Altay Series Part 2: Cave Paintings of the First Skiers?
Updated: May 14
In the next video and post, I visited cave paintings in Northwest China that may be the first representation of skiers that has ever been discovered, potentially over 10,000 years old. This would challenge the common preconception that skiing first started in Scandinavia several thousands of years later…
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After a difficult evening following the sad news of my original guide Ayiken, I was picked up at my hotel the following morning by Aiden and our driver, Oral. My ski bag arrived the previous evening from Beijing after being held there for several days due to a battery in my airbag that was forbidden on planes in China. We loaded this and my other luggage into the back of a large 4x4 vehicle. We had a quick Kazakh breakfast and then set off to Hemu village, a 5-hour drive away. Shortly out of the city, we detour onto a local single lane road and continued to drive through small villages for another 30 minutes. Eventually we pulled onto a road covered with half a meter of recently fallen snow. Fortunately, both the vehicle and Oral were able to power through some difficult terrain and heavy snow until we finally pulled up to an area surrounded by a fence in the middle of rolling hills far from any human settlement. Beyond the steel fence, a collection of prayer flags hung around a rock outcropping. This was where the petroglyphs (cave paintings) were that I had come all the way to Central Asia to see.
I climbed over the fence and looked around at a few man-made structures surrounding the cave. There was a dedication written on a stone block in multiple languages, none being English unfortunately for me. There was also a nearby tree that had flags hung from it. Through a translation app, Aiden informed me that this was meant to be a Mongolian Buddhist shine. This reminded me that we were within close proximity to the borders of Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan. Technically we were in China but up until a few hundred years ago, this was a disputed territory that was part of multiple different empires. It was and still remains a mix of people of several ethnicities. While relatively unknown to the global community, these cave paintings were obviously important to the people of the region whether they be Mongolian, Kazakh, or Han Chinese.
After taking this in, I moved on to look at the cave, or rather the large rock with an overhang. Another fence was installed under the overhang to keep anyone from getting too close to the paintings. Peering through the fence, I was able to see the images on the rock wall that I had become familiar with in the previous several months of research. In clear representations, several human figures were in position above bison and other animals in what appeared to be a hunt. Experts suggest that these figures, who are in a stance similar to someone skiing, were using skis to hunt their prey. On the left of the wall, there was a figure with two lines underneath that is a clear depiction of what is likely skis.
Origins of Skiing
While some professionals claim that the paintings were more recently completed, the common belief in China is that these paintings are over 10,000 years old. This suggests that skiing potentially originated in this part of the world long before it ever arrived to Northern Europe. Since Scandinavia, and more specifically Norway, is often thought to be the birthplace of skiing, when the cave was discovered and presented to the global history and ski community in 2006, it caused considerable controversy. Over the next 10 years, there was an ongoing debate about whether this was proof of an earlier start of skiing in this location.
Since skiing has become a major source of national pride in Norway and in other countries, having a country far away, particularly China, suddenly claim that it was the first place where people skied, caused much dispute. Over time, specialists from both regions met, shared information, and held conferences to better understand skiing’s early beginnings. While the exact origin is still contested, there is now a general agreement that the ski has been used as a winter tool of transport for a considerable amount of time in this largely overlooked part of the world.
When I first read about cave paintings of skiers a few years ago in a National Geographic article (see map below), it sparked in interest in me to learn more about the origins of skiing. I started to notice connections between the people of these locations separated by thousands of kilometers. As a Norwegian American and an avid life-long skier, I have been proud to be Norwegian. However, after living and working in China for many years (and becoming a bit of a Sinophile in the process), I was excited to learn that this part of the world too played a role in the early history of skiing. I devised my project Gliding on Wooden Horses to understand the relationships between the people and cultures of these 2 regions and how the ski played a role in their development.
Could the ski have been used by hunter-gatherers to hunt and move in the winter snow in Central Asia in the early Neolithic Period? If so, did the ski migrate, and potentially help with the migration, of the first settlers to Scandinavia? What are the similarities between these ancient cultures? Do local people in the regions still use the ski as their ancestors once did? This could suggest a strong shared heritage between contemporary cultures throughout Eurasia due in part to the ski. Perhaps my Norwegian ancestors were descendants of the original skiers from Central Asia…