Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Are there skiing petroglyphs in western North America?

How did skiing evolve? Humans have always been on the move. And through snow, they often moved by skiing—maybe. In various parts of Eurasia, including northern Europe, Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia and China's Xingjiang Prefecture, wooden artifacts have been unearthed that are providing evidence of early ski design and use. Long before skiing became a winter sport, it probably was part of hunting adventures in the snowscape.

Shan Zhaojian, a Chinese ski historian, is convinced that China is the birthplace of skiing [1]. In the Chinese Altay Mountains skiing is an ancient culture. Mark Jenkins and Jonas Bendiksen have recently presented a ski chronology of archaeological discoveries, illustrating variations in ski crafting and adaption of design for terrain and snow conditions [2]. Early wooden skis typically had bottoms covered with fur. Besides the evidence derived by studying old skies preserved in bogs, researchers have recently found ski petroglyphs in Norway and China. Those petroglyphs clearly show skiers on their gliding boards [2]:

Within the Altay, a handful of petroglyphs have been discovered depicting archaic skiing scenes, including one of a human figure on skis chasing an ibex. Since petroglyphs are notoriously hard to date, it remains a controversial clue in the debate over where skiing was born. Chinese archaeologists contend it was carved 5,000 years ago. Others say it is probably only 3,000 years old. The oldest written record that alludes to skiing, a Chinese text, also points to the Altay but dates to the Western Han dynasty, which began in 206 B.C.

Since North America is rich in rock art and petroglyphs—take, as examples, the Lagomarsino and Thomas Creek sites next to mountain regions with winter snow—one may wonder if not-yet-discovered petroglyphs with skiing scenes exist that record ancient American ski-using cultures. Until new evidence is found, American ski history will be taught to have originated from gold-rush miners traveling and racing on skis in the Sierra Nevada. In the 1860s skiers were competing around Eureka Peak in Plumas County, California, on longboards—12-foot Norwegian-style skis. They reached speeds of more than 80 mph on straight courses and used long ski poles carried between the legs as a brake [3].

Modern skiers chase for fun as well as gold, silver and bronze medailles. How many of them are aware that their sport has such deep roots in human history?

Keywords: history, anthropology, archaeology, hunting, winter activities, snowscape.

References and more to explore
[1]  Dale Atkins: China - Birthplace of SkiingRecco Professionals blog, February 28, 2011 [].
[2] Mark Jenkins and photographer Jonas Bendiksen: On the Trail with the First Skiers. National Geographic, December 2013, 224 (6), pp. 84-101 [].
[3] Plumas-Eureka State Park brochure: