Dates and Ethnicity
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According to Gai Shanlin (1986, 343-8), petroglyphs in Inner Mongolia span the time period from the early Neolithic (c. 8000 BC) to the later dynasties (nineteenth century). Nonetheless, accurate dating and ethnic attribution of these carvings is only partially possible, given the insufficient amount of archaeological data and the limitation of dating methodologies. Dating relies on traditional methods, such as stylistic comparison with excavated artefacts; presence/absence of extinct or domesticated animals and new technologies; carving techniques; tools; superimpositions; and inscriptions and historical records (cf. however Li Xiangshi & Zhu Cunshi (1993, 319-24) who discuss lichen dating).
Since Inner Mongolia and Ningxia share many cultural traits, Gai Shanlin's proposed chronology for the rock art of the Yinshan helps also with the dating of the Helanshan petroglyphs (Xu Cheng & Wei Zhong 1993, 376-87). Gai identifies three major periods of Yinshan rock art: 1) Neolithic - Early Bronze Age (8000-1000 BC); 2) Later Bronze Age - Early Iron Age (1000 BC-AD 200); 3) Historic (AD 500-1900). In the Helanshan, Xu and Wei also identify three periods even though these begin slightly later than Gai’s and are tied to the Chinese chronology: 1) Shang-Zhou dynasties (1600-200 BC); 2) Qin-Han and Northern-Southern Dynasties (200 BC-AD 600); 3) Sui-Tang, Xiaxia, Mongol Yuan (AD 600-1900). Save for minor differences, the proposed periodizations and stylistic developments of the Yinshan-Helanshan petroglyphs agree with each other and with those identified for Mongolian (Nowgorodowa 1980), and North and Central Asian rock art (Martynov 1991; Francfort 1998). The periodization proposed by Gai Shanlin is accepted here as a working tool (even though it needs improvement). Gai’s periodization may be considered preferable to that suggested by Xu and Wei because it focuses on the Northern Zone material culture and history, rather than on the Chinese dynastic chronology.
In dealing with this chronology it is nonetheless helpful to keep in mind a few key points. First of all, dating of petroglyphs is suggestive rather than firm, and therefore should be taken with a degree of flexibility. Second, but most crucial, all the sites described above exhibit petroglyphs which stylistically appear to date to different phases, thus suggesting that these were areas in use for protracted periods and that the visible images form time-layered palimpsests. Third, notwithstanding this extended production, the bulk of the petroglyphs date to Gai’s second period, which is the time of highest pastoral-nomadic activity in the area. So even though some sites may have a higher concentration of one type of sign it is not feasible to date a site to one single phase.
Gai's first period, Neolithic-Early Bronze age (8000-1000 BC), is subdivided into three phases: early (8000-4000 BC), middle (4000-2000 BC) and late (2000-1000 BC). He ascribes these to Early Hunting; Developed Hunting and Primitive Farming; and Early Pastoralist phases of subsistence. In the first phase, animals represented include Megaloceros, ostrich, and deer (Elaphurus davidianus), which became extinct in the area early in the post-Pleistocene. The second phase, in addition to representations of different animals (ibex, blue sheep, red deer, brown bear, reindeer), exhibits for the first time human representations either as full figures or as (pseudo-human) faces in frontal view (i.e. Helankou). The dating of these faces to this phase seems secure for reasons of style, weathering, patination, and carving techniques (Chen Zhaofu 1990), and by comparison with similar images from North and Central Asia (Martynov 1991;
Hoppál 1992; cf. however Francfort 1998). The third phase includes representations of the first domesticated animals, such as horses, cattle, sheep, donkey, as well as wild animals which continued to be hunted. Given the limited information available, the rock art of this early period can only be tentatively attributed to pre- and proto-historic populations documented archaeologically, but it is clear that their cultural background was similar to that of later hunter-pastoralists who occupied the same areas.
Gai's second period, Bronze Age-Early Iron Age (1000 BC to AD 200), comprises two phases: Early Animal Husbandry and Hunting, and Developed Animal Husbandry. A distinctive characteristic of this period is the presence of 'scenes' with multiple actors and a narrative twist, rather than single isolated figures. In the first phase are representations of herding and warfare, and the appearance of important time markers like the cart and the camel.1 The second phase includes pictures of herds surrounded by railings (evidence of developed husbandry), horseback riding, saddled horses (generally without stirrups), war chariots, bow and arrows, weapons at the waist, and an increasing number of camels.2 The petroglyphs of this period form the bulk of the production at the Yinshan, and those of the second phase have a tentative ethnic affiliation. From comparative stylistic analysis with excavated artefacts Gai ascribed them to the Xiongnu people, who were active, here and in south Siberia and Mongolia, from the third century BC to the first century AD. After this period the area was occupied by the Xianbei (AD 150-400), a phase which inexplicably Gai Shanlin does not discuss, but which rightfully also belongs to this general period (cf. Xu & Wei 1993).