Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads
The Kangjiashimenji Petroglyphs in the Tien Shan Mountains: A Fertility Ritual Tableau
by Jeannine Davis-Kimball, Ph.D.
Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads
|“ . . . before writing, myths had to serve as transmission systems for information deemed important, but because we . . . have forgotten how non-literate people stored and transmitted information . . . we have lost trace of how to decode the information often densely compressed into these stories, and they appear to us as mostly gibberish.|
This paper discusses the unique Kangjiashimenji petroglyphic tableau, which illustrates an intense and ancient fertility ritual (Figure 1). The tableau is located in Xinjiang Province, western China (Map1).As there are no known parallels in the Tarim Basin for the type and style of the tableau, several archaeological and ethnographic sources are explored to identify the source of the ritual.
Eurasian art is generally thought of as portable art, e.g., small carvings, belt buckles, or plaques worn on clothing or used as harness decorations. Or, in contrast, the art can be large three-dimensional stone sculpture, best illustrated by olenni kamani (deer stones) and other types of similar standing stones, or balbal, or the much later-dated baba (female sculptures, possibly representations of priestesses) both found throughout Eurasia.
A third art type, the petroglyph, is generally composed of small images cut or pecked into the stone and is frequently encountered in rock outcroppings through out Eurasia. The scenes generally represent groups of domesticated or wild animals although rituals have also been the focus of a smaller number of petroglyphs. By carving the stone, the prehistoric populations not only expressed but also preserved for posterity certain special activities and associated belief systems. The carvings as a whole could dynamically record such concepts as philosophical thought, religious beliefs, aesthetic concepts, economic development, migrations, warfare, and modes of life.
The Kangjiashimenji petroglyph recorded a profound fertility ritual that was long-lived among a population strongly affected by the forces of nature controlling the high Tien Shan Mountains and the great depression known as the Taklimakan Desert.
Eurasian Petroglyphs Relevant to the Kangjiashimenji Tableau
The necessity for maintaining generative and regenerative forces of nature, i.e., propagating, birthing, and life maintaining are universal phenomena. Staggeringly high infant and child mortality rates necessitated an elevated birth rate to maintain a stable or expanding population level. Regeneration was not only applicable to the human population; domesticated animals by necessity must increase to maintain food supply, and by extension ample rain for crops and pasture was a necessity for animal sustenance.
Beginning with the Old World Paleolithic, hundreds of small female and male sculptures believed to have regenerative powers were integral to the societies. The Neolithic Period at Çatalhöyük in the central Turkish Konya Plain is noted for female sculptures with particular focus on one robust lady in birthing position flaked by great felines. Alabaster female figurines offered in identical iconography although millennia later, may have perpetuated a similar belief system as well as being mortuary offerings for fourth century BCE Sarmatian women buried in the southern Ural steppes. Fertility rituals played a prominent role in Eurasian belief systems and were manifest in the worship of nature gods. Neolithic fecundity carvings are known along the Lena River and its tributaries in southern Siberia, in the Ukraine, and along the Don River in southern Russia. Although mating animals and unique scenes of shaman ritually inseminating horned horses are among the petroglyphic scenes, in this case from Tamgaly, Kazakstan (Figure 2) The representation of human procreation is extremely rare.
Several important petroglyphic sites abounding in ritualistic images lie in relative proximity to the Kangjiashimenji grotto. Tamgaly is located 150 km north of Almaty, while Eshkiol’mes is in western China on the eastern side of the Djungarian Mountains. Important ritual sites in Kyrgyzstan are found near Lake Issyk Kul and at Saimaly Tash, high in the Tien Shan. Further distant but closely related to those in the Altai Mountains and southern Kazakstan, petroglyphs carved along the Karakorum Highway leading into northern India reflect Indo-European and other religious practices.In China, although predominantly featuring human figures depicting religious ceremonies, battles, and productive activities, stone art belongs to a different school fostered by a unique ethnic and cultural group. These are rock paintings in which red dye (ochre) was used as a medium and are found in the Chinese provinces of Hunan, Guizhou, Sichuan, and Guangxi Zhuang.
Methods of Dating Petroglyphs
Although it is generally assumed that petroglyphs cannot be dated, several methods are employed that produce reasonably accurate results. Eurasian petroglyphic scenes, or objects in scenes, can be stylistically, ethnographically, and/or historically compared with prestige or practical items such as armament, ornamental plaques, horse accoutrements, and/or designs incorporated into textiles. Recently, scientific methods have been developed using C14 and by observing certain micromorphological changes in the rock structure.
The Kangjiashimenzi Tableau
The Kangjiashimenzi tableau (see Fig. 1) is located about 75 kilometers southwest of Hutubei (city) and west of Urumchi, capital of Xinjiang province in western China. Carved in bas-relief, the scene has been sheltered in a grotto at the base of a massive red-basalt outcropping in the Tien Shan (Figure 2). Xinjiang partially bordered by the rugged Tien Shan Mountains and the Pamirs as well as hosting the extensive Taklimakan Desert, was culturally an extension of the Eurasian steppes. Mummies desiccated by the desert heat, such as the group that includes the Loulan Beauty, and others excavated from various oases cemeteries, reveal that from about 2000 BCE the population in the Tarim Basin was Caucasoid. Other oasis cemeteries that border the Tien Shan Mountain range also indicate that Bronze Age population evolved from a sedentary life style to that of nomadism. This signaled the beginning of the Early Iron Age.
Wang Bing-Hua of the Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology published the first information on the Kangjiashimenzi petroglyphs before 1992. He notes that the figures range in height from 10 cm. to the larger-than-life-size 2.5 m (about 9-1/2 feet). The lowest carving is 2.5 m above the current ground level while the highest is 10 m (more than 15 feet). In his study Wang tentatively concluded that the tableau was carved about three thousand years ago, basing his conclusions upon reported, “. . . sacred objects—stone ancestors used in the worship of male fertility [that] have been unearthed” from an archaeological site nearby. However, his excavations undertaken at the base of the grotto did not reach sterile soil and he reported that no significant material was found. In May 1997, a millstone (mortar for grinding grain) lay at the base of the grotto but by June 1997 it had been removed. Comparative millstones were excavated from one of the Bronze Age stone houses located east of Urumchi near the town of Barkol.
In the Kangjiashimenzi tableau, three simple bows loaded with arrows are of the agricultural Bronze Age type (2000-850 BCE). Moreover, no stylistic elements typical of the Early Iron Age (ca. 850 BCE-AD 400) or of the Early Medieval Period (AD 400-800) were introduced into the tableau iconography. The assumption is made, therefore, that the population that created this work—and by extension practiced the ritual—was agricultural and that they occupied oases that skirt the Taklimakan Desert. Thus the Kangjiashimenzi tableau was created possibly as early as ca. 2000 BCE during the Bronze Age and continued until the nomadic lifestyle probably did not allow the continuation of that particular ritual.
The totality of the complex scene implies that a group of priestesses and priests were central to an annual peregrination in which a demanding ritual was performed as required to guarantee perpetuation of not only of those portrayed on the petroglyph but also of the total culture. The specific canon of art in this society dictated each gender must be distinctively identifiable by stylization. The images are, however, quite unequal in size and dominance in the tableau. In addition, human figures, floating heads, meandering dogs, static felines, and heraldic animals fill voids. To the ancients each image most surely represented some aspect of the ritual.
All the images are portrayed with long, slender noses and well-defined superciliary ridges, indicating they represent a Caucasoid population. The female and male figures are identifiable by unique artistic conventions assigned to each sex. Most of the female wear truncated conical headdresses adorned with two projecting antennae that coil outward. Both sexes have triangularized bodies but stylization is unique depending upon the sex. A large inverted triangle forms the torso of each female while hips, thighs and calves are quite realistically modeled. Although it is quite usual for the breasts, and pudenda as a darkened triangle in the pubic area, to be represented in ancient art, these elements are absent on the female images. In contrast, however, sexually explicit examples of female genitalia are represented.
The males’ heads are oval and they appear to be hatless. Their torsos are trapezoid and their articulated legs are rendered stick-like. The majority of the males are emphatically ithyphallic with engorged penises sometimes almost approximating their own height. A third gender is represented, a bisexual image with its body generally stylized as an ithyphallic male but wearing the headdress as worn by the females.
The vast majority of the images are portrayed with both arms raised to shoulder height; the right arm is elevated from the elbow, the left pointed downward from elbow. In general, the figures are represented in a dance so intense that some have fallen into a trance or state of ecstasy. Others are about to engage in sexual intercourse with the obvious intent of procreation as small embryonic images evoking chorus lines emphasize the significance of this act. The various animals add notes of ambiguity, yet provide additional clues to place the tableau in time and space and provide some historical basis.
Scenes within the Tableau
As the montage entertains a variety of symbolic semantics, we divided the total representation into eight separate scenes as defined by their placement. The numbers in parenthesis at the beginning of each of the following descriptive paragraphs corresponds to the scene numbers added to the illustration of the tableau (Figure 3-10).
In the top register, ten very large images are portrayed. Nine females, each about two meters high, dance in a circle. A tenth personage on the left is partially reclining as if it were about to fall into a trance. This image is stylization as a bisexual personage. It wears a female headdress with antenna and a “bra” similar to the shamanic figure in scene (2) although its torso and legs are stylized as the male and it is ithyphallic. Both arms, raised over its shoulders, have deviated from the normal dancing position. To complete the scene a single human head and two pairs of heraldic animals, probably goats—one pair markedly ithyphallic—are interspaced between the female dancers.
Sixteen images, ten females and six males are about to begin copulation. The most unusual figure in this scene is the one to the far left that most probably represents a shaman wearing a monkey-like mask. It has female-type antennae shooting from its head, wears a red “bra;” a round ball-like object hangs from its right elbow and also from the coccyx region. As it is ithyphallic it is also a bi-sexual representation and it appears that it about to copulate with a small female with splayed legs whose vulva is explicit. Next, a headless male attempts to copulate with a non-ithyphallic bisexual male. To the right, a prominent bisexual ithyphallic personage, displaying testicles but stylized as a female, wears the image of a female head on its chest as if to emphasize the feminine aspect. It also is about to penetrate a supine female whose genitalia are displayed again between splayed legs. To the right is a large double-headed image. It has been stained red, perhaps suggesting heat; it is also positioned in the foreground to lead the dance. On either side of this image are two young ithyphallic personages, both possibly bisexuals. One wears the image of a face on its chest and also has a “ball-like tail” shamanic attribute. Again floating human heads, mostly female, are interspaced between the dancers. To the right and below the large shamanic monkey-headed image, two large but static, ithyphallic felines are surrounded by three bows with arrows about to discharge.
The third group composed of nine figures, three females and six males, all are symbolically about to engage in sexual intercourse. Two images stand out. First, the male at the left with testicles and grossly exaggerated penis attempts to mate with the second important figure, the adjacent female (note the supine image superimposed over this female). To this female’s left are three more males eager to participate in impregnating the same female. In this scene the importance of progeny is emphasized with the portrayal of two rows of small anthropomorphic figures (about 43). One floating head and a dog are included and behind the dog there seems to be a partial image of a horned bovine.
Fourteen full figures, seven that are ithyphallic, appear in this scene. The fourth from left is bisexual being ithyphallic but stylized as a female. It also has shamanic attributes: the “bra” and a ball-tail. Two small images at the top also have ball-tails. Five other bisexual images are stylized as females and are ithyphallic. Two males below the main scene are adjacent to another group of progeny.
Continuing right, a plethora of heads is interspaced between two females, a male, and a bisexual figure. A torso with a female head, a pair of near-equal sized dogs, and a small dog are just below, while lower yet in the scene a couple is about to copulate.
This lower right register scene has eleven images, some of which are partially incomplete. Of these, only two are mildly ithyphallic. Two dogs rendered as in scene (5) are below the human figures.
To the far right, are several floating heads and three torsos; one has a single head, one is double headed, and the third is a triple headed image. Also included are a half-dozen floating heads.
Front center at the bottom of the tableau is a lone ithyphallic bisexual with a female body.
Methodology to Determine Cultural Sources for the Kangjiashimenji
Wang Bing Hua made no speculation about the cultural source of the iconography on the tableau, although he does note, “the whole scene reflects a communal happiness in procreation, population increase, and the important role of a healthy, virile male.” He thus failed to note feminine aspects, stylistic parallels, or other cultural information that could be used to deduce a provenience. To locate cultural sources for the scene, objects from the tableau are selected that may be iconographically, symbiotically, or semantically comparable to objects found within ancient world. The attributes of the objects are described and discussed below.
Discussion of the Primary Objects (Objects 1-5)
The Kangjiashimenzi Dancers (Object 1)
In the Kangjiashimenzi tableau, at least 83 full images are represented with several more headless torsos and perhaps 35 heads. It is not possible to determine if some of the elements that belonged to the torsos or heads have been lost due to erosion over the millennia. The number of the female, bisexual, and male is noted in Table 1.
Table 1. Count of Kangjiashimenzi Images by Gender (to conclusions)
The ratios of the female to male, female to bisexual, and bisexual to male is given in Table 2.
Table 2. Ratios of Kangjiashimenzi Image (to conclusions)
Heights of the females average about double that of the males, which emphasize the significant dominance of the feminine aspect. The height of the bisexuals varies from that of the female to the male with the majority being nearer the height of the male as would be expected from a biological point of view.
The representation of the bisexual personage, as well as the stylization of these images, and the theme itself is unique in the repertoire of Central Asian petrographic images.
Kangjiashimenzi Headdresses (Object 2)
In the Kangjiashimenzi tableau, the only article of clothing that either sex appears to be dressed in is the headdress worn by the female. Thus, this appears to be the artists’ attempt to emphasis the headdress to indicate the wearer enjoyed a special social and/or cultural status.
Kangjiashimenzi Bisexuals (Object 3)
Almost half the images in scene (2) with a total of approximately 14 images in the first four scenes are represented as bisexual. In the total tableau, about 17% are bisexuals.
No parallels exist for such portrayals in any of the petroglyphs in the Tien Shan or adjacent regions.
Kangjiashimenzi Felines (Object 4)
The two felines so statically portrayed appear anathema to the frenetic dancing scene. Yet, they should not be interpreted as being hunted by bow and arrow as they, too, are ithyphallic. It has been suggested, “The decorative tracing on the Kangjiashimenzi felines could represent (horse) harnessing, and shabraques, or it may be a graphic code of animal fur.” The later is more likely as the animals have slender cat-like tails which would negate them being draft animals. The three bows with arrows must imply hunting magic although the arrows not directed toward the cats.
Kangjiashimenzi Dogs (Object 5)
On the tableau two pairs of dogs are depicted in two scenes: far to the right (when facing the tableau) in scenes 5 and 6. In addition, several individual dogs are among the dancers, yet all are well removed from the hunting attributes, the bows with arrows in scene 2.
Comparative Objects (Objects 6-14)
Eurasian Female and Male Images (Object 6)
Female and male fertility images that dominated during the Paleolithic and Neolithic augment in number to become prolific during the Bronze Age. In contrast, female images are almost unknown in Central Asian art and the rare ithyphallic male figure is generally found in the context of a ritual insemination that includes a shamanic element. This is well illustrated in the Tamgaly petroglyphs (Fig. 1)in which the shaman frequently has a “ball-like” termination to its tail similar to that found on several of the Kangjiashimenzi images, e.g., Scenes 2 and 4, Figures 4 and 6. These images at Tamgaly are dated to the Late Bronze Age on the basis of parallels incorporated into cyst burials found at the base of the Tamgaly rock outcroppings and provide comparative material to date the Kangjiashimenzi tableau to the Bronze Age.
Cucuteni Dancers (Object 7)
As discussed above, the Kangjiashimenzi tableau represents a ritual that involves frenetic dancing. Even more remote from Xinjiang in time and space is the representation of a ritual dance painted on the fourth-third millennia Cucuteni-Tripolye pottery. This is an agricultural culture found in Romania, around Chisineau, Moldova, and the Ukraine. The same stylized dancers continue to be painted in the subsequent Foltesi-Erbiceni culture dated to the Cucuteni B2-3 phase. These female dances have hourglass figures composed of double triangles; they wear fringed dresses, and pose in the exact stance as those on the Kangjiashimenzi tableau. In Cucuteni-Tripolye culture some dancing women are represented performing within an elliptical shape. This has been interpreted as a cowry shell, long associated with the female reproductive system (Figure 11).
From Dumesti, Romania, the representation of a ritualistic dancing image pecked in the rock holds both arms extended upward from the elbows. A third “member” extends downward to ground level from between the legs, which are bent at the knees. It is difficult to determine if this is meant to represent a birthing scene, or a dancing shaman, or an individual wearing a wolf or dog-headed mask and pelt, the animal tail forming the third member. It does have parallels with the images in Scenes (2) and (4)
Comparative Headdresses (Object 8)
Conical shaped headdresses with highly symbolic decorative elements, including plaques and projecting floating motifs, possibly relating to the Tree of Life, are known from the Early Iron Age Saka and are particularly associated with females of high status.This concept probably found it roots in the Bronze Age Siberian steppes and was transmitted to western China via long established trade routes. A recently excavated headdress from Xinjiang, China, possibly relating to the Early Nomads, reveals the stylistic parallels to the headdresses found on the Kangjiashimenji women.
Distinctive Minusinsk axes and the Karasuk knives excavated in Xinjiang graphically illustrate cultural connections between the two regions in this time period.
Dating to the Early Iron Age, excavations in western China,southern Kazakstan,southern Siberia and southern Russia have revealed priestesses who wore elaborated headdresses. The source of an elaborate headdress can be traced to ancient cultures and is considered to be “ . . . one of the most archaic elements of the total cultural heritage from remote antiquity.” Shamans also substituted a conical and winged hat for an entire shamanic costume. S. I. Rudenko noted that the isolated Yakutia women in southern Siberia wore high conical hats made from expensive fur and fabrics. Distinctive headdress worn by noble and wealthy Yakuts were recorded in the 18th and 19th century. These were described as having a round crown over which an attached conical fur structure securing a fan made of a bird wings or tail feathers. Projecting horns made from squirrel tails were sewn to each side of the crown. These relate to headdresses of the Tungus, Yukagirs, Chukchis, and Kazaks. The custom continued into present time; Pazyryk women in southern Siberia wear costumes similar to those worn during the Iron Age (Figure 12).
Felines in Central Asian Art (Object 9)
Stylistically, there are no parallels in Early Iron Age petroglyphic art for static ithyphallic felines, although the Tien Shan snow leopard became integral to Early Iron Age Sarmatian and Saka belief system. In this context the animal is associated with priestesses and probably was their animal helper.
The Bisexual Male: Enareis (Object 10)
Herodotus twice describes a status of males he referred to Enareis and whose duties were considerably alien to those of the typical Scythian or other Early Nomadic male. He recounts how the Enareis came into being: A few Scythians returning from Egypt remained in the city of Ascalon in Syria where they plundered the most hallowed temple of the great goddess, the Heavenly Aphrodite. From that time on, the Enareis and their descendants were affected with a particular malady. Although the malady is unknown, it specifically relates to sex and/or gender as the connotation, status, mannerisms, and actions of the Enareis is paralleled in the meaning of the word which translates “effeminate.”
In the pseudo-Hippocratic treatise, the Enareis are described as eunuchs: “(T)hey belonged to the most powerful nobility, wore women’s dress, performed women’s jobs, spoke like women, and enjoyed special respect because of the fear they inspired.”
Ancient writings do not specifically name the Enareis as priests of the Scythian Mother Goddess. Herotodus, nevertheless, writes that the Enareis acquired their “sickness” as a result of an alliance (destructive or otherwise) with the Heavenly Aphrodite and the “oldest of all temples of the great goddess. This allows speculation that the Enareis were analogous to, and therefore, had become priests of the Mother Goddess. It may not be coincidental, then, that plaques and pendants from fourth century BCE Scythian burials feature female-appearing images engaged in frenetic dancing while clutching weapons and heads of beasts.
Other factors influencing Scythian religious practices may have come about as a result of Thracian contacts. These nomads lived west of Scythia and north of Anatolia where they maintained various alliances with Phrygia and Greece. From either culture they could have encountered the Mother Goddess (Meter/Cybele) and her ecstatic rituals. Thracian horse harness plaques, dated mid-fourth century BCE from the Lovech district in Bulgaria, include an image of a eunuch with a mirror and three-headed serpent.Mirrors number among Scythian and Sarmatian priestesses’ accoutrements and serpents were long associated with women.
Joint Russian-Afghan archaeological excavations in northern Afghanistan dating to the first century BCE, revealed burials have been attributed to the Ta Yüeh Chih, a nomadic confederacy that was pushed from the Tien Shan Mountains by the powerful Hsiung nu confederacy. The burials were of five high status females, three priestesses and two warrior-priestesses, and a single warrior priest who seemed to enjoy the same status and practiced the same rituals as the warrior-priestesses. The excavators reconstructed the priest as wearing a skirted costume similar to those of the females. He was also buried with numerous elegant gold adornments of the types not normally associated with males. Because of this it could be assumed that he was of the third gender as on the Kangjiashimenji tableau (bisexual or transvestite) and had assumed the feminine aspects of the priestesses.
Two beautifully executed gold artifacts from the Tillya Tepe burials seem to affirm that the third gender, other than the traditional male and female existed within that population. (a) One of the shoe buckles from the bisexual male burial is a medallion embellished with the image of an unbearded male, a eunuch, seated in an umbrella-canopied chariot (Figure 13). (b) Belt fasteners worn by one of the warrior-priestesses displays a cross-dressing male (Figure 14). In this latter scene, the personage holds a lance in his right hand and a shield in his left. Long, wavy hair frames a very masculine face and his muscular legs are exposed below a short, flounced skirt.
Female Riding a Lion 1 (FRF1) Object 11)
The archaeological record reveals that during the 18th-17th centuries BCE, Bronze Age artifacts from the Bactria Margiana Archaeological Complex culture (BMAC, 2500-1500 BCE) (Map 2) included “compartmentalized” stamp seals. Generally cast from bronze, they would not be functional as stamp seals and were most probably amulets. Among the various scenes on these seals are one in which a female rides a feline (FRF1) (Figure 15).
This motif can be followed through Iran in the Elamite culture, then via Mesopotamia and Syria into Anatolia as illustrated on a Mitanni (1450-1360 BCE) cylinder seals. One seal displays a goddess wearing a large headdress while seated sidesaddle on an animal.
Meter or Matar (Object 12)
Around the seventh century BCE in Anatolia, Phrygian worshippers addressed the Mother goddess as Meter or Matar (both translate Mother) and added epithets that alluded to mountains. She evolved through Phrygia into the Greek and Hellenistic world, and then to Rome. During the sixth century BCE, the Greeks assimilated Meter into their pantheon where she became known as Cybele or Kybele. As her cult evolved, it was associated with raucous music and ecstatic dance, and her priests practiced self-castration. The goddess may have had other functions that are alluded to by building foundation cult figures where she is depicted wearing a large mural-crown headdress. Other attributes that would indicate she was Mistress of Animals” include creatures of the wild and birds of prey. Her principal attribute, however, was the lion illustrated in third- and early second century BCE terracotta statuettes, one from Gordion entitled “Meter seated on a lion’s back.”
Female Riding a Lion 2 (Object 13)
Returning to the Tillya Tepe bisexual male excavated in northern Afghanistan, he wears an elaborate belt composed of nine lost was cast gold medallions affixed to a gold chain. Each medallion featured a female riding a feline (Figure 16). In nomadic societies as this accoutrement reveals clan, tribal, and status affiliations. The motif on these belt medallions seem to harkens to an affiliation with the Mother Goddess and by extension to fertility ritual.
Discussion on Dogs (Object 14)
As one of the earliest domesticated animals, the dog became integral to societies over millennia, functioning within the realm of the profane and the sacred to the point of being a sacrificial victim. Eneolithic dog burials, considered cultic as well as secular, were excavated at Botai, eastern Kazakstan (4630-3100 BCE). At Drievka on the middle Dnieper, dating to about the same time as the Botai material, two dogs were included in a ritual burial and a third beneath a house foundation. Later dogs were included in Yamnaya kurgans. At times the animal was considered unclean and dangerous. The word dog is ascribed to the Proto-Indo-European language. In Indo-European mythology, the god Yama, guardian of the underworld, had two companion dogs, thus claiming a chthonic association for the animal. In ancient Anatolia, and the Mediterranean and Iranian worlds, the preponderance of references to dogs also places them in connection with the underworld.
In Eastern Europe, a Tripolye amphora has dogs and horses painted around the rim, while in the Cucuteni culture two opposed or heraldic dogs, or dog and horse, are frequently depicted on painted vases, in a circular procession, or in duplication.A cultic scene on a sixth century BCE Halstadt vase from Sopron, Hungary displays a procession of several dogs, a horse and rider followed by cervids. Bringing up the rear is a goddess or priestess dressed in a large triangular skirt driving two small horses that pull a four-wheeled wagon. A walking male follows. The stylization of the female driving the cart is not only reminiscent of Old European clay images but also of the stone-carved female statuettes from Bactria contemporaneous with the “compartmentalized seals.”
In 1989, the author excavated from a sedentary population Early Medieval cemetery (ca. AD 400) an excarnated human burial, probably of Zoroastrian proclivity, with an associated excarnated dog burial. The human skull had been position within the pelvis with long bones placed adjacent. Strangely, however, the dog had been anatomically reconstructed for burial, leading to the conclusion that cultic otherworld associations were still in vogue The dog cult probably came from the west and was introduced into southern Kazakstan.
Discussion: From Whence Came the Kangjiashimenzi Dancers?
Serious rituals in the Tarim Basin featuring the nude female, male, and bisexual Kangjiashimenzi dancers displaying ecstatic and erotic movements had been introduced from an extraneous environment. Is it possible to determine from where this dance ritual had come?
No evidence exists, archaeological or otherwise, to indicate that the Han Chinese entered the Tarim Basin until more than a millennium after the initial dating of the Kangjiashimenzi tableau, thus, precluding influence from the east. Because of the striking similarity in the Kangjiashimenzi and Cucuteni dancing women’s stance, it seems apparent that some type of influence or connection existed between these two cultures.
If the Kangjiashimenzi tableau is dated to the third-second millennium BCE and the late Cucuteni-Tripolye to the fourth-third millennium, a considerable amount of time elapsed between the pottery painting and the tableaus carving. Equally significant, the Cucuteni-Tripolye populations were sedentary farmers in today’s Romania, Moldova, and western Ukraine, locations that are tremendously distant from present-day western China. However, correlations of archaeological materials revealing trade and migrations eastward provide valuable insight.
Trade and Migrations.
Around 3700 BCE, the most influential culture in Eastern Europe was the Cucuteni-Tripolye (Cucuteni B2-Tripolye C1). Toward the end of the Eneolithic, a cultural and economic split between the eastern and western facets was responsible for two emigrational waves eastward. By about 2900 BCE, Cucuteni-Tripolye pottery was a fixture at Drievka cultural sites along the Dnieper River, and their burial practices along the Azov and North Black seas were replicated near Samara on the Middle Volga. Ultimately, the Cucuteni-Tripolye migrations along the Volga directly influenced the formation of new cultural entities, eventually leading to the crystallization of the Early Bronze Age Yamnaya culture with its wide distribution. Cucuteni pottery, embellished with painted imageries analogous to the females on the Kangjiashimenzi tableau, circulated eastward over trade routes established during the Eneolithic period.
From the west or from the steppe lands further northwest, one of the most obvious migration routes into the Tarim Basin would have been via ancient Bactria (today northern Afghanistan), a region populated by oases along the northeastern edge of the Kopet Dagh (Map 2). From there immigrants may have traveled eastward along the southern edge of the Kara Kum, taking fine advantage of oases such as Merv (Mary) along the Murghab River and Gonar (in present-day Turkmenistan) where they honed up on irrigation and other farming skills. Heading east, they would then encounter the BMAC oases before pursuing one of two different routes to their destination in the Tarim Basis. Route A would take them into the Ferghana Valley, across the 14,000-foot Terek Pass west of Kashgar; or Route B would require much less hardship by skirting the northern edge of the Tien Shan, benefiting from the rich alluvium and many rivers of the Semirechiye in southern Kazakstan. From there they could cross through the Horgos Pass, following the Ili River into the high mountains east to Hami, a route in use today (Map 1). Route B, parts of which became the most northerly Silk Route, gave access to several passes through the Tien Shan to the Taklimakan. Archaeological excavations around this great depression indicate that populations appeared there as early as 2000 BCE.
Because of the long-standing political situation it is extremely difficult to correlate archaeological materials in western China with those from other cultures. However, several items either represented on the Kangjiashimenzi tableau or found in excavations around the Tarim Basin are typologically similar to items beyond the influence sphere of this region. Ceramic artifacts in the Hami Museum have close analogies to second millennium BCE ceramics and metalware from northeastern Iran. The two pairs of heraldic animals in scene (1) are strikingly similar to the Luristan bronzes cast in the form of heraldic goats. An unusual and distinctive type of heavy wooden wheel made by tongue and groove was excavated from the Wupu Cemetery about 78 kilometer SW of the oasis village of Hami (on the perimeter of the Taklimakan). The wheel is similar to those used on chariots from Bactria and outer Iran; illustrations of such wheels are incised on a silver bowl (Figure 18). Similar chariot wheels are also illustrated on a seal from Tepe Hissar, northwestern Iran (Map 2). Thus, migrants passing through Bactria could have acquired this specific wheel type, using it on wagons that transported household goods to the Tarim Basin.
Based on comparative data, construction began on the Bronze Age Kangjiashimenzi tableau early in the second millennium BCE. It was probably used as a storyboard for groups of cultic leaders until ca 850 BCE. The interpretation if the tableau is reasonable as follows: many personages are represented (Tables 1 and 2), with about half being female (priestesses) and the other half being males (priests). Slightly more than half the males had assumed a bisexual gender role, being ithyphallic and cross-dressing as priestesses with high headdresses. All these personages are engaged in a ritual fertility/procreation dance with some engaged in symbolic copulation that would result in procreation. Lines of tiny images are, figuratively, the resulting progeny.
Thus, we would conclude that the priestly class, composed of females and males, some of whom had assumed a bisexual gender, were overseerers of the Kangjiashimenzi tableau. They mandated their artists to set in stone an instructional model that they and their descendants could follow. The priestly leaders, following ritual law, duplicated the rite each year to ensure propagation of their animals, their foodstuffs, and of themselves. Bisexualism seems to have been a dominant element of the procreation ritual, possibly also a reference to a cult of priests belonging to the Mother Goddess. This is emphasized by the presence of the felines, animals that are associated with priestesses and their ritual. As dogs in Eastern Europe were associated with the occult, it seems a similar belief may also have been transmitted to the Kangjiashimenzi ritual.
In addition to the representation of profound fertility rites, we may deduce additional information about their society. On an anthropological level, we may observe how they dressed for the occasion and how their ritual dance was performed. They had developed or compiled, perhaps partially through assimilation, a complex artistic canon, here specifically one that was religious and dictated by the priestess and/or the priestly class. Different-sized images indicate the society was hierarchical with specialized labor forces (shaman, dancers, artists, carvers, laborers, etc.). The tableau with its groups of dancers were conceived, laid out, and carved over a long time period. The disparate sizes and the discrete grouping of the images indicate the propagation ritual contained several different elements. Because of the length of time that would be required for the population of one or several villages to create such an enormous work of art, we can conclude that the belief system had a long continuity. Throughout the tableau, similarities in image stylization are quite constant, primarily changing in the number of images carved with their lesser dimensions. However, as images become smaller and the scenes are less complex, we could also conclude that the importance of the ritual began to diminish and may have died out with the advent of nomadism.
Rituals as seen on the Kangjiashimenzi tableau probably originated among Cucuteni-Tripolye peoples, who assimilated the ecstatic elements portrayed on the tableau as their descendants passed through Bactria on their way to the Tarim Basin. Dogs associated with ritual in Eastern Europe maintain a similar position in the tableau while the heraldic animals reference a portion of the ritual that came from the Zagros Mountains. As Bactria was the fulcrum for the dissemination of culture and artifacts in the second millennium BCE, so it was also the recipient of cultural elements in the late first millennium BCE from both the East (China, the Altai and Tien Shan mountains) and the West (Iran, Scythia, and the Greek world). This would include the Female riding a Feline, portrayed in exactly the same pose as she had been some 1,700 years earlier, magnificently repeated in gold on belt belonging to personage of the third gender.
The established gender and transgender roles, and perhaps elements of ritual eroticism associated with the Mother Goddess in Bactria, Iran and, Anatolia metamorphosed into the ecstatic dance belonging to the goddess Cybele in the Greek and Roman worlds. These erotic qualities were further transmitted to the Scythian Enareis and perhaps other nomadic tribes including the Yüeh Chih, who brought the female sitting on a feline full circle.
The Kangjiashimenzi tableau is monumental art located in an awe-inspiring locale. It is a major opus immortalizing for all time the choreography of an ancient procreative ritual guaranteeing fecundity for the ritual dancers for more than a millennium.
1.Barber & Barber, 2005, p. 2. (Return to previous page)
2. Illustrated Bokovenko 1995, Fig. 14; Jacobson-Tepfer 2005. (Return to previous page.)
3. Turkic period anthropomorphic carvings. (Return to previous page.)
4. Cf. Davis-Kimball 2002, p. 73. (Return to previous page.)
5. Both animals and probably ritual involving large cauldrons are found on the Boyer petroglyphs, Minusinsk Basin, southern Siberia. Cf. Bokovenko 1995, Fig. 36. (Return to previous page.)
6. Infant and prepubescent burials at the Early Iron Age Sarmatian site, Pokrovka, in the southern Urals represent ca. 33 % of all burials. Davis-Kimball 1997. (Return to previous page.)
7. Cf. Gimbutas 1982; 1991a, 1991b. (Return to previous page.)
8. Mellaart 1973; Balter 2005. (Return to previous page.)
9. Gimbutas 1982, cf. particularly fig. 309. (Return to previous page.)
10. Okladnikov 1970. (Return to previous page.)
11. Illustrated in Davis-Kimball 2002 p. 83. (Return to previous page.)
12. These petroglyphs find their roots in the Early Bronze Age and many sites, such as Tamgaly that are easily accessible, continue to be used for rituals. (Return to previous page.)
13. Davis-Kimball and Martinov 1993; Francfort et al. 1995. (Return to previous page.)
14. Jettmar 1985. (Return to previous page.)
15. Wu Guoqing n. d. (Return to previous page.)
16. Francfort et al. 1995, pp. 167-168. (Return to previous page.)
17. For an earlier study of the Kangjiashimenji Tableau, cf. Davis-Kimball 2001b. (Return to previous page.)
18. Elizabeth Barber, 1999, 71. (Return to previous page.)
19. Mair 1995, pp. 28-35. (Return to previous page.)
20.Nomadism is defined as herding within a defined region of the steppes or mountains, sheep, goats, horses, camels, and yak in the higher altitudes between nine and 10 months of the year, and wintering at a sheltered locale during the frigid months. Davis-Kimball, 2001a. (Return to previous page.)
21. Wang Bing-Hua, et al. n. d. (Return to previous page.)
22. Personal observation. (Return to previous page.)
23. Wang Bing-Hua excavated a Bronze Age stone house, one of four, which was constructed probably for an extended family from massive stones. It probably had space for the animals in its curved hall-like entryway. In addition to Bronze Age millstones, which he had left in situ, the excavator found artifacts, such as large bronze cauldrons, that are associated with the Yüeh Chih, an Early Iron Age nomadic tribe that was driven from the Tien Shan by the Hsiung-nu confederacy. The excavator removed all artifacts to Urumchi with the exception of the millstones that the author saw when surveying the area in 1997. (Return to previous page.)
24. The more powerful recurved bow was introduced in the Early Iron Age.(Return to previous page.)
25. Davis-Kimball, 2001a. Oases traders still use the mountain passes to access the herders in the Tien Shan from whom they purchase or barter for sheep, wool, and carved wooden vessels and trays. (Return to previous page.)
26. In ancient art, the larger the personage or the personage’s face in comparison to other contemporary personages, the higher the status of the personage. Cf. Davis-Kimball 1989, passim. (Return to previous page.)
27. Wang Bing-Hua et al. 1992, p. 45. (Return to previous page.)
28. Dress and social status are discussed further in Sorensen 1997: 93-113. (Return to previous page.)
29. Dragos Gheorghiu, personal communication. (Return to previous page.)
30. Maksimova, et al. 1995, Figs. 11 and 45. (Return to previous page.)
31. Monah 1997, Fig 254. (Return to previous page.)
32. Personal observation. (Return to previous page.)
33. Gimbutas 1991b, p. 240, Fig. 374. 34. Ursulescu 1998: pp. 166-167. (Return to previous page.)
34. Ursulescu 1998: pp. 166-167. (Return to previous page.)
35. Cf. Gimbutas 1991b, Fig. 378/1. (Return to previous page.)
36. Monah 1997, Fig. 242.(Return to previous page.)
37. Davis-Kimball 1997. (Return to previous page.)
38. Davis-Kimball 1998. (Return to previous page.)
39. Okladnikov 1970: 173-183. Also see Davis-Kimball 2001a. (Return to previous page.)
40. Minusinsk and Karasuk axes and knives are on display at the Hami Historical Museum (Xinjiang Province, China), personal observation; others are illustrated in Hami: Xinjiang, China 1993, pp. 68-69; also cf. Davis-Kimball 2001a.(Return to previous page.)
41. Females excavated from the Subashi Cemetery, cf. Debaine-Francfort 1989; illustrated in Mair 1995: 29. (Return to previous page.)
42. The so-called “Gold Man” from the Issyk burial. K. Akishev 1987; Davis-Kimball 1997.(Return to previous page)
43. Priestess burial from the Ukok plateau. Polsomak 1996. (Return to previous page.)
44. One of the most graphic is a nude female wearing only a tall, brimmed hat similar to a witch’s hat is probably dated to the Early Medieval period. It is on display in Tanais Museum, Tanais, Russia, North Black Sea region. Illustrated in Davis-Kimball 2002, p. 135. (Return to previous page.)
45. Okladnikov 1970, pp. 260. (Return to previous page.)
46. Rudenko 1926: pp. 62, 97, 109, 126. (Return to previous page.)
47. Okladnikov 1970: pp. 258-260. (Return to previous page.)
48. Herodotus I: 105; IV: 67. (Return to previous page.)
49. Prof. Martin Schwartz, University of California, Berkeley, personal communication. (Return to previous page.)
50. De aere . (Return to previous page.)
51. Ustanova 1999, p. 80. If these Enareis had descendants as noted in the treatise, they were not all eunuchs.(Return to previous page.)
52. Cf. Ustanova 1999 for more on the Scythian gods and goddesses. (Return to previous page.)
53. Herodotus I: 105. (Return to previous page.)
54. Ustanova 1999, p. 79. (Return to previous page.)
55. Marazov 1977. (Return to previous page.)
56. Rosenfield 1967. One branch of the confederacy later formed the Kushan Empire.(Return to previous page.)
57. Cf. Davis-Kimball 1999 for an interpretation and synthesis of the statuses of these individuals. The excavations at Tillya Tepe were curtailed because of the Russian-Afghan war. The following spring artifacts appeared in the Kabul bazaar that indicated possibly two more personages were buried in the Tillya Tepe mound. The excavated artifacts were placed in the Kabul Museum, and then thought to have been lost when the Taliban looted the museum. Recently, however, they were discovered in a secreted locale after they had been removed from the museum for safekeeping. (Return to previous page.)
58. On both shoe buckles a eunuch in a mushroomed-canopied chariot is drawn by winged leonine creatures. The closest analogies for this type of chariot is from Ai Khanun, Afghanistan, dated to the 4th-3rd centuries BCE. Illustrated in Davis-Kimball 2000, Fig. 11. The Ai Khanun examples predate the Han Dynasty examples.(Return to previous page)
59. The collectively known Bactria Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) (2500-1500 BCE) sites include Namazga V and VI in southern Turkmenistan, surveyed sites in the Murghab and Tedjen river basins, and the excavated sites of Kelleli, Gonur, and Togolok. To the east in northern Afghanistan, three sites are in the Dashly Oasis with the type-site, Sapallitera located in southern Uzbekistan. Lamburg-Karlovsky 1988, p. 15. (Return to previous page.)
60. Other artifacts from the BMAC cultural milieu include a Mother Goddess, stylized with massive body. The body was carved from green chlorite, the head of white limestone and appears to have been interchangeable. Illustrated in Amiet 1988, p. 176, Fig. 20, a-b. A clay temple model from southwestern Romania, dating to the sixth millennium BCE, is similar: a temple structure represents the massive body of a Goddess who wears three necklaces. Illustrated in Gimbutas 1991a, p. 259; Fig. 7-56, Vinca Culture 5200-5000 BCE.) (Return to previous page.)
61. Illustrated Davis-Kimball 2000, Fig. 3. It is thought that the Mitanni, who strongly influenced Hittite religion in Anatolia, entered northern Mesopotamia from the Iranian Zagros Mountains. (Return to previous page.)
62. Roller 1999, fig. 50. (Return to previous page.)
63. Central Asian nomads, both men and women, still wear belts denoting clan, tribe, and status. Personal research among the Kazaks in western Mongolia. (Return to previous page.)
64. Olson 2000. (Return to previous page.)
65. Mallory 1991, p. 199; p. 214. (Return to previous page.)
66. Bley-Jones 1997, pp. 205-206. (Return to previous page.)
67. Mallory 1991, p. 119. (Return to previous page.)
68. Gheogorghiu 1994, p. 238, amphora from Varvaroka, Tripolye culture. (Return to previous page.)
69. Cf. Gheorghiu 1994, pp. 237-238, left part of image. (Return to previous page.)
70. Gimbutas 1991b, p. 302, Krutoborodinsti, western Ukraine. (Return to previous page.)
71. Gimbutas 1991b, p. 161. (Return to previous page.)
72. Illustrated in Gimbutas 1991a, p. 295, Fig. 7-16; also cf. Gheorghiu 1994, p. 239. (Return to previous page.)
73. See fn. 60. Also personal archaeological and ethnographical research. Although dogs are considered essential among our contemporary herders, they have not been found in either a profane or ritual context within Early Iron Age Eurasian nomadic burials. Kazaks herders do not have dogs; occasionally Mongol herders do. (Return to previous page.)
74. In the same cemetery located on one of the Silk Roads near the city of Djambul, ossuaries and other artifacts from burials indicted that in addition to Zoroastrianism, Christian, and Buddhist religions were also represented. (Return to previous page.)
75. Rassamakin 1999, pp. 157-174. (Return to previous page.)
76. This paper does not include discussion of the Taklimakan mummies and textile techniques that may come from northern Iran, the Caucasus, or from further west. Cf. Barber 1999. (Return to previous page.)
77. Rassamakin 1994 and 1999, passim. (Return to previous page.)
78. For types in the Hami Museum, cf. Moorey 1971, Pl. 80, no. 508; Pl. 81, nos. 510a-516. (Return to previous page.)
79. These emulate Luristan bronze images from the Zagros Mountains in Iran. Cf. P.R.S. Moorey, Catalogue of the Ancient Persian Bronzes in the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford: Claredon Press, 1971), Plates 30-31. (Return to previous page.)
80. Personal observation during the filming of the documentary, “Mysterious Mummies of China.” Chinese officials did not allow photography of objects. (Return to previous page.)
81. The bowl appeared in the Kabul bazaar and currently is in the Louvre collection. Amiet 1988, p. 161, 163: Louvre accession number AO28518. (Return to previous page.)
82. Schmidt 1937, p. 198, Fig. 188, H892. These are typologically different than those associated with the Yamnaya burials. Illustrated Mallory 1991, Fig. 114, p. 212. (Return to previous page.)
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