Tibet Archaeology

and all things Tibetan

Flight of the Kyung

July 2016

John Vincent Bellezza

Welcome to another Flight of the Khyung! As promised, this month we look at the wild yak hunters of ancient Tibet. The action-packed scenes of hunters chasing wild yaks featured below are as much as 3000 years old. These paintings and carvings come from the caves, cliffs and boulders of uppermost Tibet.

This newsletter constitutes the first part of an article on wild yak hunting; the second and third parts are in the upcoming August and September issues of Flight of the Khyung. This is a fully annotated scholarly article that may not appeal to some readers. In that case, it is suggested that you jump down to the last section and enjoy the dramatic photographs.

The writing of this article was made possible through a recurring grant from the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation (New York). The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation have generously supported my work since 2003. This is the last year that their prestigious award is being made available. Over the last several years, the surveying of rock art and other fieldwork in Upper Tibet and Spiti was supported by Jospeh Optiker (Burglen), Tise Foundation (Chicago), Unicorn Foundation (Atlanta), Asian Cultural Council (New York), and Michael White (Nashville).

Bravery, Propitiation and Accomplishment:
Wild yak hunting in the rock art of Upper Tibet – Part 1

Part 1 of this article contains the following sections:

  1. Introduction to wild yak hunting rock art in Upper Tibet
  2. Modalities of wild yak hunting in the rock art of Upper Tibet
  3. Wild yak hunting in the archaeological record
  4. Wild yak hunting in early Tibetan texts
  5. The divine status of the wild yak
  6. Picture gallery and discussion of rock art compositions
  7. Bibliography

Introduction to wild yak hunting rock art in Upper Tibet

This article examines the hunting of wild yaks in the ancient rock art of Upper Tibet. Given its predominance, the wild yak is the animal most emblematic of Upper Tibetan rock art. Moreover, the wild yak’s influence has spread to every corner of the Tibetan Plateau. This great animal persists as the symbol par excellence of contemporary Tibet, a conveyor of her unique mix of economic, cultural, social, historical, and environmental qualities.

The uplands in which wild yak rock art occurs cover the western third of the Tibetan Plateau, a region traditionally known as the Changthang (Byang-thang) and Tö (Stod). In this vast territory of some 700,000 km², at least 75 rock art sites with carvings (petroglyphs) and paintings (pictographs) have been documented.* These sites are located in the lower half of Upper Tibet, a region of permanent human settlement for millennia.

For an enumeration (incomplete) of these sites, see Bellezza 2014a, pp. 589–591; Bruneau and Bellezza 2013, pp. 10, 11. I was personally responsible for surveying more than 50% of Upper Tibetan rock art sites between 1994 and 2013. Many of these sites do not appear to have been visited by other researchers. As regular readers will know, some of my findings have been published in various issues of Flight of the Khyung, while others are documented in my hardcopy publications (see “Books” and “Articles” sections of this website). There is a half dozen rock art sites detailed in the work of Tibetan and Chinese specialists I have not yet had the opportunity to visit.

This work focuses on graphic wild yak hunting scenes and others that may be related to wild yak hunting in Upper Tibet.* This rock art is dramatic and exhilarating in tone, as hunters pursue fierce wild yaks on foot and on horseback, often seemingly perilously close to being gored or trampled. Wild yaks (Bos grunniens) are massive, long-haired bovids, with bulls weighing up to 1000 kgs, standing 2.2 m at the shoulder, and with a total length of 4.2 m.† Females of the species are around one-third smaller.

For my earlier contributions on wild yak hunting in Upper Tibetan rock art, see Bellezza 2002a, pp. 132–134; 2002b, pp. 360–371; 2008, pp. 167, 168, 173, 176–178, 192, 196; 2001, pp. 192–198. Also see Suolang Wangdui 1994, p. 33, passim.

On wild yak taxonomy, appearance, behavior, and geographical range, see Schaller 1997; 1998. For another engaging account of the wild yak, see Miller n.d. For shorter treatment of the physical aspects of wild yaks, see Rhode et al. 2007, p. 206; Wikipedia contributors.

Specially adapted to living at very high elevation, the wild yak is native to the higher reaches of the Tibetan Plateau.* Although hard archaeological and molecular data is scant, this animal, source of sustenance and essential products, must have been instrumental to the early occupation of Upper Tibet.

The wild yak is called ’brong in Tibetan, to which affixes can be added in poetic and old-fashioned usage: ’brong-ba/’brong-bu. According to Benedict (1939: 217), the Old Tibetan ’brong is etymologically related to the Old Burmese proŋ (buffalo, gaur). The Tibetan term yak (g.yag) is usually reserved for the domestic form of the species and for males only; however, the compound words ’brong-g.yag and rgod-g.yag refer to the wild form of the animal. A female domestic yak is known as ’bri and a female wild yak is ’brong-’bri. According to Martin (2010: 199), the Tibetan word g.yag is probably of Indo-European origins; for example, the Tokharian word for horse is yuk/yakwe. The common word for hunter in Tibetan is rngon-pa, sometimes rendered in the Old Tibetan language as rngon-ba’.

While domesticated yaks are also found in Mongolia, the Pamirs and the Altai, wild yaks are not reported in these locations. Wild yaks are now largely restricted to areas south of the Kunlun Mountains on the northeastern Tibetan Plateau and the northern third of the Changthang.* Their long fur is black and dark brown in color and some are lightly grizzled. An extremely rare subspecies with golden brown fur is reputedly found in the Transhimalaya, northwest of Mount Ti-se (Gangs rin-po-che) in southwestern Tibet.

In the 1990s and 2000s, the number of wild yaks in the A-ru basin dropped precipitously, probably because of hunting and the expansion of pastoralism in this region (Fox et al. 2004: 23). The A-ru basin is situated in Gertse (Sger-rtse), either side of the 34th parallel. Commenting on his passage through the locale in 1891, a Captain Bower remarked “In every direction wild yak and antelope in incredible numbers were to be seen” (Bower 1893: 388). More than a century ago, Hedin (1909: 22) noted that wild yaks were absent from the southern Changthang region of Rta-sgo.

The hunting of wild yaks remained crucial to the subsistence economy of the northern Changthang until the 1990s and early 2000s.* Up to the turn of this century, Tibetan pastoralists (’brog pa), particularly those living north of the 33rd parallel, supplemented their diet with meat from antelopes, wild yaks, and other wild ungulates.† During the winter and in times of duress, the flesh of wild animals was a critical source of nutrition for many northern pastoralists. Through the 1980s, the main weapon used for killing game was the muzzle-loading musket, some of them having been passed down through several generations of hunters.‡

It was in that period that the Chinese government began to strictly enforce a ban on wild yak and antelope hunting and that of other endangered animals. An important part of this abolition was the establishment of the Changthang National Nature Reserve, covering an area of over 300,000 km² across the entire northern half of the Changthang. It is one of the largest protected areas for wildlife in the world. This wildlife refuge and other conservation initiatives taken by the Chinese have led to a resurgence of wildlife on the Changthang, one of the world’s great success stories in maintaining a stock of large wild mammals. Regarding the Changthang National Nature Reserve and conservation efforts in Upper Tibet, see Schaller, 1997; 1998; Fox et al. 2004; Miller n.d.

The principal wild herbivores of Upper Tibet are the wild yak (’brong), antelope (gtsod; Pantholops hodgsoni), white-lipped deer (sha-ba; Cervus albirostris), blue sheep/bharal (gna’-ba; Pseudois nayaur), argali sheep (gnyan; Ovis ammon hodgsoni), Tibetan gazelle (dgo-ba; Procapra picticaudata), musk deer (gla; Moschus chrysogaster), onager (rkyang; Equus kiang), and woolly hare (ri-bong; Lepus oistolos). Traditionally, this group of nine animals is known as the “nine impeccable mountain siblings” (ri-dwags spun-dgu/Old Tibetan: ri-dags spun-rgu. According to Huber (2005: 8), variant names for this brotherhood of animals in the northern Changthang include ri-dwags pha-ma-bu dgu (father, mother, offspring) and kha-mas so’i ri-dwags (lacking upper fangs). Those regularly used for food on the Changthang are the wild yak, antelope, deer (nearly extinct in the region), blue sheep, and argali sheep. Gazelle and onagers were also eaten by certain families, particularly under duress.

For a description of the techniques used to hunt antelope and wild yaks, see Huber 2005; 2012. According to Huber (2005: 14), in recent times wild yak hunting in the northern Changthang was carried out by two or more hunters. Huber (2012: 208) reports that in the northern Changthang, a high percentage of able-bodied men under the age of 50 were hunters as part of their normal round of activities, despite Buddhist proscriptions against killing.

Modalities of wild yak hunting in the rock art of Upper Tibet

Wild yak rock art in Upper Tibet can be identified through prominent anatomical traits of the animal rendered by carvers and painters. Most notably, wild yak rock art is characterized by pointed or wedge-shaped heads, large circular or semi-circular horns, massive bodies, conspicuous rounded humps, ball-shaped or wedge-shaped tails, and sometimes by a fringe of belly hair and broad legs. In short, ancient artists working in stone accurately reproduced salient anatomical features of wild yaks.

It appears that only wild yaks are represented in the prehistoric era (pre-650 CE). There are no compositions clearly portraying pastoral activities, such as yaks on a lead, being milked or carrying cargo, and there is an evident lack of herders and livestock herds. These are the kinds of subjects one would expect to encounter if pastoralism was indeed a theme in early rock art.* Although domestication of yaks is likely to have taken place before the first wild yak rock art was produced, the depiction of livestock (g.yung-dwags) did not hold an attraction for artists working on stone surfaces. Rock art making appears to have been largely a male pursuit and a medium for recording the extraordinary and prestigious. These factors probably help explain the disinclination to simulate aspects of pastoralism in rock art.†

Rhode et al. (2007) hold that the domestication of wild yaks may have occurred 4000–6000 years ago. The authors of this paper speculate that domestication was initiated and sustained as much by a need for dung as fuel, as for other products, viz., meat, hair and hide. Other benefits such as milk and transport were probably secondary to the domestication process. From the inconclusive genetic, historical, archaeological, and climatological evidence available, the authors suggest that yaks may have been domesticated during the Middle to Late Holocene transition, when more stable sources of food and other forms of energy could have been required. The authors add that the introduction of sheep-herding on Tibetan Plateau, possibly 4000–5000 years ago, was likely to have been a major impetus behind yak domestication, as sheep-herders would have been acquainted with wild yaks, leading to their capture and taming, and finally to the segregation of a breeding population. The authors believe that the taming of yaks may have been carried out through the use of salt, and domestication facilitated by the animal’s social behavior, non-territorial inclination and geographic isolation (promoting the integrity of breeding populations). It has also been speculated that that yaks may have been first domesticated for religious purposes, in order to have a stock of sacrificial animals (after Palmieri 1976). See op. cit., Rhode et al. 2007. On ritualistic functions possibly connected with taming, also see Bellezza 2008, p. 556 (n. 720).

An earlier date for the domestication of the yak has been suggested by another group of researchers, who carried out an analysis of mtDNA evidence for various domestic yak populations in Tibet and north Inner Asia. They propose that this bovine species may have been first domesticated on the northeastern Tibetan Plateau, ca. 5000 BCE, before dispersing west across the entire plateau. See Xuebin et al. 2008. As per the widespread persistence of microlithic technology and the availability of big game animals, however, it should be considered that the transition to a pastoral economy in Upper Tibet might have lagged behind other regions. Sans further scientific evidence, l am inclined to see this critical stage of cultural and technological development occurring in the region 3000–4000 years ago.

However, as we shall see, there are compositions in Upper Tibet that may depict the habituation of yaks and humans as an act of taming, or as a ritual or mythological elaboration. In his landmark work on the rock art of Upper Tibet, Suolang Wangdui (1994: 31) notes that in a later phase of rock art, pastoralist scenes with livestock (yaks, sheep, and goats), tents, pens, and animal husbandry are represented. In fact, such scenes are remarkably rare in the rock art of the region. This can be partially explained by the fact that in the historical epoch (post-650 CE), the tradition of rock art making was in decline; far fewer petroglyphs and pictographs were produced in that time. Similarly, in the rock art of Ladakh there appear to be only representations of wild yaks, as there is no solid evidence of domestic yaks (such as those that are loaded or on a lead; Bruneau and Bellezza: 2013: 27). As my extensive survey work indicates, the same observation holds true for the rock art of Spiti.

An accurate tally has not yet been compiled, but it is estimated that there are more than 10,000 individual pictographs and petroglyphs in the rock art of Upper Tibet (Bruneau and Bellezza 2013: 11). Around 70% of all figurative rock art (depiction of beings and other physical forms) in the region is zoomorphic in nature.* Of this zoomorphic rock art, approximately 70% is made up of wild yaks. About half of all wild yaks in Upper Tibetan rock art occurs in hunting compositions.†

In Ladakh, wild yaks constitute under 10% of all zoomorphic representation. Ibexes are the most common animal in Ladakh rock art (approximately 50% of all zoomorphs), followed by deer. The environment of Upper Tibet, with its vast high-elevation plains and basins, is ideal country for wild yaks, helping to explain the preponderance of this rock art in that region. Less than a quarter of wild yak rock art compositions in Ladakh depict hunting scenes. This extends to other animals in the bestiary of Ladakh; hunting scenes account for a small percentage of total zoomorphic representation. Depictions of mounted archers are uncommon in Ladakh and all occur in wild yak hunting compositions. See op. cit., Bruneau and Bellezza 2013, pp. 29, 30, 60.

In the rock art of Spiti, wild yaks and wild yak hunting on horseback are uncommon and concentrated in the lower portion of the district, near the main route to Guge, in Upper Tibet. These petroglyphs occur on steep slopes and rocky shelves in narrow valleys, where pursuing wild yaks on horses is unfeasible. This fact, as well as stylistic and thematic affinities with Upper Tibet, strongly suggest that wild yak hunting compositions in Spiti were influenced by their much larger eastern neighbor. On wild yak rock art in Spiti, see the July and August 2015 Flight of the Khyung.

The complete classification of subject matter in Upper Tibetan rock art is not feasible, as the identification of some petroglyphs and pictographs is in question, due to their rudimentary, ambiguous or highly stylized character, and to damage and wear. Unclassified subjects constitute as much as 25% of total rock art in the region.

Wild yak art occurs at 80% of all rock art sites in Upper Tibet.* It includes around 300 compositions featuring the hunting of wild yaks or what are possibly wild yak hunting related scenes, containing approximately 1400 individual carvings and paintings in total. Roughly half of these compositions depict a single mounted archer and one or more yaks. The other half are comprised of composite scenes with two or more hunters and one or more wild yaks. The most complex scenes portray up to 15 hunters and 50 wild yaks and other animals. Although yak hunting is by far the most common venatic theme in the rock art of Upper Tibet, other species of game animals are also subjects.†

In addition to my own extensive surveys of rock art in Upper Tibet, others have been carried out by Suloang Wangdui 1994 and Chen Zhao Fu 2006a. Both of these works depict various Upper Tibetan wild yak hunting scenes. For a discussion on wild yaks hunting in Upper Tibet and Ladakh, including a comparison of styles, individual motifs and yak hunting themes, see Bruneau and Bellezza 2013. pp. 14, 60–64. For wild yak hunting in northeastern Tibet and adjoining areas, see Tang Huisheng and Zhang Wenhua 2001; Chen Zhao Fu 2006b.

The second most common hunting theme in Upper Tibet is that of antlered deer, reflecting the incidence of these species in rock art of the region, which is second to wild yaks. Considerably less prevalent in Upper Tibetan rock art is the hunting of antelope and wild caprids (blue sheep and argali). There are exceedingly few examples of gazelle or onager hunting in this rock art.

Wild yak hunting usually makes up a higher percentage of total rock art compositions at petroglyphic sites than it does at pictographic sites. One reason for this is that most pictographic sites contain a higher proportion of art made in the historic era. Another factor is that many pictographs are situated away from prime hunting grounds.

The hunting of wild yaks in the pre-modern period was a risky undertaking. Under threat of attack, these large and powerful creatures could retaliate and kill both hunters and horses. Thus the coursing of wild yaks posed a formidable physical challenge that could only be met by individuals exercising great skill and courage.* This kind of hunting must have been synonymous with bravery, prowess and accomplishment, masculine qualities long revered in Upper Tibet.† These highly valued traits of the warrior fit well with the martial culture long in place in the region.

Courage as a cherished value of wild yak hunters is recorded in a collection of Bon funerary literature known as Mu cho’i khrom ’dur; specifically in a text describing the types and applications of soul and mind receptacles erected during evocation rites performed for the dead. In this text we read, “Then when [the deceased] was a youth in the prime of life, male tigers (skyes-pa stag) were captured and wild yaks hunted. Bravery was increased through the arrow, the arrow” (de nas nar phyin shed rdzogs dus /skyes pa stag ’gug ’brong bshor yang / dpa’ snying mda’ dang drum gyi (= gyis) bskyed). See Bellezza 2008, p. 428. The Mu cho’i khrom ’dur began to be compiled in the 11th century CE, but it displays many traditions and figures of speech belonging to the Early Historic period.

That is not to say that women never hunted wild yaks in ancient times, but there is very little evidence for this in the rock art of Upper Tibet, Ladakh or Spiti, where hunters and many other anthropomorphs (figures in human form) are males when designated through the depiction of the sexual organ. The archetypal huntress of the eastern Changthang is A-stag klu-mo/A-stag lha-mo, a figure in Tibet’s epic, Gling ge-sar. This truculent female figure is believed to have been an avid hunter, even making her house out of the body parts of wild animals. In one epic tale, she is said to have eradicated all the wild yaks of the region after one of them slew her father. On this huntress, see Bellezza 2005, pp. 116–118.

That male virtues were intended to be showcased is suggested by the manner in which hunting scenes are portrayed in Upper Tibetan rock art.* Often wild yaks are presented larger than life, accenting the momentousness of the hunt. Hunters are regularly depicted in close proximity to wild yaks, appearing even face to face with them, amplifying their heroic qualities. These are further emphasized in rock art scenes in which there is only one hunter and one or more wild yaks. In these compositions the spotlight is on a single individual and his exploits, an unabashed testament to his ability and mettle. As noted, solitary hunters make up approximately 50% of all wild yak hunting in Upper Tibetan rock art. This customary depiction may be read as a social status enhancing device, a mark of martial or political attainment in the tribal or clan structures of ancient times.

Huber (2012: 2008) notes that in recent decades hunting in Upper Tibet was closely aligned with norms of masculine behavior. In the Old Tibetan Chronicle and Old Tibetan Annals, important historical documents from the Imperial period (ca. 650–850 CE), hunting is valorized as a royal virtue. The Tibetan royal hunt was centered around the wild yak as its quarry, and may have fulfilled some of the same functions of the royal hunt in other parts of Eurasia, such as training soldiers for battle, demonstration of organizational capacity, and as an opportunity for sharing the kill with commoners. See op. cit., Dotson 2013, pp. 76–80.

The rock art of Upper Tibet presents a coherent view of the techniques used and people involved in the wild yak hunt. With little exception, the bow and arrow is the weapon upon which hunters relied.* In many compositions, archers are shown in the process of actually shooting arrows, one armed pulled back and one thrust forward. The bow and arrow is used about 80% of the time by horsemen, who are often pointing their weapons directly at prey. Most mounted archers face forward when firing arrows, but there are instances of archers turning backwards on their mounts, recalling the Parthian shot. Archers standing on their feet constitute no more than 20% of wild yak hunters in the rock art of Upper Tibet. Moreover, most of these figures hunt in conjunction with horsemen. Very few standing archers are depicted going at it alone. Lassos also appear to be represented but only in a few compositions. There are no clear signs of spears or lances being employed to slaughter wild yaks.  One would have to come uncomfortably close to a wild yak in order to kill it wielding these kinds of weapons.

Hunting laws set out in Old Tibetan texts of the imperial period (Pt 1071 and Pt 1072) both compare and contrast with earlier hunting rock art of Upper Tibet. These texts reflect the highly stratified nature of Tibetan society in the Imperial period, setting forth highly variable fines and punishments for breaches in customary conduct during the royal hunt. As in rock art, participants are recorded both on horseback and on foot. However, no dogs or falcons are noted in the hunting laws. The bow and arrow is the weapon of choice, and game animals mentioned include the wild yak, blue sheep, antelope, antelope, gazelle, and onager, closely corresponding with the rock art tableau. For a description and analysis of these hunting laws, see Richardson 1998, pp. 150–158; Dotson 2013, pp. 71–76.

In many compositions horsemen are clearly chasing wild yaks. This represents a driving or encircling action, common in Eurasian hunting traditions. When group hunting is portrayed, standing and mounted archers take up tactical positions around one or more wild yaks. The impression given by this rock art is that the attacks were highly coordinated affairs. There are also a few instances of solitary bowmen on foot stalking wild yaks.

The coursing of wild yaks is sometimes carried out in the company of hunting dogs (around 17% of graphic hunting scenes).* The exact number represented is hard to determine because hunting dogs are frequently ambiguously rendered. From what is revealed by artists, these canines belong to more gracile, long-tailed breeds, not unlike today’s Tibetan hunting dogs.†

Hunting dogs do not appear to be described in narratives attached to Old Tibetan non-Buddhist ritual texts. However, in a manuscript from the Dunhuang collections, Pt 1283, there is reference to a Turkic-speaking group that hunted with dogs (Dotson 2013: 66).

According to Ekvall (1963: 166, 167), general terms for hunting dogs include ra-khyi (for coursing and surrounding prey) and sha-kyi (meat dog). It is reported that in Old Tibetan literature there are dogs called ri-khyi (mountain dog), which were used for coursing stags and other game (ibid., after Thomas 1957). In Old Tibetan literature (Gathang Bumpa manuscripts), “dog” (khyi) is often spelled kyi/kyĭ, a predictable orthographic convention in the Old Tibetan language. See Bellezza 2013, pp. 122, 123, 173, 174; 2010, p. 88; 2014c, pp. 187, 195.

Exceedingly little is known about the identity and society of wild yak hunters represented in Upper Tibetan rock art. It is probable that most were natives of the region, who hunted either as a subsistence or specialized activity. This rock art is a significant distance from adjoining territories and possesses many unique compositional traits, supporting indigenous production. One might speculate that some hunters were the progenitors of today’s Upper Tibetans, specifically those belonging to ancient native clans of Upper Tibet.* It might be put forward that hunters in Upper Tibet, especially of late Protohistoric times (ca. post-400 CE), were inhabitants of the Tibetan proto-states of Zhang Zhung and Sum-pa and carried their prime tribal appellations, Smra and Stong respectively.† Unfortunately, there are no means currently at our disposal to verify this presupposition.

For example, clans such as Khyung-po, Gu-rub and Ra-ba. On these clans and others of Upper Tibet, see Bellezza 2008, pp. 263–269, 288, 289.

On questions of ethnic and linguistic affiliation as related to rock art in Upper Tibet, see discussion in Bruneau and Bellezza 2013, p. 79 (n. 256). On the application of the terms Zhang Zhung and Bon in the rock art context, see Bellezza in press.

The socioeconomic background of wild yak hunters in rock art is obscure. As this type of art did not appear until ca. 1000 BCE, these hunters may have been part of complex, stratified societies, rather than simply hunter-gatherers. Intricate necropolises such as Khang-dmar rdza-shag were probably being built on the Changthang by 700 BCE (Bellezza 2014d: 13–16). The arrays of pillars and temple-tombs established at these funerary sites required considerable economic surpluses, an ample labor force, specialized architectural knowledge, and were almost certainly constructed as monuments in which a social elite participated or dominated. In the second half of the first millennium BCE, many burial sites sprung up in far western Tibet, some with tombs in which diverse material objects were deposited. This is indicative of an Iron Age society (I have written at length on the mortuary culture of western Tibet, where one will find reference to the work of other archaeologists). The advanced cultural and technological characteristics of Iron Age societies are not associated exclusively with foraging societies. Rather, hunter-gatherers usually lived/live in small groups and are highly mobile, with modest material and technological capabilities and few food surpluses.*

For a general picture of hunter-gather societies, see Cummings et al. 2014. Continuities between contemporary and ancient hunter-gatherer societies is now downplayed, with stress being placed on specific ecological and adaptive approaches. The post-processualism school of archaeology of the 1990s and 2000s stressed historical contingency and cultural relativism to explain considerable cultural variability in foraging societies. Historically speaking, the term hunter-gatherer sometimes carried pejorative undertones in the West, and is still viewed by some as problematic.

Although a few rock art sites are located on the Changthang north of the main belt of monument building (including residential and ceremonial structures) in the Iron Age (ca. 700–100 BCE) and Protohistoric period (ca. 100 BCE to 650 CE), most are not. While it is true the greatest number of wild yak compositions occur at more remote sites, they are distributed all over Upper Tibet, from Celestial Lake (Gnam mtsho) in the east to Ruthok and Guge in the west. In all three of these said locations there are large concentrations of rock art (including wild yak hunting compositions), and all three had a highly developed prehistoric monumental infrastructure.

If hunter-gatherers are shown in the wild yak hunting rock art of Upper Tibet, they are likely to have belonged to very isolated or marginal groups, in contradistinction to more sophisticated metal wielding peoples all around them. The widespread geographical distribution of wild yak hunting rock art in the region does not favor its creation by hunter-gatherers completely separated from a social mainstream. Therefore, as in more recent times, the ancient pastoralists and other inhabitants of Upper Tibet, who depended to a lesser or greater extent on hunting for their subsistence, probably did not comprise a discrete group, culturally or linguistically. This assertion is lent more credence by the association of wild yak hunting with elite sociopolitical activities in the historical and artistic records of the Early Historic period (650–1000 CE).

The making of wild yak hunting rock art in Upper Tibet was an activity potentially open to both commoners and the upper strata of ancient society. Nevertheless, as approximately 85% of this art involves mounted archers, it was an undertaking of some considerable prestige. Hunters required sufficient wealth and rank to own horses, horse tack and weapons, as well as enjoying access to hunting grounds. They would also have to command enough manpower to process and transport wild yak carcasses. For these reasons, I am inclined to see wild yak hunting in the Iron Age and Protohistoric period as mainly the province of better off members of society, those who used rock art to trumpet their social standing and accomplishments. This is not to say that hunting was restricted to the chieftains and their circle or to an aristocracy; wild yaks may still have been plentiful enough 1400–3000 years ago to permit a wide spectrum of society to partake of the bounty.

The question arises as to the nature of the attractions and compulsions that drove ancient Upper Tibetans to document wild yak hunting in stone. I have already commented on the social function of this activity. Nonetheless, a host of other the factors may have been involved in its creation and should be considered, if only briefly.

At its most simple, wild yak hunting rock art could have been indulged in for recreational purposes, to entertain and pass time. For an ancient people living in a highly marginal physical environment, however, I doubt that this was a chief factor. As is often speculated for other regions of the world, hunting rock art in Upper Tibet may have been made as a magic instrument to insure the success of hunters or to attract game.* Alternatively, wild yak hunting rock art could have been carved or painted in thanksgiving for a successful hunt. Whether this art was traditionally made before or after the hunt, the propitiation or veneration of ancestral, territorial and protective deities is likely to have played a part. It is also possible that certain wild yak hunting compositions were produced in conjunction with funerary observances for deceased hunters and warriors. This art may have figured in memorial services or even in the actual postmortem ritual regimen.†

Traditionally, in the eastern Changthang, hunters attracted various kinds of wild yaks and other wild ungulates through invocations styled “calling the flesh” (sha-’bod), and thanksgiving prayers were said afterwards to several local deities including the divine huntress Ri-shi A-stag klu-mo (Bellezza 2008: 462 [n. 245]). According to Huber (2012: 210), hunters of the Changthang performed scapulamancy (divination using shoulder blades of sheep) in order to locate game. Although this ancient practice is not apparent in the rock art of the region, it may have been one element in a suite of ritualized behaviors surrounding wild yak hunting in antiquity.

Cummings (2013: 105–109) maintains that besides communicating shamanic traditions and ritualistic practices, hunting rock art may have been educational in nature, illustrating tracking and hunting methods. However, as pertains to Upper Tibet, I do not think this art was sufficiently detailed to serve as a tool of instruction, although it could have been used to inspire fledging hunters.

Wild yak hunting in the archaeological record

The hunting of wild yaks has been a subsistence activity in upland Tibet for millennia. Presumably, the first Paleolithic hunters who reached the high Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau killed wild yaks for food and other products, such as hair, hide, horns, and gut. Unfortunately, little is known about Stone Age hunting practices in Tibet, as minimal reconnaissance and excavation has been carried out to date. Hand-held tools from around one dozen sites on the Changthang and in northeastern Tibet have been provisionally attributed to the Upper Paleolithic (11,000 to 30,000 years ago). In Upper Tibet such sites have been surveyed in Nyima (Nyi-ma), Shentsa (Shan-rtsa) and Tshonyi (Mtsho-gnyis) counties. Among the stone tools discovered in Upper Tibet that could conceivably have been used in the hunting and butchering of wild yaks by Paleolithic hunters are choppers and scrapers.* However, no large stone projectiles (e.g., spear points) appear to have been recovered.

Attribution of stone tools to the Paleolithic is based on typological comparisons, stratigraphic analysis, and the dating of collateral remains. Nevertheless, the anachronistic production and usage of such tools is increasingly indicated, complicating attribution to the Old Stone Age. For a description and analysis of putative Paleolithic stone tools on the Tibetan Plateau, see Aldenderfer and Zhang 2004, pp. 16–20. Although new discoveries have been made in the interim, this work remains a useful overview of the archaeology of Stone Age Tibet. For another good review of the Paleolithic occupation of Upper Tibet, see Chayet 1994, pp. 25–34.

Limited data make it difficult to speculate on the form wild yak hunting might have taken in the Mesolithic period. Aldenderfer and Zhang (2004: 21) write, “Between 11,000 and 6000 B.P. [before present], the archaeology of the plateau is essentially unknown”. Tibetan microlithic assemblages have been placed in a time-frame extending from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic and Bronze Age, but their dating remains insecure at most sites. These stone cores and flakes are associated with a number of functions including large game acquisition. Thus, they may possibly have been used in wild yak hunting and the processing of carcasses. It appears that microlithic technology was adopted as a superior response to the intensification of big game hunting in variable environments of northern Asia, Tibet included (ibid. 26, after Elston and Brantingham 2002). Hunting remained an important subsistence activity at two Neolithic village sites, Karou (Mkhar ro) and Qugong (Chu-khong), in eastern and central Tibet respectively, and game may have included bovids (ibid., 30, 32).

Evidence for prehistoric wild yak hunting in Tibet assumes a more definite shape only with the appearance of rock art in Upper Tibet, beginning approximately 3000 years ago. We might suppose that wild yak hunting rock art reflects a continuation of Stone Age traditions as a key subsistence activity in the region. However, nothing is known about how antecedent cultural and economic practices may have influenced the development of wild yak hunting rock art in Upper Tibet.

The precise period in which the hunting of wild yaks appeared in the rock art record of Upper Tibet remains unclear. Indications derived from informed methods of dating rock art suggest that this tradition began circa 1000 BCE,* a time that coincides with the transition from the late Bronze Age to the early Iron Age in the broader Inner Asian archaeological context. This transition is marked by significant technological, economic and social changes occurring throughout the wider region.

Due to well-known limitations in scientific techniques used to directly date rock art, an absolute chronology has not been devised for Upper Tibetan rock art. Instead, I rely upon a relative chronology that places rock art in broad temporal categories. It is based on a subjective assessment of the empirical evidence and inferences drawn from a wide range of collateral materials. Dates obtained in this manner are provisional, inexact and unverifiable. The criteria I use to assess the age of rock art include historical and ethnographic analysis, stylistic and thematic categorization, cross-cultural comparison, application of associative archaeological data, survey of general characteristics of site contents, gauging environmental changes depicted in pictorial representations, examination of techniques of production, determination of the sequence of superimpositions, and assessment of the erosion and re-patination of petroglyphs and the browning and ablation of pictographs.

There are only a few rock art compositions in Upper Tibet depicting archers on foot hunting wild yaks, which may possibly predate the introduction of the riding horse in the region. As noted, the majority of compositions, show hunters on horseback chasing and killing wild yaks. It is in the early first millennium BCE that the technology (particularly bridles) for mounting horses was fully perfected in the eastern steppes.*

It is generally held that horse riding in Mongolia began in the beginning of the first millennium BCE, and probably coincided with the rise of a new sociopolitical order characterized by higher levels of social complexity and status differentiation (Anthony and Brown 2014: 56). With the appearance of the Scythic tribes in the early first millennium BCE, horse bridles (together with their bronze accessories) gradually developed in association with the rise of nomadic herding/pastoral nomadism, which rapidly spread from the Urals to Mongolia (Bokovenko 2000: 304).

It is likely that horse riding technology was introduced to Upper Tibet from the eastern steppe via the northeastern Tibetan Plateau or through Xinjiang (East Turkestan). The transfer of equestrian skills to Upper Tibet may have occurred as early as the first third of the first millennium BCE, as part of a technological contagion sweeping across Inner Asia and beyond (deteriorating climatic conditions in the region may have played a role). Somewhat later, Scythic cultural and technological influences in Upper Tibet are likely to be closely aligned with the use of the riding horse. Thus, the introduction of equestrian capabilities in Upper Tibet can be expected to have taken place by the second third of the first millennium BCE. Evidence of Scythic cultural and technological affinities in Upper Tibet takes three major material forms: funerary rites and small bronze objects and rock art in the Eurasian animal style.* Another area in which cultural communications between pre-Scythic and Scythic peoples and ancient Upper Tibetans may be manifest is in funerary pillars.†

On Scytho-Siberian parallels to Tibetan archaic funerary rites, including the use of riding horses, see Bellezza 2008, pp. 544–557. On Scythic influences in Upper Tibetan rock art see ibid., 189–199; Bellezza 2002a, pp. 137, 138; October and November 2014 Flight of the Khyung. On Scythic influences in small bronze Tibetan objects generally known as thokcha (thog-lcags), see Bellezza 2008, pp. 99–104; December 2014 and February and March 2016 Flight of the Khyung.

For information on these funerary stelae, including morphological classification, geographical distribution, cross-cultural affiliations, as well as extensive site surveys, see Bellezza 2014a; 2014b; 2011a; 2008, 2002a; 2001.

Another characteristic prehistoric funerary monument in Upper Tibet are stone enclosures of various types, which include those with walls composed of upright slabs often aligned in the cardinal directions (see same references as listed above for funerary pillars). Unfortunately, most types of enclosures (sepulchral and ritual) in the region have not been dated yet. Based on the copious use of slabs at Upper Tibetan sites with large array of funerary pillars, it is likely that some of the funerary enclosures also date to the Iron Age. If so, parallels with Iron Age cultures in Mongolia may be indicated. Honeychurch et al. (2009: 347) note that horse riding in Mongolia coincided with the appearance of slab graves (comprised of large upright stone slabs in a rectangular arrangement, usually oriented east to west), both of which seem to define a distinctive steppe culture. Fitzhugh (2009: 406) adds that the appearance of slab graves in Mongolia is indicative of a major population movement and cultural transformation, circa 800–600 BCE, when the display of individual wealth in tombs started to become conspicuous. Although the design of funerary slab structures in Mongolia and Upper Tibet vary considerably, technological and cultural interactions may possibly account for their establishment in both territories.

As in other territories of Inner Asia, the use of the riding horse in Upper Tibet would have served a number of critical purposes, facilitating the establishment of a pastoral economy, mobility and long distance trade, a more highly organized military (along with new forms of warfare), and the rise of a tribal or aristocratic elite. Needless to say, the hunting of wild yak was greatly aided by the deployment of the riding horse, a swift and high stamina asset. This is confirmed by the rock art of Upper Tibet, where hunting on horseback is a standard portrayal.

In addition to the riding horse, Upper Tibetan rock art indicates that the hunting of wild yaks was well served by the introduction of the recurve bow perhaps somewhat earlier than the equestrian arts.* The recurve bow was the weapon of choice for wild yak hunting; its curved tips or S-shape discernable in many rock art compositions. In other compositions, the depiction of the bow is too rudimentary to discern the type, but it can be inferred that it was the recurve variety.†

The invention [or re-invention] of the short recurve bow, perhaps around 1200 BCE, endowed horse riders of the steppes with a highly efficient and versatile weapon. Around the same time in the Eurasian steppes improved arrowheads appeared, including socketed types made of copper alloys. See Anthony and Brown 2014, p. 56. From the Iron Age onward, the socketed trihedral became predominant in Mongolia (Ishjmats 1994: 152). Likewise, copper alloy trihedral arrowheads with sockets are the most common projectile found in Tibet, some types of which are many centuries old. For cross-cultural comparisons see, Bellezza 2008, pp. 94, 105, 125, 126.

On the historical persistence and wide distribution of the recurve bow in the rock art of Upper Tibet, see the March 2013 Flight of the Khyung.

Equestrian technology and the recurve bow proved a potent combination for the hunting of wild yaks in Upper Tibet, as more than 250 rock art compositions reveal. The horse provided the transport needed to reach hunting grounds and the speed and agility required to pursue fleet-footed wild yaks. Also, the height from which riders could shoot an arrow on horseback afforded them extra tactical advantage. The draw weight of a recurve bow, some of which must have been made from composite materials (horn, wood, sinew, etc.) varies according to design, but could potentially be of enough magnitude to dispatch wild yaks.* Upper Tibetan rock art, with its scenes of yaks wild impaled by the arrows of hunters coming in for the final kill, surely suggests that this was indeed the reality.

Dotson (2013: 69 [n. 18]) opines that poisoned arrows (mda’-dug ) may possibly have been used in wild yak hunting due to their thick hide. While this may have been the case in certain circumstances, the lethality of the recurve bow should not be underestimated.

The horse continued to be an essential part of wild yak hunting on the Tibetan Plateau in the Imperial period (ca. 650–850 CE). In recent years, painted wooden coffins have been unearthed from various Tibeto-Tuyuhun tombs on the northeastern extremity of the Tibetan Plateau. These extraordinary finds come from the Dulan area, in Qinghai province. Native as well as Tang and Central Asian artistic features characterize these coffins. As I have shown (2013: 244-246), these paintings, at least in part, mimic archaic funerary rites enshrined in Old Tibetan literature. The scenes painted on wooden coffins have archers on horseback attacking game; most commonly, wild yaks and deer. Some of the best preserved painted coffins were discovered in Guolimu, where several panels have survived remarkably intact after some 1300 years.*

On one panel of a coffin from Guolimu, three horsemen from behind and one in front assail two wild yaks with bows and arrows, one of which is bleeding (Tong Tao 2008: 154, 418). The wild yaks are also being pursued by a red-colored hound, confirming that canines were used by mounted archers on the Tibetan Plateau in the Imperial period. On another wooden panel, there are wild yak and deer hunters; one of the horse riders faces backwards to shoot his bow and arrow (ibid., 420), a technique also documented in Upper Tibetan rock art. On another panel two horsemen are in close pursuit of three alarmed yaks (ibid., 159). The dress of the various hunters depicted on the Guolimu coffins is characterized as “Tibetan garb” (ibid., 100). Furthermore, figures whose faces are marked with red in the paintings practice a well documented Tibetan custom (cf. Heller 2013: 21). Thematically, the coffin paintings of Guolimu correspond closely with painted coffins of the related Xianbei culture (ca. 4th–5th century CE; Tong Tao, 179). More broadly, of course, hunting scenes in a funerary setting occur throughout Eurasia.

The painted coffin panels from the northeastern Tibetan Plateau support the notion that some wild yak hunting compositions in Upper Tibetan rock art may have had ritualistic functions pertaining to death and the otherworld.* The painted coffins also demonstrate the centrality of wild yak hunting to the elite socio-political contingent of the Tibeto-Tuyuhun world. Those of a high status partook of this activity, in either an idealized or actual sense. As with the rock art of Upper Tibet, the paintings on coffins evince the high esteem in which wild yak (and deer) hunting was held.

Heller (2012: 12) considers that certain paintings may depict an idealized afterlife. This interpretation is well articulated in Tong and Wertmann (2010: 2002). According to Dotson (2013: 68), scenes on the painted coffins do not per se represent the experiences of the individuals interred, rather they are conventionalized depictions pertinent to the social world of the deceased. Heller (2013: 21) seems in agreement with this perspective, stating that the paintings encapsulate generic narratives.

There is also a class of Tibetan metallic objects that depicts yaks. These ancient objects are known as thokcha (thog-lcags) or thokde (thog-rde’u), a heterogeneous class of copper alloy talismans. The most common type depicts the head of a yak with an attachment loop on the back or holes for tying to clothing or other items. It is not clear if the wild or domestic yak (perhaps both) is represented in thokcha figuration.* The oldest specimens of yak-head thokcha date to the Iron Age and Protohistoric period, making them contemporaneous with wild yak hunting rock art in Upper Tibet. However, it is not known in what regions of Tibet these objects were actually fabricated. Thokcha of the historic era were intended to protect wearers and to instill the blessings of elemental and personal deities in the form of yaks. Presumably, those of the prehistoric era (pre-650 CE) carried similar significance.

For yak (and sheep) head amulets, see Bellezza 1998, pp. 56 (fig. 42), 60 (fig. 58); John 2006, pp. 130-132; Lin 2003, p. 90. Most specimens illustrated in these works date to the historic era (post-650 CE). The only potentially older example (on design and stylistic grounds) is the lowermost specimen in Lin (ibid.). The earliest genres of yak-head thokcha have yet to be published. There are also Tibetan copper alloy talismans in the form of a complete yak. For one early specimen (Protohistoric period?) and one later example (historic era) of a full-bodied yak, see Bellezza 2004, fig. 1c.

Of special interest to this study are fan-shaped openwork copper alloy plaques with rows of wild animals, including wild yaks in some cases.* These objects are of considerable intricacy and technological sophistication. Indications are that they were made in Upper Tibet and date to the Iron Age. A ritual or ceremonial functions is suggested, as they have small stems for erection in a substrate or for attachment. In addition to depicting game animals such as the wild yak and antelope, one specimen features a predator scene consisting of an onager being savaged by two tigers. This seems to confirm a link with the venatic culture of Upper Tibet.

See February 2016 Flight of the Khyung, figs. 1–6; December 2010 Flight of the Khyung, fig. 10.

A copper ally mirror of Tibetan provenance and Iron Age antiquity also published recently boasts a middle ring of embossed wild yaks, as well as an outer ring of hares and another kind of animal in the inner ring.* These embossed animals are rendered in the Eurasian animal style. This figured mirror almost certainly had ritual purposes (in historic times, metal mirrors in Tibet were used for divination and for collecting the consciousness of deities).

See December 2014 Flight of the Khyung, fig. 7. Bronze belt buckles with full-bodied bovids and bovid head talismans (some are yaks) are well known from the Ordos and Mongolia; many of which are attributed to the Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu) culture. For example, see Loo 1933, pl. 11 (figs. 4, 6, 7, 8), pl. 25 (fig. 4), pl. 26 (fig. 3); Bunker 2002, pp. 98 (fig. 65), 99 (fig. 66), 139 (fig. 113). For comment on a Xiongnu felt carpet from Noin-Ula (Mongolia) with a yak and other animals, see Ishjmats 1994, p. 156. There are of course chronological links between the yak art of the Tibetans and Xiongnu, but how this zoomorphic imagery might have been informed by intercultural exchanges is unknown.

Wild yak hunting in early Tibetan texts

In addition to the archaeological and art historical evidence we have been examining for wild yak hunting in Upper Tibet, there exists an early literary record, throwing more light on the subject. In this article, I will not consider more recent references to hunting in Tibetan literature, an area of study that would add further scope to the subject, but is further removed in time from the rock art that concerns us.

Among the best sources of information on wild yak hunting are documents composed in the Early Historic period (ca. 650–1000 CE). Here we will consider two major aggregations of these manuscripts, the Dunhuang and Gathang Bumpa collections. Accounts of hunting wild yaks are abbreviated in these documents but highly informative just the same. They occur as part of origin myths detailing the formation and dispensation of healing and death rituals. Set in the distant past, these myths contain archetypal narratives designed to legitimatize ritual practices by priests (bon and gshen) of the Early Historic period. Generally speaking, these priests propagated non-Buddhist ritual traditions of an archaic cultural character.

References to hunting in the origin myths of the Dunhuang and Gathang Bumpa manuscripts are especially important for our purposes, because most of them appear to be set in Upper Tibet, the area with the greatest body of wild yak hunting rock art on the Tibetan Plateau. These textual accounts of wild yak hunting confirm that it was the domain of males and conducted using the bow and arrow. The ritual origin myths portray the wild yak as a dangerous adversary, the taker of human lives and the lives of horses.* By virtue of the prototypic personalities (heroic and ancestral) embedded in these tales, they indicate that wild yak hunting was an activity of high prestige. This enhances a parallel interpretation for the rock art of Upper Tibet as having elite overtones.

Still on the Changthang, wild yaks are seen as an enemy, for bulls poach female domesticated yaks and sometimes attack and kill humans (Huber 2012: 211). On his 1907 expedition through the northwestern Changthang, Sven Hedin described the following encounter: “One day a big wild yak, which had been wounded near the camp just when I arrived, made a furious attack upon me and my assistant and a footman. He was just at the side of my pony and ready to take it and myself on his horns, when he became aware of the footman, who was running for his life and had just fallen. The yak went over him and hurt him badly, but left us alone.” See Hedin 1907, p. 541.

A typical account of wild yak hunting in the Dunhuang collections is found in a manuscript designated Pt (Pelliot tibétain) 1136, a work featuring two origins myths for specially bred horses believed to transport deceased males to the celestial afterlife. The tale retails the obtainment of the first pyschopomp horses (do-ma), in order that the funeral of an ancestral personality slain by a wild yak could be successfully completed.* This primordial figure was named Smra Man (Smra-myi),† and he and his bosom friend,  Rma-myi, hailed from Joyous Northern Lands (Dga’-yul byang-nams), a boreal country associated with the afterlife. Smra Man left this paradise and “went to hunt yaks, to hunt wild yaks, in Byang-’brog snam-stod”.‡ This is a northern wilderness that can probably be identified with a wide area of the northern Changthang. However, while hunting, “The wild yak human killer (myi-gshed) cut to pieces (gdum du bltang) the man sMra-myi ste btsun-po and his horse, killing them; they were no more.”§

For a translation and discussion of the two origin myths in Pt 1136, see Bellezza 2008, pp. 517–529.

Smra is an appellation for both primal human beings and people of the Zhang Zhung kingdom. These two senses of the word are probably interrelated, given the formative place of Upper Tibet in the constitution of Tibetan culture and civilization. On this subject, see Bellezza 2010, pp. 70–72; “Gyapa Jo Khar and the historical signification of the term Zhang Zhung”, in the June 2013 Flight of the Khyung.

byang ’brog snam stod du g.yag shor ’brong ’gor du gshegsna /.

’brong ba myi gshed gyis smra myi ste btsun po zhig myi rta gdum du {bltang} ste bkrongs gyis ma mchis so /.

In another Dunhuang manuscript, Pt 1134, bearing several origin myths for an archaic funerary ritual performance, there is another tragic tale in which hunting was the cause of death. this work the hunting of wild yaks is designated by the same verb: gor (sic). This narrative also occurs in a wilderness or isolated areas (’brog), recalling the Changthang. The ill-fated hunter is named Gdangs dre’u-rje btshan-ba:

While going to hunt deer and hunt wild yak at ’Brog dbye-na lteng-gsum, atop the rock formation of Sky Rock Soaring Rock (Gnam-brag gdings-brag) [Gdangs dre’u-rje btshan-ba] became distracted (yengs) on horseback [and fell down]. Gdangs dre’u-rje btshan-ba perished (grongs) in this fatal accident (dri) and was no more.*

’Brog dbye na lteng sum du / sha shord ’brong gor du gshegs/na brag gnam brag / gdings (Classical Tibetan = lding) brag gi ka nas chibs ka yengste / gdangs dre’u rje btshan ba drir grongs gyis myed/. The tale in which this excerpt occurs is examined in Bellezza 2008, pp. 510–512.

The use of the term ’gor for the hunting of wild yaks also occurs in a text of ransom rituals, ITJ 734 (India Office Library texts from Dunhuang): g.yag ’gor du gsheg (“went to hunt wild yaks”). It is also found in a Dunhuang ritual healing text Pt 1285, which contains another important word for the infinitive ‘to hunt’ (shor).*

sha shor ‘brong ’gor du bzhud (“departed to hunt deer and to hunt wild yaks”). An analysis of the word ’gor and shor/shord/bshor, using the same Dunhuang documents presented above, was made by Dotson (2013) in his excellent paper on state-sponsored hunting traditions in imperial Tibet. He observes that ’gor probably literally means ‘encircle’. He discusses the possible Indo-European linguistic roots of this term and wider Eurasian analogies to the ring hunt. See op. cit., Dotson 2013, pp. 66–69. There is much grammatical evidence to substantiate Dotson’s understanding of the literal meaning of ’gor. For instance, refer to gor-gor (circular, round), gor-rdo (pebble rounded by the action of running water), gor-ma (round stone), ’gor-lam (longer route, detour, roundabout), ’gor-po (slow, time-consuming; as in meanderingly); also sgor, a stem that denotes circularity; e.g., sgor-thig (circumference), sgor-bro (circle dance), sgor-dbyibs (circular shape), sgor-mig (round hole), etc. On the expression sha shor ’brong ’gor, also see Stein 2010, pp. 262, 263.

In the Dunhuang manuscript ITJ 731, there is an extensive tale detailing the mythic origins of horses used in rites to mystically transport the dead to the otherworld. It begins by recounting the separation of the horse from the onager, and goes on to describe an encounter between a horse and wild yak. This horse is the eldest of three equid brothers and is named Yid kyi gdang-byam/Yid kyi gdang pyam. In the northern pastureland of Byang-ka snam-brgyad, the elder brother was confronted by the father (archetypal) wild yak named Skar-ba. Skar-ba proclaimed that he had been given these grazing grounds by the Tibetan ancestral god Yab-bla bdag-drug of the Pya (Classical Tibetan: Phya , a major ancestral lineage of deities and kings). Then, without further discussion, Skar-ba killed Yid kyi gdang-byam, flinging him from horn to horn. After disowning the cowardly middle brother, the youngest of the three equid brothers, Khug-ron rmang-dar, resolved to take revenge on the murderous wild yak. He went to the land of humans, Myi-yul skyi-mthing, and formed a lifelong bond with the man Rma-bu ldam-shad. When the time came to exact their revenge on the wild yak Skar-ba, Khug-ron rmang-dar carried Rma-bu ldam-shad to Byang-kha snam-brgyad. The text states:

The man Rma-bu ldam-shar… He untied the {bow} from the rear of the horse. At first, he went as close as he could to the wild yak Skar-ba, he went close (thud thud). In pursuit, the younger brother was shaking (breng breng). The man Rma-bu ldan-shar (sic) drew his bow, yes, and aimed his arrow…* The wild yak Skar-ba was killed (bkhum) there.†

mchog gar ni dra bkhug glu dmar {ni} ldang bzar. In Bon texts, this archaic expression is styled mchog dkar gra bkug dang / li mar ltang bzar (alternatively, sbyar) /. In spoken and written Tibetan, the commonly used phrase is mda’ gzhu (arrow and bow).

myi rma bu ldan shar gyis…/ {mchog} dkar ni pongs la bkhrol te sngun na chi thud thud na ’brong g.yag skar ba thud thud pyi na {…} na nu khug ron rmang dar breng breng myi rma bu ldan shar gyis mchog gar ni dra bkhug glu dmar {ni} ldang bzar te …/ ’brong g.yag skar ba ni de ru bkhum mo //. On the wild yak Skar-ba in ITJ 731, also see Stein 1971, pp. 486, 487; Thomas 1957, “Texts, Translations and Notes”, p. 2.

The killer wild yak Skar-ba is also mentioned in another Old Tibetan origin myth of the Gathang Bumpa collection of manuscripts.* This manuscript preserves several etiologic tales for a type of ransom offering called byol, in which animal sacrifice plays a prominent role. The role of the wild yak Skar-ba in disparate origin myths indicates that he serves as a trope in cultural and historical lore, which circulated widely in Tibet in the Early Historic period. Rather than being a single personality rooted in a specific time and place, Skar-ba emerges as an archetypal figure in narrative expression, serving as a metaphor for the hazards posed by wild yaks in the north country. According to the Gathang Bumpa text, after pilfering valuables from an elaborate ransom offering, a wealthy hunter faced terrible retribution. The text says:

As the only son of the wealthy was befallen by bad omens and grievous harm, the man was taken on the right horn of the northern [wild] yak Skar-ba. His horse was taken on the left horn. They nearly perished (nongs ma-khad).†

In another ritual text of the Gathang Bumpa collection entitled text Sha ru shul ston rabs, the wild yak also appears as a metaphor for death. In this account a demon child is equated with the killer wild yak: “If we don’t kill this son of the wild yak when it is young, when it grows up it will gore (rdung) the horse” (’brang (= ’brong) g.yag gyĭ bu’ chung du ma bsad na’  // skyes nas (= na’) rta la rdung C.T. = brdung). See Bellezza 2013, p. 195. According to a local oral tradition, the huge necropolis of Rkyang-rtswa mdo gyang-ro (Shan-rtsa County) is the place where the head of the giant soul wild yak (bla-’brong) of the demonic ruler Bdud klu-btsan was buried. On the slaying of this wild yak, also see Karmay 1993, p. 236. The many funerary pillars of this site are said to be the bones and flesh of this wild yak, which embodied the vital essence of the demon king. See Bellezza 2002a, p. 118. A wild yak demon (bdud-’brong), usually black in color, is subdued by remedial deities in the trances of spirit-mediums (lha-pa) in contemporary Upper Tibet.

Phyug gyi bu cig po la // ltas ngan byol bab nas // byung g.yag skar ba’i rwa g.yas bas // myi blangs / rwa g.yon pas rta blangs de / nong ma khad na //. For the full origin myth see Bellezza 2010, pp. 92, 93.

Without exception, the myths we have been examining are set in prehistoric or primal times, thus there is some temporal correspondence with wild yak hunting rock art, if only in a figurative sense. The activities recorded in these accounts such as hunting and foraging, however, had a firm basis in the cultural realities of early Tibet. As Dotson (2013: 69) also conveys, the hunters in Old Tibetan documents are legendary personalities who serve a paradigmatic function in the origins myths of various ritual traditions, rather than historical figures presented in a documentary framework.

The vocabulary of hunting in Tibetan is varied. The most common word for “hunter” is rngon-pa, but synonyms include shor-ba (hunter), khyi-ra-ba (hunter with hounds) and lings-pa (hunter of herds).* A specialized phrase for hunting cited in various Old Tibetan documents is dgo-’drim (to hunt gazelle or possibly antelope).† Also, in the Old Tibetan Annals, Tibetan kings of the imperial period depart on five different occasions to ‘sport’ (hunt) in the north (byang rol du gshegs; Dotson 2013: 79).

On the lings technique, a large group hunt, see Dotson 2013, p. 63. Dotson (ibid., 70, 71) furnishes comparative analysis of lings from Old Tibetan texts, a term used in administrative vocabulary of imperial Tibet, which was applied to the group hunting of wild yaks and deer. He (ibid., 76–80) also discusses the prospect that lings is a loan word of Central Asian origins, as part of wider Eurasian royal hunting traditions. The culturally variable royal hunt in Eurasia typically served as an instrument of political patronage and sovereign power. Royal expeditions favored the ring hunt technique, whereby many (even thousands) of personnel surrounded game. This technique was especially well suited to the open spaces of Central Asia and the Middle East. On these and other aspects of the royal hunt see, Allsen 2006, pp. 1–13, 21–32.

For references to the expression dgo-’drim/go-’grem/rgo-’drim, see Stein 2010, pp. 262, 263; Dotson 2013, p. 66; Bellezza 2008, pp. 473 (n. 375), 539; 2010, p. 93.

The literary accounts examined above vividly portray the dangers of the wild yak, a reputation no doubt gained through long experience with the animal. It was the hunter, as in the document ITJ 731 or in the rock art of Upper Tibet, who had the power to challenge and overcome this creature. Nevertheless, not all wild yaks in Old Tibetan literature are evil beings. Some are beneficial, even divine in character.

In the Dunhuang text Pt 1068, there is an origin myth for the first psychopomp bovid that transported deceased females to the celestial land of the ancestors.* This yak hybrid (mdzo-mo), Mdzo-mo drang-ma, had as her parents the wild yak patriarch Wild Yak Golden Horns (’Brong-bu ru-gser) and a female yak.† Mdzo-mo drang-ma was led by the brother of a girl who died in a terrible state to a district in the environs of Lhasa, Skyi-ro lcang-sngon, so that she could be mystically carried across a river separating the infernal realm from paradise.‡

For this origins myth see, Bellezza 2008, pp. 538–541.

The word wild yak also occurs in the names of the 14th king of Tibet, ’Brong zher legs, and the 30th king, ’Brong-gnyan lde-ru, reflecting antiquated onomastic customs. An archaic synonym for wild yak is khod-mo/kho-mo/kod-mo (also in Classical Tibetan: kho-ma). This word always seems to carry positive connotations. It occurs in Old Tibetan documents and in ancient passages written in Classical Tibetan. For example, in the famous historical text Rgyal po bka’ thang, the seventh king of Tibet, Khri-sde leg-po (also called Khri-spen btsan-po) founded a temple (gsas-mkhar) known as Kho-ma ru-ring (Long Horn Wild Yak; Bellezza 2008: 293). The word ’brong is sometimes a component of toponyms in Upper Tibet, e.g., ’Brong tshang (Wild Yak Haunts), ’Brong mtsho (Wild Yak Lake) and ’Brong la (Wild Yak Pass), and in other areas of Tibet as well.

An archaic term, gar-gshog, appears to denote the characteristic long, bristly hair of the belly and legs of wild yaks (cf. Bellezza 2005: 441). Ostensibly, this long hair resembled wings (gshog-pa). This Tibetanized term appears to be derived from the Zhang Zhung language, where we find the word gar-gcog as denoting the wild yak (Pasar, et al. 2008: 32). In the cant of Upper Tibetan hunters there were different names for each kind of wild yak depending on the coloration of the fur, shape of the horns, behavior, etc. On three of these special names, see Bellezza 2008, p. 462 (n. 345).

At some burial tumuli in Central Tibet animals such as horses, cattle, yaks, sheep and dogs were interred in sacrificial pits or trenches arranged in front of the mounds, or these animals were interred inside the tombs themselves (Tong Tao 2008: 97). This archaeological evidence, particularly the herbivore bones, can be correlated with archaic funerary rites in Old Tibetan literature, either as the remains of psychopomps or as sacrificial offerings used in the subjugation of infernal demons.

As we have seen, the wild yak has both negative and positive qualities, as the case may be. Its ambiguous nature is reflected in the pantheon of territorial, protective and personal of spirits, who also stand for or against the interests of human beings. Whether acting as a force for good or evil, the wild yak is always showcased in ancient Tibetan literature as a formidable being.

The most celebrated story of the Imperial period illustrating the awe in which the wild yak is held is contained in the Old Tibetan Chronicle. This documents says that in her call to arms, a disaffected princess named Sad-mar-kar employed the metaphor of the slaying and butchering of a wild yak, in her plot to destroy Zhang Zhung with the aid of the noble clans of Central Tibet.* In the Gathang Bumpa text Sha ru shul ston, the elevated stature of the wild yak is mirrored in a creation myth featuring two wild yaks in combat, which represent the sky and earth, the binary agents of creation (Bellezza 2013: 210, 211). Another indication of the preeminence of the wild yak in ancient times is also found in Sha ru shul ston, where it is recorded that a prominent family in a region called Upper Spug enjoyed as their patrimony the wild yak of the north (byang gyi ’brong-bu; ibid., 206).

For this account see Macdonald 1971, pp. 264, 265; Uray 1972, pp. 35–36; Dotson 2013, pp. 61, 62.

The desirability of the wild yak in ancient Tibet was reflected in the economic life of her inhabitants. The use of wild yak horns as vessels, hair for tent fabrics, carpets, bags and cordage, the downy undercoat for clothing and blankets, the tail for fly swatters, the gut for lines and containers, etc. all have the appearance of considerable antiquity. Furthermore, according to folklore, hardened wild yak hides were once employed to make building materials for the construction of shelters (Bellezza 2008: 288).*

On products made from yaks (and miscellaneous historical notes), including the yak tail whisk, and the cylindrical vexillum made of braided yak hair (thug) and its etymological connections to the battle standard of ancient Turks, see “Martin, Dan. 2008: “Yaks, a Few Useful Bits”, in Tibeto-Logic, March 6, 2008.

The divine status of the wild yak

It is in the religious arena that the exceptional value of the wild yak in olden Tibet is most loudly voiced. Bon texts tell us that among the types of hats worn by ancient priests, the gshen and bon, were those made of wild yak hide (ibid., 239), part of a wider religious relationship between this animal and humans. In some instances, this interspecies link acquired a dramatic dimension. According to a Bon text of the Ma-rgyud tantric cycle, a prehistoric adept named Shad-pu ra-khug used wild yaks as pack animals (Bellezza 2008: 212, 215). In another Bon text, Rigs ’dzin rig pa’i thugs rgyud, a saint called Spe-bon thog-rtse is said to have been served by wild yaks (Bellezza 2001: 58).

Tibetan literature tells us that one of the main functions of priests in ancient times was the discharge of funerary rites. In archaic funerary rituals of Old Tibetan and Bon literature, we find the wild yak skin carpet (rtan) in conjunction with the erection of a tent, cords for binding demons made of wild yak leather (’brong gi sgrog), wild yak skin bags to harbor the consciousness of the dead during evocation rites (gshin-sgro), and the flayed skin (g.yang-gzhi) of a wild yak to beat the ground in an act of subduing infernal beings attempting to seize the deceased.*

For the wild yak skin carpet and cord in Pt 1134, ITJ 731r, Pt 1136, and Bon texts, see Bellezza 2013, pp. 26 (n. 41), 229, 231; 2008 pp. 409 (n. 171), 513, 521, 537. On the wild yak skin bag: ibid., pp. 436, 438, 439. On the flayed wild yak skins: ibid., pp. 440, 441. In modern Upper Tibet, a cord for protection (srung-mdud) braided from wild yak hair by a well known spirit-medium (lha-pa) was tied to both people and animals to prevent them from being struck by lightning.

In the historic era, both wild and domestic yak had numerous divine forms as protective, ancestral and territorial spirits, especially in Upper Tibet. To some degree or another, this can be correlated to the great proliferation of rock art dedicated to this essential bovid in Upper Tibet. While it cannot be verified that certain rock art compositions depict numinous wild yaks, this remains a distinct possibility. Among the earliest textual references to divine yaks occurs in the Dunhuang manuscript, Pt 126, as part of an ensemble of offerings to protective spirits known as sku-bla (Claasical Tibet: sku-lha), where they are called lha-’bri-zal-mo (female) and g.yag-sham-po (male; Bellezza 2005: 341, 342). These divine emanations of yaks are also well known in Classical Tibetan ritual texts and in popular religion. They often appear in name or in form in the retinues of important territorial deities.* Wild yaks, or much more commonly simulacra made of dough, are also given to a broad wide range of indigenous deities as gifts and for riding.

For example, the maternal uncle of the famous mountain god Gnyan-chen thang-lha is ’Brong-rnyan ser-po (Yellow Wild Yak Argali) or ’Brong-gnyan thang-po. This spirit is described as riding a white horse with a turquoise mane. A member in the retinue of the prominent Changthang mountain god Nam-ra is ’Brong-nag mtsho-sman (Black Wild Yak Lake Goddess). See Bellezza 2005, pp. 191, 280, 281.

In the Old Tibetan text Gnag rabs, there is a closely related warrior spirit (gra-bla; more commonly: sgra-bla/dgra-bla/dgra-lha) in the guise of a white-colored yak, G.yag-gsas dkar-po, who is identical to the warrior spirit protector of the famed ’Gru clan (Bellezza 2014c: 171, 172). In western Tibet there is a group of 13 warrior deities manifesting as wild yaks called ’Brong-g.yag dar-ma bcu-gsum, which is reputed to be ancient (Bellezza 2001: 195).* Another divine form of the yak is the cosmogonic spirit Srid kyi g.yag-po dkar-po (White Yak of Existence; Tucci 1980: 219, 220).

In the tradition of spirit-mediumship in Upper Tibet, related remedial spirits in the form of wild yaks include Lha-’brong dkar-po (Divine White Wild Yak, for summoning good fortune), Thang-lha’i ’brong-’dur rag-pa (Gnyan-chen thang-lha’s Trotting Wild Yak, for sucking out impurities), ’Brong-’dur kham-pa (Bay-Colored Trotting Wild Yak, a remedial spirit), Thang-lha’i g.yag-gshog gwa-pa (White-Faced Winged [Wild] Yak of Thang-lha, a protector of cattle), and  Bsam-yas ’brong-’dur (Trotting Wild Yak of Bsam-yas Monastery, cures bovine diseases). A telling line comes from the utterances of the great Upper Tibetan spirit-medium Pho-bo srid-rgyal whilst in trance: “I fumigate the dgra-lha who are like a herd of congregating wild yaks” (dgra lha ’brong khyu rub ’dra bsang / 2011b: 18, ln. 134). On the tradition of spirit-mediumship in Upper Tibet, see Bellezza 2005; 2011b; 2012; 2015.

Probably the best known and most powerful deity in the form of a wild yak is Ge-khod (Demon Destroyer), the chief god of Zhang Zhung, according to the Bon tradition.* The theogony of this figure, a mountain and warrior god in his original form, unfolds near ’Bri-ra phug. This monastery is situated on the circumambulatory route around Tibet’s most important sacred mountain, Ti-se. In a description of Ge-khod’s nine-fold descent to ’Bri-ra phug, he is said to have emanated as a wild yak. He appeared as a wild yak with blindingly bright horns (ru-zer dbal du ’phro) to control all the demons of Zhang Zhung. His consort Sgra-bla’i rgyal-mo and members of his retinue ride wild yaks.

On the theogony, iconography, and functions of Ge-khod, see Karmay 1998, pp. 389–412; Bellezza 2005, pp; 144–146, 399, 400, 414–416, 448–452; 2008, pp. 249–258, 300–329.

Finally, I shall make mention of two wild yak ancestral deities of the Gurungs in the Nepal Himalaya.* These are A-ba ’brong (Father Wild Yak,) and A-ma ’brong (Mother Wild Yak), who reside in sacred groves believed to link the upper and lower worlds. Annually, a deer is captured and sacrificed in the grove of A-ba ’brong by the Ghale, a prominent Gurung clan. The Gurungs trace this tradition north to Tibet in ancient times. Perhaps, therefore, at one time mother and father archetypal deities of Upper Tibet took on the form of wild yaks. If so, the religious roles of wild yak expounded upon above might be seen as a historical elaboration on this pair of elementary divinities. Also, a father and mother wild yak could go some way in explaining what appear to be sacred and mythic aspects in the relationship between humans and this bovid in the rock art of Upper Tibet illustrated below and in the final two parts of this article.

On these deities and deer sacrifice, see Mumford 1990, pp. 63–74.

Picture gallery and discussion of rock art of compositions

The 114 photographs selected for publication in this article represent a wide cross-section of wild yak hunting rock art in Upper Tibet. These images are presented below and in the next two newsletters (August and September). Part 1 of this article is dedicated to images of archers on foot attacking or associating with wild yaks (figs. 1–10). Next month the focus is on solitary wild yak hunters (figs. 11–49), while September’s Flight of the Khyung contains images of group hunting activities and related wild yak themes (figs. 50–114).

I have endeavored to present all major styles and themes characterizing these kinds of compositions.* Despite limited thematic variability in wild yak hunting compositions, they vary greatly in style and execution, the handiwork of many different artists over a period of some two millennia. Also illustrated are compositions in which archers and other figures are shown in close association with wild yaks in various types of scenes. These genres of rock art augment an understanding of the ritual and mystic aspects of wild yak hunting in ancient Upper Tibet.

In Suolang Wangdui’s (1994) landmark work on the rock art of Upper Tibet, there are a number wild yak hunting scenes of interest to this study, which are not illustrated here. They include compositions from Lu-ring la-kha (Lu-ring sna-kha), a site that was mostly destroyed by road construction several years ago (ibid., pp. 48, 49, 55). One of the compositions from Lu-ring sna-kha was a complex hunting scene with an oblong motif and a circle with another circle inside from which lines radiate. These subjects may possibly depict traps (ibid., p. 48 [fig. 4]).

Other notable wild yak hunting scenes in Suolang Wangdui’s book not included in this study are:
Ngang-lung (Iron Age): several different compositions including a composite hunting scene with wild yaks and deer (see pp. 58, 59, 62, 63).
Glag-po mtsho (Glog-po mtsho; Protohistoric period): standing archer in proximity to wild yak (p. 73 [fig. 41]).
Do-sgyur mtsho (Protohistoric period): horseman pursuing wild yak (p. 75 [fig. 47]).
Tshwa-kha (Dkyil-sgrum; Iron Age or Protohistoric period): four sunbursts, each with crescent moon, another crescent moon, circle, standing archer, mounted archer, and two or three wild yaks (p. 103 [fig. 95]).
Dkyil-sgrum (Protohistoric period): three riders and standing archer surrounding a wild yak; other figures may have been effaced by the abrasion of the stone surface (p. 107 [fig. 103]).
Rgya-gling (Iron Age): two standing archers with apparent hound and one yak with vertical line above hump (arrow (?); p. 120 [fig. 131]).
Rgya-gling (Iron Age: two wild yaks, standing archer and what appear to be two hounds in pursuit (p. 126 [fig. 146]).
Rgya-gling (Iron Age): two wild yaks, possible hound, other minor figures, and three anthropomorphs with unidentified linear objects (perhaps depicting the laying of a trap and or one figure with a lasso; p. 127 [fig. 147]).
Rgya-gling (Iron Age): anthropomorph with circular object (identified by Suolang Wangdui as a lasso; p. 128 [fig. 151]).
Rgya-gling (Iron Age): standing archer aiming at wild yak, and possibly one or two hunting dogs (p. 129 [fig. 152]).
Rgya-gling (Iron Age): composite hunting scene with wild yaks and mounted and standing archers possibly with hound (p. 130 [fig. 154]).

Petroglyphs were created using different carving and engraving techniques, with the effect of removing variable amounts of stone surfaces. Pictographs were painted in various shades of ochre using techniques producing pigment applications in varying thicknesses.

The individual figures that make up wild yak hunting compositions illustrated in this article are each between 2.5 cm and 40 cm long, with 7 cm to 25 cm being the average length. Note that male pronouns are employed as a literary convention in the descriptions that follow.

Chronological terms used in this work:

Late Bronze Age: ca. 1500–700 BCE (differential dating of late Bronze Age and early Iron Age omitted due to lack of data)
Iron Age: ca. 700–100 BCE
Protohistoric period: ca. 100 BCE to 650 CE
Early Historic period: ca. 650–1000 CE
Vestigial period: ca. 1000–1300 CE

Earliest wild yak hunting scenes
We begin this pictorial survey with compositions depicting archers hunting on foot. The first three of these images (fig. 1–3) have been selected as possibly representative of a phase of production predating the introduction of the riding horse in Upper Tibet. If indeed any of these three images predate fully developed equestrian arts in the region, they can be attributed to a period prior to ca. 800–600 BCE. The rarity of this rock art makes any such attribution of antiquity provisional at best. One would expect a pre-horse riding phase of rock art to be more extensive in scope. For instance, mascoids and chariots, the oldest examples of which predate the Iron Age, are much better represented in the rock art of Upper Tibet (see figs. 109, 112, 113).

Fig. 1. Archer on foot stalking a wild yak with recurve bow, western Changthang. Early Iron Age (?).

Fig. 1. Archer on foot stalking a wild yak with recurve bow, western Changthang. Early Iron Age (?).

The composite bow is identified through its double S shape. The position of the arms of the hunter depict the act of shooting a bow.* The thick curving line extending above the hunter’s head appears to be some kind of headdress, possibly recalling feathers, a type of head ornamentation mentioned in various Tibetan accounts of prehistoric ritual traditions.† Like the bow, the tail, body and head of the wild yak have the shape of a reverse S.

For this rock art, also see Bellezza 2008, p. 176 (fig. 311).

For these and other kinds of headdresses in Upper Tibetan rock art, see December 2013, January 2014, and August and September 2014 Flight of the Khyung.

Fig. 2. Five standing archers and two wild yaks situated in the middle of the rear wall of a small cave, Eastern Changthang. Late Bronze Age (?).

Fig. 2. Five standing archers and two wild yaks situated in the middle of the rear wall of a small cave, Eastern Changthang. Late Bronze Age (?).

This composition occupies the very middle of the rear wall. Around this central location of the small cave is a mass of other rock art.* This locational clue, along with the artistic style, pigments and painting technique used to create the pictographs, may suggest that it predates the earliest compositions of hunters mounted on horseback in the same cave.

For this image, also see Suolang Wangdui 1997, p. 140 (fig. 171); Bellezza 1997, p. 245 (fig. 9). For a larger view of this cave, see Suolang Wangdui 1997, pp. 138 (fig. 168), 139 (fig. 170).

The bichrome yak on the left was painted in both a red and yellow ochre (oxides of iron). The outline simulating an inner body of this wild yak is a very unusual motif. An arrow has struck the beast, penetrating its outer body but only displacing the outline of the inner body. This rendering might convey that the inner outline simulates the spirit of the wild yak, which persists after death. Both wild yaks were executed with bold, angular lines. Numerous long, barbed lines portray the long hair of the belly, legs and tail of the animals. The head and horns of both wild yaks are relatively small. An arrow penetrates the front haunches of the wild yak on the right and its tail appears to be raised in terror. The archer nearest the wild yak on the left holds his bow horizontally at waist level, while the two largest and most distant archers appear to have their bows strung across their backs. The position of the bows at rest suggests that the scene depicts animals in the throes of death, the hunters having accomplished their mission. It is not clear if the second pair of hunters are armed. The quadruped in the bottom right corner of the image is not part of the same composition.

Fig. 3. On the left side of the rock panel a hunter comes face to face with a wild yak, far western Tibet. Possibly beginning of the Iron Age (800–500 CE). The hunter is aiming his bow at the chest of his prey. The identity of the two animals on the right is not clear; they may possibly be other wild yaks or even carnivores.

Fig. 3. On the left side of the rock panel a hunter comes face to face with a wild yak, far western Tibet. Possibly beginning of the Iron Age (800–500 CE). The hunter is aiming his bow at the chest of his prey. The identity of the two animals on the right is not clear; they may possibly be other wild yaks or even carnivores.

The horns of the wild yak form a circle and its tail a ball. Like figs, 1 and 2, this heavily re-patinated composition may possibly be evidence for wild yak hunting in the era before the advent of the riding horse. This is the only petroglyphic composition on the rock panel.

Hunters and other human figures on foot
The next group of images depicts standing archers in close proximity to wild yaks (figs. 4–9). This kind of composition makes up a small subgroup of wild yak hunting and related scenes in the rock art of Upper Tibet.

Fig. 4. Standing archer confronting a wild yak with his bow and arrow, central Changthang. A hound also attacks the wild yak and what may be a raptor hovers above the horns of the wild yak. Iron Age.

Fig. 4. Standing archer confronting a wild yak with his bow and arrow, central Changthang. A hound also attacks the wild yak and what may be a raptor hovers above the horns of the wild yak. Iron Age.

Scenes of ambulatory hunters directly facing wild yaks are rare in the rock art of Upper Tibet.* To hunt in close quarters like this would have put hunters in mortal danger, probably not a sustainable long-term or customary venatic strategy. The dog’s tail curls over its back forming a circle, and its ears and gaping mouth seem to be displayed in the carving. Together with what might be a hunting bird (eagle, hawk or falcon), this composition details the animal helpers of hunters in Upper Tibet. Nonetheless, evidence for falconry in Upper Tibetan rock art is very limited and canines are found in only a minority of wild yak hunting scenes. The neck of the hunter is inclined towards the wild yak as he is about to let loose his arrow. The exaggeratedly large tail of the wild yak stands straight up, a sign of great emotion. These are the only figures on the face of the boulder, save for a small animal near the top of the image. Although there are no horses in this composition, it can be dated to the Iron Age, a period in which the riding horse in Upper Tibet was known.

For this composition, also see Suolang Wangdui 1994, p. 131 (fig. 156).

Fig. 5. A larger-than life standing archer and wild yak, far western Tibet. Iron Age.

Fig. 5. A larger-than life standing archer and wild yak, far western Tibet. Iron Age.

In this composition the hunter (partially obscured in shadow) wields a bow nearly as large as the wild yak itself. The tip of the arrow being fired is even more gigantic. This hyperbolic portrayal insinuates that the hunter is shown fully in control of the situation. The percussive markings below the wild yak are an insignificant addition.

Fig. 6. Three wild yaks and standing archer facing in opposite direction with bow and arms raised, far western Tibet. Iron Age or Protohistoric period.

Fig. 6. Three wild yaks and standing archer facing in opposite direction with bow and arms raised, far western Tibet. Iron Age or Protohistoric period.

The uppermost wild yak is ornamented with a double volute, a motif characteristic of the Upper Tibetan branch of the Eurasian animal style.* Its head and horns form an open outline, as do the body and legs. There is a smaller wild yak between the upper specimen and the archer. It can be identified by its ball-shaped tail and round hump. The lowermost wild yak in the composition appears to have body ornamentation but it was not so well executed. The archer strikes a triumphant pose, his left leg flexed, arms raised. He seems to be wearing baggy pants and perhaps nothing else. The most interesting trait of the archer is that he is not explicitly killing wild yaks. Yet, the horns of the smallest yak appear almost to make contact with his body. Perhaps, therefore, this is a mythic or epic scene chronicling extraordinary activities. Alternatively, the archer may be depicted in the process of taming wild yaks or in some other demonstration of superiority or mastery over them.

A combination of curls marks the body of a wild yak at Domkhar, Ladakh (Bruneau and Bellezza 2013: 47), part of the wider distribution of Eurasian animal style rock art on the western Tibetan Plateau.

Fig. 7. Deeply carved wild yak and anthropomorph (figure in human form), far western Tibet. Iron Age.

Fig. 7. Deeply carved wild yak and anthropomorph (figure in human form), far western Tibet. Iron Age.

Details of this composition are lacking, because it was photographed in the glare of strong sunlight and the high levels of erosion. The human figure’s arms seem to be joined together to form a rectangle. This figure is in very close proximity to the wild yak but the nature of the action represented is obscure.

Fig. 8. Two lightly engraved bowman on foot pursuing two wild yaks, far western Tibet. Protohistoric period.

Fig. 8. Two lightly engraved bowman on foot pursuing two wild yaks, far western Tibet. Protohistoric period.

The hunters appear to wear tall headdresses and may possibly be depicted with the male sexual organ. They are preparing to shoot their arrows at the wild yaks.*

For this rock art, also see Sulonag Wangdui 1994, p. 87 (fig. 68).

Fig. 9. Bowman shooting at wild yak, far western Tibet. Probably Protohistoric period.

Fig. 9. Bowman shooting at wild yak, far western Tibet. Probably Protohistoric period.

This unusually detailed composition portrays a standing archer aiming his bow at a disproportionally small wild yak. This seems to signal that the animal is some distance from the hunter or of a lesser magnitude than him. The rear of the animal has been obliterated by the breakage of the rock panel. The hunter is attired in an ankle-length robe that closes right side over left, an archaic style of Tibetan dress. In recent centuries most Tibetan robes have closed in the opposite manner with the left panel on top. A sash tied around the waist is designated by a single line. The bottom half of the robe appears to be pleated or split. The hunter may be wearing a visor or tight-fitting cap on his round head. However, much of his face has been damaged. The remarkable detail of this carved figure suggests that it was made late in the Protohistoric period or possibly in the Early historic period.

Fig. 10. Wild yak with exaggeratedly large arrow-like motif suspended above it, central Changthang. Iron Age.

Fig. 10. Wild yak with exaggeratedly large arrow-like motif suspended above it, central Changthang. Iron Age.

This unusual composition appears to exhibit a large arrow pointing against the back of a wild yak. This composition best embodies a theme of hunting magic and the wish to bag a wild yak, or so it seems. The site in which this composition occurs is full of wild yak hunting rock art, so this interpretation suits the cultural and economic environment of the rock art makers.


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