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Ubirr Rock Art

Aboriginal rock painting
in the Kakadu National Park

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Rock painting of the now-extinct thylacine at Ubirr, NT, Australia
Aboriginal painting of the now-extinct Tasmanian Tiger, at Ubirr in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia. Image by Dave Pape. (Public Domain).

Why is Ubirr Rock Art Important?

Ubirr (aka "Obiri Rock") is a world-famous site of Stone Age culture, located just inside the Kakadu National Park, overlooking the rich Nadab floodplain, in Australia's Northern Territory.

It consists of several rocky outcrops with shelters decorated with aboriginal rock art (kunbim), dating back to the Stone Age.

Scientists estimate that the rock faces at Ubirr have been continually painted and repainted since at least 30,000 BC, ranking them among the oldest art in Australia.

Together with the Burrup Peninsula rock engravings in the Pilbara and Kimberley's rock art to the west, Ubirr is one of Australia's most important centres of ancient aboriginal culture.

For examples of ancient finger-fluting in southern Australia, see: Koonalda Cave Art (18,000 BC).

Where is Ubirr Located?

Ubirr is located in the East Alligator district on the northeastern edge of Kakadu National Park, next to Arnhem Land.

It is the park's best-known site of aboriginal rock painting, although it has other decorated rock shelters and rock-face galleries, such as those at Nanguluwur and Nourlangie.

Kakadu National Park was first added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1981, with further areas added in 1987, 1992 and 2011. The park is managed jointly by the Aboriginal traditional owners (Bininj/Mungguy) and the Director of National Parks.

Rock Paintings at Ubirr

There are several galleries of cave paintings at Ubirr. They include the Main Gallery, the Rainbow Serpent Gallery and two smaller galleries.

The Main Gallery, located beneath an overhanging rock, boasts an outstanding collection of aboriginal artworks, most of which were painted over the last 1,500 years (Freshwater Period).

They include aboriginal "X-ray art" as well as early "contact art". The latter depicts the first contacts aboriginal people in Australia had with invading Europeans.

The sacred Rainbow Serpent Gallery is named after one of the most famous Aboriginal Creation Stories.

When Garranga’rreli, the Rainbow Serpent, travelled through Ubirr in her human form, she painted a picture of herself on the rock to remind people she was in the area.

Also depicted are the playful Mimi spirits and the tale of the Namarrgarn Sisters.

There are other rock shelter galleries elsewhere in Kakadu National Park.

They include Nourlangie, which features several impressive works that deal with creation ancestors, and also the nearby Nanguluwur which displays a number of ancient hand stencils.

Nanguluwur also has paintings depicting dynamic figures carrying spears and boomerangs, as well as pictures of Namandi spirits and mythical figures, including Alkajko, a four-armed female spirit.

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How Old are Ubirr's Paintings?

Some of Ubirr's rock paintings are believed to date back to the early days of the Upper Paleolithic, at least as far back as 30,000 BC.

However, similar to the situation at Murujuga (Burrup Peninsula), direct dating of Ubirr's rock art has been problematic.

Indeed, no prehistoric art at Ubirr has actually been officially dated to such an early period. The vast majority of the dated artworks were created no earlier than the Mesolithic (10,000-6,000 BC), and most of these were done during the modern era.

Rock engravings are typically even more difficult to date than paintings, although new cation-ratio dating methods may help in this category, once certain issues are resolved.

As a result, the oldest paleolithic art in Australia remains the Nawarla Gabarnmang charcoal painting (26,000 BC).

Indirect Dating Used

As stated, none of the rock paintings at Ubirr have been directly dated by carbon dating technology. Instead, scientists have been forced to rely on indirect dating methods, based on the proven dates of human occupation of rock shelters in the region.

For example, human occupation at the Arnhem Land rock shelter of Malakunanja II has been proven to around 65,000 BC.

In addition, there is carbon-dated evidence that aboriginals were already using ochre pigments including high quality red and yellow ochre.

As a result, some paleontologists are convinced - especially now that scientists have dated the latest Sulawesi Cave art to 43,500 BC, and the East Kalimantan cave paintings to 38,000 BC - that the Australian aboriginal art at Ubirr and elsewhere in Arnhem Land must have started around 30,000 BC, at the very latest.

Of course, neither human habitation nor the use of pigments proves the existence of rock art. But it is suggestive.

Besides, we have plenty of comparative evidence available concerning the behaviour of modern man, that indicates 30,000 BC is a very conservative estimate of when aboriginal Australians began to create art.

An extreme example might be the Trinil Shell Engravings created by 'Java Man' (H. erectus) in Indonesia, around 540,000 BC.

If H. erectus can produce decorative art as early as this, then surely H. sapiens can produce art in Australia 500,000 years later.

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Style of Paintings

The stylistic timeline of Ubirr's rock art is the same as for all aboriginal art within the region. Works are divided into three main periods: Pre-Estuarine (40,000-6,000 BC), Estuarine (6,000 BC - 500 AD), and Freshwater (500 AD - present).

The periods are based on the changing style and iconography of the paintings.

The oldest art is made up of handprints and other markings, created during the Pre-estuarine period, anywhere between 40,000 and 10,000 BC. This corresponds to Upper Paleolithic art in Europe.

The rock paintings at Ubirr and elsewhere in Kakadu depict a range of human figures, and also certain creation ancestors.

Its animal pictures include depictions of extinct animals, like the Tasmanian tiger, as well as animals from the region such as barramundi, catfish, goannas, long-necked turtles, pig-nosed turtles, rock ringtail possums, and wallabies.

Pre-estuarine (40,000-6,000 BC)

This period of aboriginal art in the region corresponds roughly to the Upper Paleolithic in Europe.

Pre-estuarine Period art portrays different types of humans and clans, their hunting habits, mode of dress, and spirituality. It features several methods and styles of art, including:

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Estuarine (6,000 BC - 500 AD)

This period of aboriginal art - roughly corresponding with European Neolithic Art - depicts the flooding of rivers and the growth of mangrove swamps. It is characterized by three designs:

Freshwater (1600 AD onwards)

During this style period, freshwater pools (billabongs) and wetlands replaced saltwater systems, creating new habitats and food resources. The paintings reflect these changes by depicting new animals and plants, as well as humans armed with goose spears and didgeridoos. The period is characterized by three styles:

To understand how Ubirr's rock art fits into the development of cave painting around the world, see: Timeline of Prehistoric Art.

References

(1) Ching, Francis D.K.; Jarzombek, Mark M.; Prakash, Vikramaditya (2007), A Global History of Architecture, Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., pp. 2.
(2) Clarkson, Chris; Smith, Mike; Marwick, Ben; Fullagar, Richard; Wallis, Lynley A.; Faulkner, Patrick; Manne, Tiina; Hayes, Elspeth; Roberts, Richard G.; Jacobs, Zenobia; Carah, Xavier; Lowe, Kelsey M.; Matthews, Jacqueline; Florin, S. Anna (June 2015). "The archaeology, chronology and stratigraphy of Madjedbebe (Malakunanja II): A site in northern Australia with early occupation". Journal of Human Evolution. 83: 46–64.
(3) "Australian dig finds evidence of Aboriginal habitation up to 80,000 years ago." Helen Davidson. Guardian Newspaper. Wed 19 Jul 2017.

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