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Koonalda Cave

Prehistoric Finger-Flutings
Nullarbor plain: 18,000 BC

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Entrance to Koonalda Cave, Nullarbor Plain, South Australia
Opening to Koonalda Cave,in the Nullarbor Wilderness Protection Area, South Australia. Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia Licence. © Government of South Australia Dept for Environment and Water 2023.

Finger Flutings at Koonalda

Koonalda Cave is a crater-like limestone sink-hole or doline, filled with aboriginal rock art, which descends about 70 metres below the burning hot surface of the treeless Nullarbor Plain, in South Australia.

One of seventeen deep karst caves in the region, Koonalda has two major attractions: a reliable water supply, and a rich vein of flint (useful for tools and fires).

Inside the cave, the soft walls are covered with dense patterns of finger marks known as finger-flutings (or digital tracings), an archaic form of prehistoric art found in caves across southern Australia, New Guinea, and southwestern Europe.

The cave art at Koonalda dates to about 18,000 BC. However, radiocarbon dates obtained from artifacts at the site show it was occupied by 22,000 BC at the latest, slightly after humans arrived at Allens Cave - about 80 km west of Koonalda, so older dates may yet be forthcoming.

Note also, that all Koonalda's flint mining and rock art was undertaken in areas devoid of natural light.

In 1968, Koonalda Cave was declared a prohibited area under the South Australian Aboriginal and Historic Relics Preservation Act 1965 and in 2014, it was listed as a National Heritage Place, due to its significant archaeological and cultural heritage.

The site is of special interest to the Mirning people, also known as the Ngandatha, the Australian aboriginals whose traditional lands lie on the coastal region of the Great Australian Bight.

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Other well-known examples of paleolithic art in Australia include: the Burrup Peninsula petroglyphs in the Pilbara, Kimberley rock art in NW Australia and the Ubirr cave paintings in Kakadu National Park.

The rock art in all three regions is estimated to date to at least 30,000 BC.

But so far the oldest art in Australia is the charcoal painting found at the Nawarla Gabarnmang rock shelter, which dates to at least 26,000 BC, although it may be much older.

Aboriginal art in the Kimberley features the Kangaroo painting on the Unghango Clan estate, which dates to 15,300 BC, making it Australia's oldest painting.

The antiquity of Australian aboriginal art was recently boosted by the dates accorded to cave paintings at Sulawesi (43,500 BC) and East Kalimantan (38,000 BC), since these Indonesian islands form part of the island "land-bridge" used by H. sapiens migrants crossing between the Asian continent and Australia.

Layout

Koonalda Cave is located inside the Nullarbor National Park, about 20 kilometres from the ocean and 100 kilometres northeast of Eucla.

Although it is one of the largest caves on the Nullarbor Plain, it is only visible from close-up, as its opening sits flush with the surrounding scrubland.

The opening is about 85 metres in diameter and drops vertically for 30 metres.

After that, a steep slope continues to the main chamber, about 70 metres below the surface, which is the size of a football pitch.

From here, a steep climb leads to the chamber containing the art, where thousands of square metres of wall space are covered in parallel geometric lines and other finger markings.

The cave extends for a total of 1,200 metres.

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Discovery and Excavation

Abandoned about 15,000 BC, Koonalda Cave was explored and documented in 1935 by Captain J. M. Thompson, although he made no reference to the site's Stone Age art or any specific artifacts.

It wasn't until the 1950s that archaeologists Adrian Hunt and Norman Tindale first noticed the finger flutings and rock engravings, as well as a quantity of stone tools and other artifacts.

In 1956, this came to the attention of the eminent Melbourne archaeologist Sandor (Alexander) Gallus (1907-96), who examined the cave and recognized that its finger markings and engravings were similar to other parietal art found in famous European caves.

These European sites, mostly located in the Franco-Cantabrian area, included Baume-Latrone (35,500 BC), Gargas Cave (25,000 BC), Rouffignac Cave (11,000 BC).

For more, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

During the period 1956-1964, Gallus led a series of excavations of Koonalda, to examine and document the cave art.

He was followed in 1967 by a team of researchers from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, led by Professor Richard Wright.

Dates of Koonalda's Cave Art

During his first investigations, Gallus obtained radiocarbon evidence that the cave was used by flint miners and other temporary occupants from about 28,000 to 12,000 BC.

Amazingly, prior to this, the earliest date for human occupation in Australia was 6,700 BC.

Gallus's dating was later confirmed by Wright, who also dated some of the finger-marks to 18,000 BC.

Thermo-luminescence dating has since adjusted the occupation period to approximately 23,000-14,000 BC, although some evidence suggests that the cave was first used as early as 30,000 BC.

In any event, aboriginal artists were active at Koonalda during three of the main periods of Upper Paleolithic art, namely: Gravettian culture (25-20,000 BC), Solutrean culture (20-15,000 BC) and Magdalenian culture (15-10,000 BC).

Koonalda's Cave Art: Characteristics

There are four types of parietal art at Koonalda.

According to anthropologists, the Koonalda finger-flutings are pictographs representing sacred aboriginal themes concerning, life and death, birth, marriage and the like.

However, its exact meaning remains a mystery. Which is why a growing number of archaeologists who specialize in aboriginal prehistory, consider that the interpretation of prehistoric art in Australia is only feasible, when scientific know-how is combined with a knowledge of Aboriginal languages and customs.

References

(1) "Archaeology of the Gallus Site, Koonalda Cave" (1971) edited by RVS Wright, AIAS, Canberra, AAS No 26.
(2) "Archaeology of the Dreamtime." Josephine Flood. J. B. Publishing.
(3) "First Footprints: The epic story of the first Australians." Cane, Scott, 2013. Allen & Unwin.

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