It’s a -30 degree morning in 8000 B.C., deep in the Altay Mountains that span what are now Russia, China, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia. A hunter spots a few elk hundreds of feet below, past snow-covered boulders, and a glade of trees. Before an unlucky breeze catches his scent and warns the animals of his presence, he’s off, carving through the snow with the help of his taiyak staff, feet bound to two spruce planks, the bottoms of which are lined with horsehide.
This week, the world’s top skiers gather in Russia to compete for a very different kind of prize. What is now a sporting spectacle or an expensive weekend hobby arose from a need to survive the winters of Russia, China, and Norway. Two new infographics from National Geographic explore the evolution of skis over the 10,000 years in between.
Historians debate which country had the first skiers. The first Nat Geo graphic maps cave drawings depicting the activity in Scandinavia and the Altay Mountains. A petroglyph from Böksta, Sweden shows a skier with a bow, while inscriptions further east depict a staff as the accessory of choice. The pole could’ve been used for steering, certainly, but also as a shovel and hunting club.
The glyph from Rødøy, Norway, shows skis more than twice the length of the rider. Archeological and historical records support the drawing’s accuracy, according to Nat Geo’s second chart, which lines up mankind’s skis in a timeline. Even in 1600 A.D., hunters from the area “glided on one long smooth board coated with tar and pushed forward on a shorter, fur-bottomed one.” The difference in ski length across regions is one of the graphic’s more surprising takeaways. Californian miners in the 1860s used 12-foot skis to race each other down the Sierra Nevadas, while outdoorsmen in Finland a little more than a thousand years earlier traveled on three-foot long boards that looked more like snowshoes.
Snowboarding, if you were wondering, is a much more recent invention. The first modern snowboard was created in 1965, a children’s toy billed as the “snurfer” (“snow” plus “surfer”). Snurfers they remained, until Jake Burton Carpenter replaced the toy’s steering rope with foot bindings and rechristened the product in 1977. In the early 1990s, snowboarding culture helped revive a struggling winter sports industry. But skis are as ancient as the wheel, and while snowboard sales have declined in recent years, technological advancement is keeping the ski more popular than ever.
*An earlier version of this article referred to Jake Burton Carpenter as "John Burton Carpenter."
[Image: Birkebeinerne på Ski over Fjeldet med Kongsbarnet (1869)]