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Anthropology for Rippers: The First Skiers

News
posted: 08/18/2006

Everyone knows that skiing started in Scandinavia, right? Wrong. Recent evidence suggests that China, not Norway or Sweden, may be the birthplace of skiing. To quote The Big Lebowski, "New shit has come to light.

Stone Age cliff paintings found in the Altai range in northwest China that date back to about 8000 B.C. are the latest proof that skiing got its start in central Asia. And even though the paintings, which depict hunters using primitive skis, are 10,000 years old, not much has changed in the Altais: Nestled in valleys ringed by 14,000-foot peaks, a handful of tribes are still using what looks to be the same ancient skiing technology. The indigenous, nomadic Altai people have had minimal contact with their ethnic-Chinese neighbors until very recently, and even less exposure to the West (thus no P-tex or dorky Austrian graphics). In turn, they have maintained traditional lifestyles, living in log houses and yurts, tending livestock—and slapping on eight-foot-long, five-inch-wide wooden boards when the snow flies.

The Altai planks have little in common with today's high-tech skis, but they do resemble prehistoric skis found in bogs in Sweden and northern Russia dated to around 6700 B.C. Crafted of Siberian spruce, the skis have upturned tips, weigh about 12 pounds a pair, and are wrapped in horsehair to give them traction for climbing. When headed downhill, the Altai tribesmen use a single pole for balance, but, like pro freeskiers circa 1999, they rarely turn. "You can walk in these skis like we do on cross-country skis, says Nils Larsen, an American backcountry ski instructor who has made two research trips to China. "But the whole double-pole thing, they think that's pretty stupid.

Not everyone agrees that skiing started in the Altais (one academic points to cave paintings in Siberia's Baikal region), but others are ready to close the case. "Everything points in that direction, says Dr. John Weinstock, author of Skis and Skiing from the Stone Age to the Birth of the Sport. "It's nonsense that it started in Norway. A sad day for the Norwegians indeed. Oh well, at least they still have aquavit.

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