Tucked away in the depth of Beishan Mountain of Zhongwei County, northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Damaidi is one of the country's enduring mysteries.
Thousands of years ago people carved hundreds of symbols into rocks. Who were they, and why did they painstakingly carve petroglyphs of animals and other figures?
Ever since a geologist happened to discover the ancient cliff carvings in Damaidi in 1988, Chinese archaeologists have spent years seeking for the answers of these questions.
According to their latest study released in December, the earliest cliff carvings in Damaidi can be traced back 20,000 to 30,000 years into the late Paleolithic age.
The mysterious images and markings were pecked on boulders and cliffs with stone or metal tools.
Experts believed the exquisite rock art was created by the nomadic tribes who had lived in northern China in ancient times.
These carvings, now referred to as primitive art, are actually communication efforts, said Chen Zhaofu, an expert of ancient rock art with the Central University of Nationalities.
By carving images in rocks tribal members could exchange messages or carry on their tradition from one generation to another, explained Chen.
Examples of this art form have been found in other locations of Ningxia, such as the Helan Mountains, but rarely can they be viewed in such concentration as in Damaidi, according to Zhou Xinghua, former curator of Ningxia Museum.
The rock art site in Damaidi covers an area of 15 square kilometers and experts found in the 6-square-kilometre core area 1,089 cliff carvings, featuring over 4,210 individual figures.
Besides its large number, the rock art in Damaidi is also peculiar for its rich and varied subject matter, including mythological creatures, animals, symbolic designs, events and human figures, Zhou added.
Half of the cliff carvings were created during the Neolithic Age about 7,000 years ago, and the animal figures, such as sheep, horses, deer, dogs and tigers, were the dominant images in the petroglyphs of that time, according to Li Xiangshi, a researcher with the Cliff Carving Research Center of the No 2 Northwest College of Nationalities. The images of sheep, in particular, could be seen in many carvings - either sketched with simple lines or portrayed in an elaborate style. Experts believed that sheep had played a significant role in ancient nomadic people's life.
The works created during the Bronze Age mostly reflected the hunting scenes of the ancient inhabitants.
The latest carvings were made during the Western Xia Kingdom (1032-1227) and featured more vivid pictures of people's life such as marriage, war, hunt, rituals and festive celebrations.
To find such well preserved signs of settlement and human activity over such a long period in such a small area was amazing, Li exclaimed.
Of the many finds the most interesting and significant is a figure of a pregnant woman carved into a cliff, known as a prehistoric oriental "Venus," the Goddess of love.
The "Venus" has a plump figure, full breasts and a bulbous belly. The woman, standing straight with her legs together, has slender fingers but no facial features.
The image was a typical reproduction of figures of naked women carved on stone by ancients in the late Paleolithic period, said Zhou. This was the first time that a prehistoric figure of a woman carved on cliff has ever been found in China, and such cliff carvings are valuable for studying the development process of primitive society, plastic arts and ideology, added Zhou.
Though many scholars had devoted to the study of Damaidi rock art for over a decade, the archaeological findings hardly came to light until late 2003.
Li and his colleague Shu Xihong presented a report concerning Damaidi rock art at a seminar held in Beijing.
Over 40 distinguished experts from all over the country were amazed by the several thousand drawings and photos of the site.
They agreed that rock art in Damaidi contains the most ancient testimony of human imaginative and artistic creativity, and constitutes one of the most significant aspects of Chinese cultural heritage.
Yet, experts also had different ideas about the probable age of these cliff carvings.
Zhou Xinghua from Ningxia Museum argued that the earliest rock art in Damaidi dates back to the Paleolithic Age.
The conclusion was reached by analyzing the content, style, technique, colour and preservation status of the cliff carvings, and by comparing them with other excavated relics, Zhou explained.
But Chen Zhaofu argued that most of the carvings would be about 3,000-year-old.
Because they mostly reflected the culture of the Xiongnu or the nomadic Hun people during the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, Chen explained.
He also stressed that all the arguments needed to be proved by modern technology and in-depth research.
As researchers continue their efforts in recording and understanding the ancient rock art, they also called for more concerns on the protection of the relics.
The relentless forces of erosion - abrading sand and gravel, wind, sun and rain, were obliterating designs on the rock and probably destroying the sites completely.
Field researchers often found vestiges of carvings and faint traces of paints too weathered to be recorded.
Researchers argue that human damage poses a far greater threat to rock art sites. "Unlike natural erosion it is unusually swift and violent. A site that has survived several thousand years to natural erosion can be severely damaged or totally destroyed in a few seconds by souvenir hunters chipping away at fragile surfaces, by thoughtless individuals who scratch, chalk or paint over the designs," Li said.
The problems became more serious in the past few years.
"Sometimes we spent a whole day doing record of a carving. But a few days later when we went there again, we found the relics had been stolen," recalled Li.
"The sites are extremely fragile. Once damaged, the site cannot be restored to its original condition," Li said.
Some experts recommended that the cliff carvings be moved to museums or buildings set up to prevent the rich archaeology of the area being destroyed.
But the approach is hardly realistic due to the large number of the relics and the large area of the rock art site.
Researchers also warned that the local government should preserve the natural scenes and human landscape of the original site.
(China Daily January 8, 2005)