Approximate extent of Eastern Iranian languages in the 1st century BC is shown in orange.
|Regions with significant populations|
|Scythian language, Sakan language|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Iranian peoples, Indo-Iranians|
The Saka (Old Persian: Sakā; New Persian/Pashto: ساکا; Sanskrit: Śaka; Greek: Σάκαι; Latin: Sacae; Chinese: 塞; pinyin: Sāi; Old Chinese: *Sək) was the term used in Persian and Sanskrit sources for the Scythians, a large group of Eastern Iranian nomadic tribes on the Eurasian Steppe.
"The regions of Tashkent, Fergana, and Kashgar were inhabited by the people known to the Chinese under the name Sse (ancient pronunciation, Ssek)[needs IPA], to the Persians and Indians as Saka, or Shaka, and to the Greeks as Sakai: our Sakas. They were in fact the 'Scythians of Asia.' They formed a branch of the great Scytho-Sarmatian family; that is, they were nomadic Iranians from the northwestern steppes."
Usage of the name Saka
Modern debate about the identity of the "Saka" is due partly to ambiguous usage of the word by ancient, non-Saka authorities. According to Herodotus, the Persians gave the name "Saka" to all Scythians. However, Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus, AD 23–79) claims that the Persians gave the name Sakai only to the Scythian tribes "nearest to them". The Scythians to the far north of Assyria were also called the Saka suni "Saka or Scythian sons" by the Persians. The Assyrians of the time of Esarhaddon record campaigning against a people they called in the Akkadian the Ashkuza or Ishhuza.
Another people, the Gimirrai, who were known to the ancient Greeks as the Cimmerians, were closely associated with the Sakas. In ancient Hebrew texts, the Ashkuz (Ashkenaz) are considered to be a direct offshoot from the Gimirri (Gomer).
The Saka were regarded by the Babylonians as synonymous with the Gimirrai; both names are used on the trilingual Behistun inscription, carved in 515 BC on the order of Darius the Great. (These people were reported to be mainly interested in settling in the kingdom of Urartu, later part of Armenia, and Shacusen in Uti Province derives its name from them.) The Behistun inscription mentions four divisions of Scythians:
- the Sakā paradraya "Saka beyond the sea" of Sarmatia,
- the Sakā tigraxaudā "Saka with pointy hats/caps",
- the Sakā haumavargā "haoma-drinking Saka" (Amyrgians, the Saka tribe in closest proximity to Bactria and Sogdiana),
- the Sakā para Sugdam "Saka beyond Sugda (Sogdiana)" at the Jaxartes.
Of these, the Sakā tigraxaudā were the Saka proper. The Sakā paradraya were the western Scythians or Sarmatians, the Sakā haumavargā and Sakā para Sugdam were likely Scythian tribes associated with or split off from the original Saka.
In the modern era, the archaeologist Hugo Winckler (1863–1913) was the first to associate the Sakas with the Scyths. I. Gershevitch, in The Cambridge History of Iran, states: "The Persians gave the single name Sakā both to the nomads whom they encountered between the Hunger steppe and the Caspian, and equally to those north of the Danube and Black Sea against whom Darius later campaigned; and the Greeks and Assyrians called all those who were known to them by the name Skuthai (Iškuzai). Sakā and Skuthai evidently constituted a generic name for the nomads on the northern frontiers." Conversely, the political historian B. N. Mukerjee has claimed that ancient Greek and Roman scholars believed that while "all Sakai were Scythians", "not all Scythians were Sakai".[why?]  Persian sources often treat them as a single tribe called the Saka (Sakai or Sakas), but Greek and Latin texts suggest that the Scythians were composed of many sub-groups.
Migrations of the 2nd and 1st century BCE have left traces in Sogdia and Bactria, but they cannot firmly be attributed to the Saka, similarly with the sites of Sirkap and Taxila in ancient India. The rich graves at Tillya Tepe in Afghanistan are seen as part of a population affected by the Saka.
According to Grousset, "the Saka, under pressure from the Yueh-chih, overran Sogdiana and then Bactria, there taking the place of the Greeks." This would have been around 140 and 130 BCE. Then, "Thrust back in the south by the Yueh-chih," the Saka occupied "the Saka country, Sakastana, whence the modern Persian Seistan."
Tadeusz Sulimirski notes that the Saka also migrated to North India. Weer Rajendra Rishi, an Indian linguist, identified linguistic affinities between Indian and Central Asian languages, which further lends credence to the possibility of historical Sakan influence in North India. According to historian Michael Mitchiner, the Abhira tribe were a Saka people cited in the Gunda inscription of the Western Satrap Rudrasimha I dated to 181 CE.
Kingdom of Khotan
The linguistic heartland of the Saka language was the Kingdom of Khotan, which had two dialects, corresponding to the major settlements at Khotan (modern Hotan) and Tumshuq (Tumxuk). The Saka heartland was gradually conquered during the Turkic expansion, beginning in the 4th century and the area was gradually "Turkified" linguistically (under the Uighurs).
Attestations of Saka show that it was an Eastern Iranian language. Both dialects contain many borrowings from the Middle Indo-Aryan Prakrit, but also share features with modern Wakhi and Pashto. The Issyk inscription, a short fragment on a silver cup found in the Issyk kurgan (modern Kazakhstan) is believed to be an early example of Saka, constituting one of very few autochthonous epigraphic traces of that language. The inscription is in a variant of the Kharoṣṭhī script. Harmatta (1999)[full citation needed] identifies the dialect as Khotanese Saka, tentatively translating its as: "The vessel should hold wine of grapes, added cooked food, so much, to the mortal, then added cooked fresh butter on".
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- Scythians/Sacae by Jona Lendering
- Article by Kivisild et al. on genetic heritage of early Indian settlers
- Indian, Japanese and Chinese Emperors