Shaman Maria Amanchina stands over the tomb of the Ukok Princess Kadyn. Photo © Gleb Raygorodetsky.
The sacred Ukok Plateau at the heart of the Golden Mountains of Altai World Heritage Site, Russia, is changing because of climate. For local people, dealing with climate change means restoring and sustaining the role of the ancestral burial kurgans and other sacred sites in protecting Altai and its people.
On a warm summer’s day twenty-four centuries ago, a noblewoman of the nomadic Pazyryk tribe was buried in a large ancient burial tomb, or kurgan, on the Ukok Plateau — now a region of the Russian Altai that borders China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. Mummified with herbs, bark and marten fur, she was placed in an oversized sarcophagus hewn from a single larch log. Six sacrificial horses, richly saddled and harnessed, were laid to rest on the northern side of the burial chamber, ready to carry her to the realm of her ancestors.
In the summer of 1993 the noblewoman was unearthed by a team of Russian researchers from the Novosibirsk Centre of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The find was hailed as one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the century, providing insights into Pazyryk life previously unknown to modern science. Yet, the nature of the noblewoman’s status in Pazyryk society and her relationship with modern-day Altai people has eluded the scientific community. Who was she? A ruler or a holy woman? A revered bard or a healer?
This petroglyph of an ancient horseman pursuing mountain sheep was carved two and a half millennia ago. The Altai region has served as a home or migration route to nomadic cultures through conquests, revolutions and wars. Today, the etched horseman and its quarry face different obstacles, including increasing erosion due to climate change. Photo © Gleb Raygorodetsky.
Local people know her as Ukok Princess Kadyn and, unlike scientists, have absolutely no doubt about her role in the past, present and future of the Altai. Like many powerful kams (shamans) before her, this daughter of the Altai was buried on the sacred mountain plateau of Ukok to ensure the peace and well-being of her people.
The Russian authorities dismiss such sentiments as unscientific and backward, arguing that the research has not shown even morphological or genetic links between the Princess’s remains and the modern Altai peoples.
This argument befuddles the local people who see the Princess Kadyn and the Altai region as one. Since the Princess was unearthed, the local people have seen many signs that the Princess’ continued absence is upsetting the balance in the region — from the nightmares reported by the archaeologists during the excavation to the near-crash of the helicopter as the sarcophagus was being airlifted from Ukok, to subsequent powerful earthquakes, one of which levelled an entire Altai village.
Altai people know that restoring the order of things, including addressing climate change, means returning the ancient Princess Kadyn to her rightful place on the Ukok Plateau.