Siberian and Central Asian Rock Art

Siberian and Central Asian Rock Art – Within the vast geographical area of Siberia and Central Asia, among the mountains, hills, and river valleys, there are numerous rock art sites. Images argued to be of shamanistic origin and meaning have been engraved and painted onto exposed rock as well as graves. Such images have been used time and again by scholars to illustrate books and articles discussing the prehistory of shamanism in the region—and implicitly to lend visual authenticity to these arguments. One prominent image consistently referred to is the rock painting of a figure with a drum from Sinsk, along the Middle Lena River in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia). This painting was originally documented by Anatoly Okladnikov and V. D. Zaporozhskaya, and their published drawing is used in subsequent books on shamanism, including Piers Vitebsky’s The Shaman (1995). Another important site dating to the early second millennium BCE (Early Bronze Age) is in the village of Karakol in the Altai: archaeological excavations revealed paintings on the stone slabs of graves, consisting of human figures with feathered headdresses and elaborate costumes, some with clawlike hands and feet, perhaps referencing shamanic transformation and/or costume.

At the Bronze Age engraving site of Mugur-Sargol in Tuva, there is a large, complex scene consisting of masklike heads with horns in the upper part of the panel, and human figures and animals below. Ekaterina and Marianna Devlet argue that this panel represents a shamanistic upper world dividing the world of spirits and ancestors from the terrestrial world of humanity. At the site of Tamgaly in Kazakhstan, there is a large mural of six anthropomorphic figures, dating to the later Bronze Age, around 1300 BCE; though traditionally labeled “solar-gods” because of the lines and halos radiating from their enlarged heads, these features are more strongly suggestive of an origin in shamanistic altered states of consciousness. Figures with heads radiating lines are found at other sites in Kazakhstan, as well as in Kyrgyzstan and East Turkestan (Xinjiang province, China). The antlered deer imagery of the Early Nomadic period in Central Asia, Southern Siberia, and Mongolia (800–200 BCE), though often interpreted as “hunting magic” or warrior clan totems (ethnic markers) or even forms of the “universal goddess,” has more recently and coherently been interpreted as shamanistic in origin by Kenneth Lymer, who argues that a number of key scenes from Kazakhstan contain shamanistic elements. Shamanic rock art images have also been produced in recent history; in particular in the Altai region, where there are numerous engravings of humans with distinctive Altaic shamanic drums dating from the 19th century CE.
See also Art and Artifacts.


Historical Dictionary of Shamanism by Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis 2007