Very, Very Old Australian and Aboriginal Rock Art

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Rock art, including painted and carved forms, have been part of Aboriginal culture for tens of thousands of years. There is a lot of it scattered around Australia. Although its style is quite different some say it is comparable to art found at the famous cave sites at Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain. According to the Australian Museum: It is probable that rock art was part of the culture of the first Australians. Its exact purpose is unknown but it is likely that from the earliest times rock art would have formed part of religious ritual activity, as is common in modern hunter-gatherer societies.”[Source: Fran Dorey, Australian Museum, September 12, 2021]

According to The Smithsonian: Rock art has been a central part of Aboriginal spiritual and educational practices for thousands of years — and still is today. Important artwork is often found in spiritually significant locations. Much of the art tells stories, which can be interpreted at different levels for children and for initiated adults. [Source: Livia Gershon, Smithsonian magazine, October 5, 2020]

As many as 100,000 rock art sites are scattered across Australia. Paul S.C. Taçon, chair of rock art research at Griffith University, wrote in The Conversation that Australians are “spoiled with rock art.” Referencing one style, “What if the Maliwawa Figures were in France?” he asked, “Surely, they would be the subject of national pride with different levels of government working together to ensure their protection and researchers endeavoring to better understand and protect them. We must not allow Australia’s abundance of rock art to lead to a national ambivalence towards its appreciation and protection.”

Two distinctive styles of ancient Aboriginal art are dynamic animal painting and X-ray paintings. The former show subjects in motion. Some of this is very old, dated to 12,000 years ago or older. The “X-ray” tradition in Aboriginal art is thought to have developed around 2000 B.C. and continues to the present day. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: As its name implies, the X-ray style depicts animals or human figures in which the internal organs and bone structures are clearly visible. X-ray art includes sacred images of ancestral supernatural beings as well as secular works depicting fish and animals that were important food sources. In many instances, the paintings show fish and game species from the local area. Through the creation of X-ray art, Aboriginal painters express their ongoing relationships with the natural and supernatural worlds.

Ocher, an Important Part of Ancient Australian and Aboriginal Art

Ocher, an iron oxide found in a range of colors from yellow to red and brown, is a common and important material used ancient Aboriginal and Australiam art. Red ocher (also spelled ochre) is particularly important in many desert cultures due to the belief that it represents the blood of ancestral beings and can provide protection and strength. Ocher has traditionally been made into a paint by grinding it into a powder and mixing it with a fluid, such as water, blood or saliva.

Mineral pigments, such as ocher, are also very important archaeologically. They provide the oldest evidence for human arrival in Australia. Used pigments have been found in the earliest occupation levels of many sites, with some pieces dated at about 50,000 years old. This suggests that art was practised by the first people that arrived in Australia. Natural pigments were probably used for a range of purposes including burials, cave painting, decoration of objects and body art. Such usage still occurs today.

Hematite "crayons" dated with a new technique called optically simulated luminescence (which determines when sediments were last exposed to sunlight) are estimated to be between 53,000 and 60,000 years old. Researchers from the Australian National University in Canberra told National Geographic, "It's high-grade hematite. Ancient people ground it into red ocher powder. That means they had an interest in either coloring their bodies for ceremonies, painting clan designs on themselves, or putting art on walls or designs on their boomerangs."

Australia — Home of the World’s Oldest Art?

One candidate for the world's oldest art is some mysterious cuplike designs and circular coin-like impression made on great orange boulders in a rock formations at the Jinmium site on the coast of Northern Territory in Australia. The impressions have been found on numerous boulders. In almost every case they have the same depth and the same 1.2-inch diameter width. One boulder has 3,500 markings. Scientists theorize the boulders may have marked important food sources or provided directions. Aboriginals in the area believe the markings represent ancestral being that turned to stone.

Richard Fullagar, an anthropologist at the Australian Museum in Sydney, dated the impressions and markings using the latest dating methods to be 75,000 years old, an astonishing date. The famous paleolithic cave paintings in France and Spain, by contrast, are 25,000 years old. Using the thermolumiscence dating method, David Price of the School of Geosciences at the University of Woolonggong, has dated artifacts and ocher found in a rock shelter at Jinmium at 116,000 years old. Price dated a hand tool to be 176,000 years old — an even more astounding date that is hard to believe and would throw off many theories if it turns out to be true. Many of these very old dates are disputed or have been debunked.

The oldest rock paintings in Australia confirmed by carbon dating are 20,000 years old. An image of pregnancy drawn with ocher on a rock has been dated to be 35,000 years old using other dating methods. Some believe that other rock paintings may be 35,000 or 40,000 years old. A 30,000 year old piece of chiseled ocher was found at Lake Mungo.

An image of a pair birds found in Arnhem Land in northern Australia has been dated as being older than 40,000 years old because that is when the bird species in the image is thought to have gone extinct. Some have asserted it is Australia's oldest painting. The bird in question looks like an emu but is thought to be the megafauna bird genyornis, which has large, thick toes and shorter legs than an emu.

Northern Australian Rock Art

Margaret Grove wrote in Archaeology magazine: Across the warm, weathered sandstone of the northern Australian coast, extinct Tasmanian tigers prowl and hippopotamus-like marsupials graze, bright blue dingoes playfully wrestle, giant cranes gather at sacred breeding grounds, and ceremonial figures — humans with attributes of animal and insect bodies — engage in exotic rituals. These are among the region's thousands of paintings, some created over 50,000 years ago, others as recently as the 1950s. Archaeological science finds them difficult to date with confidence or precision. [Source: Margaret Grove, Archaeology magazine Volume 55 Number 5, September/October 2002. Margaret Grove has done rock-art research in Australia for many years. She is an associate professor of women's spirituality at New College of California in San Francisco, where she teaches Archaeomythology, a combination of archaeology and oral traditions.

The north Australian terrain, created by Ancestor Beings eons ago during what the Aboriginal people know as the Dreamtime, is so rugged that many sites remain unknown to outsiders. Nonetheless, new discoveries, Aboriginal landowners accompany researchers on explorations by foot, four-wheel drive, or helicopter. The research season in 2001 yielded 24 new sites in less than a week.

Jowallabina, in the Laura sandstone area, contains one of the largest collect of rock art in the world, some of it over 32,000 years old. It is located on the Cape York Peninsula, one of the world's last great untamed wildernesses. Covering 54,000 square miles (about the same size as Michigan) and described by many Australian simply as the Tip, it is the northernmost extension of the of the Australian mainland, jutting northward within a 100 miles of New Guinea. The major exploration of this art was undertaken over past thirty years by Percy Tresize, a well-known north Queenslander and author.

Kakadu Aboriginal Art

Kakadu National Park (200 kilometers, 125 miles, east of Darwin) is a great place for viewing Aboriginal rock art. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981 it is a 1,200 square mile park encompassing all of northern Australia's major habitats-coastal fringe, woodlands, plateaus, rain forests, hills, wetlands and waterways. Kakadu abuts against the Aboriginal homeland of Arnhem Land, which occupies a large chunk of land along north Australia coast. In the 1.6 billion year old sandstone escarpments that run through the park are 7,000 rock-art sites, some of which contain paintings that are believed to be 35,000 years old. Some are paintings. Some are engravings. Others designs in wax.

The rock paintings are sacred to Aboriginals. Many of the ocher and white clay images in the paintings depict "dreamtime" figures, specific gods are usually put in places they believe that god dwells. Most of these sites are natural landmarks, like sandstone rock formation with a feature that recalls something about a dreamtime spirit. These sites are visited over and over through time by generations of Aboriginal who renew themselves spiritually and maintain their bond with their gods and nature with each visit. Many of the painting are not paintings at all, the Aboriginal believe, but are images that have been placed where they are by the gods.

Marley Brown wrote in Archaeology magazine: Kakadu “is one of the greatest rock-art landscapes in the world. Recent archaeological excavations have pushed back the earliest dates of human presence in the region to around 65,000 years ago. More than 5,000 sites with petroglyphs have been recorded within the park’s 8,000 square miles. Pinning down the precise date of some of Kakadu’s rock art is challenging, as many of the mineral pigments used in the area are not datable using radiocarbon methods. Therefore, says Samantha McLean of Kakadu’s research and permits office, archaeologists and art historians have constructed timelines for the art using a combination of thermoluminescence dating, which can determine when mineral elements of paint or ceramics were first heated or fired, and representations of flora and fauna, which have changed over time along with the climate. [Source: Marley Brown, Archaeology magazine, May-June 2019]

Some of the most stunning images in Kakadu are found on or near Nourlangie Rock, a massive sandstone formation about a half-hour drive south from Jabiru, the park’s largest hub, which has facilities such as hotels and welcome centers. Another of the rock art sites, called Nanguluwur, was used as a campsite by ancestors of the Bininj/Mungguy people for millennia, and features an array of paintings and hand stencils ranging from several thousand to fewer than 100 years old. “Here you can see powerful depictions of ancestral spirits, animals, as well as fascinating early illustrations of contact between Aboriginal people and Europeans,” says McLean.

Three main areas are open to the public. The most well known are Ubirr and Nourlangie, which are more than 2,000 years old. The guides and rangers that escort visitors to the paintings are Aborigines, who can tell you about their meaning and significance. Unfortunately most of the older sites are closed to visitors. Many of those that are open have painting made in the last fifty years and recently touched up. Ubirr is 42 kilometers (28 miles) from the Arhem Highway. There is a one mile path at Ubirr with painting on several rocks along the route. The main attraction is the main gallery, which has excellent paintings of goannas, wallabies, fish, kangaroos and even white men. There is a famous painting of the Rainbow serpent and the Namakan Sisters.

Arnhem Land Rock Art Shows Intimate Interactions Between Humans and Animals

The ancient paintings revealed in 2020 depict close relationships between humans and animals The Smithsonian reported: Kangaroos and wallabies mingle with humans, or sit facing forward as if playing the piano. Humans wear headdresses in a variety of styles and are frequently seen holding snakes. These are some of the scenes included in hundreds of newly documented rock paintings found in Australia’s Arnhem Land region. “We came across some curious paintings that are unlike anything we’d seen before,” Paul S.C. Taçon, lead author of a study published in the journal Australian Archaeology, told the BBC.[Source: Livia Gershon, Smithsonian magazine, October 5, 2020]

Collaborating closely with the area’s Aboriginal communities over more than a decade, the researchers recorded 572 paintings at 87 sites across an 80-mile area in the far north of Australia, write Taçon and co-author Sally K. May in the Conversation. The area is home to many styles of Aboriginal art from different time periods. Co-author Ronald Lamilami, a senior traditional landowner and Namunidjbuk elder, named the artworks the “Maliwawa Figures” in reference to a part of the clan estate where many were found. As the team notes in the paper, Maliwawa is a word in the Aboriginal Mawng language.

Most of the red-hued, naturalistic drawings are more than 2.5 feet tall; some are actually life-size. Dated to between 6,000 and 9,400 years ago, many depict relationships between humans and animals — particularly kangaroos and wallabies. In some, the animals appear to be participating in or watching human activities. One painting shows two humans — a man with a cone-and-feather headdress and another holding a large snake by the tail — holding hands. P. Taçon via Australian Archaeology “Such scenes are rare in early rock art, not just in Australia but worldwide,” explain Taçon and May in the Conversation. “They provide a remarkable glimpse into past Aboriginal life and cultural beliefs.” Taçon told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) that the art appears to be a “missing link” between two styles of Aboriginal art found in the area: dynamic figures and X-ray paintings.The newly detailed works also share some features with X-ray paintings, which first appeared around 4,000 years ago. This artistic style used fine lines and multiple colors to show details, particularly of internal organs and bone structures, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In addition to offering insights on the region’s cultural and artistic development, the figures also hold clues to changes in the area’s landscape and ecosystems. The archaeologists were particularly interested in pictures that appear to depict bilbies, or small, burrowing marsupials. “Bilbies are not known from Arnhem Land in historic times but we think these paintings are between 6,000 and 9,400 years of age,” Taçon tells the ABC. “At that time the coast was much further north, the climate was more arid and ... like what it is now in the south where bilbies still exist.” This shift in climate occurred around the time the Maliwala Figures were made, the researcher tells BBC News. He adds, “There was global warming, sea levels rising, so it was a period of change for these people. And rock art may be associated with telling some of the stories of change and also trying to come to grip with it.”

The art also includes the earliest known image of a dugong, or manatee-like marine mammal. “It indicates a Maliwawa artist visited the coast, but the lack of other saltwater fauna may suggest this was not a frequent occurrence,” May tells Cosmos magazine’s Amelia Nichele. Per Cosmos, animals feature heavily in much of the art. Whereas 89 percent of known dynamic figures are human, only 42 percent of the Maliwawa Figures depict people.

Dampier Rock Art Complex

Dampier Rock Art Complex is situated on the northwestern coast of Australia, and contains over 500,000 rock carvings. Laura Helmuth wrote in Smithsonian magazine: The Dampier Islands weren't always islands. When people first occupied this part of western Australia some 30,000 years ago, they were the tops of volcanic mountains 60 miles inland. It must have been an impressive mountain range back then — offering tree-shaded areas and pools of water that probably drew Aborigine visitors from the surrounding plains.

No one knows when people first started scraping and carving designs into the black rocks here, but archaeologists estimate that some of the symbols were etched 20,000 years ago. As far as the scientists can tell, the site has been visited and ornamented ever since, even as sea levels rose and turned the mountains into a 42-island archipelago. Today 500,000 to one million petroglyphs can be seen here — depicting kangaroos, emus and hunters carrying boomerangs — constituting one of the greatest collections of rock art in the world. [Source: Laura Helmuth, Smithsonian magazine, March 2009]

The oldest petroglyphs are disembodied heads — reminiscent of modern smiley faces but with owl-like eyes. The meaning of these and other older engravings depicting geometric patterns remains a mystery. But the slightly younger petroglyphs, depicting land animals from about 10,000 years ago, lend themselves to easier speculation. As with most art created by ancient hunting cultures, many of the featured species tend to be delicious. Some of the more haunting petroglyphs show Tasmanian tigers, which went extinct there more than 3,000 years ago. When the sea levels stopped rising, about 6,000 years ago, the petroglyphs began to reflect the new environment: crabs, fish and dugongs (a cousin of the manatee).

Interspersed among the petroglyphs are the remains of campsites, quarries and piles of discarded shells from 4,000-year-old feasts. As mountains and then as islands, this area was clearly used for ceremonial purposes, and modern Aborigines still sing songs and tell stories about the Dampier images.

Archaeologists started documenting the petroglyphs in the 1960s and by the 1970s were recommending limits on nearby industrial development. Some rock art areas gained protection under the Aboriginal Heritage Act in the 1980s, but it wasn't until 2007 that the entire site was added to Australia's National Heritage List of "natural and cultural places of outstanding heritage value to the nation."

"The art and archaeology of the Dampier Archipelago potentially enable us to look at the characteristics of our own species as it spread for the first time into a new continent," says archaeologist Sylvia Hallam, and to study how people adapted to new landscapes as sea levels rose. But there's also meaning in the sheer artistry of the place. The petroglyphs, Hallam adds, allow us "to appreciate our capacity for symbolic activity — ritual, drama, myth, dance, art — as part of what it means to be human." Tourists are still welcome to explore the rock art freely, and talks are in progress to build a visitor center.

Aboriginal Rock Art as a Window to the Past

In 2003, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported: Hundreds of Aboriginal cave drawings, some as old as the Egyptian pyramids, have been discovered in rugged woodland near Sydney in what Australian scientists are calling a major find. The cave containing 203 rock paintings up to 4,000 years old were kept secret for eight years after a hiker stumbled upon it in rugged parkland in 1995, scientists told reporters. The inaccessibility of the area in the Wollemi National Park, about 150 kilometers north of Sydney, kept researchers from conducting a full-scale investigation of the find until May 2003. "It's like an ancient world that time forgot," said Dr Paul Taçon, an anthropologist at the Australian Museum in Sydney, who led the expedition. The cave holds 203 paintings, stencils and prints in "pristine condition", depicting humans and god-like human-animal composites, birds, lizards and marsupials, he said. [Source: ABC, July 2, 2003]

There are life-size, delicately drawn eagles, kangaroos and an extremely rare depiction of a wombat, Taçon said, describing how the images were painted in 11 layers during a period from around 2000 BC to the early 19th century. There are also stencils of human hands, boomerangs and other tools. "We've never seen anything quite like this combination of rare representations in so many layers," Taçon said. The exact location of the site — described as a rock shelter about 12 meters long, 6 meters deep and 1 to 2 meters high — was being kept secret to prevent damage by vandals or sightseers.

The parkland is so rugged that it was not until 1994 that scientists were amazed to discover trees that had been thought extinct for 150 million years. Now known as Wollemi pines, there were only 43 of the trees found in a gully, of a species that covered the planet when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. The Premier of New South Wales state, Bob Carr, told reporters: "This reminds us [that] 4,000 years ago, when you had civilisation flourishing in Mesopotamia, when you had the power of Egypt, before China was united, while Stonehenge was being built, we had Aboriginal people in these lands, on the outskirts of the Sydney basin," he said. "This is eerie, because it's contact with a very old Australia and it's why we've got to honour our Aboriginal people." "We know so much about the history of other cultures across the world ... but we know very little about our own," said Samantha Mattila, a spokeswoman for the Australian Museum. "This is at the backdoor of Sydney and it's untouched, it's pristine."

Aboriginal Rock Art: World’s Longest Continuously Practiced Art Tradition

Eric Kjellgren of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The rock art of the Australian Aborigines represents the longest continuously practiced series of artistic traditions anywhere in the world. The site of Ubirr in Arnhem Land, northern Australia, contains one of the most impressive assemblages of Aboriginal rock painting, ranging from the earliest periods to works created within living memory. A favored camping place during the annual wet season, the rock faces at Ubirr have been painted and repainted for millennia. The sequence of rock art at Ubirr and other sites in Arnhem Land has been divided into three periods: Pre-Estuarine (ca. 40,000?–6000 B.C.), Estuarine (ca. 6000 B.C.–500 A.D.), and Fresh Water (ca. 500 A.D.–present). These classifications are based on the changing style and iconography of the images. [Source: Eric Kjellgren Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art,, October 2000 \^/]

“Pre-Estuarine rock art is characterized by a variety of images in red ocher pigments. In historic times, such images were created with brushes made from bark, feathers, or the chewed ends of sticks, and it is likely similar tools were used in the past. Among the most distinctive images are the animated stick figures of the Dynamic Figure tradition, which are often depicted clad in elaborate regalia and shown participating in hunting and other activities. Some contemporary Aboriginals identify these figures as mimi, slender spirits who taught humans to hunt and paint during the Dreaming, or creation period. In present-day Aboriginal belief, many Dynamic Figure images are said to have been painted by mimi rather than humans. Pre-Estuarine rock paintings also include depictions of extinct animals and enigmatic beings that combine the features of humans and wild yams. \^/

“Rock painting had several functions in historic times. Images were created to increase the population of game animals or for use in magic. Depictions of important Dreaming beings are common, as well as secular paintings made for amusement. Although the original significance of Ubirr's prehistoric images is unknown, they likely had similar functions.” \^/

Books: Chaloupka, George Journey in Time: The World's Longest Continuing Art Tradition: The 50,000 Year Story of the Australian Aboriginal Rock Art of Arnhem Land. Chatswood, N.S.W.: Reed, 1993; Layton, Robert Australian Rock Art: A New Synthesis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Australian Museum, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2023

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