Shamans, sun gods, warriors: Thousands of Bronze Age petroglyphs mark this ancient site

In Kazakhstan’s Tamgaly gorge, 3,500-year-old rock art provides clues about the society that created them.

The long horns of a horse dominate a Tamgaly petroglyph that dates to the Bronze Age. The distinctive features are typical of Kazakh rock art from this period.
MARINA PISSAROVA/ALAMY/ACI

The grassland steppes stretch away to the horizon in the far south of Kazakhstan. In a landscape blasted with summer heat and winter cold, the shelter and shade of the Tamgaly gorge, about 100 miles northwest of the former Kazakh capital, Almaty, has been a special place for people for millennia. They have left their mark in the form of 5,000 vivid rock carvings, the earliest of which date from the middle of the Bronze Age, 3,500 years ago.

Some of these carvings are hidden, while others’ placement ensures maximum visibility. The petroglyphs stand out in pale contrast to the dark rock revealing myriad drawings: sun deities with rays shining from their heads, warriors on horses, dancing shamans, and herds of animals.

All tell of the different peoples that lived here: Their subjects chart the changes felt through the region from the Bronze Age through the Iron Age to the medieval period, and even much later: Twentieth-century Kazakh shepherds have also left their mark, recording the recent conquerors of the region with depictions of Soviet-era vehicles.

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