"Amazing" Rock Art May Revise Australian History Books

Carolyn Barry in Sydney, Australia
for National Geographic News
October 22, 2008

Thousands of Aborigine rock paintings discovered in the remote ranges of northern Australia may force a rewrite of the nation's history books.

That's because the art—which ranges from 15,000 years old to 50 years old—depicts contact with other cultures possibly centuries before the arrival of the British.

The library of Aborigine history shows ships—including WWII destroyers and ocean liners—extinct animals, and modern inventions, such as bicycles, planes, and cars sketched onto the walls of rock shelters in the Aborigine territory of Arnhem Land.

"Everything that passed by or through the area is represented one way or another," said Paul Tacon, a professor of anthropology and archaeology at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia.

The main site, Djulirri, was documented by rock-art expert George Chaloupka in the 1970s, but the area hadn't been visited.

When researchers working with Aborigine elder Ronald Lamilami went to find the site again in August 2008, they were surprised to find hundreds of other well-preserved galleries nearby.

"Some of these images have unique depictions not found anywhere else," said Tacon, who is part of the research project.

"One site, previously undocumented, is the largest painting site in the whole of Australia," he said. "It is truly amazing."

(Related: "Egypt's Oldest Known Art Identified, Is 15,000 Years Old" [July 11, 2007].)

Early Contact

Contrary to a long-held belief that Aborigines were isolated, northern communities may have interacted with visitors, such as the Makassans—indigenous people from the city of Ujungpandang (Makassar) on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

Drawings of Makassan-style houses and Indonesian sailing boats called praus suggests that Aborigines had extensive contact with Makassans—perhaps hundreds of years before British began to settle Australia in the late 1700s.

Continued on Next Page >>


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