You wouldn’t expect to find prehistoric depictions of mammoths in one of the world’s largest deserts — but one team of researchers did just that!
A team of Turkish researchers reports finding three new Paleolithic (stone-age) settlements in the Gobi Desert, Mongolia. At least two ancient figures of mammoths were discovered at these sites, comprising paintings and reliefs on cave walls, according to Hurriyet Daily.
Beyond the unusualness of the findings, these pieces of prehistoric artwork allow researchers to better map the presence and movement of ancestral Turkic and Altai Turk ethnic groups in the Gobi desert.
“The two mammoth figures we found in the Gurvan Sayhan Uul region were quite surprising for us,” notes Semih Güneri, who led the research team. “The rock paintings of these large mammals, which became extinct in the last Upper Paleolithic Age, are the most interesting depictions of the time.”
One of the Paleolithic settlements was found nestled inside a cave, while the other two were located in an open area. Stone tool samples found at the sites revealed that they were inhabited between 15,000 and 12,000 B.C. These once-inhabited areas are spread over a region of the Altai mountains in the south of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, and yielded prehistoric petroglyphs (paintings and relief carvings) depicting mammoths. If the dates obtained from artifacts at the sites can be confirmed, this would make the petroglyphs some of the oldest in the whole Gobi region.
Such petroglyphs cannot help us learn from past communities as directly and reliably as we could from written historical evidence. However, they still are an excellent source of information for recreating facets of such communities’ daily lives, including burial customs, cultural practices, or housing quality, Güneri notes.
Petroglyphs are rock carvings that are made by chiseling a rock’s surface. This breaks off the outer layer of weathered material, allowing the lighter rock underneath to become visible.
“This line of rock paintings, which also passed through the Gobi Desert, is the most important evidence of Altai Turks’ presence in this region,” Güneri explained. “We completed the studies of the rock paintings that existed in a large area from the peaks of the Altai Mountains in the process of 13 years of research.”
Similar petroglyphs and other material evidence have been discovered in other areas where prehistoric groups of Atalai Turks had migrated through thousands of years ago, such as Siberia and Göbeklitepe in Turkey. These points of data allowed researchers to piece together the developmental and cultural history of the group. But the Gobi desert remained unexplored for such signs, despite being the most likely path through which the group migrated between the two areas. The team set about investigating this area in the early summer of 2022.
The research was part of the “Archeological Resources of Turkish Culture in Central Asia Project” (OTAK), which has been underway since 1995.
“We are conducting research on the Paleolithic period in the Mongolia region for the first time. The presence of such early settlements in the desert area is exciting,” Güneri explains.
The Altai Turks are an ancient ethnic group of Turks that today lives (mostly) in Siberia, Russia. While for most of us reading this the highlight of the story is “mammoths in the desert”, Güneri is most interested in understanding the history of Turkish-speaking peoples. Could their roots range so far back into history? Are their current language and customs very different from those of the people that carved these mammoths into Gobi’s rocks?
Excavations on this site will be marking the team’s 25th year of work on the OTAK project as well as the centennial of the foundation of the Turkish Republic, which the team will celebrate “both in Mongolia and Siberia during the excavations”, according to Güneri.
As for why these petroglyphs haven’t been discovered until now, Güneri points to the fact that the Gobi desert is extremely inhospitable, both in regards to climate and terrain, and to how remote the sites are from any infrastructure or current settlements. “Gobi” means “waterless place” in Mongolia. It is the world’s sixth-largest desert by surface area, and is mostly barren rocks and hardy brush rather than sand dunes.
However, the Gobi desert is known for its wealth of petroglyphs. One example is the Petroglyphic Complexes of the Mongolian Altai, a constellation of three sites that are rich with well-preserved petroglyphs, which was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2011. Other examples are the Del Uul mountain, Javkhlant Khairkhan mountain, and Bichigtiin Am petroglyphic complexes — these are currently on the Tentative List of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
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