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Alfresco art gallery ‘shows woolly mammoths and rhinos depicted by our ancestors 15,000 years ago’

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24 April 2020


Mammoth image discovered at Baga-Oygur III in early 2000s. Picture: Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography SB RAS

Scientists have closely examined and compared intriguing rock drawings on the Ukok plateau in Russia’s Altai Republic and Baga-Oygur, and Tsagaan-Salaa in northwestern Mongolia.

The petroglyphs are now in different countries but in fact are only about 20 kilometres part. 

Two mammoths at Baga-Oygur II

Two mammoth images discovered at Baga-Oygur II in early 2000s. Picture: Dmitry Cheremisin et al. 

The drawings were mostly found in the 1990s and early 2000s but many questions at the time remained unanswered. 

In particular there was a dispute between experts as to whether the drawings showed extinct woolly mammoths that one roamed these parts - or fantastical creatures with trunks. 

A new study by Russian and French researchers found new petroglyphs which helped the answer this conundru.

Mammoth calf

Image of mammoth calf discovered at Baga-Oygur III in 2017. Picture: Dmitry Cheremisin et al. 

For example, at Baga-Oygur II was found the image of a long-gone woolly rhino. 

Most of the image is lost due to a rock slicing, but the animal is quite recognisable with an elongated, squat torso, short powerful legs, a characteristic tail, and an elongated muzzle with exaggeratedly enlarged two horns. 

Vyacheslav Molodin at Kalgutinsky Rudnik

Vyacheslav Molodin at Kalgutinsky Rudnik in 2017. Picture: Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography SB RAS. 

This was useful because these animals - like mammoths - became extinct around 15,000 years ago in this region, making the drawings the work of Palaeolithic artists.

Another new image at Baga-Oygur III evidently shows a mammoth calf. 

The scientists also concluded that the artists worked with stone implements, and not metal. 

Woolly rhino

At Baga-Oygur II was found the image of a long-gone woolly rhino. Picture: Dmitry Cheremisin et al. 

They also noted a ‘desert varnish’ on the stones - a dark crust which forms on the stones in dry conditions, suggesting a greater age than earlier assumptions of between 8,000 and 10,000 years old.

Stylistic similarities between the Mongolian and Siberian petroglyphs further indicated the Ukok drawings to be woolly mammoths. 

They made their petroglyphs in the so-called Kalgutinsky style. 

Expedition to Mongolia in 2019

Expedition to Mongolia held in May 2019. Picture Dmitry Cheremisin. 

The experts concluded: ‘We attribute the petroglyphs to the Final Upper Palaeolithic because the examples with typical features of this style depict the Pleistocene fauna (mammoths, rhinoceros). 

‘These stylistic features find their parallels among the typical examples of the Upper Palaeolithic rock art of Europe.’

Russian scientists Vyacheslav Molodin said: ‘This is a new touch to what we know about the irrational activities of ancient people in Central Asia. 


Comparison of the petroglyphs at the Kalgutinsky Rudnik with the petroglyphs at Baga-Oygur and Tsagaan-Salaa. Picture: Vyacheslav Molodin et al.

‘Science knows Palaeolithic era art in the region. 

‘This is the famous series of sculptures in Malta in Irkutsk region, whose age is from 23,000 to 19,000 years ago, and several examples from Angara. 

‘The assumption that the Pleistocene inhabitants undertook rock art on open surfaces fits into this context.' 

Ukok petroglyphs

Ukok petroglyphs

Ukok petroglyphs

Joint Russian-French scientific team studying the petroglyphs at Kalgutinsky Rudnik. Pictures: Hugues Plisson, Lidia Zotkina

The research was undertaken by Vyacheslav Molodin, Dmitry Cheremisin and Dr Lidia Zotkina from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, Novosibirsk, part of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Jean-Michele Geneste (University of Bordeaux) and Catherine Cretin (National Museum of Prehistory, France). 

Their article 'The Kalgutinsky Style in the Rock Art of Central Asia' was published in late 2019, in the magazine Archaeology, Ethnology & Anthropology of Eurasia (issued by Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography SB RAS).

Comments (7)

Everybody thinking why images has been carved. Who are closest to our prehistoric past would answer these questions. Tribes who were living in stone age still at 1900, some Native Americans example at 1400. WW2 somewhat finalized ancient traditions around the world,, Totem animals are global thing ... when you use image of animal it's strength, power, qualities - trait is transported :) shifted (dont know word in English) to user. And can be used when you are tracing prey, you understand animal what yo are hunting. Kind of wish, or pray because or language is supporting this thinking prey, praying, cant say do English language answer this question but in English etymology is pointing to pray, prey. In finnsh victim = uhri, = prey is as verb. uhrata, sacrifice means praying too. Might be so that images are pray-preys.
sarianna, Loppi, Finland
13/06/2021 16:32
I keep wondering if whoever drew those pictures wanted to leave an image of their time to people in the future. That is why, I think, they chiseled their pictures on stone, so it would last for a very long time, time enough for us to see. If that is true, then we must review our concept about them. They knew that carving wood or bones would not last as long as chiseling stone. They wanted to leave a message and, for this I think they were amazingly bright and farsighted.
Luciano M C Varejão, Venda Nova, Brazil
23/08/2020 02:11
Another very interesting contribution to the knowledge of our past. Unhappily we are not learning from ir!
Juan Sebastian Gómez, Santiago Chile
26/05/2020 17:27
Russian scientists Vyacheslav Molodin said: ‘This is a new touch to what we know about the irrational activities of ancient people in Central Asia.

Why irrational? Perhaps art is always partly irrational, as in INSPIRED. But surely there were rational reasons for making this art as well. Perhaps non native speaker using word to express something other than intended?
Debbie Aliya, United States
23/05/2020 19:38
20/05/2020 20:28
Thanks for this lovely article. Every year new finds seem to display the sophistication and skill of these ancient people's (any culture with leisure time to make art, for whatever reason, is surely to some extent a success) and I believe we still have so much to learn from them.
Trish MacDonnell, Ireland
05/05/2020 13:32
Intriguing pictures, thank you
Jim Petersen, Sweden
26/04/2020 13:59

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