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Burrup Peninsula

Prehistoric Rock art in Murujuga
Dated: At least 30,000 BC

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Aboriginal rock art at Murujuga National Park on the Burrup Peninsula
Some of the estimated 1 million prehistoric petroglyphs on the Burrup Peninsula in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. In the background is a modern ammonia plant. Image by Marius Fenger. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Why is Burrup Peninsula Important?

The Burrup Peninsula (Murujuga) is a unique archaeological and spiritual area, situated on the northwestern coast of Australia.

It is home to one of the world's largest and oldest collections of prehistoric art - mostly petroglyphs - dating back, it is thought, to the early years of the Upper Paleolithic.

Along with Ubirr's rock art to the east, and Kimberley's rock paintings to the north, Burrup is one of the most important centres of aboriginal Stone Age culture in Australia.

Location

The Burrup Peninsula sits on the northwestern shoulder of the Pilbara area of Western Australia.

It forms part of the Dampier Archipelago, which consists of 42 islands dispersed in a 45km radius.

In the Ngayarda language of the indigenous Jaburara people, the peninsula is also known as "Murujuga", which means "protruding hip bone".

It is roughly 27km long and 5km wide, and was an island until the mid-1960s, when it was connected to the mainland by a causeway.

The remote northern coastline of Western Australia and the Northern Territory, was probably the first landing site for seafaring migrants emerging from the last Homo sapiens dispersal out of Africa.

When they crossed by boat from Timor or Papua New Guinea, some 60,000 years ago, the Timor Sea was not much more than 100km wide.

Arriving in the Burrup, Kimberley or Arnhem Land, these Stone Age settlers would have started to decorate the rocks around them with a variety of engravings and rock paintings.

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Burrup Rock Art: Description

Petroglyphs are found in many different areas of Australia, but nowhere do they even remotely approach the quantity or variety of rock art that occurs in the Burrup-Dampier region.

The area contains some 2,300 sites and an estimated one million engraved images. At the same time it remains an intensely sacred place, especially for the local indigenous communities.

The rock engravings of the Archipelago are thought to date back to at least 30,000 BC (possibly much earlier) and were created in a wide variety of sizes and styles.

They depict a wide variety of subjects, including representations of extinct animals like the Tasmanian tiger, as well as human figures in both ceremonial and everyday activities.

The region also possesses the largest concentration of megalithic art in Australia, involving standing stones (like the European menhirs), as well as circular stone arrangements (like Stonehenge).

Overall, the area constitutes the longest continually active cultural site in Australia.

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

Dating Problems

Unlike cave paintings whose organic pigments or flowstone can be dated - engravings leave no organic residue.

In addition, unlike dateable archaeological layers which often remain undisturbed for millennia in underground caves and rock shelters, there is little in the immediate vicinity of an open-air rock carving that can be used to date the carving, indirectly.

The rock itself can be dated, but the age of an engraved rock cannot tell us when the engraving was made.

Even where lumps of red ochre pigments are found and dated, it doesn't necessarily mean they were used to paint pictographs or paintings.

This is because ochre was commonly used as a suncreen, and because both body painting and face painting were widely practised during the Paleolithic.

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How Old is the Rock Art of the Burrup Peninsula?

Due to the absence of scientific data on the antiquity of Murujuga's paleolithic art, archaeologists use indirect dating methods to gauge its likely age.

They look at weathering patterns, the style and content of the art, evidence of habitation and colour pigments, and so on.

In addition, the timing of rock art produced in other areas of the world is also relevant.

According to these indirect criteria, the oldest art in the Pilbara was created during the era of Upper Paleolithic art, well before the last Glacial Maximum, which occurred around 20,000 BC.

This is based upon the fact that the earliest human habitation in northern Australia - the Madjedbebe rock shelter (formerly known as Malakunanja II) - has been dated to 65,000 BC, leaving little room for doubt that these early modern humans would have started to engrave pictures by 30,000 BC, if not earlier.

After all, Homo erectus created the Trinil Shell Engravings in Indonesia, around 500,000 BC.

And Homo sapiens was painting in the Sulawesi Caves in 43,500 BC and in the East Kalimantan Caves in 38,000 BC.

The last two events have huge implications for the dating of ancient art in Australia, because Sulawesi and Borneo are part of the "land-bridge" used by humans migrating to Australia from the Asian continent.

For a comparison with Europe, note that Neanderthals in France were creating figurative engravings at La Roche-Cotard Cave, around 55,000 BC.

Both the Nawarla Gabarnmang charcoal drawing (26,000 BC), and the Kimberley Kangaroo painting (15,300 BC) represent important markers, but no one really knows the age of the oldest art in Australia, or where it's located, although the Burrup-Dampier Archipelago must be a strong possibility.

Rocks in the Burrup-Dampier Area

The region boasts a wide range of igneous rocks, including some of the hardest types in Australia, like diorite, dolerite, granite, granodiorite, quartzdiorite, and rhyodacite.

Their general hardness explains why Burrup Peninsula art is primarily etched or incised into the stone surface.

No one knows who created these images - whether, for example, they were direct ancestors of the indigenous Yaburara people, or perhaps an earlier set of settlers - but many aboriginal people in Australia continue to observe the tradition that the engravings were created by the "marga " - ancestral creator beings - in the Dreaming.

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

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Environmental Issues

Ever since the early 1960s when the Western Australian Government decided to use Dampier Island (Burrup) in the Dampier Archipelago as the location of an outlet port for the iron ore industry, the region has been under pressure from large commercial interests in the gas and mining industries.

In 2007, Murujuga was recognised by the federal government as being an outstanding centre of aboriginal rock art in Australia, and an area of 36,857 hectares was included on Australia's National Heritage List.

In addition, the area was placed on the World Monument Fund's list of 100 Most Endangered Places - the only such site in Australia.

But serious concerns remain about the preservation of this wonderful outdoor art gallery and cultural centre.

According to Friends of Australian Rock Art (FARA), the current industrial footprint is 16 sq km out of the 117 sq km of the Burrup Peninsula.

An application for a UNESCO World Heritage listing of Murujuga is in the works, but rock art scientists are warning that Murujuga could be destroyed within a century, by pollution from the massive and growing industrial conerns that surround it.

To see how aboriginal engravings in Australia fit into the evolution of Stone Age art in Europe and elsewhere, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

References

(1) 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.
(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 98-106.
(3) Bednarik, Robert G. (May 2002). "The survival of the Murujuga (Burrup) petroglyphs". Rock Art Research: The Journal of the Australian Rock Art Research Association (AURA). Archaeological Publications. 19 (1): 29.

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