The long and turbulent history of the Caucasus, with its frequent migrations of peoples, has left behind a complex ethnic mosaic. The ethnic groups of the region can be divided into three broad categories:
- Groups that have lived in the Caucasus throughout recorded history.
- Groups that are thought to have lived in the Caucasus for “only” a few hundred years.
- Groups that arrived in modern times, as a result of the absorption of the Caucasus into the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union.
Some ethnic groups have a close affinity to one another in terms of culture, language, and descent. Thus the Adygs, Cherkess, and Kabards of the northwestern Caucasus are all descended from related tribes that were known as Circassians, and are also closely related to the Abkhaz. The Chechens and Ingush are also very closely related; both refer to themselves by the single name Vainakh.
Throughout recorded history
This category includes the Armenians, the groups that eventually merged to form the Georgian nation, and several of the mountain peoples (Abkhaz, Adygs, Chechens, Ingush, Avars, etc.). Except for Armenian, the languages of all these groups belong to the Caucasian family. It is possible that some of these groups did migrate into the Caucasus in prehistoric times. For instance, there is archeological evidence suggesting that the mountain peoples of the northwestern Caucasus originally came from Asia Minor.
Groups that are thought to have lived in the Caucasus for “only” a few hundred years are often referred to as “newcomers.” Linguistic evidence suggests that these groups formed as a result of migrations associated with the conquest of parts of the Caucasus by Turkic and Persian Empires.
Azerbaijani belongs to the Turkic family, as do the languages of the Karachays and Balkars (in the northwestern Caucasus) and the Nogais and Kumyks (in lowland Dagestan).
Languages of Persian origin include those spoken by the Talysh (in southeastern Azerbaijan), Tats (in the mountains of Daghestan), and Ossets (in the north-central Caucasus); although the precursors of the Ossets (the Alans) were native to the Caucasus.
The last group includes people who arrived in modern times as a result of the absorption of the Caucasus into the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union. Russians are the largest group in this category, but it includes also various smaller groups, such as Ukrainians and European Jews (distinguished from Jews of Persian origin among the Tats).