3000 words

This article covers the ethnic origin of the Iranian people.


0. The Short Answer
1. Introduction: Defining and Identifying ‘Race’
— 1.1. Phenotypes: Average Iranians
— 1.2. Genetics: European vs Middle Eastern
— 1.3. Summary
2. What is an “Iranian”?
3. The Origin of the Iranic Peoples: A step-by-step history
— 3.1. Proto-Indo-European
— 3.2. Proto-Indo-Iranic: Sintashta
— 3.3. Indo-Iranic: Andronovo
— 3.4. Indo-Iranic Migrations: The Indo-Aryans
— 3.5. Indo-Iranic Migrations: Iranic Expansion and the East/West Split
— — I. Western Iranic Expansion
— — II. Eastern Iranic Expansion
— 3.6. Ethnogenesis, Extinction, and Assimilation
4. Article Summary
5. Appendix: Fun Fact

0. The Short Answer

What most people mean when they ask “Are Iranians white?” is “Are the modern inhabitants of the state of Iran ethnic Europeans?” To which the answer is: No, the ethnically Iranian inhabitants of modern-day Iran are non-White/non-European people of predominantly Middle Eastern origin. Ask an Iranian and they’ll tell you the same thing. “White” is a racial descriptor that refers to the European race only, in the same way that “Black” specifically refers to Sub-Saharan Africans.

1. Introduction: Defining and Identifying ‘Race’

On a scientific level, race and ethnicity are defined by two factors: Collective average ‘phenotype’ and collective average ‘genotype.’ The former is the sum-total of an organism’s observable characteristics (height, complexion, bone structure, hairiness, etc.), while the latter is the sum-total of an organism’s genetic makeup (i.e. its genes). An organism’s phenotype is determined by a combination of its genotype and the influence of environmental factors.

Phenotype (P) = Genotype (G) + Environment (E)

Not all genotypic information is expressed phenotypically. For example, a person with brown eyes may carry recessive genes for blue eyes, which means that blue eyes are part of their genotype, but not their phenotype.

We identify racial groups via cumulative ‘multivariate’ analysis of phenotypic and genetic characteristics. This works as follows: If you were asked to identify a race based on one characteristic alone, it’s unlikely that you’d guess correctly. E.g.: “Race X has very dark skin pigmentation.” In this case, Race X could be Sub-Saharan African, Austro-Melanesian, or even South Indian.

However, if you knew five characteristics — skin tone, hair color, eye color, body hair coverage, skull shape — then you’d have a pretty good chance of guessing correctly. If you knew 20 characteristics, it would be near-impossible to guess incorrectly. This also applies to genetics. The more genes you test, the lower your chance of inaccurately identifying a race. When enough genes are tested, an individual’s race can be identified with >99% accuracy, where the <1% inaccuracy accounts for human error, rather than genetic miscalculation.

1.1. Phenotypes: Average Iranians

To get an idea of the average phenotype within a country, the best place to look is random crowd photography, generally speaking. As evident below, the average Iranian is stereotypically Middle Eastern and would look completely out-of-place among Europeans:

However, some Iranians do have stereotypically European phenotypes, such as pale skin, blue eyes, light hair, and ‘European’ noses. This is because Iranians and Europeans have shared heritage from the same ancient ancestral populations (more on this later). The Iranian models below wouldn’t look out of place in Europe but are by no means representative of the average Iranian phenotype. Similarly, some Mediterranean Europeans wouldn’t look out of place in the Middle East or North Africa, but they don’t represent the average Southern European.

  • Extremely cherrypicked Iranian models:
  • Averaged female phenotypes —
    Left: Greek, Swedish, Romanian, German
    Right: Iranian

It’s also worth noting that Middle Easterners often get plastic surgery that imitates stereotypically European features. Iran has the highest number of nose surgeries on earth (which isn’t a good thing, Iranians should be happy with their Iranian noses).

1.2. Genetics: European vs Middle Eastern

principal component analysis (PCA) displays the genetic distance between human populations by plotting ‘samples’ (people) on a graph with two axes. In other words, PCAs show how closely related individuals and genetic groups are to one another. They aren’t 100% precise, but they are a pretty good guide.

As you can see on the PCA below, modern Europeans and Iranians form two distinct genetic clusters, and there is a clear separation between the European and Middle-Eastern-North-African races — except for Jews, who are a mixed-race population with 60% Middle Eastern and 40% European ancestry.

Admixture analyses paint a more complex picture of race and ethnicity by visually displaying how much ancestry individuals or ethnic groups have inherited from specific populations. As with PCAs, they aren’t 100% accurate and should be taken as a rough guide, not gospel.

The example below compares modern Middle Easterners to modern Europeans. Unfortunately, modern Iranians are not included.

Of the six ancient ‘ancestral references’ featured in this study, Europeans and Middle Easterners share four, in varying proportions; Levantine, Anatolian, Iranian, and Western European Hunter-Gatherer. The remaining two ancestral populations, Eastern European Hunter-Gatherer and Sub-Saharan African Yoruba, are unique to Europeans and Middle Easterners, respectively.

  • Note: “Iran Neolithic” in Europeans actually refers to ‘Caucasus Hunter-Gatherers’, a population that was closely related to, but distinct from Neolithic Iranians.

1.3. Summary

There is always some degree of genetic and phenotypic overlap between neighboring racial and ethnic populations, but a slightly fuzzy boundary does not mean that racial or ethnic groups do not exist and cannot be defined in an objective, scientific manner.

Even if human racial groups formed a perfectly continuous spectrum (which they don’t), we would still be able to identify unique biological sub-divisions within the species — just as you can easily define red, pink, dark blue, light blue, green, and yellow on the color spectrum below.

  • The electromagnetic spectrum is continuous, but different frequency ranges have unique properties:

2. What is an “Iranian”?

To most people in the West, the term ‘Iranian’ is near-synonymous with “Citizen of the state of Iran.” However, this definition is not strictly accurate. The wider Iranian population — which will be referred to as ‘Iranic’ (like ‘Slavic’ or ‘Germanic’) from this point onward — is an ethnically diverse Indo-European racial group, consisting of peoples who share Iranian languages, cultural practices, and genetic descent from the original Proto-Indo-Iranic population.

Modern Iranic peoples currently inhabit territories spanning the entire Iranian Plateau, from the Caucasus mountains that border Europe in the west, to the Pamir mountain range of Western China in the east. The population is divided into Western Iranic speakers (yellow and green on the map below) and Eastern Iranic speakers (red and purple).

3. The Origin of the Iranic Peoples: A step-by-step history

This is where the story gets a little more complicated.

3.1. Proto-Indo-European

The roots of the Iranic peoples can be traced back to the progenitors of all Indo-European cultures and languages: The Proto-Indo-Europeans — a race of ultra-patriarchal, warlike, horse-riding pastoralists, who originally inhabited the Pontic Caspian steppe of Eastern Europe.

The Proto-Indo-Europeans (PIE) were a population of Eastern European Hunter-Gatherers (EHG) with around 35% Caucasus Hunter-Gatherer (CHG) ancestry. Their male lineages were exclusively of EHG origin (haplogroups R1a, R1b, I2, etc.), indicating that the PIE population was formed through admixture between EHG men and CHG women. This aligns with archaeological and linguistic records, which suggest that the Indo-Europeans practiced bride kidnapping and polygyny (one man, many wives).

3.2. Proto-Indo-Iranic: Sintashta

The Sintashta culture (2400 – 1800 BC), located on the boundaries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, is widely regarded as the origin of the Proto-Indo-Iranic languages. According to a 2015 study by Allentoft et al (‘Population genomics of Bronze Age Eurasia’), the Sintashta descended “directly from an eastward migration of [Late PIE] Corded Ware peoples.”

The Corded Ware population, which inhabited much of northern, central, and eastern Europe, was a mixture of Eastern European Proto-Indo-Europeans (~75%) and Western European Early Neolithic Farmers (~25%). Modern Northern Europeans derive over half of their ancestry from Corded Ware-related peoples.

Archaeological evidence indicates that the Sintashta were also influenced by the earlier Poltavka culture, an eastern outgrowth of the Late PIE Yamnaya culture, with whom they shared many cultural similarities.

Corded Ware peoples also originated the Proto-Germanic languages, as well as the Proto-Balto-Slavic languages, with which the Proto-Indo-Iranic languages share numerous linguistic innovations, like satemization.

The Sintashta culture is known for its rapid technological innovation and fierce intertribal warfare, both of which were intensified by ecological stresses and resource competition. Their economy was based on copper metallurgy, with industrial-scale production and pioneering trade networks that linked the steppe region to the ancient urbanized civilizations of the Iranian Plateau and Mesopotamia.

  • Reconstruction of a fortified Sintashta settlement:

3.3. Indo-Iranic: Andronovo

The invention of the spoked-wheeled war chariot enabled the Sintashta to rapidly expand into Central Asia, where their way of life soon evolved into the Andronovo culture (1800 – 900 BC), and quickly grew to encompass a vast range of territory. Their borders were along the Ural Mountains to the West, the boreal forests of Siberia to the North, and the Köpet Dag mountain range to the South. The culture’s eastern boundaries were more hazily defined, with archaeological and genetic evidence indicating that some Andronovans expanded as far east as northern China and Mongolia.

According to a 2018 study by Narasimhan et al (‘The Genomic Formation of South and Central Asia’), the earliest Andronovo were “genetically almost indistinguishable” from the Sintashta, who, in turn, were near-identical to their Corded Ware ancestors. At this point in time, all Indo-Iranic peoples were ethnically Northern European and dramatically different in genotype and phenotype to the overwhelming majority of modern Iranians. A lot can change in 3,000+ years.

“There are many similarities between Sintasthta/Androvono rituals and those described in the Rig Veda and such similarities even extend as far as to the Nordic Bronze Age.”

Population genomics of Bronze Age Eurasia,
Allentoft et al (2015)

Andronovo tribes lived both nomadic and settled lives, varying by region. Northern Andronovans were largely pastoral nomads, while southern tribes were predominantly agriculturalists who lived in small, fortified riverside towns. Like their Sintashta ancestors, the Andronovans made notable advances in metallurgy and had established trade links with neighboring peoples and civilizations.

Recent genetic studies have found that the famous European mummies of China’s Tarim Basin, the earliest of which date to 1800 BC, were of Andronovo descent. Interestingly, their religious texts indicate that they spoke non-Indo-Iranic Tocharian languages, inherited from the European Afanasievo peoples (3300 – 2500 BC), who they likely assimilated.

  • Andronovo-descended monks (Tocharians or Indo-Iranics) depicted in Buddhist cave temples of China:

3.4. Indo-Iranic Migrations: The Indo-Aryans

The earliest phase of Andronovo culture encompassed both Iranic and Indo-Aryan peoples, with linguists estimating that their languages had begun to diverge around 2000 BC. Between 1800 and 1600 BC, the Iranics defeated the Indo-Aryans in warfare and subsequently “chased them to the extremities of Central Eurasia,” securing dominance over the central steppe region [C. Beckwith, ‘Empires of the Silk Road’].

This initiated the first wave of Indo-Iranic migrations. The Indo-Aryans traveled through the Bactria-Magiana Culture (‘BMAC’, 2400 – 1600 BC), with whom they had formerly established trade links, and founded the Mitanni (1500 – 1300 BC) and Vedic (1500 – 1000 BC) kingdoms in the Near East and Northwest India, respectively. Indo-Aryans may also have established the Kassite Dynasty (1595 – 1155 BC) of Mesopotamia, and the mysterious Indo-European Wusun culture (??? BC – 900 AD?) of northern China.

BMAC was an elaborate, urbanized trade culture, whose peoples were primarily descended from ancient farmers of the Iranian Plateau and Anatolia. The peoples of the Indus Valley Civilization (who the Indo-Aryans invaded) also derived 45-82% of their ancestry from ancient Iranian farmers, with the remainder being of Ancient Ancestral South Indian origin.

According to genetic data from Narasimhan (2018), while some Indo-Aryans settled among and intermixed with the BMAC culture, those who invaded South and Central Asia “hardly mixed with BMAC people.” In reference to the genetic makeup of the Indo-Aryan Vedic peoples, leading Harvard geneticist David Reich stated that “the population that contributed genetic material to South Asia was (roughly) ~60% Yamnaya, ~30% European farmer-like ancestry,” with the remaining 10% being of West Siberian Hunter-Gatherer origin (a population similar to EHG) [source].

However, the BMAC peoples did have a significant influence on the Indo-Aryans, who appropriated important aspects of their culture, such as the drink Soma and the god Indra, which became central to the Indo-Aryan religion. Almost 400 non-Indo-European words were borrowed from the BMAC peoples.

3.5. Indo-Iranic Migrations: Iranic Expansion and the East/West Split

The language, culture, and ethnicity of Eastern and Western Iranic peoples diverged steadily over time, due to migration and interactions with other ethnic and racial groups. Linguistic evidence indicates that this divergence had began by the Mid Second Millennium BC. Although, all Indo-Iranic languages were closely-related at this time, as evident in the similarities between the earliest Indo-Iranic religious texts, the Rigveda and Gathas.

Unlike the Indo-Aryans, both East and West Iranic peoples intermixed with the BMAC culture. Recent genetic evidence indicates that ancient Eastern Iranic peoples had 5-20% BMAC ancestry, depending on date and region [‘Ancient genomic time transect from the Central Asian Steppe unravels the history of the Scythians,’ Gnecchi-Ruscone et al., 2021]. Although the date of this admixture is currently unknown, it may have begun during the Iranic Yaz culture (1500 – 1000 BC), which arose from the BMAC civilization and predates the Western Iranic expansion onto the Iranian Plateau.

I. Western Iranic Expansion

The Iranic invasion of the Iranian Plateau began around 1200 BC, and by ~800 BC the Persians, Medes, and Parthians had established themselves on the peripheries of modern-day Iran. The Iranic tribes initially competed with native Iranian farmers, such as the Elamites, for dominance over the region but were soon subjugated by the Neo-Assyrian Empire — along with the rest of the Middle East.

The Medes and Persians led a united confederation of various ethnic groups and overthrew the Assyrian Empire, leading to the establishment of the Median Kingdom, which quickly became a major power in the region. It was also the first Iranic state with borders that mirrored those of modern-day Iran. In 550 BC, the Persians, led by Cyrus the Great, overthrew the Medes and founded what would soon become the colossal Achaemenid Empire.

  • The maximum extent of the Achaemenid Empire:

By the time of the Achaemenid Empire, Western Iranic peoples had supplanted the rule of native Iranian farmers, while also interbreeding with them significantly via stereotypically Indo-European exogeneous breeding (taking wives from native subjugated populations).

This led to the formation of the modern population of Iran, which has changed little since this period. Modern Iranians derive 10-20% of their ancestry from ancient Iranic invaders, with the vast majority being of native Iranian farmer origin. Furthermore, modern Iranians have very little Mongol, Arab, and Turkic ancestry (~5-10% on average). The population exhibits remarkably high genetic continuity, which dates back to the Chalcolithic Age (5000 to 4500 BC).

Western Iranic elites initially may have had increased European ancestry, due to the caste-based nature of Indo-European society, but were probably no more than half European. Unfortunately, no elite-specific ancient samples are available for Iran. However, studies conducted on the modern Indian population have found that the Brahmin elite has significantly more European DNA than the average Indian.

The “final” stage of Western Iranic expansion occurred during the First Millennium AD, when they began to settle on the eastern edge of the Iranian Plateau (modern Pakistan), displacing the Indo-Aryans who formerly inhabited the region.

  • Cyrus and Darius the Great:

II. Eastern Iranic Expansion

While the Western Iranics invaded and dominated the Iranian Plateau, the Eastern Iranic expansion took the form of back migration into Eastern Europe and further migrations into East Asia and Siberia. At their maximum territorial expanse, Eastern Iranic peoples dominated a significant portion of the Eurasian continent, inhabiting the entirety of the Eurasian steppe, from the Great Hungarian Plain in Europe to the Ordos Plateau in Northern China. Due to their vast territorial range, the Eastern Iranic population was not ethnically homogeneous, unlike their Andronovo ancestors.

Eastern Iranics were roughly divided into semi-settled peoples who inhabited city-states near the Iranian Plateau, such as the Bactrians and Sogdians, and the nomadic tribes who roamed the Eurasian step, broadly known as the ‘Scythian’ cultures.

Bactrians and Sogdians played important roles in the development of the Silk Road. Some Sogdian merchants traveled as far west as the Byzantine Empire, while others secured important positions in the military and government of the Chinese Tang Dynasty. The Greek geographer Strabo describes the Bactrians as ‘more civilized’ than the neighboring nomadic tribes.

A 2018 study by Damgaard et al (‘137 ancient human genomes from across the Eurasian steppes’) featured a handful of Sogdian peoples dating to the Kangju period (0 – 400 AD). They exhibit 70-85% genetic continuity with the Andronovo population, with additional admixture from a combination of BMAC peoples and East Asian Siberian hunter-gatherers.

  • A Sogdian monk and Chinese depiction of Bodhidharma the “Blue-Eyed Barbarian,” an Eastern Iranic who introduced Chan Buddhism to China and pioneered Shaolin kungfu:

Eastern Iranic ‘Scythian’ nomads were largely culturally homogeneous but appear to have been ethnically heterogeneous. They are roughly divided into three main ethnic groups: Western Scythians of the Eastern European steppe; Sakas of Central Asia; and Scytho-Siberians of south Siberia. Although each group was ultimately descended from the Andronovo population, they are distinguished from one another by varying levels of admixture from neighboring non-Andronovo populations.

By the Iron Age, Central Asian Sakas had 5% to 40% East Asian Siberian hunter-gatherer ancestry, predominantly of female origin (bride stealing). Surprisingly, the Scytho-Siberian Tagar peoples only had 7.5% Siberian hunter-gatherer ancestry (similar to modern Finns), while their Scytho-Siberian neighbors, the Pazyryk, had up to 50%. Western Scythians, such as Sarmatians, had minimal East Asian ancestry. Scythian populations also had varying amounts of Iranian-farmer-related (possibly BMAC) ancestry, ranging from 6% to 20%, gradually increasing over time in Central Asia.

For more information, see studies: ‘Ancestry and demography and descendants of Iron Age nomads of the Eurasian Steppe’ (2015), ‘Ancient genomic time transect from the Central Asian Steppe unravels the history of the Scythians’ (2021), ‘137 ancient human genomes from across the Eurasian steppes’ (2018)

Curiously, even with noteworthy amounts of non-European admixture, the Eastern Iranic peoples were consistently described and depicted with Northern European features in ancient sources dating from 500 BC to 500 AD, ranging from the Greco-Roman World to ancient China (see here, here, and here, for example). Furthermore, modern anthropological archaeology has consistently determined ancient Eastern Iranics to be of ‘Europid’ physical types (i.e., not East Asian), including the Sakas of Central Asia.

To this day, it’s possible to find Northern European phenotypes among the few remaining Eastern Iranic populations, particularly those located in the inaccessible mountainous regions of Afghanistan and Western China. However, it is important to note that these individuals are generally not representative of the average inhabitants of their respective countries — or even necessarily their own tribal populations, which are often phenotypically diverse. It is likely that the Andronovo population was similar in appearance to the men featured below, given their strong similarity to modern Northern Europeans.

3.6. Ethnogenesis, Extinction, and Assimilation

Just as the Western Iranics and Indo-Aryans invaded and gradually intermixed with the native Iranian and Indian populations, respectively, most Eastern Iranics went extinct through cultural assimilation, genetic admixing, or genocide. Western Scythians were mostly absorbed by the early Slavic population, with whom they shared numerous cultural and linguistic traits. Central Asian Sakas and Scytho-Siberians were steadily absorbed by the expanding Hunnic, Turkic, and Mongolic peoples, giving rise to the East Asiatic modern populations that now inhabit their respective territories. The various Andronovo-descended peoples of China were also displaced, genocided, or absorbed by expanding East Asian populations. For example, the Tocharians were genocided by the Han, and then subsumed by the Turkic Uyghurs.

  • Some Uyghurs with European features (again, they do not represent the average Uyghur):

4. Article Summary

  • The ancient (Proto-)Indo-Iranic Sintashta and Andronovo peoples were ethnic Northern Europeans who migrated into Asia from Eastern Europe.
  • They brought Indo-Iranic languages and culture into South and Central Asia by way of massive migrations and colonialist invasions, naming the regions after their own ethnonym: “Arya(n).”
  • Initially, the Indo-Iranic population was genetically near-identical to modern Eastern Europeans, particularly Russians and Ukranians, and spoke languages similar to Proto-Balto-Slavic.
  • However, evidence indicates that their phenotypes may have been closer to modern Germanic peoples, rather than Slavs.
  • Over time, the ethnic makeup of the Indo-Iranic population changed, as they intermixed with various East, South, and Central Asian peoples.
  • The Indo-Iranic population contributed 10-20% to the DNA of modern Western Iranians, who are otherwise mostly descended from the ancient native farmers of the region, exhibiting around 70% genetic continuity since the Chalcolithic Age (4500 BC).
  • Some Iranic ethnic groups outside of the Iranian Plateau, such as the East Iranic Pamiris, have a greater proportion of ancient Indo-Iranic ancestry, and thus more closely resemble modern Northern Europeans.
  • The modern Iranic population is ethnically diverse but predominantly of Middle Eastern genetic origin.

5. Appendix: Fun Fact

Evidence of ancient Iranic influence can even be found as far east as Japan. Both Western and Eastern Iranic peoples influenced the Japanese aristocratic system, art, and culture, particularly during the Kofun period. For example, Scythian-style horse archery was popular among Japanese Samurai. Furthermore, a number of historians have suggested that some Japanese clans descend from Iranic peoples who were granted status as local feudal lords in Japan. The small Japanese kingdom of Kibi may be one such example.