John Vincent Bellezza
Join us for another Flight of the Khyung, your portal to the riddles of ancient Tibet! This month’s newsletter contains the second part of an article about fierce wild animals in the rock art of Upper Tibet. There are many pictures on view showing sleek carnivores chasing prey and acting as prime agents in compositions laden with magical meaning. The second feature in this newsletter reviews a recent article by Taylor et al. on the domestication of the horse in Mongolia and it role in burials of the Late Bronze Age. The third and final feature reviews an article on prehistoric textile discoveries made in Mustang, written by Gleba et al. This review contributes to our understanding of early exchange networks on the Tibetan Plateau. Please read on to uncover the prehistoric mysteries of innermost Asia.
For those interested in rock art depictions of cosmic birthing figures on the Western Tibetan Plateau, another example has been added to the August 2017 newsletter. See “Obscured for Centuries: The Lost Rock Art of Lo Mustang”, Part 2, fig. 9d.
The Prototypic Hunters of the High Plateau: Wild carnivores in the rock art of Upper Tibet – Part 2
See last month’s Flight of the Khyung for the first part of this article.
Gallery of Images
Group 4: Wild carnivores hunting wild ungulates
This largest group of wild carnivore rock art in Upper Tibet features one or more wild carnivores in close pursuit of prey. Wild carnivores are shown stalking and coursing their quarry in a variety of aspects. They mostly approach wild ungulates from the rear but also sometimes from the front. In a few compositions, wild carnivores are depicted devouring their kill.
Group 5: Wild carnivores in ostensible ritual, mythic and symbolic scenes
Although the portraits and hunting scenes of wild carnivores illustrated above are, at least in some cases, are probably infused with mythic, ritualistic and symbolic significance, the outwardly mundane nature of the aspect and contents of these compositions veils their deeper significance. On the other hand, the compositions in this group more graphically capture remarkable cultural ideologies and activities. This is a highly diverse assortment of petroglyphs and pictographs, expanding the role of wild carnivores in the rock art of Upper Tibet.
The Origins of Horseback Riding in Mongolia: A review of a recent paper by Taylor et al.
This study reviews the following article: William Timothy Treal Taylor, Burentogtokh Jargalan, K. Bryce Lowry, Julia Clark, Tumurbaatar Tuvshinjargal, and Jamsranjav Bayarsaikhan. 2017. “A Bayesian chronology for early domestic horse use in the Eastern Steppe”, in Journal of Archaeological Science vol. 81, pp. 49–58. Elsevier.
The main aim of the Taylor et al. article is to pinpoint when horseback riding began on the Mongolian steppe. After reviewing the findings and conclusions of this work, its potential implications for the introduction of horseback riding in Tibet are considered.
The Taylor et al. article analyzes a large sample of radiocarbon dates obtained for horse remains unearthed by various archaeological expeditions in Mongolia. These horse bones belong to the Deer Stone-Khirigsuur (DSK) culture, consisting of sites with interrelated funerary mounds and stelae. Utilizing a Bayesian model of statistical inference, the authors provide a more reliable chronological range for series of radiocarbon dates. Their calculation of dating probabilities confirms that there was a rapid spread of horse ritualism in the eastern steppe associated with the DSK culture around 1200 BCE. However, it has not been determined if this cultural activity was associated with the introduction of the domestic horse in Mongolia or simply with the adoption of horseback riding.*
There has been very limited faunal analysis carried out for remains predating the DSK culture. Prior to the DSK culture in Mongolia, there may have been low frequency use of the domestic horse for traction (probably restricted to pulling chariots and/or carts). See William Timothy Treal Taylor. 2017. “The Origins of Horse Herding and Transport in the Eastern Steppe”, Ph.D. dissertation, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. The remains of a wooden cart have been found in a barrow labeled Khuurai-Gov’ No. 1, in Baian-Ölgii aimag (northwestern Mongolia), belonging to the Afanasievo cultural complex and dated to the end of the first half of the third millennium BCE. Only the bed of the vehicle was detected and it contained an array of burial goods. On this important discovery, see: Alexei A. Kovalev and Diimaazhav Erdenebaatar. 2009. “Discovery of New Cultures of the Bronze Age in Mongolia According to the Data Obtained by the International Central Asian Archaeological Expedition”, in Current Archaeological Research in Mongolia. Papers from the First International Conference on “Archaeological Research in Mongolia” held in Ulaanbaatar, August 19th–23rd, 2007” (ed. J. Bemmann et al.), pp. 149–170. Bonn Contributions to Asian Archaeology, vol. 4. Bonn: Vor- und Fruhgeschichtliche Archaologie Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universitat Bonn.
Also see: J. P. Mallory. 2010. “Bronze Age Languages of The Tarim Basin”, in Expedition, vol. 52 (no. 3), pp. 44–53. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. http://penn.museum/documents/publications/expedition/PDFs/52-3/mallory.pdf
This discovery of remnants of wheeled vehicle indicates that animal traction first appeared in the region long before the rise of the pre-Scythic DSK culture. This is supported by an extensive body of petroglyphs depicting horse-drawn chariots in western and central Mongolia. Nonetheless, it is possible that some wheeled vehicles, like the one found in Khuurai-Gov’ No. 1 barrow, relied upon oxen for traction.
Although there is archaeological evidence suggesting that pastoralism in Mongolia may have originated as early as the third millennium BCE (after Eregzen 2016; Janz et al. 2017; Kovalev and Erdenebaatar 2010), Taylor et al. maintain that the introduction of horse riding facilitated herding by increasing the mobility and efficiency of herders. This coincided with the appearance of funerary stelae called deer stones in steppic regions of Mongolia, Tuva, northern Xinjiang and eastern Kazakhstan (after Bayarsaikhan 2016; Fitzhugh 2009; Volkov, 2002).* However, the authors note that this may possibly have occurred around one century after associated funerary mounds known as khirigsuurs were first constructed in Mongolia. They also observe that as satellite features containing horse remains postdate the oldest khirigsuurs, horse ritualism appears to have been incorporated into a pre-existing cultural milieu, rather than spread through demic influx. The chronology of the khirigsuurs, however, is derived from radiocarbon analysis of human bones, and the authors rightfully caution that chronological biases resulting from significant freshwater dietary sources cannot be ruled out until a study of ancient and modern isotope signatures is conducted.
Calibrated radiocarbon dates for organic materials obtained from DSK sites in Kazakhstan, Tuva, Xinjiang, Kyrgyzstan, etc. are still lacking (W. Taylor, principal author of article under review, in personal communication).
The builders of the DSK funerary monuments appear to have relied upon sheep, goats and cattle for their subsistence (after Clark, 2014; Houle, 2010), and dwelt exclusively in impermanent structures (after Allard et al. 2007; Houle, 2010). Charcoal and calcined bone fragments of sheep/goat and cattle and horse skeletal remains are regularly found on the periphery of DSK sites, attesting to sacrificial activities (Broderick et al. 2014). Regular patterns of horse skull deformation indicate that horses interred at DSK sites had been bridled and intensively used (after Taylor et al. 2015; Taylor 2016). Certain equine as well as human skeletal modifications are consistent with the adoption of horse riding (Taylor and Tuvshinjargal in press), although the use of the horse as a draft animal is also suggested by osteological analysis (Taylor 2017). The earliest metal horse tack, which was recovered from burials at Arzhan 1 and the Slab Grave culture, dates to the end of the DSK period, circa 800–700 BCE (after Fitzhugh 2009; Honeychurch et al. 2009).
The coming of draft horses to the central plains of China (after Kelekna 2009; Linduff 2003; Wu 2013) is concurrent with the appearance of horse sacrifices at DSK sites. Taylor et al. maintain that appearance of the domestic horse and chariots (two-wheeled vehicles) in China is linked to the expansion of horse ritualism and the erection of deer stones in Mongolia (cf. Honeychurch 2015; Shelach 2009). They state that improvements in horse transport leading to increased interaction with other groups probably prompted a geographically expanded ritual role for the horse. It is increasingly clear that augmented nomadic pastoralist networks dependent on horseback riding influenced patterns of trade and social interaction in Inner Asia (after Frachetti et al. 2017), and may well have facilitated exchange of metals, ideas and artistic styles over a wide area of eastern Eurasia (after Honeychurch 2015). That major pan-cultural changes in the Late Bronze Age, not merely endogenous adaptation, are involved in the patterns of horse ritualism observed is supported by coeval dates for horse remains obtained from ‘shape burials’ in southern and eastern Mongolia, mortuary structures representing another archaeological culture (after Honeychurch 2015).
The findings of Taylor et al. suggest that Late Bronze Age cultural transformations associated with mobile pastoralism and horseback riding coincide with the aftermath of what may have been a prolonged drought in Mongolia and the diffusion of the horse more widely in East Asia. Citing studies that indicate an improving climate ca. 1500 BCE (after Feng et al., 2013; Propokenko et al., 2007; Wang et al. 2011), the authors believe that more productive grasslands may have provided ecological opportunities for herders to expand horse breeding and equestrian activities. This hypothesis contradicts an influential view that horse pastoralism in Mongolia was spurred on by deteriorating climatic conditions (after Khazanov 1984).
By more accurately plotting the age range of radiocarbon dates and drawing on key findings from other studies as well as their own evidence from the field and laboratory, the Taylor et al. article furnishes the best indication yet of when horse ritualism in the eastern steppe began. Their work highlights the need to better account for the absence of metal bridle components in Mongolia, prior to ca. 800 BCE. In part, this may be accomplished by more rigorous testing of a prevailing hypothesis, holding that only perishable bits and cheekpieces were used in the region prior to the ninth century BCE. To gain a clearer picture of the role of the horse in the mobile pastoralism of the eastern steppe, it is essential to determine if dated horse remains are related to the introduction of the domestic horse in Mongolia or just to the adoption of horseback riding. A significant conclusion of the Taylor et al. study is that favorable, not deleterious, climate change may have played a part in the development of horseback riding in Mongolia.
Of particular interest to Tibetan archaeology are the potential implications of the Taylor et al. study for understanding how the domestic horse, horseback riding and horse ritualism may have spread to the Tibetan Plateau. I have used collateral archaeological evidence from Upper Tibet to suggest that these various elements of horse use were introduced there in the early first millennium BCE, but any such assertion remains hypothetical.* Much of the archaeological evidence (monumental, rock art, artefactual) I have applied to an assessment of the origins of horse domestication, horseback riding and horse ritualism in Upper Tibet has not been securely dated. The uncertain chronology of the archaeological materials in question and the findings of the Taylor et al. study raise the prospect that horse use could possibly have reached the region somewhat earlier than the early first millennium BCE. Any such transfer to Upper Tibet of domestic horses, equestrian skills and technology, and the possible employment of horses in burial practices are predicated on rapid ideological and material exchanges of an intercultural and interregional nature.
This evidence is laid out in various works including the March 2016 and January 2017 Flight of the Khyung, as well as in my hard copy publications, including Antiquities of Upper Tibet (2002) and Zhang Zhung (2008). See “Books” section of website for bibliographic information.
The appearance of the domestic horse in the central plains of China in the 13th century BCE strongly suggests that pervasive exchanges of one kind or another permitted its rapid uptake in regions south and east of Mongolia. However, to postulate an equivalent network of equestrian transmission in regions to the south and west of Mongolia in the same period is more difficult to sustain with the archaeological data available. The earliest evidence for horse transport in southern Xinjiang includes copper alloy bits, but these do not appear to predate 1000 BCE.* Southern Xinjiang is of course geographically intermediate between the eastern steppe and Upper Tibet. Moreover, the possible transfer of chariot technology and vocabulary from the western steppe to Xinjiang and thence to China in the Late Bronze Age must be taken into consideration. The discovery of two wooden wheel hubs each with sockets for around 16 wooden spokes at a site rich in cultural deposits known as Dalitaliha, on the Qinghai portion of the Tibetan Plateau, must also be weighed.† Unfortunately, artifacts recovered from this site have not been securely dated, and assignment on stylistic grounds to 1500 BCE or even earlier remains unverified. Any such west-east transmission of chariot technology fits well with the discovery of chariot petroglyphs in Upper Tibet, Ladakh and northern Pakistan.
See Mayke Wagner, Xinhua Wu, Pavel Tarasov, Ailijiang Aisha, Christopher Bronk Ramsey, Michael Schultz, Tyede Schmidt-Schultzf, and Julia Greskya. 2011. “Radiocarbon-dated archaeological record of early first millennium B.C. mounted pastoralists in the Kunlun Mountains, China”, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, vol. 108 (no. 38), pp. 15733–15738. The authors of this study interpret copper alloy bits and bone cheekpieces recovered from the Liushiu cemetery as possibly belonging to highly valued riding horses. The location of these finds in summer pasturelands of the Kunlun mountains, around 2850 m in elevation, is more consistent with the use of mounted horses than with wheeled vehicles.
For a description of the Dalitaliha site, see Anthony J. Barbieri-Low. 2000. “Wheeled Vehicles in the Chinese Bronze Age (c. 2000–741 B.C.)”, in Sino-Platonic Papers (ed. V. H. Mair). Philadelphia: Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Pennsylvania.
The presence of chariots pulled by equids in petroglyphs of Upper Tibet accords well with the concomitant transfer of this transport technology or knowledge thereof as part of the same vector of cultural and technological transference that brought them to Xinjiang and Qinghai. Thus, western avenues of transmission, not eastern steppe routes, may have first brought the domestic horse to Upper Tibet. Nonetheless, this is not incompatible with the introduction of horseback riding in Upper Tibet as possibly belonging to another sphere of ideological and technological influence, one in which Late Bronze Age Mongolia loomed large.
Systematic archeozoological research is required to determine when the introduction of the riding horse occurred in Upper Tibet. It is imperative that a firm chronology, comprehensive osteological profiling and molecular analyses of early horse remains and that of other animal domesticates is established for the region. This would greatly aid in more precisely gauging the position of Upper Tibet in the expanded flow of communications (with its cultural, economic, sociopolitical, and technological ramifications) permeating southern Xinjiang and the eastern steppes in the Late Bronze Age.
The Ancient Textiles of Upper Mustang: A review of a recent article on fabrics discovered in Samdzong
This work reviews the following article: Margarita Gleba, Ina Vanden Berghe and Mark Aldenderfer. 2016. “Textile technology in Nepal in the 5th-7th centuries CE: The case of Samdzong”, in STAR: Science & Technology of Archaeological Research, vol. 2 (no. 1), pp. 25–35. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/20548923.2015.1110421.
The landmark Gleba et al. article describes findings from an analysis of ancient textiles discovered in Samdzong, Upper Mustang. The scientific study of these fabrics and the dyes and pigment used to color them sheds light on technical, social and economic aspects of local textile production as well as on the long-distance exchange system to which Mustang belonged 1500 years ago.
Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and transmission light microscopy (TLM) were employed to identify both wool and silk fibers in Samdzong burial textiles. The authors note that as no evidence of sericulture is known in the region, the silks must have come to Mustang from the northeast through long-distance trade. Organic dyes, including Indian lac, munjeet, turmeric, and knotweed/indigo, were identified through high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) analysis. Cinnabar exploited as a textile pigment was detected using micro-Raman spectrometry.
The textiles (all from animal sources) were discovered in shaft tombs dating to 400–650 CE (see June 2017 Flight of the Khyung). These textiles were relatively well preserved due to the arid climate and high elevation of the site and because of mineralization caused by contact with metal objects. Among objects found in tomb complex Samdzong 5 (constructed ca. 500 CE) was a bunch of woolen fabric with glass and knotted textile beads and copper tubules attached. The authors report that these fragments probably belonged to an elaborate headgear, which may have been attached to an anthropomorphic mask made of gold and silver found in the same tomb (see November 2013 Flight of the Khyung). The authors suggest that this textile object is made from sheep wool and horse hair, however, the fiber surfaces were too degraded for accurate species identification.
Gleba et al. describe the Samdzong burial, characterizing it as “elite” in nature, because of the wide range of grave goods it contained, including two large copper vessels and a ladle, iron daggers, wooden and bamboo cups and trays, copper and bronze bangles, and thousands of glass beads (as well as a wooden coffin and the burial mask). Chemical and technological analyses of the metals indicate that they were fabricated on the Tibetan Plateau or Indian Subcontinent (after Massa 2013), while the glass beads originated in Central Asia, Sassania and the Indian Subcontinent (after Dusseubieux 2015).
Although ancient Han China or areas to its northwest such as Gansu, Shaanxi or Xinjiang were the likely source for silks discovered in Samdzong, intermediate regions and agents were required to transfer them to the southern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. This probably entailed passage across the Tibetan Plateau beginning in highland Gansu-Qinghai (A-mdo) or in Ruthok (Ru-thog). Archaeological evidence, particularly from the rock art record, indicates that these regions functioned as northeast and northwest gateways respectively for a host of artistic and material inputs to the Tibetan Plateau beginning in the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age. Little is known about the routes trans-plateau exchange might have taken in prehistory, but the penultimate geographic node of transmission must have been the Upper Tsangpo river valley, which lies immediately north of Upper Mustang.*
On trade and exchange networks in Upper Tibet, also see “A Review of a Recent Scientific Article: “Earliest tea as evidence for one branch of the Silk Road across the Tibetan Plateau””, in April 2016 Flight of the Khyung.
Generally, the border between Upper Tibet and Nepal is punctuated by difficult high-elevation glaciated passes. However, the Kali Gandaki valley effectively breeches the Great Himalayan range, creating relatively easy access between Upper Mustang and the Upper Tsangpo (Mar-tshang gtsang-po) valley. That area of Upper Tibet (Stod) was traditionally part of a district known as Drongpa Tshogu (’Brong-pa tsho-dgu).
The two open tabby silks fabrics analyzed and pictured in Gleba et al. (samples 50, S13), in weaving style and coloration (presently brown and reddish brown), can be compared to silks recovered from a shaft tomb at the Gurgyam site, situated 400 km to the northwest.* Nevertheless, scientific analysis is required to determine how closely related technical features of the silk fabrics found in Samdzong and Gurgyam actually are. The burial at Gurgyam has been radiocarbon dated to 220-350 CE, making it 150 to 300 years older than Samdzong 5. Even more ancient textiles woven from cotton and other plant fibers and animal fibers were discovered in burials of Mebrak (400 BCE to 50 CE), in Mustang.† Unfortunately, these fabrics were not as thoroughly analyzed as those in the Gleba et al. study, impeding comparative analysis.
A large variety of grave goods were obtained from this burial including a spectacular patterned silk. For a preliminary report of these finds, including radiocarbon analysis, see October 2010 Flight of the Khyung.
See Kurt W. Alt, Joachim Burger, Angela Simons, Werner Schön, Gisela Grupec, Susanne Hummeld, Birgit Grosskopf, Werner Vach, Carlos Buitrago Téllez, Christian-Herbert Fischer, Susan Möller-Wiering, Sukra S. Shrestha, Sandra L. Pichler, Angela von den Driesch. 2003. “Climbing into the past – first Himalayan mummies discovered in Nepal”, in Journal of Archaeological Science, vol. 30, pp. 1529–1535.
Drongpa Tshogu acting as a proximate node in a wider system of exchange extending to Upper Mustang is suggested by the discovery of silk fabrics in southwestern Tibet. Although information about the textiles found in Gurgyam is still scant,* it is possible to consider how these fabrics and those from Samdzong may have circulated widely. We now know that, from no later than the third or fourth century CE to at least the sixth century CE, similar types of silks were used in burial rites on the Western Tibetan Plateau (comprised of Upper Tibet and adjoining plateau areas to the south and west). The upper reaches of the Tsangpo river have long served as a conduit between Upper Mustang and southwestern Tibet, potentially linking both regions to the same trans-regional exchange network that stretched to silk-producing centers north and east of the Tibetan Plateau. The major historical route through the Upper Tsangpo valley was known as the Rgya-lam (much of it ran through collateral valleys, as it does today, crossing a string of smaller passes). This route facilitated exchanges of many kinds in the second millennium CE, but earlier usage is indicated by the occurrence of the same set of pre-Buddhist (pre-7th century CE) monuments along the upper course of the river (all-stone corbelled fortresses and temples and stelar necropolises, etc.; see www.thlib.org/bellezza).
A study of the various Gurgyam burials excavated by Chinese archaeologists in recent years is expected to be released soon in China by Tong Tao et al.
In addition to silks, potentially a variety of other tribute payments, diplomatic gifts, prestige goods and trade items may have been part of a system of exchange encompassing the Western Tibetan Plateau in the first half of the first millennium CE. For instance, salt, borax, gold potentially moved south to Upper Mustang (and the Indian Subcontinent), while various botanicals, musk and agricultural products could have traveled northward to Upper Tibet. Objects made from cane and bamboo found in tombs of Gurgyam and further north in Guge almost certainly came from cis-Himalayan regions.
Moreover, like the silks, the presence of comparable turquoise-colored, wheel-shaped glass beads in the burials of both Gurgyam and Samdzong, which were produced much farther afield, indicate a significant shared material dimension in the funerary rites of the two locations (fig. 3).* Glass beads, depending on their origins, may have entered the Tibetan Plateau from various directions. The spread of silk and glass beads and other exotic goods to the Western Tibetan Plateau represents a ramified exchange network based on larger spheres of geographic dissemination. Other objects indicative of this scaling up of exchange links include carnelian and patterned agate beads and cowrie shells (see May 2014 and January 2016 Flight of the Khyung). This system of exchange, in one form or another, appears to have operated for at least two or three centuries. The interchange of this period set the tone for or at least opened the way to interregional communications of the historical era.
For a photograph of similar glass beads and other types of beads collected from the Khardong (Mkhar-gdong) fortress site, located just 2 km from Gurgyam, see April 2012 (fig. 14) Flight of the Khyung.
Next month: The history of Upper Tibet according to its rock inscriptions!