03 December 2013

A neolithic skier - updated

Many years ago I visited the famous Holmenkollen ski jump in Norway.  Recently, while reading about the Nordic ski championships held there in 1966, I saw the embedded photo of a set of stamps issued in Norway to commemorate the event.

My eye was caught by the stamp at the upper left.  The 55 and the 60 show modern jumpers and X-country skiers, and the 90 shows a stylized Holmenkollen.  The 40 looked to me like a cave drawing (or other geoglyph).

So I started to research the antiquity of skiing.  Medium aevum (via Uncertain Times) had this to say -
The primitive ski dated back to 1010, and is thought to be Greenland’s oldest ski brought by Norsemen circa 980 A.D...

The oldest account involves the famous story from 1206 A.D. of the Birkebeiners during a civil war in medieval Norway. Considered the underdog, the Birkebeiners were at war against a rival faction known as the baglers. Following the death of the Birkebeiner chief, the baglers feared a rival in his young son Håkon Håkonsson. To protect him, two of the most skillful Birkebeiner skiers, with toddler in tow, skied through treacherous conditions over the mountains from around Lillehammer to safety in Østerdalen valley.
- accompanied by this way cool painting:

- entitled Birkebeinerne takes Haakon Haakonson as a child to Trondheim by Knud Bergslien, apparently from the Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum (northern Norway art museum).

But more relevant to the image on the Norwegian stamp I found the following:
The oldest and most accurately documented evidence of skiing origins is found in modern day Norway and Sweden. The earliest primitive carvings circa 5000 B.C. depict a skier with one pole, located in Rødøy in the Nordland region of Norway.
That's what's on the stamp, according to a Facit catalogue.  Now to try to wrap my mind around the idea of someone skiing in 5000 BC (predynastic Egypt, maize introduced to Mexico, wheel invented in Mesopotamia, beer brewing invented...), and then noting the accomplishment by carving it on a stone.

You learn something every day.

I posted the above back in January of 2012.  This week I encountered an interesting article and video at National Geographic on the origins of skiing:
The hunting party slowly glides into the Altay Mountains in search of elk. It is dead calm, minus 38°F. Just as their ancestors have for millennia, the five men traverse deep, feathery snow buoyed on handmade skis hewed from spruce, with strips of horsehide attached to the bottoms. In lieu of poles each man carries a single wooden staff. Since boyhood, they have learned to master their deceptively crude equipment with exquisite efficiency and grace—the grain of the horsehair providing traction to move uphill and a slick surface for rapid descents, the staff aiding balance...

The hunters come from seminomadic Tuvan-speaking clans who inhabited pockets of the Altay. Technically, they are Chinese citizens, but their log cabins stand within 20 miles of the converging borders of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia, and the roots of their language lie to the north in Siberia, where the majority of Tuvans now live. Anthropologists say their lineage includes Turkic and Samoyed tribes who at various periods over the past several thousand years moved through these mountains...

Serik describes a hunt when Tursen skied down on a bounding deer, leaped on its back, grabbed its antlers, and wrestled it down into the snow, the animal kicking and biting. It is a scene that has been repeated for thousands of years in these mountains. Within the Altay, a handful of petroglyphs have been discovered depicting archaic skiing scenes, including one of a human figure on skis chasing an ibex. Since petroglyphs are notoriously hard to date, it remains a controversial clue in the debate over where skiing was born. Chinese archaeologists contend it was carved 5,000 years ago. Others say it is probably only 3,000 years old. The oldest written record that alludes to skiing, a Chinese text, also points to the Altay but dates to the Western Han dynasty, which began in 206 B.C.

Norwegian archaeologists also have found ski petroglyphs, and in Russia, what appears to be a ski tip, carbon-dated to 8,000 years ago, was excavated from a peat bog. Each nation stakes its own claim to the first skiers. What is widely accepted, however, is that whoever first strapped on a pair of skis likely did so to hunt animals.
I'm fascinated by the fact that the grain of horsehair allows traction for skiing uphill, and by the observation above that "the earliest primitive carvings circa 5000 B.C. depict a skier with one pole" - as does this video (via The Dish):


  1. A recent Warren Miller ski film Dynasty (2009) that involved a claim that denizens of what is now modern China in the Altai mountains have been skiing for more than 3000 years.


  2. Neat, BTW is the neolithic skier wearing bunny ears??

  3. I believe it is entirely possible for neolithic folk to have used skis. We have evidence of snowshoes in dry caves better for preservation of organic material) in several areas of the world. Lack of material evidence does not mean something did not exist in earlier times; it just means there is no evidence for it. Oops, I left the door wide open on that one, didn't I? Oh, well. No time to edit. Hope no one throws tomatoes.

  4. To help protect bunnits, let me put that another way: Lack of material evidence does not mean that something did not exist in earlier times, it just means that either we have not yet uncovered said material evidence, or that said evidence has not survived the passage of time.

    Bunnits also said that we do have evidence of snowshoes preserved in dry caves which are better for the preservation of organic material.


  5. @bunnit and DaBris--or "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" (Carl Sagan). Sometimes it's almost evidence of absence, if the evidence should be easily discoverable and all the appropriate places have been thoroughly searched. But in the case of ancient artifacts, not only can they be hard to find, it seems we're constantly discovering them in unexpected places, often when we aren't even looking for them--so "absence of evidence" doesn't tell us much.

    --Swift Loris

  6. So if skiing and beer brewing date back to 7000 years ago then the first ski lodge must have been built somewhere around 6998 years ago.

  7. My thanks, DaBaris. My comment sounded even in more need of editing the second time I read it. And Anonymous (both of you), love the bunny ears, also the whole thing of evidence or absence thereof. Can't say they did; can't say they didn't. Maybe it's a case of ancient aliens.

  8. I imagine this was a pretty effective way to hunt. An animal would be slowed due to the snow drifts, while the skier would accelerate quickly on the downhill. Replace the 'pole' with a spear, and you probably have a great way of harvesting supper.

  9. I was taught in school that the old Finnish winter hunting gear included two skis, a long one that did the sliding and a shorter one on the left foot for pushing, as well a shorter staff and a longer spear.

    The Finnish language wikipedia has an impressively long article on ancient skiing, and says (quickly translating):

    "Many wooden objects have been found at the Vis 1 site [in northern Russia], including 22 fragments of sled runners and skis, of which 5 to 11 are ski fragments, depending on interpretation. … [one particular ski fragment] is estimated to be 8200 years old, meaning roughly 7200 BC as a calibrated date."

    (Apparently the age calibration was done by the wikipedia author a radiocarbon date from the original source and an online tool: http://www.calpal-online.de/index.html )

  10. The horsehair doesn't surprise me at all; the concept is still in use. Back country skis, at least 25 years ago, still had separate 'skins' you would attach so you could climb hills, and you could leave them on or take them off for downhill. My first cross-country skis had nylon strips of 'hair' - back-slanted, short, stiff bristles in two strips down the length of each ski. Same thing, though they weren't removable: you could climb, but they didn't really impeded your downhill travel.

    1. Modern cross-country skis feature a knurled surface, like scales on a fish, to facilitate gripping the snow when pushing back to get up a slope and allows free sliding when going down slope. Human hair has a similar structure. If you have hair long enough, grip a single strange and slide your fingers from the end to the root and you will find there is considerable resistance. Slide your fingers from the root to the end, and you will find almost no resistance.

      The horse-hair bottoms make enormous sense to me for cross-country skis. When pushing back, the hairs dig into the snow and grip it, allowing the skier to climb upslope. When sliding down the hill, the fur folds into its "grain" and allows the snow to slide without resistance. Imagine petting a cat the wrong way, from tail to nose. The cat fur, having a very distinct grain to it, will resist your hand going backwards. (It also produces a very upset kitty.) Pet a cat from nose to tail, and your hand slides easily over the cat. (And produces a very happy kitty and purring!)

      As a modern human, this solution would never have occurred to me. The moment it was mentioned in the article, I saw exactly how it could work. Probably better than the modern design currently on my cross-country skis. The hair is probably more likely to shed off ice and sticking snow more easily than materials currently used for ski surfaces.

    2. typo in 1st paragraph:

      "single strange" = "single strand"

    3. "As a modern human, this solution would never have occurred to me." Agreed. I am recurrently startled by the practical innovations of what we consider "primitive" peoples.

    4. And now that I think about it some more, I would presume that the usage on skis might have arisen as a sequel to having first created horsehair "booties" for walking and then noticing that depending on the orientation the booties would either slip or grip.

    5. Cats have personalities. Some cats may not enjoy having their fur petted against the grain, but my recently deceased cat (sniff) thought it was really cool.
      This is a peeve of mine. People make sweeping generalizations about cat behaviour that ignore the actual behaviour of individual cats.

  11. http://blackdiamondequipment.com/en/ski-skins


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