ima Jiangcai, the curator of the Yushu Museum, isn’t interested in exotic treasures or rare antiques. He wants the museum, and Yushu, in Qinghai Province, to be famous for the region’s own sake – because, he says, the area, the southeastern part of the Tibetan plateau, is one of the cradles of Tibetan civilization. The signs of this are in the very rocks themselves – or rather, the art painted on them.
Early rock art means human carvings on stone, found all over the world, and often characteristic of early civilization. Among the most famous examples are the prehistoric cave paintings in Spain and France, and the rock art of the Australian aboriginals. But Nima says there are examples – largely unknown to the outside world – all over Yushu.
His first findings came in 2007, when, with the help of a local, he spotted three carvings of deer on a rock by the bank of the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, known as the Tongtian River basin. However, three years later when he went back to the site, the original carvings have been replaced by new carvings of popular Tibetan Buddhist mantras. That discovery, and loss, started his own quest for rock art along the course of the river.
In the winter of 2012, in a secluded valley locals called Jorse on the southern bank of Tongtian River, he was thrilled to spot a total of 50 figures on a single piece of rock. They include humans, dogs, horses, leopards, yaks, deer, fish, foxes, wild cats and stacks of barley – and according to Nima, are clearly prehistoric. He named the style the “Jorse petroglyph.”
“The rock art in Jorse is mostly themed around hunting and farming, and the historical records indicate there was an abundance of wildlife and ample edible plants in the region. As an ideal environment with plentiful food, it’s not surprising we’ve discovered a whole range of rock art up there, varying in style, content, and scale,” Nima explained, noting that this indicated a long human history there. The wildlife depicted alongside human images suggests, according to him, the relatively harmonious coexistence of humans and nature.
Over the past five years, Nima and colleagues from the museum have recorded over 1,700 rock paintings along the upper stream of the Yangtze. In the next few years, he plans to focus on the upper stream regions of the Lancang (the Mekong).
Nima says that the style of the rock art conveys something of the time and place it came from. “The horns and rounded bottoms of the yak that we spotted on certain rocks are in a particular style, and quite similar to a lot of rock art from other civilizations such as prehistoric Central Asia. That could show that different cultural groups in larger regions were communicating with each other. Nima admitted that he hoped Yushu rock art could be an important element in connecting neighboring regions.
Professor Zhang Yasha, who works at the Rock Art Research Association of China at Minzu University, has researched the rock art in the Tibetan Autonomous Region for years, but is now shifting to study the art of Yushu as well. In an interview in Beijing, she mentioned that geographically, Yushu links Tibet and the rest of China, and its rock art is also a bridge between cultures. She believes that the cultural origins of the entire Tibetan-Qinghai Plateau may lie in the Zongri culture, dating to about 500 BC, found in archeological excavations in eastern Qinghai.
“Many researchers have started to shift their focus from the Ali region in western Tibet to Yushu recently, and the role of rock art there is seeing a revival of study,” Zhang added.