Man has lived in Tajikistan since the Stone Age. A Neanderthal skull thought to be at least 120,000 years old was discovered in the Afghan part of Badakhshan, and excavations around Murghab in the early 1960s confirm there were already permanent settlements in the Pamirs in the 8th millennium bc.
From as early as the second millennium BC, large areas of Siberia, Central Asia and Western China were inhabited by a group of peoples known collectively as Scythians whose physical features were European and whose language belonged to the Indo-Iranian group of the Indo-European linguistic family. They may therefore be considered as the ancestors of the Tajiks.
The earliest written accounts of life in Tajikistan come from the Greek historian Herodotus (5th century BC) and chroniclers of the Achemenid Empire (559-330 BC). They refer to the existence of mentioned Scythians (also known as Sakas or Sacae) who inhabited central Asia and southern Russia from the 2nd century BC. Early historians believed that the Scythians were the offspring of Hercules and a snake goddess, but subsequent studies by anthropologists and archaeologists have come to the far more banal conclusion that they were in fact Eurasians and speakers of the language from the Indo-European group. Later Chinese sources suggest these people were blue-eyed and fair. When combined with ethnographic data, it would appear therefore that- prior to the Mongol invasion, Tajikistan's population was more Caucasian in appearance than it is today.
In the rest, Tajik ancestry is a murky area, with roots reaching back to the Bactrians and Sogdians. Tombs from the eastern Pamir show that Saka-Usun tribes were grazing their flocks here from the 5th century BC, when the climate was considerably lusher than today.
From about 500 BC until the Arab invasions in the 7th century AD, most of Central Asia was under Persian influence or control. Bactria (today the region around Balkh in Northern Afghanistan) on the banks of the Oxus (now called the Amu Darya) was the centre of Persian civilisation in Eastern Iran. The Persians displaced the Scythian nomadic tribes in the region. Afraysiab (now Samarqand) was the centre of the region known as Soghdiana that covered what is today Southern Uzbekistan and much of Tajikistan. The cities of Samarqand and Bukhara, although today in the territory of Uzbekistan, are centres of Tajik/Persian culture.
The contemporaries of the Bactrian empire, the Sogdians, inhabited the Zerafshan (Zeravshan) Valley in present-day western Tajikistan (where a few traces of this civilisation remain near Penjikent). Alexander the Great battled the Sogdians and besieged Cyropol (Istaravshan), before founding modern-day Khojand.
Cyrus the Great had sent his forces to Bactria (what is now western Tajikistan, northern Afghanistan and southern Uzbekistan) and lost his own life fighting the Massagtae (a Scythian tribbe) on the banks of the Syr Darya in 530bc. Two hundred years later Darius III, the last Achemenid king, would also lose his life in Tajikistan, this time fleeing from the seemingly undefeatable forces of Alexander the Great.
Alexander of Macedon defeated the armies of the Persian King Darius III between 336-330 BC and brought about the fall of the Achaemenid Empire. Alexander subjugated Sogdiana but, in order to promote the pacification of the conquered peoples, married Roxane, daughter of a local chieftain. When Alexander died in 323 BC, the Macedonian Empire broke up. After a long period during which Bactria was ruled by Greco-Macedonian satraps and subjected to frequent invasions by nomadic Turkic hordes, the area fell under the control of the Yuechi (Kushans), from what is now the Gansu region in Western China, from the second century BC to the third century AD. The Persian Sasanids (224-642 AD) destroyed the Kushan Empire and the region reverted to Persian control. Greek baths and theatres, Zoroastrian fire temples, Buddhist monasteries and coinage and artworks from as far afield as Egypt, Turkey and India all made their historical mark on Tajikistan for archaeologists centuries on to find.
In 400 AD a new wave of Central Asian nomads under the Hephthalites progressively took control of the region. The Hephthalites were defeated in 565 AD by a coalition of Sasanids and Western Turks. The Sasanids took Bactria and the Western Turks ruled over Soghdiana.
Soon after the death of the prophet Muhammed, Central Asia was invaded successively by the Arabs of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties. The Sogdian hero Devastich made a last stand against the Arabs at Mount Mug in the Zerafshan (Zeravshan) Mountains, before he was finally beheaded by the Muslim vanquishers.
Central Asia's cultural diversity and cosmopolitanism was to be brutally crushed, along with many of its inhabitants, with the arrival of Arab invaders in the early 8th century. The Ummayads and, later, the Abbasids, made swift progress through Bukhara (ad709) and Samarkand (ad712), clashing with the Chinese Tang army at the Battle of Talas in 751. Their defeat of the Chinese was a game changer: it made the Arabs the dominant power in the region.
These conquests brought a flowering of Islamic thought, philosophy and mysticism in Central Asia and stemmed Chinese expansion in the east. However, Persian influence remained strong, and new Islamic Persian dynasties sprang up, of which the most important was that of the Samanids (875-999). The Samanid period, marked by the scientific work of al-Khorezmi, al-Farabi, al-Razi (Razes), Ibn Sino (Avicenna), al-Biruni and the poetry of Rudaki and Firdausi, made a major contribution to the development of the cultural identity of the peoples that were subsequently to call themselves Tajiks.
Arab power waned by the 9th century but Islam was there to stay: the Persian Samanids (879-999) ruled Transoxiana from their capital Bukhara. Persian replaced Bactrian and Sogdian languages, Islam was the prevalent religion, and Persian culture flourished. Modern Tajikistan traces itself back to the glory days of the Persian Samanid dynasty (AD 819–992), a period of frenzied creative activity which hit its peak during the rule of Ismail Samani (AD 849-907), transliterated in modern Tajik as Ismoili Somoni. Bukhara, the dynastic capital, became the Islamic world’s centre of learning – nurturing great talents. Abu Ali ibn Sina (known to Europeans as Avicenna), the founder of modern medicine, the great astronomer al Biruni, and the poets Rudaki and Ferdowsi (both now claimed as sons of Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan) were all sons of the Samanid Empire. Travellers can visit Rudaki’s tomb outside Penjikent in northern Tajikistan.
This cultural golden age crashed unceremoniously with the arrival of the Turkic Ghaznavids in 999. They fought bitter turf wars with the Karakhanids and Seljuks, frequently burning everything in their wake. But the worst was yet to come. From the end of the first century AD, there had been sporadic westward movements of nomadic Turkic peoples from the area of what is now Mongolia: the massive military invasions under the leadership of Genghis Khan (Temujin 1167- 1227), Tamerlane (Timur-Lang 1336-1405) and Babur (Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur, 1483-1530) ended Persian dominance in the region. Largely due to the protection provided by its mountainous terrain, the Tajiks in what is now Tajikistan and Afghanistan were better able to preserve their Persian culture. While the languages of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan all have Turkic roots, Tajikistan and Afghanistan retained the Iranian language, and - not least in Tajikistan - music, dance and poetry in the Persian tradition play a major role in society.