Russia's Altai region spans a remote corner of Siberia, hard by
the high plateaux of outer Mongolia. It is a rocky and often
colorless land, home to narrow valleys and limited pasture that
encouraged a nomadic culture, one that endured for millenia.
But its barren landscape belies a rich history. Bronze-Age stone
carvings and burial sites have captivated archaeologists with
evidence of influences from ancient tribes of Europe as well as a
longstanding practice of spirit worship that has carried forth into
"This is the richest archaeological zone in Russia" says
Vladimir Kubarev, an archaeologist who has explored the region for
the past 20 years. "Many periods here are still blank spots - not
because nobody lived here then, but just because we have not yet
found their traces."
The distant past has stayed alive, and come alive, in dramatic
ways in the Altai. Three years ago, archaeologists uncovered the
mummified corpse of a young woman that had been preserved for 2,500
years in the permafrost of the Ukok plateau, on the Chinese border.
They unearthed hunks of mutton and horsemeat in the grave,
placed there to sustain the woman in the hereafter, as well as her
woolen and silk burial robes and her six harnessed horses. They
also found that the body had been intricately tatooed, a
long-horned deer racing up her arm, suggesting that she herself had
been a shaman.
"The Lady," as the archaeologists nicknamed their find, was from
the Pazyryk culture, related to the famed Scythians whom the Greek
historian Herodotus found on the coast of the Black Sea and
mythologized as the archetypal barbarian nomads. Somewhere to the
east, high in hardly accessible mountains, Herodotus recounted,
griffins guarded legendary gold mines.
But the Scythians were not the first to leave their mark on
these mountains, and for Mr. Kubarev, other tribes, of whom less is
known, are perhaps even more interesting.
Kubarev has been scouring the mountains and valleys here since
he was a young man, when he was sent to the farthest-flung outpost
of the Soviet meteorological service to measure weather patterns on
the Mongolian border. Fascinated by the kurgans, ancient graves
piled with boulders, that he found all over the region, he changed
Throughout the Altai there are telltale signs of the kurgans,
where men and women were buried in larch log cabins, surrounded by
their possessions and their horses. Traces of ancient cultures here
are often overlaid, one upon the other, as civilization after
civilization used the same cemeteries so as not to fill up valuable
land with graves. .
Often, especially in the more barren areas, the grave is obvious
from the boulders piled above it. Elsewhere, complex patterns of
small stones, embedded in the ground in concentric circles or
squares, mark burial sites. And sometimes a clump of bushes or
saplings in an otherwise empty field reveals that below the ground
is a pit that has gathered water, allowing trees to grow.
The Scythians buried their dead like that, and so, a thousand or
so years later, did the nomadic Turkic-speaking peoples from whom
today's Altai inhabitants are descended. Similarly at Kolbaktash,
where Kubarev found shamanic rock carvings, 5,000 pictographs
etched into the rocks span several thousand years, stretching from
Neolithic times to the 18th century.
Across the ages, in different styles, the carvings represent the
same subjects, almost certainly interrelated: ritual ceremonies
involving the spirit world, and the animals - especially deer -
that man hunted.
An outcrop of rock at Kolbaktash overlooks the Chuya River at a
point where the deers' traditional migration route crosses the
river, making it an ideal spot for a hunter's ambush. And as they
lay in wait, hunters down the ages carved into the rock the objects
of their desire.
"The drawings started for very prosaic reasons," Kubarev