Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Art

There are thousands of rock art sites throughout Australia, most of them in the north of the continent. The high interest in rock art is partly because many of the art sites are of prehistoric origin, so are windows, if not clear windows, on prehistoric life. Some of the petroglyphs and hand stencils have been there since the Pleistocene, and some of the paintings may be as old.

George Grey was the first European to record the huge Wandjina figures of Western Australia, paintings of such quality and aesthetic accomplishment that he didn't believe they were the work of Aboriginal People. For over 100 years the Aboriginal People were not credited with the best of the art, the thinking being they were simply too primitive to have accomplished such an artistic feat. The best of the art works were attributed to any people who someone thought might have passed by Australia, the lost tribes of Israel, Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Hindus and even LGM, visitors from outer space. In the 1970s Aboriginal art was finally recognised for what it was, aboriginal art of world quality.

Rock Art

This includes graphic markings on cliffs, cave walls or rock surfaces. It can be of a number of forms, painted, drawn, stenciled, imprinted or carved. The art of the Aboriginal People, as with the art other pre-literate societies elsewhere in the world, played a completely different role in Aboriginal society than it does in modern societies, where it is viewed for aesthetic pleasure in places like art galleries. Archaeology in Europe started much earlier than in Australia, where real archaeology had its beginning as late 1929. European archaeology divided the rock art into 2 categories, parietal art, found on the walls of caves. Mobiliary art was the portable art found on pieces of carved or engraved stone, as well as on bone of fired clay. In Australia, mobiliary art is almost unknown, by far the largest majority of art in Aboriginal Australia was of the parietal kind.

The carvings that occur on rock surfaces in Australia, either in caves or cliff faces, or even on isolated rocks, are usually referred to as petroglyphs, though sometimes called engravings, are carvings on rock surfaces made by an implement, of which there are 2 basic methods. One of these is abrasion, which includes rubbing the implement on the surface or drilling by applying pressure to the implement. Images produced by this method are in the form of scratched grooves or a rubbed , or drilled areas.

The other is percussion, in which the pressure is applied vertically by hammering. The resulting designs are in the form of pits in the rock that may be joined by lines. The percussion method can be by hammering the rock surface directly with the rock or in a method similar to using a chisel, the implement being struck with a rock while being held against the rock. Petroglyphs produced by the hammer and chisel method have sharper edges, and the lines are more precise and are deeper than those produced by the direct percussion method, where the outline is usually more diffuse.

Age of Petroglyphs

Some of the first petroglyphs found appear to be very old, being of the footprints of what is thought to be extinct animals such as Diprotodon. There are also no dingo tracks on these very old carvings, which are very common on later carvings from later than 4,000 years ago when dingoes were introduced into Australia. Another indication of great age is the presence of a thick sheen of desert varnish.

Other indications of great age are the presence of rock art in places that are now inaccessible, such as petroglyphs on cliffs at Red Gorge in the Flinders Ranges, South Australia, where erosion and a rock fall has occurred since they were made. Some designs on the cliff face are incomplete, the remainder of such designs being found on rocks in the gorge. Some of the designs that are still on the cliff have large cracks running through them.

In 1929 evidence of the antiquity of some rock art was found at Devon Downs Rock Shelter, an engraved slab was found buried between 3 and 4 m below the surface.

The first firm date for Aboriginal art was found at Ingaladdi Rock Shelter, Northern territory. An engraved slab was found between layers dated to 7,000 and 5,000 years ago.

In Early Man Shelter in far north Queensland, the back wall is covered by a diagonal frieze that continues below the land surface, and below the occupation site that has been dated to 13,000 years ago.

Pleistocene rock art was found deep within Koonalda Cave on the Nullarbor Plain. On the walls 300 m from the entrance, where sunlight never reaches, were found graphic markings that have been compared to the macaroni or meander style patterns seen in the earliest European cave art.

Cave wall markings have also been found at Kintore Cave in the Northern Territory and Orchestra Shell Cave in Western Australia.

New Guinea 2 Cave in the Snowy River Gorge near Buchan, Victoria, also has wall markings thought to be about 20,000 years old.

Finger marks and petroglyphs in 3 succeeding styles have been found in more than 25 caves in the Mt Gambier district of southeastern South Australia.

Petroglyphs of what some believe to be the Panaramitee style, have been found at the Sandy Creek Shelter 1 site that appears to be associated with a 32,000 year old occupation.

The Panaramitee Tradition is the name proposed by Lesley Maynard for a 3-part sequence of patterned variation she observed within the known rock art of Australia.

Petroglyphs have been found at Cleland Hills, about 320 km west of Alice Springs. There are 16 that appear to be human faces, the remainder are tracks and circles.

There are petroglyphs on the walls of a gorge at Durba Springs, Western Australia.

There is a large rock carving of the constellation, called by the Aboriginal People the 'Emu in the Sky', which is formed of dark clouds rather than the stars as in most other constellations. It is in the Elvina Track Engraving Site in the Kuring-Gai Chase National Park, Sydney, New South Wales.

In his book, Australian Mammal Extinctions, Chris Johnson refers to paintings of kangaroo tracks that show a single large toe, that is believed to represent an extinct sthenurine kangaroo.

Long-beaked echidnas, mentioned by Murray & Chaloupka (1984), have been depicted on cave walls that show 2 species, the short-beaked and the long-beaked forms. The long-beaked  form went extinct but survives only in New Guinea at the present.

In a cave in Arnhem Land, an ancient cave painting of a Palorchestes that has mud-dauber wasp nests built over the pigment, and had subsequently been fossilised by the water running down the cave walls. These nests have been dated, indirectly giving a minimum age for the painting of the Palorchestes. At 40,000 BP, and possibly older, it is one of the oldest known cave paintings in the world.

A petroglyph found at the Panarammitti North site in the Olary area of South Australia bears a strong resemblance to the skull of Quinkana fortirostrum. The petroglyph is now in the South Australian Museum. Great age can be inferred for this petroglyph by the thick layer of desert varnish covering it.

Some paintings in Arnhem Land (Johnson, 2006) depict animals that closely resemble thylacines, with stripes, and other animals that lack stripes and a tufted tail, tail butts clearly demarcated from the body, with broad paws and limb proportions that are very similar to those of the marsupial lion (Thylacoleo). According to Murray & Chaloupka, the painting of one of  these animals appears to be dead. They suggest it appears as though a dead animal may have been laid out for the artist.

There are early paintings of animals with short legs and large bodies that are believed to have been diprotodonts on rock walls in the Kimberley (Johnson, 2006).

A number of limestone plaques have been found in Devil's Lair deposit. B3651 has a geometrical design, a trapezoidal shape, formed of intersecting incisions. This plaque was found in a hearth that has been dated to between 12,900 and 13,200 years ago. It was originally dated to 11,960 +/- 140 and 12,050 +/- 140 years ago. These original have since been rejected, being replaced by 13,050 +/- 90 years ago. Plaque 3652 came from a layer dated to between 24,950-26,050 years ago. The original date for the site, 20,400 +/- 1,000, has been replaced by 25,500 +/- 275. See.

Hand stencils have been found in Wargata Mina Cave in southwest Tasmania that date from the close of the Pleistocene ice age.

Arkaroo Rock

See Nawarla Gabarnmang Rock Shelter

Sources & Further reading

  1. Flood, Josephine, 2004, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, JB Publications.
  2. Isaacs, Jennifer, 2005, Australian Dreaming: 40,000 years of Aboriginal History, New Holland Publishers.
  3. Chris Johnson, Australia's Mammal Extinctions, a 50,000 year history, Cambridge University Press, 2006


  1. Archaeology and Rock Art of the Dampier Archipelago
  2. Murujuga (Burrup Peninsula)
Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 28/09/2013
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