A new primitive art site in Central Asia

Issue #1 • 963

Before 2001, the Kashkadarya Valley had been a “blank spot” on the map of primitive monuments in Uzbekistan. Only the finds from the Tankhazdarya Valley, where the remains of flint implements had been discovered, and the almost inaccessible cave through the Taqaliqsay in the Takhtakarach Pass, where D. Levyy found several stone implements dating from Mousterian times, indicated that the Kashkadarya Valley had been settled by Stone Age man.

During survey work carried out in the autumn of 2001 along the right bank of the Kashkadarya, a whole series of caves and grottoes were found 25 km north-west of Kitab and were explored during a study of the Ayaqchisay Valley, the slopes of which are formed from well-karsted, marbleised limestone. Two caves yielded evidence that Stone Age man had once lived there.

Good luck awaited us in the neighbouring Quruqsay Valley, where, according to Jumanov, a senior lecturer at the Karshi Polytechnical Institute, there were overhangs on which incomprehensible pictures had been drawn in red paint. The name of the location was also given, Siypantash.

Back in Karshi, Jumanov showed amateur video footage recording some of the drawings at Siypantash, and it then became clear that we were confronted with a unique site at which art from the distant past was preserved. When we examined it on the spot, it surpassed all our expectations. The smooth surfaces of the main chamber and several side chambers were covered with groups of various symbols executed by painting in ochre of different shades – from dark brown and claret red to pink and yellow. Unlike the two sites of primitive art that are well known in Central Asia, Zarautsay and the Shakhty grotto, where scenes of hunting for wild animals were depicted, the subjects of the painting were of a geometrical nature. But it was not a matter of idle ornamentalism of an applied variety. There were symbolic depictions of the sun in the form of a cross or a circle with a dot or a cross in the centre, arrow-shaped representations, strings of diamond shapes or rows of dashes. One of these rows comprises 28 and 29 dashes, which coincides with the number of days in the lunar month. In the centre of the chamber is a diagrammatic silhouette picture of a wild cow or bull, similar in style to the depictions of bulls at Zarautsay.

Handprints, small with long, elegant fingers, perhaps those of women, can be seen in a chamber, beneath a niche, in a neighbouring cliff. Clearly, they are the handprints of those who were engaged in artistic creation, decorating the chambers of that unique natural formation with symbolic signs. It may be supposed that it is a shrine of early man, with the sacred rituals in it being performed by a woman. It was she who painted the symbols, which were endowed with deep meaning and significance for our distant ancestor.

Incidentally, the place is still revered as a sacred site, one that helps women in childbirth, the childless and the sick. Sacrificial cattle and cockerels are still slaughtered there in honour of the spirit of the mythical Siypantash-ota, i.e. the present-day inhabitants still see it as the place of a holy, healing spirit.

In order to evaluate the importance of the discovery of the paintings at Siypantash, one should recall the evocative splendour of the examples of primitive cave art found in France and Spain, Eastern Europe and Siberia in the late 19th and 20th centuries. There are the well-known caves at Lascaux, Font-de-Gaume, Castillo and Altamira; in Russia there is the Kapova Peshchera and the Shishkinskaya Pisanitsa on the banks of the River Lena; and there is Zarautsay in the Surkhandarya Valley in Uzbekistan. Not only are these remarkable ancient remains amazingly realistic works of primitive art, depicting as they do bison and mammoths, horses and bulls, which were the main animals hunted or used by early man; they also enable us to take a first step in exploring the spiritual world of our remote ancestors.

At Zarautkamar and Shakhty, ancient primitive art sites, dating from Mesolithic times, that are well known in Central Asia, bull, boar and bear-hunting scenes are painted in ochre on a rock face. But the Siypantash paintings show a development of the art of conventional symbols (not counting the single figure of a wild cow or bull in the centre of the main “canvas” or “gallery” of the depictions in the shrine’s main chamber). These representations are similar in their manner of execution to the pictures of the Zarautsay bulls, which are being hunted with bows and dogs. In a drawing at Siypantash, a bull or cow has disproportionately shortened legs, and the head, bearing two scarcely perceptible horns, is unrealistically reduced in size, or the animal’s head is turned backwards, as is often the case in Palaeolithic art. If so, the animal’s horn may take the form of a curved line above its head, while its belly is exorbitantly enlarged, whereby it differs drastically from the lean, long-horned bulls of Zarautsay. A small hump, characteristic of the bison-like breed of these animals, stands out on its back. The figure of the animal is treated statically, with legs wide apart, as in the bull drawings at Zarautkamar. The depiction of a bull is known to be connected with lunar symbolism in all of the most archaic mythological cycles, while the depiction of a cow evidently reflects the scene of the birth of the new moon. At the same time, the bull is the god of the storm and the rain, and the birth of a new moon is always linked with precipitation. Representations of the lunar calendar in the form of 28 – 30 dots are typical of Palaeolithic art.

Arrow-shaped signs, typical of the hunting theme in Palaeolithic and Mesolithic pictures, occur frequently. There are more complex and unusual subjects, such as arrow-shaped signs strung along a single line, forming a figure resembling a diagrammatic branch or herringbone pattern. Occasionally, a longitudinal line has several short crosspieces, and all this is enclosed in an oval frame. Similar signs are found on the magic churinga pebbles of the Australian Aborigines. There is a symbol in the form of a square divided diagonally by a cross into four isosceles triangles with dots in the centre, which recalls the fourfold division of space and the sky, well known from the mythology of many ancient peoples.

Among the rarer symbols is a bell-shaped figure with two vertical bars inside on a horizontal stand with two short legs at the edges. Similar Magdalenian depictions are known from the Pasiega and Castanier caves in Spain and France. But in the paintings at Siypantash, the sign is more like a light dwelling with an oval covering.

Two rows of lozenge-shaped figures are unique. What they may have designated is unclear. Handprints of various sizes predominate in a small neighbouring chamber. They are usually prints made of the left hand. Often the four fingers are of almost equal length, while the palm is represented in the form of an asymmetrical oval, which indicates a complex technique for executing the signs. The artist then drew round the handprint and applied the finishing touches. In addition to the handprints, arrow-shaped and other signs are found there. The hand sign is usually interpreted as a magic talisman. Thematically, then, the Siypantash paintings are wholly connected with astral and cosmic symbolism. Particularly important is the depiction of the lunar calendar as a result of the measurement of time and the ordering of the original cosmic chaos. The cyclical nature of time is fully understood and recorded by the number of days in the lunar month. The solar signs should, possibly, be interpreted as the start of counting using the annual cycle. In one of the sequences, made up of diamond shapes, there are 12 or 13 of them (the sequences are not very well preserved), possibly corresponding to the number of months in the year, although there are more diamond shapes in the second, less well preserved row.

The paintings of Siypantash are, on the whole, marked by the lack of unified scenes, a well-thought-out composition or any deliberate orientation of the various symbols, although there is hardly any superposition or overlapping of the different drawings. Clearly, the drawings were not all made at once, but over a lengthy period. Siypantash is, thus, the most ancient shrine in Central Asia and reflects Stone Age people’s ideas about the structure of space and time. Taking the other cave paintings mentioned as a starting point, one may suppose that the unique Siypantash site is between 10,000 and 20,000 years old. A later date is possible, but there are no pictures of economic artefacts, and the technique of petroglyphs carved in relief, widespread in Central Asia from the Bronze Age onwards, is also unknown, although, according to A. Okladnikov, in Mongolia painting with ochre continued into the Bronze Age.

Pictures of goats and hunters with bows on horseback or with a dog, carved on the surface of large rocks and belonging to the Iron Age, were found by us higher up the mountain slope at a considerable distance from the rocks of Siypantash. The shrine’s signs and symbols are one of the world’s most ancient systematisations of ideas about the rhythm of time, about space and cosmic phenomena, recorded with abstract symbols. They amount to a symbolic writing about the main phenomena and properties of a complex world, devised and recorded by our distant ancestors. In this way, the paintings of Siypantash differ from those of all the well-known art sites left by the ancient hunters and gatherers of Eurasia, in which the main theme of the pictures consisted of various animal-hunting scenes. Clearly, the creators of the Siypantash paintings were concerned not so much with fertility, wild animals and the ritual of hunting magic as with the eternal questions of the design of the universe.

Author: Rustam Suleymanov

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