Nawarla Gabarnmang

Prehistoric charcoal drawing
Oldest art in Australia: 26,000 BC

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Oldest Art in Australia

The oldest dated rock art in Australia, is the charcoal drawing found on a fragment of rock at Nawarla Gabarnmang, a remote rock shelter in Jawoyn Country, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory.

Carbon dated to 26,000 BC, the work is tangible confirmation of Australia's cultural antiquity, although Burrup Peninsula petroglyphs, and Ubirr's cave paintings, may date back to the Middle Paleolithic (before 40,000 BC).

As far as Kimberley rock art is concerned, the oldest work is the Kangaroo painting (15,300 BC) on the Unghango Clan estate, in Balanggarra country.

See the World's Oldest Art (from 540,000 BC).

Nawarla Gabarnmang Rock Shelter

There are numerous Aboriginal ancestral sites in Jawoyn Country, many of which are located in extremely remote areas.

Before the discovery at Nawarla Gabarnmang, around 120 site complexes, with more than 900 shelters containing 44,000 artworks had been documented by the Jawoyn Association.

Nawarla Gabarnmang itself - traditionally owned by the Jawoyn clan Buyhmi among whom it is known as "the place of the hole in the rock" - is a wide-mouthed shelter embedded among rocky terraces that sit about 180 metres (600 ft) above the surrounding plains of the Arnhem Land plateau.

Accessible only by helicopter, the shelter is completely open to the north and south, and its ceiling - which varies between 1.8 to 2.5 m (6-8 ft) in height - is supported by some 36 freestanding stone pillars.

The shelter has about 1,500 sq metres of living space and its roof, walls and pillars are covered with a fantastic collage of aboriginal paintings.

There are shapes of crocodiles, kangaroos, wallabies, barramundi, and humans, as well as other-worldly figures from the Dreaming. A real showcase of Aboriginal Stone Age culture in one of the most remote regions of the Australian continent.

Carbon dating tests show that human occupation of Nawarla Gabarnmang dates from about 43,000 BC. This is a little later than the occupation of the nearby Madjedbebe shelter (formerly known as Malakunanja II), but earlier than Carpenter's Gap Rock Shelter 1 (Kimberley, WA) and Nurrabullgin Cave (Cape York Peninsula).

To understand how the art at Nawarla Gabarnmang fits into the evolution of cave painting, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

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The existence of Nawarla Gabarnmang's cave painting was known to the traditional owners of the site - the Jawoyn clan Buyhmi - and to the local aboriginal community.

Senior Elders, including Wamud Namok and Jimmy Kalarriya, first saw the shelter's murals back in 1935.

But it was only in 2007 that the shelter was brought to scholarly attention, when scientists made a routine aerial survey of the Arnhem Land area as part of a local archaeological project called "Connecting Country".

This collaborative venture, undertaken at the invitation of the aboriginal Jawoyn Association, involves (among others) Dr Bruno David of Monash University, Professor Bryce Barker and Dr Lara Lamb from USQ, as well as Professor of Archaeology Jean-Michel Geneste from the University of Bordeaux, and rock expert Professor Jean-Jacque Delannoy of the University of Savoie.

How Old is Nawarla Gabarnmang's Rock Art?

Most of Australia's prehistoric art is found outdoors, or in locations open to the elements.

Which means accurate dating is almost impossible unless the rock art becomes buried in a layer of sediment which contains dateable material like wood ash or other organic material.

This is exactly what happened at Nawarla Gabarnmang.

When excavations began, the floor of the shelter was covered with about 70 cm of soil, a mixture of ash, silt, and broken rocks. Within this deposit, researchers identified seven separate stratigraphic layers.

The top six layers were found to have been deposited over the last 20,000 years, but organic material recovered from the lowest layer returned a mean age of 33,400 BC, with the oldest samples returning dates of up to 43,000 BC, proving that human occupation began no later than this date.

Then in October, 2011, while analyzing material recovered from the bottom of the lowest layer, Professor Barker found an abstract charcoal painting (or drawing) on a fragment of granite, which had fallen from the ceiling onto the floor.

In addition, on the reverse side, he found a quantity of ash from the floor, which must have attached itself when the fragment fell onto it.

The ash was sent for analysis to the radiocarbon laboratory of New Zealand's University of Waikato, where it was dated to 26,000 BC.

This makes the painting the oldest confirmed piece of aboriginal rock art in Australia. As it happened, a sample taken from the rock art itself was too small to provide a reliable radiocarbon result.

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Art Could be Older

If the scientists are right, the charcoal picture that fell from the ceiling must have been painted before 26,000 BC. However, it's possible it was painted much earlier, possibly as early as 43,000 BC.

Support for such a theory derives from findings at other sites in the Northern Territory and elsewhere.

To begin with, human habitation at the nearby Madjedbebe rock shelter has been dated to 65,000 BC.

Also, hematite crayons have been recovered from Madjedbebe dating as far back as 58,000 BC.

These facts raise the possibility that the Nawarla Gabarnmang shelter may have been painted from its inception.

Also, recent finds of paleolithic art on island stepping-stones between SE Asia and Australia - notably the Sulawesi Cave paintings (43,500 BC) and the East Kalimantan Caves (38,000 BC) - indicate the existence of a strong tradition of cave art on the main migratory route to Australasia.

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The Charcoal Drawing

Nawarla Gabarnmang's ancient charcoal drawing appears on a piece of rock about 3 cm by 3 cm in size.

The painting itself consists of 2 crossed lines: one is straight, while part of the second is slightly curved.

The area formed by the curved line has been blocked in with a heavier, darker application of charcoal, but the remainder of the painting has faded completely.

As stated, Gabarnmang's charcoal drawing is unlikely to remain Australia's most ancient art for very long.

This accolade is likely to go to the handprints or cupules of Western Australia's Kimberley region, the petroglyphs of the Burrup-Dampier archipelago, or the cave paintings at Ubirr - all of which are thought to contain works dating to at least 30,000 BC.

Whatever lies ahead, Nawarla Gabarnmang cave provides us with powerful evidence of the endurance, creativity and social cohesion of the early H. sapiens settlers of Australia, who created wonderful art in one of the most arid and inhospitable environments on earth, some 23,000 years before the invention of the wheel.

For examples of finger fluting on the Nullarbor Plain, see: Koonalda Cave Art (18,000 BC).


(1)"A 28,000 year old excavated painted rock from Nawarla Gabarnmang, northern Australia." David B, Barker B, Petchey F, Delannoy J-J, Geneste J-M, Rowe C, Eccleston M, Lamb L, and Whear R. 2013. Journal of Archaeological Science 40(5):2493-2501.
(2) "Nawarla Gabarnmang, a 45,180±910 cal BP Site in Jawoyn Country, Southwest Arnhem Land Plateau." David B, Geneste J-M, Whear RL, Delannoy J-J, Katherine M, Gunn RG, Clarkson C, Plisson H, Lee P, Petchey F et al. 2011. Australian Archaeology 73:73-77.

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