The author makes detailed scrutiny of the information provided by Graeco-Roman and Byzantine sources and concerning the contemporary ethnic processes that went on then on the territory of present-day Abkhazia, as well as the ethnic composition of the population of this area at that epoch with a view to tracing back the ethnic origin of the Abazghis and then, upon subjecting the data thus obtained to critical analysis, to making an objective assessment of the scientific value of these data the toponymic, linguistic and archaeological materials that have been revealed on the territory of Abkhazia over the last 50 years.
Studies of the data provided by Hecataeus of Miletus (6th c. B.C.) and Pseudo-Scylax of Caryanda (4th c. B.C.) show that in the Early Antiquity both the foot-hills of Northern Colchis and the Black Sea littoral near Dioscuria (now Sukhumi) were populated by tribes of West Kartvelian origin (the Cols, the Coraxi), while Colchians played a leading ethnic and political role. The archaeological materials provide clear evidence that in the first half of the 1st millennium B.C. Colchian culture extended over the population of Northern Colchis.
Ancient Greek authors say absolutely nothing about tribes of Abkhazo-Adyghe origin living on the territory of Northern Colchis during the period when an ethno-political unity was formed with the Colchians at the head (6th c. B.C.). The first ever reference to numerous tribes living at the foot-hills of the Greater Caucasus mentions these tribes, describing them as the Sarmatians of the
Caucasus; it was made by Strabo (1st c. B.C. - 1st c. A.D.). We are inclined to think that the term "Caucasians" also extended to cover ethnic groups of Adyghe origin.
The present research offers a critical analysis of the information gleaned from antique authors and concerning the Moskhs (Moschi) residing in Northern Colchis. The source of this information is to be found in the writings of several Greek authors: Helanicus of Mithilenus (5th c. B.C.), Palephatus of Abydos (4th c. B.C.) and also in the works of the historians who made record of the wars waged by Mithridates. According to the above information, the Moskhs shared this area of habitation with other tribes (the Cerceti, the Heniochi, the Coraxi, etc).
The author feels that the mention of the Moskhs as living on this territory implies not the whole nation but, rather, separate ethnic groups that had immigrated to the area in question from down south, moving from Eastern Asia Minor toward the north-east and north-west after their vast political amalgamation had been decimated by the Urartians in the Pre-Antique period. With this in view, the area of their new habitation should be sought as localized in Northern Colchis at the foot-hills and not on the Black Sea littoral.
The author also considers issues connected with the ethnic origin of the Heniochi who, according to Artemidorus of Ephesus, occupied, in the 5th - 1st cc. B.C, the Black Sea littoral that is part of present-day Abkhazia: - from the environs of Pitiunt or Pityus (Bichvinta) to the river Achaeuntus (the Shakhe river near present-day Tuapse).
The information we find in the works of Greek and Roman authors (Strabo, Pliny the Elder, an anonymous author, etc.) permits a surmise that the Heniochi were probably tribes of Svanian and Megrelo-Chanian origin.
Sources from Late Antiquity evidence that by the 1st c. A.D. the population living on the territory of present-day Abkhazia suffered dramatic ethnic and political changes which, on the one hand, may have been connected with a new influx of North Caucasian tribes, and, on the other, - with the decline of the tribal unions that had thitherto existed in the area (including the Kingdom of Colchis) and the emergence of new ethno-political units.
Pliny mentions a new ethnic formation - the Sanigae or Sanigs, who appeared on the shores of Northern Colchis from the 1st c. A.D. At some period this tribe is also mentioned as neighbours of the Heniochi, but from the 2nd c. A.D. the Heniochi cease to be mentioned altogether in historical sources, and the principality of the Sanigs becomes predominant in the area under study.
Judging by the information we inherit from antique authors (Memnon, Flavius Arrianus, an anonymous author), the principality of the Sanigs was a rather considerable ethnopolitical unit that occupied a major part of the north-eastern littoral of Pontus. We may infer, therefore, that the population of the east part of the Sanig principality maintained closer contacts with the Svanian ethnic world and was closely related with numerous Svanian tribes who lived in the mountains above the city of Dioscuria which, according to Arrianus, was part of the Sanig principality, while the western part of the Sanig political unit incorporated Megrelo-Zanian tribes.
The 1st c. A.D. witnesses an increased influx of Circassians and Adyghe into the eastern and western parts of the Sanig principality, which reflects on the toponymy of the north-eastern littoral of the Black Sea. Written sources from the 1st c. A.D. also mention the Apsils as a tribe among the Sanigs and the Lazians. According to Pliny, the Apsils at that time were supposed to live in the gorge of the river Astelephos (Kodori) - an area with Tsebelda as its political center. At that time the city of Tskhumi (Sebastopolis) hadn�t yet become part of the ethno-political area of Apsilia. Proceeding from the information provided by Memnon who mentioned only two ethno-political units in the north-eastern part of Pontus - viz. those of the Lazians and the Sanigs, one may infer that in the 1st -2nd cc. A.D. the territory controlled by the Absils was located mostly in the interland and not on the littoral.
Ethnic provenance of the Apsils remains one of the most difficult and controversial issues in today�s historical science. Some researchers are inclined to think that the Apsils originated from the Adyghe, and support this inference by the coincidence of the root "aps" with the present-day self-name of the Abkhazians that sounds as "Apsua". But the suffix "il" in this particular case can only be connected with the East-Kartvelian suffix "el" that indicated the place of origin of this or that subject, person or tribe. The stem "Aps" of the tribal name of the Apsils is also connected with the river Apsar (the present-day Chorokhi) mentioned by Pseudo-Scylax in the 4th c. B.C. But here the name of the river has the ending "ar" which, again, is a Kartvelian (Zano-Megrelian) suffix. The existence of such toponyms that carry Georgian suffixes makes doubtless evidence that by the time the Circassian-Adyghe ethnic groups began to penetrate into Northern and South-Western Colchis, this area already had an indigenous population of both East- and West-Kartvelian origin whose toponyms eventually found their way into ancient Greek and Roman literary texts.
It should be surmised that a lengthy presence of the Apsils in the Megrelo-Chanian, Svanian and East-Kartvelian milieu, and their close interrelations must have exerted a powerful impact on their culture and language. It is not fortuitous that on their territory, that bordered on the Svanian world, many Georgian toponyms were registered by Byzantine authors: e.g. Cibelius (now Tsebelda), the political center of the Apsils whose name is clearly connected with the East-Georgian word "tsipeli" meaning a beech-tree.
In the southern part of the land controlled by the Apsils that bordered on the territory of the Lazians, these ethnoses lived together from the 1st - 2nd cc. A.D. under the influence of the traditions of the Colchian material culture and the social life of the West-Kartvelian population. The Apsils, partially mixed with the Lazians (or Egris) and were eventually involved in the political and cultural life of the entire country. That acceptance by the Apsils of the local Colchian cultural traditions becomes a determining factor of their further historic development together with the Lazians and their still closer rapprochement.
The process of assimilation and ultimate merging of the Apsils with the Lazians in the Black Sea littoral between the rivers Galidzga and Kodori becomes quite evident by the 6th c. A.D. Besides other factors (cultural traditions, etc.), this process was also promoted by political subordination of the Apsils to the Lazians, by the 4th-5th cc. who, now strengthened by the latter, embraced Christianity together. All this still more vigorously contributed to still further and closer assimilation of these two tribes, while in the north-east some of the Apsils residing there merged with the Svans.
Beginning from the 5th c., the Apsils evidently take advantage of the new influx of Abkhazo-Adyghe tribes arriving from the north and weakening the Sanig principality, and seize its south-eastern part up to the fortress of Trachaia (known as Anacopia in the Middle Ages). Now Tskhumi becomes a city of the Apsils-Apshils, and the Apsils thus become next door neighbours of the Abazghis.
The "Abasks" (Abazghis) are first mentioned by Flavius Arrianus (2nd c. A.D.) as living in close neighbourhood with the Apsils and the Sanigs. We fully share the view of Acad. I.Djavakhishvili who inferred that the Apsils and the Abazghis used to live in the highlands of Northern Colchis. Svaneti and Skvimnia were thus located to the east of the area occupied by these two tribes. Seeing that the Abazghis are never mentioned (until the 2nd c. A.D.) as residing anywhere on the north-western littoral of the Black Sea or in the foothills of Northern Colchis, we have every reason to suppose that ethnic groups of the Abasks-Abazghis began to arrive and settle in this area only from the 1st c. A.D. And Arrian�s reference to the Abazghis whose ruler (prince) was raised to the dignity of "basileus" (king) by the Emperor Hadrian is yet another clear evidence of the fact that by the 2nd c. A.D. the Abazghis had gained such a potential that the Roman authorities had to reckon with them. We surmise that the Abazghis were substantially strengthened by the so-called Abzoei ethnic groups who used to live in numerous tribes in the North Caucasus and who, described by Pliny as the "Abzoae" living in the North Caucasus near Meotida (i.e. the Sea of Azov), eventually came down from the mountains in the north. The Roman Empire could establish contacts and even obtain military reinforcements from the Abazghis who could provide them with men and cavalry units. Just such cavalry detachments of the Abazghis are mentioned in the "Noticia Dignitarum" which refers to them as "wings" detailed to fight cavalry forces of the Chans - tribes of highlanders living to the south of the Lazians.
According to contemporary written accounts, the Abazghis who were on the rise since the 2nd c. A.D. gradually spread their political influence over the Sanig principality. Later on the political ascendance of the Abazgis must perhaps be substantially promoted by the new influxes of highlanders from the North Caucasus who brought over and introduced at their new area of habitation new forms of economy (e.g. animal husbandry) and their own way of life (inroads and pillage).
From the wealth of information Procopius of Caesarea has left to us, the most interesting in this particular case is the fact that in the 6th c. the Abazghis were not a politically and socially heterogeneous society. Outstanding from among them are two tribes ruled by their princes (or archons: the Western tribe and the Eastern tribe (Procopius of Caesarea "The Gothic Wars"). The latter incorporated more or less socio-economically advanced Abazghis who lived mostly in the plain and had been professing Christianity for quite some time since its inception. The western tribe�s territory (to the north of Pitiunt) was inhabited by the Abazghis who arrived here comparatively later and who were at a rather low level of social development (they still worshipped groves and coppices, sold children to slavery, etc. (and the Emperor Justinian nearly had to resort to force to convert them to Christianity). If follows that the border between the above two Abazghi tribes seems to have followed the course of the river Abascos (now the Bzyb). In the 6th-7th cc., the Byzantine Empire tried to use the Abazghi principalities as a political force spearheaded against Lazica, and to this end it encouraged the Abazghi princes to enlarge their domains at the expense of neighbouring Svaneti that had thitherto been under Lazica�s sway. By the 7th-8th cc. A.D., the Abazghis seize some territories of the coastal Apsils, except the lands that were controlled by the tribe known as "Chach" that had apparently merged with the Lazians. Now Tskhumi, referred to in the early 8th c. as a city of "Abshids" (Apsils) becomes an Abazghian city. Scholars believe that the "Chach" tribe was related to the Apsils and was simultaneously under a strong influence of the Lazians.
Thus, the Abazghis ("the Abkhazians" in Georgian) were characterized by ethnic mixture. They were not a monoethnos: those of them who lived in the plain typically mixed with the Kartvelian population, (Sanigs, Moskhs) while highlanders merged with ethnic groups of Adyghe origin that periodically came down from the North Caucasus. The Abazghis also differed according to their economic activities. The plain dwellers were mostly engaged in agriculture and easily established feudal relations with Georgian feudal society, embraced Georgian culture, learned their spoken language and writing, their way of life, their religion which, on the whole, greatly contributed to their rapprochement and peaceful co-existence of these two nations. It was just this part of the Abazghi population that later played a leading role in breaking Abkhazia away from the Byzantine Empire and in the reunification of the now independent Abazghi Principality with the former Kingdom of Egrisi which resulted in the establishment of a unified West-Georgian kingdom, known in history as the Kingdom of Abkhazia.