groups, who were ruled by Turkic Kyrgyz who may have spoken a Kipchak-type language. The Tien-Shan Kyrgyz evolv­ed from nomadic elements over the 13-16th centuries, immigrating to this ­area during the Chinggisid times, absorbing the earlier sedentary Iranian-Sogdian inhabitants and the Islamized Turkic groups. In Soucek’s view it was not the Chinggisid but the Oirat pressure that jolted the Kyrgyz from their original habitat between the Irtysh and the Yenisey. It is not clear how great a role the Yenisey Kyrgyz played and whether their name was only borrowed as a political designation or they themselves migrated. Anyhow, the Yenisey Kyrgyz had vanished by the 18th century and Soucek opines that the modern Kyrgyz as a people is a Soviet creation in great measure.

The problem remains unsettled. There is no proof of masses of Yenisey Kyrgyz migrating to the Tien-Shan, yet the name Kyrgyz somehow drifted from the Yenisey group to its bearers today. Whether it was a real ethnonym or just a political label cannot be ascertained. Nevertheless, one ought not to exclude the possibility of ethnic relationship between the two groups.

The linguistic ties with Altay Turks might allude to a Siberian Kipchak basis where Kipchak-tongued ethnics might have come into contact with Ye­ni­sey Kyrgyz. There are other plausible explanations as well, but the relations with the eastern Kipchaks of the Chinggisid era are undeniably demonstrable in tribal and clan names as well as the language itself. In Menges‘ opinion the Kipchak character of the Kyrgyz language is the outcome of close coexistence with the Kazakhs after the Kyrgyz settlement in the Tien-Shan areas.

1 Based on Golden (1992).