> Features > Culture

Rock art around Bogda Peak reveals ancient narrative

GUO WU | 2022-10-20 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

An aerial view of the location of the Longji Hill rock art Photo: COURTESY OF GUO WU

Rock art is a unique cultural heritage carved or painted on mountain rocks, which are mainly done by hunter-gatherers and shepherds. Neither the Bronze-Age shepherds nor nomads before the 6th century CE had their own writing systems, and they believed in shamanism. Therefore, pictures are still the main way for people who consume grassland resources to express their beliefs, record history, and display aesthetics and interests.

Rock art on Longji Hill

Rock art has been found in most of the mountain areas of China, where people depended on animal husbandry for their livelihood in ancient times, such as the Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Xinjiang, and Tibet autonomous regions. Many rock paintings have been discovered in Xinjiang, including the Altai Mountains, Tianshan, and Kunlun Mountains. The rock art was found on Longji Hill under the north slope of Bogda Peak, deep in the Tianshan Mountains, around Fukang City, Changji Hui Autonomous Prefecture [in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region], about 3569 meters above sea level. In terms of technique, rock art can be divided into two groups: one paints on rock with pigments made from minerals, plants, etc.; the other carves or scratches into the rock surface with stone or metal tools. The Longji Hill rock petroglyphs belong to the latter. 

In 2005, the rock paintings on Longji Hill around Bogda Peak were discovered for the first time. Rich in content, these petroglyphs mainly depict animals, including cattle, argali, ibex, horses, deer, snow leopards, wolves, wild boars, and camels, etc. There are also grand scenes such as grazing, hunting, driving carriages, and battles. Since these petroglyphs have been well protected and they are located in an inaccessible high-altitude area, most of the images on rocks remain clear. About 150 groups of petroglyphs in various sizes have been discovered in this area up to now.

Similarities between Longji and Saimaly-Tash petroglyphs

Animal images in early Longji petroglyphs are very distinctive. The body of the animals is usually built from two connected triangles, with one inverted in front of the other. Some tails cock up, some hang down, and the end of the tail is a triangle or a ball. The antlers are composed of two beams, which extend upward, and tines grow from the beams respectively. Some horns of cattle curl upward, with points against each other, roughly forming a circle. Significantly, this style of petroglyphs has been found in large numbers in a famous collection of rock pictures in Kyrgyzstan, known as the Saimaly-Tash petroglyphs. The early Saimaly-Tash petroglyphs are predominated by a style [similar to that of the Longji petroglyphs]—the body of animals are composed of two connected triangles. The Saimaly-Tash petroglyphs are found in a valley at an altitude of 3000-3500 meters. To the west of this mountain range is the famous Fergana Valley.

The style of the animal body composed of two connected triangles found in the Saimaly-Tash petroglyphs is rarely found in other areas. So far only the petroglyphs of Longji Hill are similar to it. In addition to the two-triangle body shape, animals in the Longji petroglyphs feature various patterns on their body, revealing a higher level of artistry. 

Usually, the location of petroglyphs is not far away from shepherds’ camps or tombs. However, the Saimaly-Tash petroglyphs and the Longji petroglyphs, which are almost the same in altitude, direction, and environment, are all close to the local highest snow peaks. These rock paintings may have a special reason for appearing in the snow peak regions, which are far from [shepherds’] camps. They might be created for worshiping the snow peak or Heaven, or some of them were improvised when their creators were crossing the mountains.

Cultural communication through Tianshan

In the early days, the people who created the Saimaly-Tash petroglyphs would have been shepherds who mainly pastured cattle in hills. These people lived in the mountains east of the Fergana Valley. Where did they come from earlier? Some believe that these people were related to the early cultures of the sites of Hissar and Sialk in Iran. The triangular-animal-body feature has been found in early remains unearthed at the Susa site, situated on the border between Mesopotamia and the Iranian plateau. It indicates that the creators of the Saimaly-Tash petroglyphs were somehow culturally connected with one of the centers of civilization in the world—Mesopotamia and West Asia. It provides a possibility to study the subtle and indirect interactions between Eastern and Western civilization centers in the early Bronze Age.

There were several important Bronze-Age cultures in Central Asia, West Asia, and South Asia roughly between 2800 and 1700 BCE, among which the culture that was geographically closest to the Saimaly-Tash petroglyphs was the Namazga-Tepe Culture and the Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC). The BMAC was a highly developed civilization, dated to c. 2000–750 BCE. When studying the early cultures in Xinjiang, scholars paid more attention to cultural influences from the western Eurasian steppe and southern Siberia, with less in-depth research on the cultural influences from Central Asia and West Asia. Therefore, the discovery of the rock art around the Bogda Peak provides clues for us to understand the people and cultures from the southwest outside Xinjiang.

The Tianshan stretches across four countries: China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, with its main body lying in central Xinjiang. It divides the driest area in the world in two, forming a land bridge connecting the different geographical and cultural regions of Asia from east to west. Between those east-west mountain ranges, intermountain valleys and basins are ideal settlements for humans. The Asian spruce (Picea schrenkiana) grows at altitudes of 1300–2700 meters on the northern slope of Tianshan, spanning along the Tianshan ranges for more than 2000 kilometers. This “green belt” has been an important resource treasury and ideal residence for shepherds. Scholars speculate that some herdsmen living in the valleys of the western Tianshan might have migrated east and northeast along the valleys. The study of unique and similar petroglyphs found from Saimaly-Tash and Longji Hill reveals that, from the 3rd millennium to the 2nd millennium BCE, cattle herders living in the hills near the Fergana Valley had been influenced by the urban civilizations such as the Oxus Civilization [also known as the BMAC]. Some of them had migrated eastward along the Tianshan, reaching the area between present-day Urumqi and Fukang. These people might have introduced advanced civilization factors from West Asia, Central Asia, and their surrounding areas, to Xinjiang.

As an illustration of human migration and cultural transmission, the Longji Hill rock paintings are not the only case. In recent years, the research team led by Fu Qiaomei, a research fellow from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at Chinese Academy of Sciences, found that the genetic analysis of the skeletons associated with the Chemurchek culture unearthed in the Altay Prefecture [in Xinjiang] shows close genetic ties with people of the BMAC in Central Asia. Together with the Longji Hill rock paintings, these discoveries prove the early influence of Central Asia. People of the Oxus Civilization and their culture spread along the Tianshan to the eastern Tianshan mountains and the Altai Mountains.


In short, according to the results of our latest investigation, the rock paintings on Longji Hill mainly have the following characteristics:

First, among all the rock paintings that have been found in Xinjiang, the Longji Hill rock paintings are located at the highest altitude, with the most unique landscape.

Second, the early rock paintings on Longji Hill were very old. Research shows that most of the early rock paintings may be dated from the 3rd millennium to the early 2nd millennium BCE.

Third, the rock paintings on Longji Hill span a wide range of ages, roughly from the 3rd millennium BCE to the end of the 13th century CE, and there are even patterns and characters carved by modern people (mainly the local Kazakh herdsmen).

Fourth, the chronicle sequence of the Longji Hill rock paintings is rather complete. Particularly, there are rock paintings dated to every historical period from the 3rd millennium BCE to the Han (202 BCE–220 CE) Dynasty.

Fifth, the Longji Hill petroglyphs may have something to do with the ancient worship of the “sacred mountain.” The rocks inscribed with the petroglyphs face the Bogda Peak, about 5 kilometers away from the main peak of Bogda. It is the best place to watch and worship the snow peak of Bogda, which was in line with the aesthetic taste of the ancients to set up sacrificial altars.

Sixth, the Longji Hill petroglyphs are rich in content, in which the images of horses and horse-drawn chariots are very valuable. The Longji Hill petroglyphs have the largest number of images of horse-drawn chariots that have been found in Xinjiang so far, which provides vivid information for studying the emergence of horse-drawn chariots in the Central Plain in the late Shang Dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BCE). 

The Longji Hill rock art around the Bogda Peak is significant in historical, archaeological, cultural, and artistic studies. It shines more brilliantly in the company of the Tianshan, which has been listed as a World Heritage Site.

Guo Wu is a research fellow from the Institute of Archaeology at CASS.