February 05, 2007

A new birthplace for skiing?

Retro skiers of the Altai Mountains
My readers who are familiar with Central Asia (the both of youse) may enjoy this news.

Stranded in the customer lounge of the Jeep dealership last Friday while M's TJ was undergoing a facial, Swedish massage, and mud bath (Jeeps love mud baths), I read an interesting item in one of last year's issues of Skiing magazine.

The oldest archaeological evidence for skiing comes not from Scandinavia but from the Altai Mountains, where China, Mongolia, Russia, and Kazakhstan meet.

Stone Age cliff paintings found in the Altai range in northwest China that date back to about 8000 B.C. are the latest proof that skiing got its start in central Asia. And even though the paintings, which depict hunters using primitive skis, are 10,000 years old, not much has changed in the Altais: Nestled in valleys ringed by 14,000-foot peaks, a handful of tribes are still using what looks to be the same ancient skiing technology.

The indigenous, nomadic Altai people have had minimal contact with their ethnic-Chinese neighbors until very recently, and even less exposure to the West (thus no P-tex or dorky Austrian graphics). In turn, they have maintained traditional lifestyles, living in log houses and yurts, tending livestock—and slapping on eight-foot-long, five-inch-wide wooden boards when the snow flies.

Since I doubt that there was a Mongolia-Finland trade route, I suspect that Scandinavian skiing, which goes back at least four millennia and maybe more, was an independent invention.

In Colorado, however, we assume that skiing was invented by the 10th Mountain Division.


Steve Bodio said...

Don't you know EVERYTHING started in the Altai(:-))?

Actually as Peculiar will tell you there are Altai- Finnish linguistic links.

Chas S. Clifton said...

Yes, but I doubt that people skied back and forth.

Peculiar said...

The Uralic, which includes Finno-Ugrian, language connection to the Altai is tenuous at best (intriguing grammatical parallels, but virtually no connectable vocabulary). However, Finno-Ugrian speakers stretched at least the far east along the shores of the Arctic Ocean. If the concept spread north from the Altai, it might have enormously facilitated life on Eurasia’s north slope and greatly aided westward migration of Uralic speakers. From Samoyed territory, one might indeed ski to Finland for much of the year. Intriguing idea. Frankly, though, skis seem like an obvious enough idea for those sufficiently plagued by snow that independent invention may best clear the Occam’s Razor test.

Chas S. Clifton said...

Independent invention + metal tools, wouldn't you say?

Lacking good metal tools, the Woodland tribes of North America invented webbed snowshoes instead.

At least, I always figured that their inability to cut, shape, and smooth larger pieces of wood was what kept them from inventing skis.

(Now I have to start thinking, though, about what sort of copper (?) tools were used by Northwest tribes for their woodworking.)