Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Nawarla Gabarnmang Rock Shelter

The oldest known stone axe with a ground edge has been found in Arnhem land, in the country of the Jawoyn people. At 35,000 years old, it predates the earliest known stone axe elsewhere by about 5,000 years.


Nawarla Gabarnmang Cave in southwestern Arnhem Land has replicated a similar ancestral history as at Malakunanja and Nauwalabila. The last people to sleep in the cave were 2 old Jawoyn men who camped there when they were children, the first people to sleep there did so at least 45,000 BP. There are 2 entrances to the cave and about 2 m of head space over the living area that covers an area of at least 1,500 m2. The flat ceiling is supported by 36 henge-like pillars of sandstone, each pillar having been painted, and the ceiling has also been painted, the overall appearance being stunning. The soft sandstone between the pillars has been removed by chemical weathering, as well as by human modification. The inhabitants removed blocks of rock to enlarge the already cavernous spaces. A labyrinth of interconnected space is formed by the linking of the caverns, the overall effect being an effective balance between space, ventilation and insulation, the overall result of the work of nature and humans modification is a cool place to live.

Stone tools were produced by flaking blocks that had fallen from the ceiling. Flaking off edges of some blocks was used to reduce them, while others were broken up and moved from the cave, apparently clearing it out of the way to allow movement, comfort and accommodation. It has proven possible to match some blocks that were deliberately removed from the ceiling to their original location. Having been removed intentionally they made extra space, enlarged the cave and exposed fresh surfaces that had not been weathered for the application of new frescos. Nawarla Gabarnmang has been described by Cane (2013) as 'an artefact of social and ritual endeavor: A cultural catacomb, a monument of structural engineering and an art gallery of unequalled magnificence. The physicality of the site and its cultural heritage exists as a testament to tradition, community, social cohesion, artistic brilliance and ritual activity. It is a monolithic statement of human aesthetic achievement and - a real stone henge, and a place of social, artistic and religious centrality that existed countless millennia before the first pillars of Stonehenge were erected in England'.

Earliest known drawing

The earliest known drawing in Australia is also found at this site, a charcoal drawing on a 2.8 x 3.5 cm piece of rock that has fallen from the roof. According to the author1 the drawing is difficult to describe, it contains 2 crossed lines, the longer axis being straight and 1 side of the shorter axis is curved. The curved part is bulbous and has been filled in with a darker, heavier, application of charcoal, but the remainder of the drawing has faded beyond recognition. The rock fragment is between 15,600 and 45,600 years old, though the author1 suggests the likely age is about 28,000 BP.

Also found at this site was a large ochre crayon with faceted sides of mulberry colour that matched the colour of the 'dynamic' figures that had been drawn on the walls of the cave. The sediments the crayon was found on dated to 15,000-25,000 BP. The 'Mimi' or dynamic art found throughout Arnhem land, are believed by the Aboriginals to have been painted by the Mimi spirits. This art form is characterised by human-like figures, in which the author1 says movement is vibrantly expressed through pose and balance, describing them as delicate and bellicose, apparently depending on the mood of the viewer. 'The compositions effect a sensation of grace and agility through elongated limbs, refined body shape, alignment and contingent activity'1. The author1 describes the figures in the art as 'superb representations' of form and balance that creates an illusion of mystical momentum. Adornments are often added to the delicate beings, armlets, necklaces, headdresses, tassels and feathers, which enhance the illusion of fluidity that results in a sense of ancient fantasy. The figures are often active, holding, and in some cases throwing, a spear, holding a club, a boomerang or a hafted ground stone axe, and at the same time having great aesthetic appeal, and according to the author1 they convey a lot about human attributes.

Most representations are of men with notable hairstyles, many wearing long plaits. There are also elaborate headdresses on the male figures and they wear hair belts with pubic aprons and bustles over their buttocks. On the rare figures that show their penis it is an explicitly sexual representation. The male figures wear necklaces, wristbands, pendants and armbands, and some have cicatrices which the author1 suggests is an indication that scarification and body image manipulation has a long history. Representation of women is not common in this art, and when they are depicted they are typically running with a dilly bag and digging stick, and occasionally a firestick. Those depicted are mostly young women.

In the Kimberley the Gwion figures are believed to be more than 15,000 years old, making these the oldest known depiction of boomerangs and and rich personal adornments such as tassels, armlets, fans, belts, bustles and elongated headdresses in the world. In the historic era in the Kimberley area men that were richly decorated and wearing elaborate headdresses of Gwion ancestry, and holding spear throwers and floral fans.

In the paintings people are depicted with single-barbed spears that were thrown by hand, as spear throwers had not been invented at that time, and they also carried boomerangs, which at the age of the art were the oldest known boomerangs in the world, their outlines being stenciled onto the rock face, and they are depicted in many forms, symmetrical, asymmetrical, hooked, large and small. Among these stenciled boomerangs are every type known of in Australia, a complete boomerang arsenal that may be as old as 16,000 years. A number of activities are depicted in the paintings, especially in a particular famous painting of an emu in the act of being speared in which both the bird and the man appear to be uttering a sound. According to the author1 it is rare to find motion, emotion and voice in art, to the extent that it is almost unknown in ancient art, though in these paintings that are particularly old it is common, with tracks, splashes and dashes depicted emanating from the figures, perceptual cues to the sensory experience of the artist, sound and smell, speed and movement, fear and pain, shock and anxiety, being provided by their feet and mouths.

The Gwion or Bradshaw art of the Kimberley are regional expressions of the dynamic art of Arnhem land. They have been dated to between 14,000 and 23,800 years old and overlay hand stencils that are obviously even considerably older. The Gwion are more solid than their counterparts in the northeast, though they are equally as delicate and a b it more elaborate. They show similar aspects of humanity and material culture, such as barbed spears that are hand thrown, boomerangs, and dress, such as bustles, tassels and headdresses. All across the savannah lands of Australia they are part of greater artistic tradition embedded in accretions of ochre. There is an example in the southeast of Cape York where pigments were selected from local weathered rock, red haematite, yellow goethite and white kaolinite clays, that when applied to the local  sandstone impregnated the rock leaving layers of ochre in fine mineral laminations, this art being 27,000 years old.

A long sequence of AMS radiocarbon ages from individual charcoal pieces that were adhering to stone artefacts back to 45,180 ± 910 cal BP during recent excavations art Nawarla Gabarnmang in Jawoyn country, southwest Arnhem Land. This site represents one of the earliest sites in Australia to be dated by radiocarbon in Australia. In this paper the authors report on the initial results. According to the Bruno David, the author, old archaeological sites with ages at near the limits of radiocarbon dating have usually been the subject of heated debate concerning the actual antiquity of the site containing cultural deposits. Of the concerns raised 2 are the most commonly raised: the age reliability and the chronostratigraphic integrity of the associations between the archaeological materials, the sediments in which they are buried and dated materials. Some controversial cases have been mentioned by David, including Nauwalabila, 60,300 ± 6,700 to 53.400 ± 5,400 BP (Roberts et al., 1994), Malakunanja II, 61,000 ± 8,000 BP to 52,000 ± 8,000 BP (Roberts et al., 1990), Lake Mungo, 56,000 to 46,000 BP (Bowler et al., 2003) and Devil’s Lair, 48,000 BP (Turney et al., 2001), and an even more controversial example is Jinmium, >116,000 ± 12,000 BP (Fullagar et al., 1996). Site with younger ages tend to be less controversial, some of the earliest ones being Riwi, 41,300 ± 1020 BP (Balme, 2,000) and Carpenter’s Gap, 39,700  ± 1,000 BP (O’Connor, 1995), the latter 2 being dated by radiocarbon. Any securely radiocarbon dates site with an age of more than 45,000 cal BP is considered significant in securing progressively earlier ages for the origins of the Australian Aboriginal people. In this paper the authors report on such a site from the Jawoyn Country in western Arnhem Land.

Jawoyn Country 3

According to David et al. there is a vast number of ancestral sites in the Jawoyn Country, with many located in extremely remote areas. As a result of their isolation many are in superb condition, and also because of the presence of art styles that are ancient, no longer being practised, and with not artefacts from the European contact period and no scenes that include Europeans at many of the art sites led the authors to believed many of the sites had not been occupied for hundreds of even thousands of years. There are also sites with known connections with ceremony and creation or Dreaming stories, and there are also art sites that include more recent depictions.

Up to the present there are 117 known site complexes that contain 921 sites and more than 44,000 individual artworks that have been recorded on the GIS database of the Jawoyn Association (e.g. Gunn et al., 2010; Gunn & Whear, 2008). This paper presents the initial results of the excavation of the Nawarla Gabarnmang site, the first of 4 excavations that were carried out at the request of the Jawoyn Association.

The site was seen during a routine aerial survey of the Arnhem Land Plateau. The Jawoyn were enabled to learn the name of the site, which translates as ‘place of hole in the rock’, by anthropological worm with senior Elders Wamud Namok and Jimmy Kalarriya, both of whom had visited the site as children. They had been told it was an important site where people camped on their way to ceremonies on Jawoyn Country, and also identified the Jawoyn clan Buyhmi as the relevant traditional site owner.

The ceiling of the site is formed of interleafed layers of sandstone and hard quartzite, each of which is of between 10 and 40 cm thick. Though poorly soluble, the compact bedrock has been subjected to strong chemical alteration between individual rock strata and along fissure lines, which resulted in dissolution of large parts of the site (Quinif, 2010). The hollowing of the site by the geochemical processes over a geologically long period of time has resulted in a grid-like matrix of cavities that are divided by remnant pillars, the cavities extending from floor to ceiling. There are accumulated sediments on the floor of the cavities and fragments of bedrock that have been exfoliated naturally and anthropologically. There is also evidence of past activity, and the pillar and flat surfaces of the ceiling have been extensively painted and quarried for stone artefacts.

In May 2010 work began on the archaeological excavations of the site, with 2 50cm x 50 cm squares being excavated in an area of the floor that showed little or no disturbance of the surface (square A), as well as an area that was more open near the centre of the site (Square B). There is a lot of rock art near both these excavation squares. The squares were excavated in arbitrary excavation units (XUs) that followed the stratigraphy where it was visible.  


David et al. concluded that at Nawarla Gabarnmang there is secure evidence of secure habitation at about 45,000 BP. Work is continuing on the levels that are earlier than 45,000 BP.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Aaron Smith, November 2010, Australian Geographic
  2. Cane, Scott, 2013, First Footprints: The epic story of the first Australians, Allen & Unwin
  3. David, Bruno, Jean-Michel Geneste, Ray L. Whear, Jean-Jacques Delannoy, Margaret Katherine, R. G. Gunn, Christopher Clarkson, et al. "Nawarla Gabarnmang, a 45,180±910 Cal BP Site in Jawoyn Country, Southwest Arnhem Land Plateau." Australian Archaeology, no. 73 (2011): 73-77


35,000 year old stone axe found in Australia


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated  16/11/2013


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