Gobustan, Azerbaijan – stone age petroglyphs that inspired Thor Heyerdahl 2

The people of Gobustan, Azerbaijan liked drawing. That’s one thing we can say about them; everything else that we might infer is pure speculation.

Gobustan, Azerbaijan

Drawing upon drawing upon drawing. Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape, Azerbaijan. Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

The Absheron Peninsula of Azerbaijan, on the western shore of the Caspian Sea, is a hot, dry, desolate place, fit for only the hardiest and scraggliest of vegetation, surrounded by unsightly oil fields and industrial landscapes.

Gobustan, Azerbaijan

The hot, dry, desolate Absheron Peninsula. Photo credit: Benjamin White

It’s difficult to imagine this place as a subtropical paradise; green, lush, thick with vegetation, bustling with animals of all descriptions, teeming with life.

But that is what Gobustan once was, or at least that is the world conveyed to us by its petroglyphs.

Gobustan, Azerbaijan

The decaying limestone shelf on which the petroglyphs are carved. Photo credit: Benjamin White

Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape

There are more than 6,000 petroglyphs in Gobustan National Park, the bulk of which were produced between 7,000 and 12,000 years ago (Gobu, by the way, is Azerbaijani for ravine, thus Gobustan translates to land of ravines).

There are some newer carvings – including an inscription made by a Roman legionnaire in 75 CE (which has the honour of being the easternmost Roman inscription ever found), along with much, much older carvings. Some of the petroglyphs are thought to date as far back as 40,000 BCE.

Gobustan, Azerbaijan

Photo credit: Benjamin White

The older petroglyphs, those that date from around 10,000 BCE, tend to be of human figures. These are large carvings, nearing life-size; the figure’s legs are mostly outstretched, as if squatting.

Many of the humans carry bows and arrows, and they are rarely wearing anything more than a loin cloth – which is plenty if you live in a tropical climate, but a little skimpy for the chilly plains of current-day Azerbaijan.

Gobustan, Azerbaijan

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Over the millennia the carvings slowly decreased in size, and representations of animals began to appear. There are lions, leopards, wolves, auruchs, bezoar goats, horses, boars, camels, bulls, antelope, baleen whales, and dolphins – many of these species, including the dolphins and whales, have been locally extinct for millennia.

Gobustan, Azerbaijan

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Thor Heyerdahl and Gobustan

Thor Heyerdahl, the famous ethnographer and adventurer – who sailed a wooden raft from South America to Easter Island just to prove it could be done – was fascinated by the longboats featured in the petroglyphs of Gobustan.

He believed they bore an uncanny resemblance to the long boats of Scandanavia, and he pondered this coincidence at length.

Gobustan, Azerbaijan

The reed boats that inspired Thor Heyerdahl. Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

Thor Heyerdahl visited Gobustan a total of four times. He eventually devised a theory to explain the similarity between the Scandanavian longboats and the longboats in the petroglyphs.

The Absheron Peninsula, he opined, was the centre of an advanced civilisation in prehistoric times. Scouting parties from this civilisation sailed around the world and established many far-flung ancient societies, including those of Scandanavia.

His theory, please note, is not supported by the wider scientific community.

Gobustan, Azerbaijan

Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

How to reach Gobustan National Park:

Gobustan National Park is 54 km from the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. It is possible to reach the Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape site by public transport, but it involves 2 buses and a 6km walk. It’s much simpler to get a taxi, or better yet hop on a tour that also takes in the nearby mud volcanos. More transport info here.

Read more on the Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.

More on Azerbaijan:

Baku – at 28m below sea level, it’s the world’s deepest capital

Mud volcanos, Gobustan – it’s the mud volcano capital

Ateshgah – The Fire Temple of Baku

Posts on petroglyphs:

Langar, Tajikistan – petroglyphs and Pamiri spirit shrines

Sarmish-say, Uzbekistan – 4,000 petroglyphs in dramatic gorge setting

Posts on the Caucasus:


Vardzia – 400 room, 19 level cave city. Watch out for falling rocks!

Ushguli – watchtowers on every house; even Genghis Khan was deterred


Sea Stone Hotel, Vank – a lion head carved into the hillside. Pure genius!


The Temple of Garni – a much smaller Parthenon, built for the sun god Mihr

Zorats Karer – 223 standing stones in a grassy field. Is it linked to Stonehenge?

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2 thoughts on “Gobustan, Azerbaijan – stone age petroglyphs that inspired Thor Heyerdahl

  • Karen White

    The petroglyphs look really good. I can understand why Thor was fascinated withe the long boat. You have to wonder who must have seen a boat like that to carve it into the rock. Amazing

    • Benjamin White Post author

      Thor Heyerdahl was convinced that the long boats captured in the petroglyphs at Gobustan looked just like the longboats in petroglyphs in Scandanavia. But it could easily be coincidence. The drawings are quite simplistic and stylised. That could explain it.