Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Megafauna and the Dreamtime                                                                                              

Among the stories from the Dreamtime of the Aboriginal People in many parts of Australia are reference to giant animals that in many cases can be traced to fossils of animals that formed the megafauna of Australia. There are also mentions in some stories of what appear to be a time before much of the country reached the arid state it is now in.

In the Aranda stories of the giant kadimakara there is what could be an oral tradition of the coming of the dry times to central Australia. In places that are now desolate, such as the Willandra Lakes and Lake Eyre, the country was much different when the Aboriginal People first arrived there. At that time the lakes were full and there is evidence of Aboriginal camps beside the lakes.

The kadimakara story speaks of a time when the climate of the area was much wetter than at the present, and the clouds were thick and the ground was covered with vegetation. At that time, the sky was held up by tall gum trees. In this sky-land lived monsters called kadimakara. Often the smell of fresh vegetation enticed them down from their home, climbing down the gum trees to feed in the lush vegetation. The last time the kadimakara came down to earth they were feeding on the plants when the 3 gum trees that had been supporting the sky fell and they were unable to return to their land. They roamed the country and wallowed in the marshes of Lake Eyre until they died, their bones still being present where they died. With the fall of the 3 gums the sky became a single continuous hole, 'Pure wilpanina' (great hole). In times of prolonged drought the Dieri held ceremonies at the bones of the kadimakara to ask them to intercede with those who remained in the sky land and control the clouds and rain.

The lakes of central Australia never refilled permanently after the last glacial maximum. At most, they partially fill after heavy monsoonal rains in their northern catchments, but soon dry out again once the floods diminish and the extremely high evaporation rates of the hot, dry areas takes its toll.


The oral traditions of the Aboriginals  allow a glimpse of what they might have thought and fragmentary evidence of ancient art allow some insight into what they saw. According to the author4 tradition is embedded in art and art is embedded in stone all across the Australian continent. Among the examples of stone art is some of the oldest art in the world, the images of ancient animals transcending time to give a secular appreciation of the environmental, emotional and spiritual cognisance of the first human inhabitants of Australia. On the Arnhem Land Plateau in northern Australia, of which 126 known so far represent animals that have been extinct for thousands of years (27). The age of some of the paintings are believed to between 40,000-50,000 BP, which would make them the oldest paintings in the world (28). The ancient artists obviously had an eye for natural details when they skillfully painted emotive testaments to animals that have been extinct for at least 45,000 years, in washed combinations of iron oxides applied and diffused in rock faces of quartzite that that are now encased in silica. The rare art works depict deceptively loose representations of animals that no living person has seen, though confidence in the reality of the animals is gained from the details depicted in them. A good example is a representation of a thylacine that can be immediately distinguished by the details depicted. Details such as the long slender body, the tapered head, the accentuated length, the accentuated length of the tail, that is recurved, bent backwards and down, that is about 1/3 the length of the body, obvious stripes on its rump, the marsupial arrangement of the genitalia in which the scrotum is above the penis which bears backwards and projects beneath the base of the tail (29).  The author4 described the artist as both an artist and a naturalist. In 1 representation that captures a reproductive rarity, a female that has 4 young suckling in a rear-facing pouch (30). There are also sketches of Tasmanian devils that are just as distinctive, one painting shows a hunter with a boomerang about to strike a Tasmanian devil. These animals were present on the Australian mainland until fairly recently, the tiger being present until about 3,000 BP and about 400BP (31).

Long-extinct animals have also been similarly depicted in the galleries of Arnhem Land galleries. A full-scale drawing of the long-extinct Genyornis, the giant goose-like bird, that is unmistakable, with a tailless rump and massive legs with large heavy feet with 3 rounded toes, which differ from the toes of emus that are pointed). The pose of the bird is heavy, being overweighed towards the head, possibly because the artist wanted to portray its solid appearance, the shape of the head, the blunt beak and the long neck. There appears to have been stripes on the bird's legs and neck, and it appears to have a crop, unlike an emu or cassowary (32).

there is also an Zaglossus, a giant long-beaked echidna that is now extinct, that is distinctive having a long, narrow, tapering head that is down curved, marked curvature of the back and a tail that is broad and ventrally directed (33). There are 2 paintings of Thylacoleo, the marsupial lion, that show particular attention to detail, one of which appears to be of a dead animal, with it limbs seeming to hang with the feet pointing down as if the the painting was of a dead animal, as if it was of an animal that was laid out for inspection. Our knowledge of the animal is increased, as the only knowledge previously held comes from fragmentary skeletal remains. It has an aquiline head, at the end of the tail was a hairy tuft, around its eyebrows, chin and nose were long stiff hairs, on the body were vertical markings resembling fur, long legs with elongated 5-fingered paws, short rounded ears and a rump that terminated abruptly at the base of the tail.

In the Kimberley there is another painting of Thylacoleo (34), that the author4 describes as tiny but a detailed masterpiece in ochre. The animal is stried and appears to be very large compared to the person that is painted beneath it. It has a long tail and massive forelegs and shoulders. The person shown beneath it appear to be either spearing it or fending it off as he holds the barbed spear in both hands. There is no spear thrower and the man seems to jumping, and the spear is bending as if he is lunging up at the animal as it leaps down from above.

A Palorchestes, a large bull-like animal has also been painted that was thought to be like a giant tapir. The considerable detail of the animal shows that it had an earless head directed upwards, with a line suggesting a mouth, projecting tongue adjacent to which what appear to be small leaves or insects have been painted. It had angled heel joints on short legs and notable claws on its feet, what appears to be a shoulder mane or shaggy long hair and long coarse hair on its back, which is represented by concentrations of dots, and a tail that was short and broad. Adjacent to this painting there is a remarkably similar version of the same animal that could possibly be a joey (a pouch young). It is a refinement of the larger and is suggested to part of a deliberate composition. Both paintings appear to be dead (35).

"Art is a subjective representation of biology (at the time) and oral tradition is a metaphysical interpretation of that biology over a long period of time)4".  Maybe these narratives are a mechanism of history as well as a means of understanding. Maybe the religious narratives of the first settlers are more than sacred mysticism, but historical memory encapsulated in tradition that is ritualised (36). The ancestral accounts of the arrival of the first settlers consistently recorded a familiar story. In various parts of Australia the stories of the arrival of the ancestors in Australia all have a similar theme, though the details often differ. In Queensland 'gales brought us here'; In New South Wales 'ancestors came from a land beyond the sea'; in coastal Arnhem Land 'great Djankawu came from an island far across the sea . . . in his canoe with 2 sisters; and in Kakadu, 'the lightning man...entered the land on the northern coast' (37). According to the author4 when the ritual enhancements are removed they are effectively stories of colonisation. They tell of the arrival in Australia of people from across the sea, settlement, occupation, growth of population, regional expansion and diversification.

Cane4 suggests religious belief could be thought of as faithful tradition and encapsulated history held 'true' over vast periods of time, mythology in action, where natural phenomena of supernatural dimensions are embodied in the traditional story. He also suggests an instructive parallel is provided by Western religious tradition. The fundamental truth of the historical experience is not diminished by the tradition being embellished through the mythology.

Therefore the nature of oral tradition does not deny the foundation behind the mythology it conveys, and neither does the passage of time. It is possible to see seeds of historical truth in Aboriginal mythology while remembering its mystical illumination. The widespread nature of mythology relating to a giant snake makes the general point, whether it is the Rainbow serpent of the north or the Wanampi in the desert, from which the giant snake of the megafauna acquired its Latin name. The artistic representation in Arnhem Land date to at least 8,000 years ago, though the most recent was painted in 1965 (39). One painting of the being central to this ancient oral tradition is 6.5 m long. The serpent symbolises fertility though propagation, progeny and precipitation. behind the visual imagery, rhetoric and ritual the mythology in the desert is always and everywhere the same.  It refers to a large, dangerous snake that inhabits waterholes and caves that punishes transgressors, and those at most rick are children. The account is a superstition in regard to permanent and ephemeral waterholes, and as integrated religious narrative across vast areas of country. Stories tell of the serpent being pursued by 2 great figures, the Wati Kutjara, literally 'Two Men', sand goannas, from the Kimberly to the Great Australian Bight, where the many limestone caves are home to this subterranean monster, the penultimate refuge of Wanampi, which re-emerged in central southeast Western Australia where it is Waugle in the Nyoongar mythology in the Swan River.

The narrative in the southern deserts that is the most secret and sacred relates to a giant goanna, that the author4 suggests is reminiscent, to say the least, of Megalania, that at the core of the famous Red Ochre Dreaming of the arid zone of Greater Australia. The particular religious narrative, Tjukurrpa is very significant so that the associated ritual objects are so precious that they are transmitted from community to community with great care, deliberation, reluctance and ceremonial duty. There is cyclical movement of the ceremonial expression around the desert in a very slow manner, so slowly that the ritual cycle may take 20-30 years to complete (41). The ceremonies have cycled once through then desert since they were last went through the Everard Ranges in 1968.

There is a myth that describes central Australia as a place that was once well-watered and fertile in which Kadimakara, a monster lived in the treetops. The story describes how the landscape dried up and the monster died, and how its bones accumulated in the mud around the edges of the lake (42), just where the bones of Thylacoleo as well as those of other megafauna animals are present so abundantly at the present. The Cane4 suggests the narrative may be recent enough for the fossils of the present to be interpreted, or old enough to explain how they got there.

The religious narrative relating to Wati Marlu, the giant transformative kangaroo, Cane4 describes as the greatest, and possibly the most defining religious narrative of the arid zone. The story is told across the Kimberley all the way across the southern deserts, to the margin of the Pilbara, the edge of the Nullarbor Plain, and through the central ranges towards Lake Eyre where it encounters another signatory story about another fearsome kangaroo. Giant kangaroos and a giant bird (possibly Genyornis) are also spoken of in stories by the people of the Lachlan and Murrumbidgee Rivers (43). A giant 'emu' is spoken of in another signatory story of the southern deserts, and there are extraordinary engravings of the tracks of giant flightless birds that are remarkably similar to those of Genyornis, in the Keep River district of the Northern Territory, that are believed to be a recent visualization of ancient Aboriginal thoughts (44).

It seems there might be some reality as the basis for the mythical accounts of colonisation, monster reptiles and giant marsupials. Is it possible the suite of giant and frightening animals covered in Aboriginal mythology is based on natural history or simply an extraordinary coincidence? It seems reasonable to allow that there was probably great long-lasting social, psychological and spiritual affects on the people who first explored this unique, often bizarre land, especially as they were unexpectedly encountering megafauna for the first time, among which were some very large and dangerous predators they would need to develop some defence against if they were to survive (45). Cane4 suggests it is entirely possible that biological and psychological effects of first settlement resonated in social psychology and spirituality of later radiation. When the elaboration is removed the remainder could be expected to be based on the reality of the megafauna, that in some cases would be truly horrifying to new arrivals armed only with spears.

Megafauna dreamtime stories

Roch art

Artefacts associated with Megafauna

Possible events recorded by Dreamtime stories

See Aboriginal Occupation of Greater Australia

Sources & Further reading

  1. Josephine Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, J. B. Publishing
  2. Jennifer Isaacs, Australia 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
  4. Cane, Scott, 2013, First Footprints: The epic story of the first Australians, Allen & Unwin

Scott Cane has included in his book, written as a companion to the ABC TV series of the same name, a number of stories from his days living among Aboriginal people in the desert and moving around with them.


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last Updated 09/11/2013


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