ArtsLookUp.com Logo

Aboriginal Rock Art, Australia

Prehistoric engravings, paintings
Dated at least 26,000 BC

Main A-Z Index

CONTENTS

Gwion Gwion 'tassel' rock paintings (formerly Bradshaws) in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.
Gwion Gwion 'tassel' rock paintings in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Image by TimJN1. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

What is Aboriginal Rock Art?

Aboriginal rock art in Australia includes any art created on stone surfaces by indigenous peoples of the Australian mainland and its islands.

Note: In this article, we only examine prehistoric art, that is art produced during the Stone Age, before 3,000 BC. This includes:

Aboriginal Rock Painting

This features several different styles of figure painting, including: Gwion Gwion "sash" and "tassel" figures from the Kimberley; and "X-ray" drawings, a special variety of stick-figures from the Northern Territory. Painted forms of animals, fish and birds are also common.

Aboriginal artists also painted abstract motifs, such as: dots, lines, arcs, concentric circles, and other pictographs.

Other styles of indigenous painting include: "Dot painting" (central Australia) and "Rarrk painting" (northern areas).

Back to top

To see how early Australian petroglyphs and paintings fit into the evolution of ancient art around the world, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

Characteristics

Dreamtime Mythology

Like all people in prehistory, early Australian settlers had no written language. So they used art to convey their knowledge of the land, events and beliefs.

As part of these beliefs, these people believed that their ancestor spirits were the creators of the land and sky, and in due course became a part of it.

Australian aborigines use the terms "Dreamtime" and "The Dreaming" (referring to a mythological period that had a beginning but no end) as a way of describing their origins, and the relationship between nature and mankind.

Thus traditional aboriginal art almost always has a mythological content relating to the Dreaming.

The vast size of the Australian continent and its islands, allied to the diversity of aboriginal populations and languages and clans, has endowed Australian rock art with an endless iconography of mythical ancestral figures, sacred spiritual beings, and numerous endemic creatures (including species now extinct).

Added to this is the usual mixture of "personal art" in the form of handprints, footprints and the like.

One important lesson to be learned, is that knowledge of aboriginal myths and narratives, is a key factor in understanding Stone Age culture in Australia.

Which is why archaeologists work closely with traditional owners when excavating sites.

Knowledge of aboriginal culture can even help to establish whether a work of art is abstract or representational.

For example, certain circular designs about an inch in diameter - which might be mistaken for simple geometric signs - have been ascertained by historians to represent a type of plum, called a "nalge".

Aboriginal artists painted images of these plums on rocks during the wet season, to ensure a plentiful harvest later in the year.

Knowledge of indigenous culture is also important because the meaning of particular motifs or symbols used in Aboriginal rock art may vary with locality.

A simple circle, for example, may depict a waterhole, campfire, tree, or hill, according to which Aboriginal tribe you belong to.

Back to top

Themes and Motifs

A 1977 study of 7,804 motifs from 717 sites of rock engravings made by indigenous Australians revealed that roughly 70 percent of all images consisted of the following motifs:

Source: L. Maynard. "Classification and Terminology in Australian Rock Art." In "Form in Indigenous Rock Art, Prehistory and Material Culture." (ed) P. J. Ucko. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 13:387–402.

Location of Prehistoric Aboriginal Art in Australia

Where are the most important sites of Stone Age art in Australia? Here's a short list:

Burrup Peninsula

The Burrup Peninsula (Murujuga) is part of the Dampier archipelago on the northwestern coast of Australia, and is one of the country's most important centres of ancient rock engravings.

The region contains around 2,300 sites and an estimated one million engraved images.

The oldest of these petroglyphs are believed to date to 30,000 BC. However, most carbon dating tests have not yielded results earlier than the Mesolithic culture (10,000 BC).

The traditional owners, of the Burrup Peninsula, are the aboriginal Yaburara (Jaburara) people.

Kimberley

Rock art in the Kimberley consists of an estimated 100,000 images, from the Paleolithic to the Modern era.

Some are believed to date to 30,000 BC or earlier, although the earliest carbon date recorded is 15,300 BC for the Kangaroo painting on the Unghango Clan estate, in Balanggarra country.

The region is best-known for its "Gwion Gwion" paintings, a unique style of rock art (formerly known as "Bradshaws"), first encountered by cattle farmer Joseph Bradshaw in 1891.

The region is also noted for its unique Wandjina pictures, derived from aboriginal mythology.

Ubirr

Ubirr comprises a cluster of rocky outcrops on the northeastern edge of Kakadu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its traditional owners are the Bininj/Mungguy.

Ubirr is the park's best-known site of ancient aboriginal painting, although there are two others, at Nanguluwur and Nourlangie.

Ubirr's rock art is traditionally divided into three periods: Pre-Estuarine (40,000–6,000 BC), Estuarine (6000–500 CE), and Fresh Water (500–present).

Like the Kimberley, Ubirr is believed to harbour rock art dating to 30,000 BC.

Arnhem Land

The Arnhem Land plateau in northern Australia harbours a rich assemblage of rock art. The region has a small number of large rockshelters with extensive suites of superimposed motifs.

The most celebrated site is the Nawarla Gabarnmang rock shelter in Jawoyn Country. This is the site of Australia's oldest art - a charcoal painting carbon dated to 26,000 BC.

The site's traditional owners are a Jawoyn clan known as the Buyhmi.

Nullarbor Plain

The eastern end of this scorching, sparsely-populated plain in southern Australia is home to numerous limestone caves of special interest to the Mirning people, also known as the Ngandatha - the Australian aboriginals whose traditional lands include the coastal strip of the Great Australian Bight.

The most famous cave is the extraordinary sink-hole or doline, known as Koonalda Cave, best-known for its finger-flutings.

Sydney Rock Engravings

Sydney's Neolithic engravings consist of carefully drawn images of people, animals, or symbols, found mostly in the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, NSW, and the Blue Mountains - the rugged terrain west of Sydney.

The oldest engravings are believed to date to about 5,000 BC.

Radiocarbon dating suggests human activity first began in the Sydney area from around 30,700 years ago (28,700 BC), although a cache of tools was found in Western Sydney, in sediments dating from 45,000 to 50,000 BC, suggesting that human settlement began considerably earlier.

Quinkan Country, Queensland

The 230,000 hectares of rugged sandstone escarpments, close to the settlement of Laura, 210 kilometres north-west of Cairns, is the most important area of early indigenous rock engravings in Australia's northeast.

According to archaeologist Dr Bruno David of Monash University, the oldest petroglyphs in Laura were dated to 13,000 BC, by radiocarbon analysis of organic material buried at the same depth as the engravings.

The site also features unique representations of "Quinkans" (aka "Quinkin"), an Aboriginal mythological being.

Laura is not the only prehistoric site in Queensland. According to Caleb Everett in his book "Numbers and the Making of Us: Counting and the Course of Human Cultures" Harvard University Press, 2017), some hand stencils in Australia's Fern Cave, in northern Queensland, date back to 10,000 BC.

Back to top

The Grampians National Park, Victoria

The park is part of the Gariwerd Aboriginal cultural landscape. Its most significant site of aboriginal art is Bunjil’s Shelter, located in the Black Range Scenic Reserve.

According to the creation stories of the Aboriginal people, Bunjil created all that the people saw: the land, the water, the trees, plants and animals.

The shelter contains an image of Bunjil and his two dingoes, reputed to be thousands of years old.

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park

This park, previously known as Uluru (Ayers Rock – Mount Olga) National Park, contains stunning geological formations that rise above the red plain of central Australia.

Uluru, an immense rock, and Kata Tjuta, the rocky area west of Uluru, are important elements in the traditional belief system of Australian aborigines, especially the traditional owners of Uluru-Kata Tjuta known as the Anangu people.

Human occupation of the Uluru region dates to at least 30,000 BC. The rock art is an important historical and scientific record of this human occupation but - like 99.9 percent of all Australian rock art - it remains undated.

Cyclons and Tjurunga

Cylcons, found mostly in southeastern Australia, are cylindro-conical stones engraved with a variety of designs

They are among the oldest surviving aboriginal artifacts. According to the Shøyen Collection, the earliest cyclon found in a dateable archaeological context, is about 20,000 years old.

Scientists think they were made to communicate messages, and they rank among the oldest forms of recorded communication.

Tjurunga (aka Churinga, Tjuringa) are wooden or stone objects of immense religious significance to aboriginal people of the Arrernte (Aranda, Arunta) groups of central Australia, although they are also found in southern, and western Australia.

Typically decorated with concentric circles, cross-hatching, meandering lines, zigzags, and - less often - with designs of animal footprints and stylized human figures, they are symbols of communication between man and the mythological time called the Dreaming.

The aborigine tribes of the central desert read the patterns on the Tjurunga as representations of nature, as a kind of map. The engraved imagery depicts natural phenomena in a stereotypical form, so it serves as an artistic system.

Back to top

Chronology Timeline

Here is a summary of the oldest known sites of prehistoric art in Australia.

Back to top

When Did Aboriginal Australians First Start to Create Art?

Judging by the experience of modern man in Europe or SE Asia, modern humans started making art in Australia within a few thousand years of arriving on the country's northern shores.

So, even allowing for the drowning of the earliest coastal occupation sites by rising sea-levels, indigenous artists would likely have begun to paint or engrave imagery within about 10,000 years of their arrival.

So when did the first aboriginal settlers arrive in Australia?

Human occupation at the earliest known archaeological sites in Australia, is dated as follows:

The argument is quite straightforward. Modern humans arrived in Europe around 54,000 BC and almost immediately (within about 5,000 years) started to produce art.

But they arrived in Australia at least 10,000 years earlier, which suggests they began making art earlier, too. If so, it must have appeared in Australia before 50,000 BC.

Art Created En Route to Australia

Modern humans island-hopping to Australia via the Indonesian archipelago began creating the Sulawesi cave paintings in 43,500 BC and the East Kalimantan cave paintings in 38,000 BC.

Note in particular the following Indonesian caves that have shattered all records set by European cave artists:

Where is Australia's Paleolithic Art?

If, as seems likely, Australian aboriginals began making art around 50,000 BC, where the heck is it? Where is Australia's paleolithic art - the old stuff dating to around 50,000 BC?

Answer: Many archaeologists and paleontologists think it could be right in front of us. Except we don't have the archaeological dating methods to date it.

Dating Problems: Engravings

To begin with, a major proportion of all aboriginal art in Australia is found outdoors, in the form of rock engravings which leave no organic residue that can be dated.

Even if organic material exists when the engravings are made, heat and other weather effects are certain to destroy it.

Indirect dating of engravings is also difficult, since, typically, there is little in the immediate vicinity of an open-air rock carving that can be used for dating purposes.

Also, open air sites are at constant risk of being disturbed by later humans or animals, making site integrity almost impossible.

Note: For European open air petroglyphs, see: Coa Valley Rock Art (28,000 BC) and Siega Verde Rock Art (18,000 BC).

Dating Problems: Paintings

Aboriginal cave painting can also be difficult to date.

To begin with, mineral pigments (like ochre) contain no dateable carbon, and therefore carbon dating is not possible.

In a small percentage of cases, organic material is used, and can be dated using methods like radiocarbon dating, uranium-thorium (U-Th) technology, accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS), amino-acid analysis, or scattered electron microscopy (SEM).

But these techniques can be expensive, time-consuming, lab-based, and too complex for archaeologists' needs.

Indirect dating of cave paintings, where an image is dated by (say) analyzing organic material lying next to it in an undisturbed layer of sediment, has been used in many sites in Spain.

But this is because most of these caves are made of limestone (aka calcium carbonate), in which calcite flowstone (the glaze overlying many paintings) is dateable.

In contrast, Australian caves (like those in the Kimberley, Arnhem Land and Cape York Peninsula) tend to be found in sandstone areas.

And even if lumps of red ochre pigment are recovered and dated indirectly, it doesn't necessarily mean they were used for rock painting. After all, both body painting and face painting was widespread during the Upper Paleolithic.

References

(1)"12,000-Year-old Aboriginal rock art from the Kimberley region, Western Australia." Damien Finch et al. Science Advances. 5 Feb 2020. Vol 6, Issue 6.
(2) "Erosion rates and weathering history of rock surfaces associated with Aboriginal rock art engravings (petroglyphs) on Burrup Peninsula, Western Australia, from cosmogenic nuclide measurements." Brad Pillans, Keith Fifield. Quaternary Science Reviews. Volume 69, 1 June 2013. Pages 98ff.
(3) "The Cylindro-conical and Stone Implements of Western New South Wales and their significance." Ethnological Series No. 2, Memoirs of the Geological Survey of New South Wales, 1916: 1-41.
(4) "Sydney's Aboriginal Past: Investigating the Archaeological and Historical Records." Val Attenbrow (2010). Sydney: UNSW Press. pp. 152–153.
(5) "Human occupation of northern Australia by 65,000 years ago." C. Clarkson et al. Nature 547, 306–310 (2017).
(6) "Australian dig finds evidence of Aboriginal habitation up to 80,000 years ago." Helen Davidson. Guardian Newspaper. Wed 19 Jul 2017.

Back to top


Home