The Helan Mountain Range stretches some 100 kilometers in a roughly north-south direction, and straddles the border between Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (aka Inner Mongolia) and
Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region (aka Ningxia), with the ridge of the mountain range lying mostly within Inner Mongolia. The petroglyphs (rock carvings) of the Helan Mountains all lie within Ningxia (however, there are similar petroglyphs in the Yin Mountains of Inner Mongolia on the eastern edge of the Gobi Desert). The petroglyphs of Ningxia are located in the following localities: Helankou, in Helan County; Daxifeng Gou, in Pingluo County; Siyanjin, in Qingtongxia City; Heishimao, in Shizuishan City; and in Gujingou and Damaidi, both in Zhongwei County.
There is an important distinction between, on the one hand, the rock carvings of Yinshan and Helanshan – as they are called by anthropologists – and the petroglyphs of, for example, Australia on the other hand. Whereas the latter are generally interpreted as being entirely shamanistic – that is, related to primitive religion and believed to be created in an altered state of consciousness, with or without the help of hallucinogenic substances – the former are believed to be iconographs relating to the real world, from icons representing cultural interactions both within and between tribes to icons that mark territorial boundaries between tribes to icons that register agreed-upon (neutral) meeting places, etc.
An example of an icon that represents intra-tribal cultural interaction are the many images of female heads, some dressed in headwear and others "dressed" in a coiffure (done up in a bun, etc.), which suggest the same female pursuit of physical beauty as we know it today. Another example of an intra-tribal icon are the many images of female genitalia, which can be interpreted as a symbol of fertility, or alternatively, as an indication of the same kind of male obsession that exists today :). Besides human images, there are a great number of very lifelike images of animals – especially animals in motion, some wild, others domesticated – such as leaping deer, galloping horses, flying birds, and dogs with wagging tails. But there are also images of the sun and other images with a possible religious motif, suggesting a pre-occupation with the notion of an after-life.
In general, the rock carvings of Yinshan and Helanshan are believed to be bound up with expressions of identity, a sort of ancient precursor to MySpace or Facebook, if you will, albeit, one devoted to the group, or tribe, rather than to the individual. These petroglyphs are by no means pre-historic – they date from the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) period, which is subdivided into the Spring and Autumn (BCE 770-476) period and the Warring States (BCE 475-221) period. By comparison, Taoism, the earliest religious belief in China to be crystalized, as it were, from the nebulous notions of religion that were stirring at the time (the dualism of the Yin and Yang preceded Taoism (but was incorporated into Taoism) and before that, there was the notion of animism, or the belief that all things – humans, animals, plants, stones, etc. – possess a spirit), originated in BCE 604.
The petroglyphs of Helanshan are a continued source of scholarly research into the history, culture, economy and customs of the ancient nomads of northern China, and are as well a treat for lay folk – including tourists – to observe first-hand.