Snow in Science, Culture, and Climate


red rock painting of person on skis
Rock art depicting hunters on skis dates back more than 6,000 years. Photo by Erik Den Yngre on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-3.0)

People were using skis thousands of years before the invention of the wheel. 6,000 year old pictographs from caves in present-day China and Scandinavia show pictures of people on skis, and archaeological sites in Scandinavia and Russia contain remnants of early skis from 5,000 years ago and 8,000 years ago, respectively  (Finstad et al., 2016; Burov,1989).

Skis increase the surface area over which a person’s weight is spread out somewhat, but their main advantage for snow travel is that they slide over snow. That means that a person can travel farther with one stride than he or she could with one step while walking. This reduces the amount of effort that is needed to get from place to place, especially when traveling downhill.

A Nanai hunter holding a spear and using one long ski and one short ski
This 1895 photograph shows a Nanai hunter from northern Asia using one short (for kicking) ski and one long ski (for gliding). His spear doubles as a ski pole. Photo from Library of Congress LC-USZC2-6390 (Public Domain)

The indigenous Sami people of Norway used skis to hunt reindeer. Later, the Norwegian army established skiing regiments and is credited with the first official skiing competitions. In the 1800s skiing gained popularity as a competitive sport in Norway. Recreational skiing was introduced in the United States by Norwegian immigrants in the mid-1800s (Huntford, 2009).

As is true of snowshoes and sleds, skiing is another example of a modern sport that originated out of necessity to facilitate travel for hunting and other survival activities many thousands of years ago.

Our website is under construction. Please check back soon for more on the history of skiing.

Skis vs. Snowshoes

Skis and snowshoes have both been around for thousands of years. There are several historical examples of one technology or the other becoming established as a favored mode of human-powered winter travel within a cultural group, as opposed to the simultaneous adoption of both technologies. Notably, skis, popular in Europe and Asia for millenia, were never part of the indigenous cultures of North America. Why is this?

What do you think? We explore some possible reasons here.