"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.

For instance, a particularly unique painting of a monkey in a tree may have been illustrated by an Aboriginal who traveled to Sulawesi and brought home tales of exotic creatures, Tacon said.

The galleries also show images of missionaries and human figures with hands on their hips—a gesture associated with Europeans.

Some tableaus also appear to be portraits of faces with distinct European features, Tacon said, indicating that indigenous tribes had close contact with Europeans.

"The Aboriginal culture across the top end of the Northern Territory was much more versatile and used to interacting with other people than previously thought," Tacon said.

However, Sally May, a rock-art expert also from Griffith University, said such relationships may not have been amicable.

For example, many of the sites are "full of images of violence, boxing scenes, spears. It makes you wonder what went on," she said from a base camp near the rock-art site.

Cultural Insight

In Aboriginal culture, history is an oral tradition, passed on through storytelling. Rock art serves as the only written record of past events.

Throughout the millennia, tribal members have updated the art with different styles and new subjects.

Some galleries have 17 layers of paintings, Tacon of Griffith University said.

In modern times, only senior men in the tribe have the privilege of adding paintings to the rock walls, May said.

"The art is such a high standard," she said. "It's not just a practice run; it's done by experienced artists."

Claire Smith, president of the World Archaeological Congress, called the site "amazingly complex."

"It's a really important site because it's got such a wide range of contact motifs," said Smith, who is not involved with the project.

"Aboriginal elders are passing away, and it's a critical time for documenting ethnographic and culture information," she said.

The researchers recently began excavating the site for archaeological evidence.

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