Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Koonalda Cave, in the Nullarbor Plain

This cave, in the South Australian section of the plain, opens at the surface by a 30 m deep sinkhole that is 85 m in diameter. The sinkhole gives no indication of its presence from the surface until it is approached close enough to be seen as a large opening flush with the surrounding plain. The walls of the sinkhole are sheer vertical sides or undercut for about 20 m down from the surface. From that point a steep slope continues to the main chamber. This chamber, about 70 m below the surface,  is huge, 60 x 90 m, and the domed ceiling is about 45 m above the floor. 2 passages lead from this main chamber, one of which leads to 3 underground lakes.

Archaeological significance

Radiocarbon dates for Koonalda Cave, on the Nullarbor Plain, South Australia, shows it was occupied by 24,000 years ago. Allens Cave was occupied by 25,000 years ago. TL dates for the occupation levels where charcoal didn't survive are 34,000 years. Preliminary optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) for Allen's Cave has a date of 34,000 +/- 7000 years 1 m above an artefact, so presumably the artefact is much older. Similar dates have been found at Koonalda Cave.

Koonalda Cave is a crater-like doline (limestone sinkhole) in the karst of the Nullarbor Plain. It was used as a flint mine, quarrying being carried out underground, often in places with no natural light, the resulting flint nodules being transported elsewhere for manufacture of tools. In the first dimly lit chamber of the cave, which was 100 m from the surface and 70 m below ground level, there were hearths, charcoal and mining residue. Later excavations found that flint mining had been practiced between 24,000 and 14,000 years ago. Charcoal has been dated to between 23,700 +/- 850 and 13,700 +/- 270, and a layer that dated to 19,900 +/- 2,000. (Wright, 1971a).

There were 2 major attractions in this cave, reliable water and a plentiful supply of flint.

Rock Art

A notable find in the cave was Pleistocene rock art, finger markings on the wall, 300 m from the entrance, where there was no natural light. The graphic markings on the walls that resembled the macaroni or meander style of the earliest European cave art.

Different parts of the cave walls have different textures, the wall markings varying with the texture. A part of the cave known as the art passage has very soft and friable walls, the colour and texture being compared to that of compacted talcum powder. In this part of the cave a finger touching the wall leaves a mark. Other parts of the cave have walls that require pressure with a stone or stick to mark them with fine incised lines.

In places, large flat areas of wall are covered with random crisscrossing parallel finger markings. There are large groups of vertical lines, and occasionally horizontal lines, as well as some definite patterns, such as in the form of regularly spaced grids or lattices. There are 2 sets of 4 concentric circles about 20 cm wide. A unique design is a herringbone pattern that is 120 cm long, with 74 diagonal incised lines, above which are 37 short finger markings. The numbers of lines are believed to be deliberate because the number of lower lines is exactly twice the number of upper lines. It has been assumed that there is possibly some symbolic significance attached to this design.

In places there are more modern markings, graffiti, that allow the comparison of the old with the new. The new markings show much sharper lines on the ridges than the older markings. It is believed the art is probably more than 20,000 years old. Charcoal found just below the surface in the passage leading to 'the squeeze' has been dated to 20,000 years ago. It has been suggested the charcoal might have come from the torches used by the people who marked the wall, the wall above the charcoal was covered with incised markings.

In a cavity 15 m below a massive rock fall there are markings on the wall that are believed to be very old, but no dating has been possible. There is a platform high in the dome of a large chamber containing a lake that is reached through 'the squeeze'. There are more markings on a part of the wall that can no longer be reached from the platform, part of the platform having fallen into the lake after the markings were made. This contributes to the circumstantial evidence that the markings are very old, probably being of similar age to those that have been dated to between 15,000 and 24,000 years ago.

There has been some dispute over whether the markings on the walls should be regarded as art of had some other purposes. Among the suggestions for alternative causes of the markings are sharpening bone points, guiding the miners to the flint veins. Counter arguments have been put forward. Why would they sharpen bone points in darkness? If they were mining guides, why did they occur only in some parts of the cave, whereas the flint veins occur in all parts of the cave.

Another explanation suggested is that they are simply the expression of the common human attraction to marking blank spaces. Graffiti has been around for a very long time, having been found made by Romans and Vikings, and was probably many others from the distant past. It has been documented all over the world, and has been suggested as the urge that led to art everywhere.

It has been suggested that the markings may have been associated with rituals, as could be expected to have occurred with initiations, which are always conducted away from prying eyes of the uninitiated, or connected with the mining of the flint.

Another cave has been found on the Nullarbor Plain, in Western Australia, that is being studied that has not been damaged by modern graffiti. The markings in this cave are similar to those in Koonalda Cave.

Markings are found on the walls of Kintore Cave in the Northern Territory, Orchestra Shell Cave in Western Australia.

A date from charcoal found beneath a concentration of finger marks, that may have been the remains of a torch, in a dark part of the cave. gave a date of 19,900 +/- 2,000 BP. (Maynard & Edwards, 1971; Wright, 1971a; Mulvaney, 1975).

Sources & Further reading

  1. Josephine Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, J. B. Publishing
  2. Phillip J. Habgood & Natilie R. Franklin, The revolution that didn't arrive: A review of Pleistocene Sahul, Journal of Human Evolution, 55, 2008
  3. Helen Grasswill & Reg Morrison, Australia, a Timeless Grandeur, Lansdowne, 1981

Sources & Further reading

Flood, Josephine, 2004, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, JB Publications.

Last Updated 24/08/2011


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